By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
One morning on the phone, he tells me how, the day before, he'd been arguing with a prominent New York critic who called Moretti's The Son's Room a TV movie. "Go see the film," he ordered me, "and call me when you see it. If I'm not in, just leave a message saying, 'TV movie yes' or 'TV movie no.'"
The filmmaking world thrives on seduction, and Cuarón has the director's essential talent -- he can get you to believe that anything is possible. Just as he suffused the world of A Little Princess with a thrilling sense of magical realism, so his exuberance has a way of making the world around him seem carefree, enchanted, inspired. It's easy to see how actors and studio execs would find him irresistible.
Still, getting inspiration onto the screen, whether in Oaxaca or Soho, requires blacker magic than mere charm, and behind Cuarón's easygoing manner you feel the lurking presence of something dark and ferocious, a ruthless streak often captured in photographs of him.
"Alfonso is very driven," says Emmanuel Lubezki, known as "Chivo," a friend of 20-odd years who has shot all four of Cuarón's films and, like his pal, scored big in Hollywood. (His most recently released film was Ali.) "He is very hard to work for, and in previous movies a lot of the people didn't like him. He's very demanding. When it's two minutes before wrapping, he always wants to shoot 54 setups and bring in the crane."
He laughs. "Alfonso has the appetite of genius. He always wants more and more."
CUARÓN IS THE WELL-EDUCATED SON OF A BROKEN middle-class home, and in the brief glimpse he'll give you of his family mythology, you can already find the themes of magic and loss: His mother, he says, is "a witch" -- a term he does not use metaphorically -- and his father is a doctor whom he hasn't seen for 20 years. Along with "Chivo" Lubezki, he studied film at the National University in the late 1970s, and both were booted from the school for disdaining what was expected of them. "We were supposed to do documentaries about demonstrations and stuff," he says, still a bit scornful, "and we wanted to do features and stories."
Although Cuarón doesn't exactly strike one as an avatar of patience, he did spend 10 long years working as an A.D. on American films shot in Mexico ("a lot of monster movies") and directing TV, including several episodes of Hora Marcada, a show he and his friend del Toro dubbed The Toilet Zone. It might have been even more years before he was able to make his first feature had history not smiled upon him. It was just at this point that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari decided to use artists to prove that Mexico was no longer a backward country.
"We always talk about the dirty dancing that exists between the government and intellectuals," says Cuarón. "That happened in a big way through the Salinas period. You'd see all these neighborhoods developing with all these fashion shops in Mexico City a la americana, and all these new buildings and malls, giving the perception that Mexico was going into the First World. That way, you wouldn't see that more people were getting poor. He also created all these grants for intellectuals and got interested in the production of film -- to be Mexico's window to the world. The perfect Salinas film was Like Water for Chocolate, which was quite successful and presented a comfortable vision of Mexico for him. My first film was part of that process. At the time, I just wanted to make my movie, and if I could get the money, great."
Cuarón's 1991 debut, Love in the Time of Hysteria (Sólo con Tu Pareja), was something of a family affair. Written by brother Carlos, it's a stylish, carefully orchestrated ä sex farce about a yuppie womanizer who's tricked by an ex-lover into thinking he has AIDS, then falls in love with a suicidal Continental Airlines hostess. Although many of the film's hijinks now feel labored, the sheer talent on display made it a sensation at the Toronto Film Festival. Suddenly, Cuarón was being pursued by Hollywood production companies, including Sydney Pollack's Mirage. He was also plunged into what would become an ongoing battle with the Mexican film bureaucracy, which was mired in a kind of cultural self-hatred.
"I'd tell them I wanted this movie to be sold outside Mexico, and the bureaucrats would tell me -- and these are the people who are supposed to be supporting Mexican cinema -- they said, 'Don't be arrogant. Nobody gives a shit about Mexican cinema in the world, not even in Mexico.'"
So Cuarón went to Hollywood. There, along with the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Tom Hanks, he worked on the 1993 TV series Fallen Angels, winning the Cable ACE award for best director for an episode called "Murder Obliquely." He was equally lucky in what he did not make. He pulled out of the dreadful The Perez Family, whose Ricky Ricardoish take on Cuban-Americans might have condemned him to a career in the ethnic-film ghetto that Cuarón mockingly terms the "Latin American Panorama" (the kind of phrase used by film festivals to lazily lump all Latino pictures together).