At Alfonso Cuarón’s London home, the Academy-award winning filmmaker of Roma, Gravity, and Y tu mamá también opened up to Charles Finch about the secret behind his process, the importance of impulse and experimentation, and emerging from his generation.

You are a rare breed of filmmaker who writes, directs and produces your work. Do you see yourself as an artist? 

No. I don’t think about what I do, I just do it. Definitions come from outside. Of course, filmmaking is a craft. There’s an element of that which is incredible, the technicality…but there’s something more important, which is how you apply that craft into your cinematic language. It’s like all art. If you see Picasso, you would say that he’s crazy. But where he comes from is classical draughtsmanship—and he chose to follow his own style. It starts from a deep knowledge of your personal craft; and then using that in your own voice. You can see amazing craft in cinema, but when this is not applied to a specific cinematic language, these films can be irrelevant. 

Do you feel influenced by the magic realism that permeates Central American culture?

My generation was typecast as the magic-realists of Latin America. But we were confronted with the raw social realities, and that influenced us more than the magic-realism. Our relationship with death is different to the way it is in many other countries. There’s a spiritual profundity to it. We were bombarded by the absurd and strange nature of Mexican culture, which is as much a mix of Mesoamerican as European. You are always aware of how these cultures work together in syncretism. There is a subconscious use of symbols, superstitions or beliefs. That’s what I grew up around. 

Which part of the process do you enjoy the most, even after so much enormous success? 

Chilling out between films [laughs]. The next idea has to come naturally, I can’t force it. When I started, I believed cinema was life. Now I believe cinema is an important part of my life. These days, I prefer to engage in the vastness of life, and so I sometimes reject films. I don’t want to watch anything. Then the interest returns by itself. 

I know I need some answers from cinema, but I don’t know what it is. Either way, you should never think what you’re doing is the most important thing. In the context of a fully-lived life, it’s irrelevant. 

Alfonso Cuaron behind the scenes
Alfonso Cuarón on the set of his film Roma. Mexico City, 2016. By Chien-Chi Chang.

You seem to always be involved in many different aspects of creativity. 

But when it comes to projects, I am monogamous! I tend to go from one thing to another. Because I enjoy writing—so I’m always waiting for that script that I will love. Even if something comes my way, I will rewrite it. Because you need to adapt the way it works for the screen. But ideas are mysterious. For me, they happen like glimpses, and the glimpses continue, and that’s the issue with being a cinephile. I want to draw from all sources of inspiration and genres. But I have to stop myself. Maybe it’s the film I’d rather see than actually create. Once Joel Coen told me, when I asked him if he would do a film that was offered to me, he replied: “This is a film I would love to go and see, but that I would never want to do.” It put me on alert. But then I recognise that another filmmaker could do that script better justice than me. So I gravitate to projects that, if I don’t do them, they wouldn’t exist—although probably for the best. 

How important is a big budget to a master filmmaker. Does it stand in your way—or if you love the project—will you find a route to directing it in any fashion because you love that story? 

The story is just one part. There are many different pieces to cinema. Some filmmakers showcase certain elements of filmmaking more than the others. This combination of elements is what makes film so mysterious. In terms of budget, when I made Y Tu Mama Tambien, I wanted to do it with limited tools. The problem can come that when you start playing with too many of these tools you enter a dangerous labyrinth and limbo. You can only focus on polishing your craft with these tools, at the expense of what matters the most. 

The craft should be in support of the truth. Impulse is where the beauty is. As much as I like the craft, the impulse of the filmmaker is even more important. 

Do you follow a path of construction? 

It depends on the film. Not only did I need to storyboard Gravity, we even made an animation. In my early days, I used to always storyboard. And it wasn’t because I was nervous. It helps as a roadmap or to have a reference for what we are going to shoot and as a safety net as you have a place to fall. Now, I rarely use them, because I prefer not to know where I will fall. But I believe that the more prepared you are, the more free you are to improvise. 

Alfonso cuaron behind the scenes
Alfonso Cuarón on the set of his film Roma. Mexico City, 2016. By Chien-Chi Chang.

So it’s all about preparation?

It means I can change plans in the normal schedule without fear. Instead of storyboards, if I have a new idea, I like to observe how these ideas transform it when I stage it with the actors. It also means I can change the script in the moment. In Mexico, it’s called guión, which means a guide. It’s not written in stone. You take and change, and depending on the level of rapport and trust you have with your actors, you have the flexibility to adapt to what they are creating. I have worked with actors I consider co-filmmakers, co-writers…Also, I like to work around my impulse. Perhaps if we spot an interesting location with an amazing light, you start to improvise a scene there. In Roma, for example, nobody had a screenplay. The actors were learning their circumstance day-by-day. 

And yet, Roma feels enormously disciplined. 

That’s because of the preparation. Nobody had the script, but we worked in very deep detail with the necessities of the scene, with my collaborators. The actors arrived every morning unaware of what they were going to do. It was almost like seeing their lives unfold. They were engaged every day, and like us, they would have expectations about what was going to happen without actually knowing. And then I would stage the scenes, and at the last moment give them the real dialogue. 

Why didn’t you share the screenplay? 

It was part of embarking on an experiment—whether that was fruitless or not. Because we shot in continuity, the actors arrived every morning unaware of the next part of the film. It was almost like seeing a series unfold—they were engaged every day, and they would have speculations about what was going to happen in Roma without actually knowing. I would stage mock scenes and only at the very last moment would I give them the real dialogue. But that’s great. That’s how life works. 

Would they be given the pages during the mock scenes? 

Sometimes, no. I would just tell them that the character comes in and says a particular line. But the other actor wouldn’t expect anything—so the reactions could be genuine. It’s like when you play snooker, and you break the balls in the beginning. There was a chain reaction, and that’s natural—that’s life.

Surely, they knew the story?

No. They were learning the story day-by-day. When Yalitza Aparicio did the birth scene, she thought we had a baby hidden and that she was going to meet her daughter. Her reaction to the dead child was genuine. She was actually in tears. She said to me, “I thought you were playing tricks up to this point with the plot, and the baby would come alive.” She told me she was looking forward to meeting him. 

alfonso cuaron behind the scenes
Alfonso Cuarón on the set of his film Roma. Mexico City, 2016. By Chien-Chi Chang.

Do you think you could have experimented this way with movie stars? 

There are actors who love to take risks, who happen to be movie stars, just like there are actors who do not take risks. It all depends on the actor. What matters is that the actor is willing to take the journey with the director. 

How important is chemistry with your actors? 

Very. I once asked Peter Weir about an actor he had worked with, and he explained that he was incredible but that he poisoned the process—both on set and within myself. If we don’t enjoy the process, what’s the point? You can have huge disagreements with your actors, but these are easily resolved when you are in sync with the process and there is a trust that goes both ways. 

You’re experimenting more and more as you progress in your career. 

That’s because I want to learn. And I don’t mean technically, but also in terms of themes and other cinematic possibilities that I have not explored. 

Do you remember your earliest film experiences?

It was probably my mother who took me to see Disney’s The Sword and the Stone. The earliest film memory I have is of the wizard Merlin having his beard trapped in a door. I might have been four years old. As a child I wanted to be an astronaut…or make films. I would play a lot of make-believe and this would unfold in my head like a film. Later on, I would annoy my friends or my cousins because I was trying to arrange scenes for them to perform in. 

You didn’t become an astronaut, you became an Academy Award-winning filmmaker… 

When I realised that at the time you had to be part of the American army to be an astronaut, so I decided to make films. And eventually, I discovered what a director does by watching a making-of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Today, we are surrounded by behind-the-scenes, but back then it was a novelty. It was rare to see what was happening behind the camera. That same year, I watched a behind-the-scenes film about Sergio Leone, and I discovered there is a person making the decisions when making a film. I was able to see the practical elements, or all of the different elements, that make the make-believe come to life. And I said: OK. This is what I want to do. I think I was six or seven [laughs]. 

What was the film industry like in Mexico when you were beginning your career? 

The previous two administrations had completely destroyed the film industry. This was after what is called the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican cinema, throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties. It was highly commercial and Mexico had a constant presence at Cannes. By the early sixties, the industry collapsed. Then the government had a bigger hand sponsoring films, and a new breed of filmmakers who had drunk world cinema started making films. Many had gone to film schools in Mexico and abroad and they started to create a cinema that was really interesting, but in the mid-seventies the administration turned their backs on their cultural commitments. And when I started as an assistant director, most of these directors had to take jobs doing propaganda films for the government or very cheap commercial films. 

Alfonso cuaron behind the scenes
Alfonso Cuarón on the set of his film Roma. Mexico City, 2016. By Chien-Chi Chang.

So you observed these masters not producing the cinema they wanted. 

They were filmmakers with a rich body or work, and it was discouraging to see them making these cheap films. It was very sad. When I made my first film, I benefited because the new administration had regenerated sponsorship for cinema again, and young filmmakers like myself had our opportunities. At the time, though, even if the government sponsored you, their mentality was more that of a politician. They didn’t see you kindly if you had ambitions outside of their box. 

Did that make you angry? 

Yes. I said, ‘I’m going to do it anyway.’ And then I got in a disagreement with the institution and I decided to do it my way. 

Are you optimistic about what lies ahead in our world of cinema? 

Cinema is the last thing we have to worry about! I think cinema is always transforming. We had silent black-and-white films turning to talkies and then they were in colour… and now we view these transformations in the paradigms of how films are not only produced but how they are released and watched at home these days. But there are always going to be artists that will make great work, along with the cascade of terrible films. There will be amazing masterpieces in forms that will totally surprise us. I’m not sceptical about the future of cinema. I don’t think our current perspectives permit us to predict what will happen through the new generation—and the new forms they will create. The younger generation have grown as digital natives, with technology that in our own youth and knowledge we could not comprehend. So who knows what they will show us in the future? END.