Alfonso Cuarón has been involved in the motion picture business since 1982. His career was launched in the Mexican film industry when he was hired to run cable for the film “La Vispera” (1982), but little did he know then, that that introduction would eventually pave the way for blockbusters and Oscars. Cuarón would come to America and explore the mainstream film industry with films such as A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and the seven-time Academy Award-winner Gravity. Throughout his time in film, Cuarón has served as a writer, cinematographer, actor, editor, electrician, editor and director. He has also taken his talents to television and created documentaries and episodic TV.
South of the Border
Alfonso Cuarón (November 28, 1961) was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico. According to Cuarón, he said his mother was a major life influence, and she encouraged him to pursue his passion of art and to explore careers where he could use those abilities. He was a lover of movies, and the magic it brought to audiences even when he was a kid. “I knew early on that I was a nerd and that films were my refuge. Those first few minutes before the lights went off, and you’re alone in the theater waiting, were really pleasurable,” said Cuarón.
He attended film school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico where he was ultimately expelled after he submitted a project in English rather than in Spanish. He began working as an assistant director in Mexico in television before branching out into film (Biography, 2015).
Coming to America
He had been working in film and TV for nearly a decade before his big break that came in the Mexican film called Sólo Con Tu Pareja, or Love in the Time of Hysteria, in 1991. It was Cuarón’s command of writing and directing that eventually caught the eyes of Hollywood talent, and he was tasked with helming his first major film in the US. Released in 1995, A Little Princess was an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel, and this brought the work of the Mexican talent to American audiences. (Biography, 2015). The film was a critical success, and Cuarón explains it was mostly because of the incredible young acting talent. “You have to find kids who are not ‘jaded,’” he said. “Casting is vital. When you work with kids, people tell you to be very delicate, but that’s the last thing you should do with kids. They feel patronized if you’re like that. They just want you to be normal.” (Puliver, 2013)
Cuarón’s second US film was not as widely praised by critics, yet it was still fairly successful. Great Expectations, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, and Robert De Niro, was a modern update of a classic that was adapted for the screen and directed by Cuarón. According to Pamela Katz, Cuarón was interested in directing the film because he had loved the book and read it multiple times throughout his childhood (Katz, 2003). “When you’re doing a film, narrative is your most important tool, but it’s a tool to create a cinematographic experience,” noted Cuarón.
Homecoming and Magical Opportunities
After this, Cuarón went back to Mexico to write and direct the film, Y Tu Mamá También in 2001. Co-written with his brother Carlos Cuarón, the film was an international success earning 37 global film awards including prestigious nominations from the British Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars. It also went on to become the highest grossing film in Mexican history (Biography, 2015 and IMDB, 2016).
With the success of that film, Cuarón was able to reach a world-wide audience, and his stature as a solid filmmaker provided him an opportunity to helm one of the most successful film series of the time, Happy Potter. Cuarón took over the director’s chair from Chris Columbus (who had led the first two Harry Potter films), and Cuarón now had the chance to truly make a name for himself by directing the third installment of the monumental franchise, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Through his approach to story and design, he ushered the film into a much darker place than the previous Harry Potter films, and it changed the tone of the series forever.
But even with the monumental box office success of this film, Cuarón claims he never watched it in theatres. Much like film director Woody Allen, Cuarón has a difficult time watching his films after he’s signed off on the final cut. “I guess I have a short attention span! I’m interested in new worlds, new universes, new challenges,” noted Cuarón. “I always said the only reason to make a film is not for the result but for what you learn for the next one.”
Cuarón followed up his Harry Potter success with the critically successful apocalyptic flick, Children of Men, starring Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. After his success in the 2000s, Cuarón began to collaborate with people such as cinematographer, Emmanual Lubezki and filmmaker J.J. Abrams.
Shooting for the Stars
“As a kid, I was 8 when we landed on the moon. I was so into the space program as a kid. Eventually, I realized it was very unlikely that a Mexican kid in the early ’70s was going to be an astronaut,” said Cuarón. But he did take that childhood fantasy and combine it with state of the art filmmaking to create one of the most compelling films of 2013. Gravity, garnered much critical success and won multiple Academy Awards including Best Director (Biography, 2015). “In ‘Gravity,’ nearly everything is a metaphor for the main character. The way I tend to approach a film is that character and background are equally important; one informs the other,” said Cuarón.
Cuarón had been in dialogue to direct the Harry Potter spinoff film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but the job eventually fell into the hands of another Harry Potter alumnus David Yates. In 2015-16, Cuarón served as a technical consultant for the award-winning The Jungle Book and headed back to Mexico to write and direct a personal film following a middle-class family in the 1970s.
Finding the Light
Themes of hope and faith shine through in many of Cuarón films, even when dark forces or dark times seem to thrive. Cuarón says it is the idea of breaking through the suffering and pain that provide a glimpse of what is possible. That is what provides a shimmer of light in times of despair (on film and in life). “When you strip hope from people, it leaves a void, and that void needs to be filled. And very likely, that void is going to be filled by an ideology… Hope and faith are so connected. Now, when ideology connects with faith, the ideology becomes an item of faith, not a point of discussion,” said Cuarón.
- Dark muted colors tending towards greys to reflect the darkness (or pending darkness of a storyline).
- Wide camera shots to establish or set up scenes.
- At times heavy use of hand-held camera shots. These shots can sometimes induce motion sickness.
- Use of long continuous (seemingly without edits) camera shots taking the audience through the scene with a singular perspective.
- Works with Emmanuel Lubezkias his director of photography.
- Works with brother and son (both filmmakers).
- Close up shots of main character leads to foreshadowing events later in films.
- Main character(s) in focus while other background characters are slightly out of focus (to provide emphasis).
- Characters voices are many times heard off camera.
- Cuarón has a penchant for framing shots through windows or doorframes.
- Will also use reflections, and glass to create interesting visuals and shots.
- His interesting combination of musical score and sound design are fluid, and listeners sometimes cannot tell where one begins and the other ends. Sometimes this causes anxiety and may feel disjointed, and confusing for the viewers/listener.
- Works to create empathy for characters.
- Themes of hope and hopelessness.
- Characters are thrown into life threatening (or life altering) situations.
- His shooting style has been known to put the audience into the middle of the action, making the audience feel what the character feels.
Alfonso Cuarón. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 07:37, Feb 11, 2015, fromhttp://www.biography.com/people/alfonso-cuarón-21377605.
Alfonso Cuarón. (2015). New York Times website. Retrieved 7:53, Feb 11, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/movies/person/531272/Alfonso-Cuar-n/biography
Cuaron, A. (2017, February 2). Alfonso Cuaron -a word or two. Retrieved February 14, 2017, from https://www.brainyquote.com/search_results.html?q=Alfonso+Cuarón
Katz, Pamela. (2003). Dickens on Screen. Directing Dickens: Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations. Cambridge University Press.
Manning II, N. T. (2013, October 26). Steven Price gravity film composer by WGWG. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/wgwgdotorg/steven-price-gravity-composer
WGWG: Gardner-Webb radio
Parrish, A. (2015). Alfonso Cuarón: Reflections on a sweeping director (4.23.15). Boiling Springs, NC: Gardner-Webb.
Puliver, Andrew. (2013). International Man. Directors Guild of America website. Retrieved 7:55, Feb 11, 2015 from http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1303-Summer-2013/Alfonso-Cuaron.aspx