Director Alfonso Cuaron lets out a deep laugh when he acknowledges that he possibly made the first children’s movie that was more popular with critics than kids. Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” was a regular on critics’ 1995 top 10 movie lists and the winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics’ New Generation award, but grossed a slim $10 million domestically.
“I have to admit that if I saw an ad in the paper for something called ‘A Little Princess,’ and only knew it was about little girls at a boarding school at the turn of the century,” says Cuaron, “I’m not sure I’d want to see it.”
Cuaron, a Mexican-trained filmmaker who has made an astonishingly rapid transition to mainstream American movies, was simply receiving a fresh lesson in the hard numbers of Hollywood. It followed a previous lesson that suggested U.S. audiences rarely turn out for Mexican movies unless they’re called “Like Water for Chocolate.”
Cuaron’s own first Mexican feature in 1991 was a hit and the first AIDS comedy set in Mexico, titled “Solo Con Tu Pareja” (the national Mexican AIDS prevention slogan, which very roughly translates as “Only With Your Partner,” but whose English title is “Love in the Time of Hysteria”). “It was really big throughout Latin America,” Cuaron says, “but it didn’t get a U.S. distributor, which is typical, and a pity, because American audiences are missing out on a lot of very good movies from Mexico.”
A lot of American movies, however, go to Mexico for production, and Cuaron a product of the Mexico City-based CUEC film school benefited from this trend by honing his craft as an assistant director on several Hollywood shoots in his native country. “I also was able to write, direct and cut TV episodes of what I would call a Third World ‘Twilight Zone’ series, though the best term for it would be ‘The Toilet Zone.’ But it was a great classroom, and at least I didn’t have to direct any telenovelas (Mexican soaps).”
Sydney Pollack heard about Cuaron and snatched him up for his film noir serial, “Fallen Angels,” for which Cuaron helmed “Murder Obliquely,” based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (“Rear Window”). Looking to develop various projects at Warners, Cuaron came upon the “Little Princess” script and “I knew by page 15 that I wanted to do it.”
For his latest, “Great Expectations,” which he is now editing in New York, Cuaron was far less certain. “I thought, ‘No, not Charles Dickens, not the novel,’ and especially, ‘Not a remake of the David Lean film,’ which I consider a great, great work. I was urged to read to page 20, just to give it a try.” Cuaron says that to his surprise, he couldn’t put down Mitch Glazer’s script, which transfers much of the action and themes of the Dickens novel to a present-day Florida fishing village and the New York art world.
“I don’t think of this as an adaptation,” notes the director, “but as a re-elaboration. We’re taking the book’s story of a young man losing his good nature and then striving to get it back. But because the whole notion of the gentleman finding his way in the world is extinct now, we found an alternative with having him leave rural Florida to become an artist in New York.”
“Great Expectations” comes courtesy of Fox, not Warners, where Cuaron has his offices. He isn’t certain for which he feels luckier “finding ideal projects that have already been written, so I don’t have to write them from the start,” or the new film’s cast, including Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Niro, Chris Cooper and Anne Bancroft (“as a really wild Miss Havisham”).
“Being close or far from Mexico doesn’t mean so much to me,” Cuaron says about being an exile in Hollywood. “Not as much as working on films that are close to my heart.”