Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron and his longtime director of photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki appeared before a sold-out crowd at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on Saturday night, as part of the American Cinematheque program.
The pair appeared following a screening of “Gravity,” for which both are nominated for Academy Awards (Cuaron for producing, directing and editing, Lubezki for cinematography) to discussion their longtime collaboration. Following the Q&A, the theater screened their 2001 hit “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”
Cuaron and Lubezki have known each other since they were teenagers, and went on to attend film school together at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Revealed Cuaron, “I wanted to be a director, but also a DP. But when I saw the first film Chivo shot, I was like, ‘That’s a DP.’”
Lubezki, in return, joked about how eloquent Cuaron was about film even then. “I remember going to a theater in Mexico — they show a lot of what we call here ‘foreign films,’” he said, to laughter from the audience. “Alfonso would come out of the films surrounded by beautiful girls and talking about the use of color. He understood film much better than most people.”
Asked how their collaboration works, and Cuaron admitted he had no idea. “It’s something we don’t really think about,” he noted. “We talk about life and music and a frame of reference is established and when we start working, we really don’t have to talk much. In fact, we talk more about what we don’t like.”
Before screening “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” the two admitted that the film was a response he had to a bad experience making another film—though he didn’t name it, one can assume he was talking about his 1998 version of “Great Expectations,” set in modern day. “With ‘Y Tu Mama,’ we said, ‘Let’s do the film we would have done before going to film school. The film we would have done if we didn’t’ know there were rules to cinema,’” said Cuaron. Added Lubezki, “It was a reaction to our previous film.”
Cuaron elaborated, “We did a movie together that should not be named. It was a film done for the wrong reasons. It’s a movie I said no to so many times. I didn’t have the grasp of it. It was an overcompensation in terms of visual and style. I got indigested with style and became suspicious of style. And that made me revisit the films I loved in the first place and realize what I loved was the language. I wanted to give importance to character and environment.”
After the success of “Y Tu Mama,” the two collaborated on 2006’s “Children of Men,” which was set in the year 2027, where no new human has been born in 18 years. But Cuaron said he didn’t set out to make the film look or feel futuristic. “We never intended to make a film about the future,” Cuaron noted. “That was the mantra. It was a film about the state of things.”
The film employed what has become a trademark of Cuaron — long, continuous shots done in a single take. In one famous shot lasting over seven minutes, Clive Owen walks through a building as a battle erupts around him. At one point, blood from a nearby victim splatters on the camera lens—a memorable moment that was actually a mistake.
“These shots are so complicated, it takes days of rehearsals to set up,” said Lubezki. “And if something goes wrong there’s no time to reset the squibs and explosions. When the blood splattered the lens, for a second, I thought it was a catastrophe.” Added Cuaron, “I said cut, but nobody heard me.”
Cuaron continued, “The irony is that there we were going to add blood on the lens in the scene where they shot Julianne Moore. We were going to add it digitally. We just decide not to use it in that scene.”
Trial and error also played a large part in bringing “Gravity” to the screen, as it took over four years to perfect the visual effects in the space-set film. Cuaron admitted that he originally told Lubezki it would be an easy shoot. “I’m not naïve, I knew there would be some visual effects but I saw it as an intimate drama,” he said. “I said, ‘We’ll do it in a year or so.’”
Cuaron said that Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber explored many technologies over the years, including following up on a suggestion made by a Warner Bros. executive who worked on the film “Cats & Dogs.” Recalled Cuaron, “He told me, ‘We had the actor in an office chair with some other dude with a light running around the office chair. It was fantastic!’ He insisted we test it. And it looked like…a dude with a light running around an office chair.” As the audience laughter subsided, Cuaron added, “The positive of that is that the principle was the right principle: move your actor as little as possible, move your universe around the actor.”
One of the biggest breakthroughs came when Lubezki hit upon the idea to shoot the actors inside a “Light Box” made up of over 4,000 LED light bulbs. The inspiration came from an unlikely source—a Peter Gabriel concert at the Hollywood Bowl. “They all these led panels and the light was behind him,” Lubezki said. “So I called the lighting director of the concert and asked about it.”
“That just shows how Chivo thinks,” Cuaron noted. “You go to a concert and you are listening to the music and seeing the guy playing. Chivo’s looking at the light. When you’re having dinner with Chivo, he starts moving everything around—he’ll move a candle over here or a light over there—until suddenly the light is just right.”