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How Alfonso Cuaron Went Back to Scratch to Rekindle His Career After ‘Great Expectations’

Alfonso Cuaron Calls 'Great Expectations': 'A
Andrew H Walker/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

From “Gravity” to “Children of Men,” director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have created some of the most visually arresting and emotionally compelling movies of modern times. They’ve won Oscars and fans across the globe, and their reliance on long, seamless tracking shots has inspired a rising generation of filmmakers.

But their collaborations didn’t always result in celluloid magic. In a public discussion about their careers at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, Cuarón and Lubezki dismissed 1998’s “Great Expectations,” a modernized retelling of the Charles Dickens novel, as a black mark on their resumes.

“I think it’s a complete failed film,” said Cuarón, while Lubezki agreed that it was “the least satisfying of our movies.”

The film followed “A Little Princess,” a critically beloved children’s story that both men found immensely satisfying to make. They lacked the same connection to the story of an aspiring artist’s journey into manhood, and, despite a cast that included Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert De Niro, Cuarón admitted that his heart wasn’t in the film.

“My first instinct was to say no to that film…I allowed myself to be dragged in for the wrong reasons,” he said.

“The script wasn’t there,” Cuarón added. “I got cocky in the sense that we can convey this visually. We can compensate visually.”

Lubezki agreed that Cuarón became too obsessed with having the color green seep into the movie, believing it to be one of his trademarks as a director, and lost sense of the tone of the movie. The result was a movie that no one loved. Reviews were middling and the picture sank at the box office.

“I never understood the film,” said Cuarón. “After that film I was not happy.”

He learned from the failure, however. He went to a Greenwich Village video store and watched a stack of tapes of his favorite films in an attempt to recapture his love of cinema. More important, he and Lubezki decided to go back to their roots, filming the Mexican road trip comedy “Y Tu Mamá También” using handheld cameras and lots of natural light.

“It was like, ‘let’s start from scratch,'” said Cuarón. “‘Let’s do the film we would have done before going to film school.'”

In contrast to “Great Expectations'” reception, “Y Tu Mamá También” received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, was adored by critics, and returned Cuarón to the A-list, setting the stage for future collaborations with Lubezki.

“It’s probably the one I like the most,” said Lubezki.