MORELIA — There is no doubt that anytime Alfonso Cuarón shows up at a Mexican film festival, it will be one of the highlights of the event. Today’s Masterclass, given at the Morelia Film Festival, was no exception.
In the standing-room-only Teatro Ocampo, Cuarón regaled the assemble mix of press, industry professionals from films in the official competition and local Morelia students with a conversation with one of his closest friends, and this year’s best director winner at Cannes, Pawel Pawlikowski. It was a special treat indeed to have two such visionary filmmakers discussing their craft in a mix of Cuarón’s Spanish and the “Cold War” director’s Polish-accented English.
The event kicked off with festival head Daniela Michel introducing the pair, and praising Cuarón’s “Roma” as not just one of the most important films in Mexican cinema history, but the history of the artform in general. She also humbly acknowledged pride in the fact that the idea for “Roma” was sparked at this very festival.
Cuarón clarified the film’s inception early on.
“I was hanging out here, and had a bit too much mezcal,” he recalled, earning a laugh of recognition from the Michoacan crowd. He remembered pitching another idea to Pawlikowski, but didn’t quite get the response he had hoped for.
“Pavel, in his very Polish way of speaking, said, ‘Well, it might be okay, but I don’t get it. These are stories I can’t relate with. I don’t understand.’”
Dejected, Cuarón shared a drink and the idea at Morelia with Cannes’ head Thierry Fremaux, who told him, “Oh f—k off. What you have to do is go back to Mexico and shoot the reality you are familiar with.” At least that’s how he remembered it.
Having laid out the film’s Morelia origins, Pawlikowski asked Cuarón about the finished script.
“Once it was finished, I never went back to correct or make notes. I just finished the script and never read it as a script again. I broke it down because it was something I needed to do. Nobody read that (version), not the actors, nobody. Just me,” Cuarón said.
This lead to obvious questions about how to film a story when the actors don’t have the script, Cuarón clarified, explaining: “They (the actors) didn’t know what would happen until they were preparing that morning. They also never received common instructions; I spoke to each of them individually. And often the instructions were contradictory. One actor might think their character is best friends with another, but maybe the other didn’t think they were best friends.”
He pointed out that this led to a set where the actors were invested and excited to hear their direction each day, comparing the environment to watching a Netflix series – a subtle nod to the streaming service which financed the film – in that they were constantly waiting to find out what would happen to their character next.
Mexico is in a climate where many of its citizens cannot relate to or trust the politicians who are leading them, and their place people often turn to key public figures like Cuarón and his dear friends Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu as role models. In a particularly reflective moment during the otherwise generally light-hearted discussion, Cuarón explained a larger context he discovered himself caught up in while making the film.
“This wasn’t just my story, I was also approaching the story of my country and the history of Mexico, and I realized (while filming) that things not only hadn’t improved, but had gotten worse. When you go to the slums you find out that many things have not changed. Mexico City is this big modern city that is just concealing the true face of society,” he explained.
He then took it a step further, saying, “That is the same metaphor at a personal level for me. The scars are still there and haven’t healed but are worse. This was a very painful process so it was not a loving process.”
Asked about influences by the audience, Cuarón explained that although he is a cinephile and has great love for the works of Luis Buñuel, Roberto Gavaldón and Fernando de Fuentes, he worked hard not to reference anything in particular while filming.
“I remember when I was shooting and I would start humming a melody while I was placing my camera, I would realize that melody comes from a movie I liked so I stopped because I didn’t want to use a scene from another film.” Although he did acknowledge that in any finished product one can find references to a filmmaker’s influences, intentional or not.
When one audience question was read out, “What is missing in Latin American cinema so that the industry can make high quality films,” the audience groaned and boo’d the notion, which was similarly dismissed by both presenters.
“The industry is one thing and making films is a different thing,” replied Cuarón. “You can have huge industry making bad films. It’s more about what we need to make big movies and encourage good filmmaking. And what we need is access for people to see those movies and to support filmmakers.”
Pawlikowski added, “And, personally, I think Latin America is in a great era of filmmaking.”
The talk went longer than was scheduled and, judging by the number of raised hands, in the audience could have lasted well into the night if allowed. But pictures needed to be taken, other events were scheduled and the festival must go on, so Michel emerged to thank the two filmmakers once again as the pair received a standing ovation from the grateful crowd.
This article was updated to reflect the fact that it was another project of Alfonso Cuarón’s, not “Roma,” that Pawel Pawlikowski did not “get.”