Alfonso Cuarón: ‘As a Cineast, You Can Only Make Personal Films’

Mexican filmmaker delivers a masterclass at Lyon’s Lumière Festival

LYON, France – Alfonso Cuarón’s inspiration for his award-winning drama “Roma” was none other than Cannes topper Thierry Frémaux, the Mexican director revealed during a masterclass at the 10th Lumière Film Festival in Lyon on Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Frémaux, who serves as director of the Institut Lumière, Cuarón recalled how he had been previously working on a completely different project – a pre-historic drama set 50,000 to 100,000 years ago that centered on early humans, when the two met at the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. Frémaux was unimpressed after hearing about it and instead urged the filmmaker to return to his native Mexico and make another Spanish-language film.

“I tried to explain the project to Thierry. It’s a really good project. It wasn’t an adventure film; it’s more of an intimate story. I was doing a lot of anthropological and archeological research, talking to many experts and I was very enthusiastic.”

Cuarón still intends to make the film, which he describes as “Adam and Eve but Darwinian, a kind of family drama about early humans, about discovery and the birth of ideologies.”

At the time however, Frémaux was not impressed. “He kept saying, ‘This is your moment to return to Mexico, to make a film in your country. You haven’t been back since ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien.’”

Despite his exasperation with Frémaux, Cuarón soon realized he was right. “It was in fact the right moment. The truth of the matter is I was drying up. There is an arrogant, cosmopolitan pretension that we are citizens of the world. That is partly true, but even a citizen of the world has roots.”

Cuarón saw it as the right time to embark on such an endeavor under his own rules and using what he calls the “technical tools of great spectacle” – such as state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound technology and 65mm format – to make an intimate, black and white Mexican film in Spanish and Mixtec.

Commenting on the film’s distribution via Netflix, Cuarón said the decision was ultimately made due to the SVOD giant’s worldwide reach. “With the complexities that exist today for the distribution of non-English films and art cinema, it’s very difficult, and more so for a Mexican film that is in Spanish and Mixtec, with unknown actors and in black and white. And of course I hope that the majority of people will be able to see this film in big theaters. …

“It’s frustrating that the French audiences won’t be able to see the film in cinemas,” Cuarón said. In France, a required three-year window between theatrical and SVOD release means it won’t be shown in theaters. “That’s not the case in other parts of the world, where it will show in cinemas.”

Describing himself as a cineaste filmmaker, Cuarón noted that even his big international productions, such as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Gravity” were intimate, personal films.

As a cineast, you can only make personal films, he added, pointing out that “Y Tu Mama Tambien” was about the transition of adolescents into adulthood, while his next film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” was about the transition of children into adolescents.

“Although it doesn’t seem like it because it’s a film about outer space with big stars, ‘Gravity’ is also a very personal film for me because it was a film that was born out of necessity. The film came about after a project I had been preparing fell through and I was at a moment in my life in which I was experiencing one adversity after another.”

He added: “And that film is all about adversity. Everything that happens in the film is a metaphor for those adversities. During that time in my life, all I wanted was to put my feet on the ground; I needed an anchor.”

Commenting on Hollywood, Cuarón pointed out that the U.S. film industry has been an industry of immigrants since its earliest days. He nevertheless cautioned young cineaste filmmakers from other cultures of viewing Hollywood as the “holy grail” and of losing their individuality and unique voice in trying to adapt to the industry’s constraints.

“Having to adapt their language, to homogenize their language in order to adapt to Hollywood, that for me is a danger. If there is anything marvelous about cinema it is language.”

Turning to his native Mexico, Cuarón expressed concern for the extreme violence in the country but also hope in the “exuberant new generations of young people who are reclaiming their place in the world” despite the country’s continuing problems. Indeed, the social inequalities portrayed in “Roma,” which takes place in 1970s Mexico City, have only gotten worse over the years, he said. The misery and violence in the country, he added, are connected to a tendency among Mexicans “to accept the country’s immense racism.”

More Film

  • Glass Movie

    Box Office: 'Glass' Shines Overseas With $48.5 Million Weekend

    After autobots and aquatic kings have dominated foreign markets over the past few weeks, a different kind of hero has risen to the top of box office charts. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” is the new champ overseas, pulling in $48.5 million from international territories. The supernatural thriller, a sequel to 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2016’s “Split,” debuted [...]

  • Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf

    'Roma' and 'The Favourite' Lead London Critics' Circle Winners

    After ruling the U.S. critics’ award circuit, “Roma” continued its dominance on the other side of the pond, as the London Film Critics’ Circle announced its winners tonight. A week after landing seven BAFTA nominations, Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexico City memory piece landed film of the year and director of the year honors from the group [...]

  • M. Night Shyamalan Should Stop Writing

    The Big Twist M. Night Shyamalan Needs: He Should Stop Writing His Own Scripts (Column)

    Quick, name the greatest film by each of the following directors: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, David Lean, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Kathryn Bigelow, Jonathan Demme. Answers will vary (mine would be: “Citizen Kane,” “Psycho,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Nashville,” “Chinatown,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Silence of the Lambs”), but whatever your [...]

  • Andy Vajna Dead: 'Rambo' Producer and

    Andy Vajna, 'Rambo' Producer, Dies at 74

    Andy Vajna, executive producer of several “Rambo” films as well as “Total Recall” and several “Terminator” movies, has died at 74. The Hungarian National Film Fund confirmed his death, calling him a “dominant figure in the Hungarian and international film industry” who was responsible for the development of the fund. With partner Mario Kassar, Vajna [...]

  • Glass trailer

    Box Office: 'Glass' Dominates MLK Weekend With $47 Million

    M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” topped box office charts during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, collecting $40 million over the weekend for a four-day sum of $47 million. If estimates hold, “Glass” will come in behind “American Sniper” ($107 million) and “Ride Along” ($48 million) as the third-best showing for both January and MLK holiday [...]

  • FICG Names Estrella Araiza As New

    Estrella Araiza To Head Up Guadalajara Intl Film Festival

    The Guadalajara Intl. Film Festival (FICG) has announced that Estrella Araiza, until now the festival’s head of industry and markets and director of the Guadalajara IntL. Film Festival in Los Angeles, has been promoted to the position of general director of the prominent Mexican festival. She replaces Ivan Trujillo, appointed director of TV UNAM. Araiza [...]

  • 'St. Bernard Syndicate' Review: A Quietly

    Film Review: 'St. Bernard Syndicate'

    John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan may have received major award nominations this season for their fine work in “Stan & Ollie,” but there’s arguably a superior Laurel & Hardy tribute act to be found in the droll Danish comedy “St. Bernard Syndicate.” As a pair of bumbling losers who turn an already dubious business [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content