10 Revealing Lessons from
The six-time Academy Award-nominated director showed up at Cannes with some fantastic advice.
Alfonso Cuarón was on hand at the Cannes Film Festival last week to give an inspiring hour-and-a-half-long masterclass. Joined by French critic Michel Ciment, the talk covered much ground, from Cuarón’s relationship to both the Mexican and American film industries to the director’s scrappy beginnings to creating arthouse films, blockbuster flops, and Oscar winners.
“The consistency of a limitation is what starts to create an inner language. Limitations give you form.”
1. To make great art, forget that it’s a job
Cuarón got his start in the film scene in Mexico at a very young age. Because of that, he used his job primarily as a means of survival. “I had a kid when I was 20, so cinema became my means of support,” he said. “On top of that, cinema became a way of maintaining myself.” It is a habit he is still trying to kick. “My life and career, unfortunately—and now I’m focusing on exorcising this—has been not only cinema as the thing I love and my vocation, but also as the only way I learned early on about how to survive. That was a big ball and chain that I carried through most of my career.”
2. Don’t obsess over finding your unique visual aesthetic
Even before the emergence of Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Cuarón, there was a vibrant Mexican film scene. Cuarón wanted it to evolve. “When Chivo and I first started, we were struggling like hell to get rid of certain tendencies we didn’t like of the previous generation of Mexican filmmakers,” he remarked. “Unfortunately, a lot of that got into the technical and visual aspect of it or the polishedness of it. I think, in a way, that distracted our journey 10 years in the sense that for too long, we were concerned about creating a form. In retrospect, it was a distraction.”
3. Give yourself small goals
Lubezki and Cuarón had humble beginnings; the collaborators’ first projects were for a show they likened to a campy Mexican version of The Twilight Zone. “When Chivo and I used to do these ‘Toilet Zone’ episodes, we were happy if we had done one shot that was decent,” Cuarón remembers. “With our first film, we evolved this idea to be, if we do one scene that is a good scene, we’re happy. We had really low expectations in who we were.”
“I said, ‘Okay, I don’t like this script, but we’re going to compensate visually.’ That never works.”
4. Being in development limbo is okay—at first
After his first film, Sólo con tu pareja, garnered some recognition but failed to pick up American distribution, Cuarón realized that if he wanted to make real money, he’d have to make a move to the states. “Somehow, I’d discovered a cheat that would support my immediate situation,” he said. “It’s so weird—in Hollywood, you can live all your life without shooting one single movie and support yourself. You can be developing projects that will never happen. I entered the limbo. I took on projects that I was not in love with, but they were projects that I could survive on.”
5. Never try to compensate visually for story
The only movie Cuarón really seemed ashamed to talk about was his 1998 flop Great Expectations. From the beginning, he knew taking on the adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic wasn’t a good choice, but in his words, “you get seduced. It’s seductive. I was convinced by the studios who hire you to develop things. You don’t write [when you do that]. I forgot that I was a writer. I forgot that I was anything else. I spent my days reading screenplays.”
“I had said no three times,” he continued, “but I became cocky. I said, ‘Okay, I don’t like this script, but we’re going to compensate visually.’ That never works. When the essence—the concept, the soul—isn’t there, you can’t compensate with anything. That is the truth of the matter. It’s nobody’s fault but mine—it’s not the studio’s, it’s not the producers’, it’s not the actors’. It’s mine. I did the wrong film. I should not have done it. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
6. Ask yourself why you love film in the first place
After this failure, Cuarón hit a rough patch. “I lost my track,” he admitted. “Great Expectations didn’t do well commercially, so I wasn’t being sent good scripts. I was in another limbo where I was completely disenchanted by the whole thing.”
“But then I realized,” he continued, “that I was disenchanted not by cinema, but what I had been doing and the process and where I was. So I went to the video shop and impulsively just started renting the films that made me fall in love with the medium in the first place. I took piles of VHS and locked myself in a room for one week. And that’s the moment I decided to do Y Tu Mama Tambien.”
“Try to give as much thematic information—not explicit, but thematic—inside the frame as possible.”
7. Let go of old loves
Cuarón hates watching his own films. “Once I finish a film, I never see it again,” he admitted. “Sometimes I have to do an upgrade on format or whatever, but there’s no sound and it’s out of order, and I cringe anyway, watching the thing.”
“My friends and peers—Alejandro, Guillermo—consider their films their babies that they’ve nurtured through life,” Cuarón continued. “They love them and stuff. For me, it’s more like ex-wives. I love them so much, but I gave as much as I could. They gave me as much as they could. We move on and we love each other from a distance, but I don’t want to see them again.”
8. Limitations create form
As Cuarón’s career advanced, he started introducing more and more limitations into his work. “Limitations are frustrating because they cancel cool possibilities, but the consistency of a limitation is what starts to create an inner language,” he said. “They give you form.”
9. Every detail inside your frame matters
“How do you convey things without being explicit?” Cuarón asked. “Don’t be expository about them! How do you talk about things without talking about them?”
“Formally, I focused on how stories can be told visually,” Cuarón said. “Dialogue is a support for the cinematic experience—that includes sound and so on. Try to give as much thematic information—not explicit, but thematic—inside the frame as possible.”
10. Don’t dismiss things just because they’re popular
If weren’t for del Toro, we would have never had the best Harry Potter entry. That’s because del Toro convinced Cuarón to do The Prisoner of Azkaban after he found out that Cuarón wasn’t interested in the project.
“Del Toro asked, ‘Have you read the books?'” Cuarón recalled. “And I said, ‘I saw the film; it’s not my thing.’ And then he asked [again], ‘Have you read the books?’ And I said, ‘No, I have not read the books.’ And then he got so pissed off at me. ‘You fuckin’ arrogant bastard! Go right now, buy the fuckin’ books and call me back!'”
The rest is history.