6 Secrets from Legendary Collaborators Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki
Childhood friends and longtime collaborators Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki bared all at Tribeca.
Y Tu Mama También is one of the movies that made me want to be a filmmaker, and Children of Men is on my all-time Top 10 list, so I was giddy with anticipation for the Tribeca Talk featuring the director and DP of both films, Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki.
The pair did not disappoint, sharing candid details with me and the rest of the sold-out theater that could only come from over 30 years of friendship and creative collaboration. The dynamic pair have come a long way from their days of checking out girls and attending film school together in Mexico City, with Lubezki shooting six of Cuarón’s feature films and becoming the first cinematographer to win three consecutive Oscars (for Cuarón’s Gravity along with Birdman and The Revenant).
But who knew that Lubezki, or "Chivo" as he is known by friends and fans, actually got his start as Cuarón’s camera assistant? Below are some of the other little-known gems that they shared at Tribeca.
"I usually don’t like the work I've done and it’s very hard for me to look at the movies that I've participated in."
1. Chivo saved Cuaron from becoming a soap opera director
The pair launched professionally in Mexico by holding various roles on a sci-fi TV show, Hora Marcada, similar to Twilight Zone. ("We called it 'Toilet Zone,'" Cuarón joked.)
Cuaron recalled one day that the pair was location scouting for the show when Lubezki somewhat sarcastically asked him, "So, what do you want to do after this? Direct soaps?" Cuarón described how this question completely shook him; he realized he was getting too comfortable in television and in danger of missing out on his true love, filmmaking.
The experience was indicative of the impact they've had on each other's lives throughout. Cuarón explained that, although he was originally offended, "The right comment coming from the right person at the right moment can turn everything in a different direction." In this case, it spurred Cuarón to start writing a feature screenplay and, ultimately, move into film.
2. Their favorite collaboration was A Little Princess
"I usually don’t like the work I've done," Chivo told the crowd, "and it’s very hard for me to look at the movies that I've participated in, but this is one I can watch." The film in question? A Little Princess (1995), about the adventures of an orphaned girl.
"It's not about looking pretty. It's about looking right."
Both men have very fond memories of making the film: directing a cast of little girls, casting Cuarón’s then 10-year-old son in a role, and working with Tim Burton’s famed production designer Bo Welch (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands). The project also marked a turning point in the pair’s creative journey. "It was not anymore just about the shot," Cuarón explained. "It was about the whole thing and the character’s POV. Even the master shots are shot from the point-of-view of the main character."
3. But they hate Great Expectations
Though it is one of their more well-known collaborations, they both called Great Expectations (1998) one of their least satisfying experiences and results, although Cuarón also admitted it’s one where he learned the most. He also recounted that, like Lubezki, he rarely watches films he’s made after he has completed them so his feelings about a film have a lot to do with how things went on set.
One thing he learned from Great Expectations was to trust his instincts. "My first instinct was to say no to that film, and I said no five times, but then I allowed myself to get dragged in for the wrong reasons."
Fortunately, the experience was so removed from his original filmmaking intentions and vision that he did some soul-searching (including a trip to a video store to binge-watch his favorite cinema classics) and ended up making his own modern-day classic, indie hit Y Tu Mama También (2001).
"Let's make the movie we would have made before film school."
4. Y Tu Mama También was their collaborative turning point
When Cuarón called Chivo after their disappointing experience on Great Expectations, he said to his old friend, “Let's start from scratch. Let's make the movie we would have made before film school.” They pulled back, pared down, returned to Mexico where they first met, and focused on "the language of film."
Cuarón teased that Chivo had gained the reputation of holding the record for "biggest lighting package in the UK" for Sleepy Hollow (1999), but they both scrapped over-the-top production techniques in favor of a D.I.Y. approach for Y Tu Mama También. After using those big packages and massive crews, Lubezki recalled, "I was craving it. To go in a car with just the camera and actors."
Unlike in many of their projects, there are no cranes or dollies, it was shot with natural light, and the camera is handheld. "It's not about looking pretty," Cuarón said. "It's about looking right."
"It's about what gels everything together that suddenly clicks and gives you that experience. It's about this whole thing of cinema that is a mystery."
5. Chivo is a "softie" and cried at least three times on set
Describing himself as a "softie," Lubezki mentioned a few instances when he teared up throughout his career: the first time he called "action" on set; nailing a complicated helicopter shot during a magic hour love scene on top of Mexcio City's tallest building on their first cinematic collaboration, Solo con tu pareja (1991); and figuring out how to improvise a "magical" shot that producers told them was budgetarily impossible, which ended up becoming one of their favorite scenes in A Little Princess.
6. Their secret to great filmmaking is intangible
The realization that Cuarón had during the production of Y Tu Mama También shaped his future productions and is a useful sentiment for any filmmaker to keep in mind: "It's not about performance. It's not about screenplay. It's not about cinematography. It's not about music. It's not about editing. It's about what gels everything together that suddenly clicks and gives you that experience. It's about this whole thing of cinema that is a mystery."
Be sure to check back for more coverage of Tribeca 2016.