Alfonso Cuarón Reveals His Ghost-Perspective, His Influences, and a Theory He Hates
We interviewed Alfonso Cuarón about this past, present, and future in filmmaking. Check it out.
In mid-March 2017, Alfonso Cuarón announced that his passion project Roma had finally wrapped after a pre-production period that ran well past the deadline, an on-set robbery that sent five crew members to the hospital, and 108 days of shooting. He’d injected Roma into the public consciousness as early as 2006 in a Charlie Rose interview with himself, Alejandro Iñarritu, and Guillermo Del Toro when he expressed his intent to shoot his black and white opus after Children Of Men.
Now, after streaming on Netflix after one of their more intensive theatrical pushes, and after viewers have screened the film from their homes and subways on screens of all shapes and sizes, Roma’s home video edition has received the Criterion rebuff. It’s the perfect excuse to take another look back at it... if you needed one.
Roma was steeped in the highest accolades. Cuarón became the first filmmaker to win the Best Director and Best Cinematography Oscars in the same year. But in our discussion, he reflected on his career and projected its future with casual humility.
He often regressed back to the “the masters” of cinema to which he suggests he’s only an admirer of.
No Film School: There is a relentless use of circuitous camera movement and side-scrolling dollies that move the frame regardless of Cleo’s movement in it. Nor do any other characters in Roma dictate the frame. It seemed the impetus of much of Roma’s design was to establish the sense of a cycle and routine that was bigger than the people within them, and I predicted that when the societal, family, and individual revolutions and “changes” finally took place in the film, that the camera would free from its circuitry and introduce new camera language. But it doesn’t. Why doesn’t it?
Alfonso Cuarón: I was not really certain about how everything was going to work here, as opposed to all of the other films that I’ve done where I worked very precisely and was very certain about the look of things. With Roma, I wanted to honor memory. I wanted to explore time and space. From the beginning I wanted the camera to be this ghost from the present that observes the past. Sometimes this ghost could move out and away from the characters if it got curious. And because I wanted to honor this sense of time and space, on the one hand, the pans and dollies are providing a sense of time because they are unrushed, and on the other hand they are providing a sense of space that is beyond our perception. In our daily life, our visual perception is just a fraction of the spatial perception that we have — because part of our spatial perception is filled in by the sound. I wanted to emulate that.
"I’m more of a cinephile than a filmmaker."
NFS: Can you talk more about this idea of the “curious” ghost perspective that wanders away from the characters?
Cuarón: I didn’t want to be bonded to the characters necessarily because [the ghost is] almost like a witness. A witness can be distracted from the action in front of it. There’s an urgency, a distraction, or frankly just a curiosity that can take you to some other place. But I didn’t want to do that in a hectic way because in my other films like Y Tu Mamá También I also played with a camera that was curious. It would go from the characters to other things, but in a way that was more adamant. Here, I wanted to do it in a way that was almost matter-of-fact.
NFS: The relentless distance here between the subjects and the camera reminded me of the way Kore-eda shot Still Walking from afar because the subject matter was so close to him. Did you feel you had to distance yourself from the personal material here?
Cuarón: I love his films. Kore-eda is definitely a filmmaker that employs the same distance. I started doing this in Y Tu Mamá También. That is a film with almost no close-ups. The film is kind of distant. Children Of Men is another like that, you know? It’s kind of removed. Even in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban and Gravity there are very few closeups, there’s a distance from the action. Sometimes in my films, the camera is more engaged with the actors, like in Gravity and sometimes even in Children of Men. But not always. In Y Tu Mamá También it’s kind of aloof and in Roma, it’s the same. But I didn’t want the same approach that I had with Y Tu Mamá También in terms of its handheld immediacy. I didn’t want that immediacy because our memory is something more ethereal. And for the first time, I didn’t want to reference or pay homage to any other filmmakers with my film.
I’m more of a cinephile than a filmmaker. In the past, I’ve often referenced something very specifically. I wanted to stay away from that. But at the end of the day, when people saw the film, they started talking about references. The funny thing is people started [comparing it to] neo-realism — and I get why they say that — but that was not necessarily my impulse. When I see the film I definitely recognize a filmmaker that I admire, who also keeps a quiet distance, and that’s Ozu.
"I also think the auteur theory manifested from a certain snobbery of the 50s and 60s that I don’t think I’m particularly in need of."
NFS: You’ve mentioned this before, that you’re too much of a cinephile to be an auteur. What does that mean? And why can’t you be both?
Cuarón: Well, I don’t know. I can see a consistency in the filmmakers that I utterly admire. You can see in Ingmar Bergman, Ozu, Dryer, Godard, Rohmer, etc. their amazing consistency. But I also think the auteur theory manifested from a certain snobbery of the 50s and 60s that I don’t think I’m particularly in need of. It’s a need to differentiate between “real filmmakers” with a point of view and “hacks” that can do plate films and entertaining films but don’t provide a unity of cinematic elements.
Look, I said this because I just don’t know what an auteur is. I know that I’m a cinephile. So I’m well-read in auteur theory, and I think it’s a nice theory, but it’s not a universal law. It’s like when Chabrol was asked about la nouevelle vague and he said “There are no waves. There is only the ocean.” I definitely don’t have the consistency of a filmmaker like Bergman or Ozu, or even, you know, Guillermo Del Toro. But I have my own consistency in that I can only do things from my standpoint, my point of view. I cannot take on another point of view. So whether that constitutes being an auteur or not — I don’t really worry about it. Above all of that, I’m a cinema lover and I’m just amazingly grateful for these amazing masters. I’m amused when they send me studies that find stylistic and cinematic consistencies in my films, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t see my films. I prefer to see other people's films. So I don’t spend too much time thinking about my own films.
NFS: Do you feel you’ve taken a step away from just being a cinephile and towards that “auteur” filmmaking with Roma? I’m thinking of something I think Tarkovsky and others have said, where he chastised filmmakers that made films about films instead of films about life.
Cuarón: Again, I don’t know what an auteur is. What I love is cinema. I don’t want to stop being a cinephile. With Roma, I did a film where I challenged my own process. Will I follow a line and continue to do films like Roma? Probably not. At the same time, I’m certain that whatever I do next is going to be informed by Roma. But I don’t do that many films. I’m not that prolific. Maybe if I was more prolific I would try similar things more often. I’m not prolific, I’m just curious and want to challenge my process. I want to do what I don’t know how to do.
NFS: I know a lot of filmmakers who stop watching movies when they start making films. Is that not the case for you?
Cuarón: Well, I try to watch as much as possible. For me it’s not about making movies, it’s about getting older and taking on more responsibilities — family and stuff — so when I was in my youth I’d go to the movies every single day. Sometimes twice a day. Eventually, you don’t have the time for that. But I definitely still watch whenever I can. It’s almost like a need for me to be connecting with cinema. And I have eclectic taste, I like a good fun movie too, but it has to have something. I don’t like generic films, they bore me to tears. The original Poseidon Adventure is one of my favorite films. I love that film. But then I also love Tarkovsky. When I saw The Poseidon Adventures as a kid I was surprised. I’ve seen it many times in my life now and every time it feels like an original film. There’s something specific about it that I truly enjoy.
"The original Poseidon Adventure is one of my favorite films. I love that film."
Obviously, there’s a certain level of sophistication and engagement I can get with that kind of cinema. When I say I enjoy cinema it’s from something fun like that. But I am really engaged and deeply moved when I’m confronted with a challenging piece of cinema, and I try to keep on connecting. I try to keep more or less relevant to what’s happening every year. I like to learn from the new masters, though I do like to revisit old films. There’s only so much you can learn from the old masters. There’s a point where you have to connect to the younger masters because they’re bringing the refreshing cinema. If you don’t learn from the young masters you’ll become stale.
NFS: You say you’re not prolific, how are you spending your time in between films then?
Cuarón: Well I enjoy life. I have family and children and it takes me a while to complete a film. Life also requires time, and I like life. I read a lot, I listen to a lot of music, and I try to keep myself sharp by traveling and going to art shows.
NFS: And you’ve said that you don’t know what Roma means. What becomes the guiding star for your decisions then, which feel deliberate. Was meaning something you fell back on for your other films?
Cuarón: Well, when I say I don’t know what Roma means I mean that I have my own interpretations, but that my own interpretations limit the meaning. So I don’t like to talk about the meaning of symbolic elements and the film as a whole. I know that it’s a film about memory from the perspective of my current understanding, with a character from a domestic background who is an indigenous worker, and through that, you see the relationship between class and ethnic background. But also, I wanted to do a film that was about time and space, the mystery of life, a life full of adversities, and a life that is meaningless — a shared experience of loneliness where only the bonds of affection can bring some solace or meaning — or an illusion of a meaning. The whole idea of existence is the experience of abandonment.
Now, the specific meanings of things I think should be up to the audience to bring. That’s the way audiences enrichen the film’s experience.
"For me, the only reason that I’ll make a film is for what I’ll learn for the next one."
NFS: Is the success of Roma pushing you to direct something more esoteric?
Cuarón: Well, I don’t know, I mean, after Y Tu Mama Tambien I went on to do Harry Potter [laughs]. I just do what I feel is the right thing, what I’m curious about, and what I feel would be a challenge that could surprise me. I’m talking about surprises in the process of making it. I don’t think I’m going to do something more abstract. The irony is that after Gravity I was offered the resources to do even bigger films. Bigger budget, better salaries — more bombastic and stuff. But I decided to go do a black and white film in Mexico. Maybe that was a reaction to Gravity and now my next thing is going to be a reaction to Roma.
NFS: Will you incorporate non-actors into major roles again?
Cuarón: I’ve incorporated non-actors into most of my films at some point, but never to the extent of this one. Again, I don’t think I’d repeat the process I did with this film, but it will definitely inform my next films. Every film you do will inform your other films and the way that you do your next films.
NFS: How do you personally gauge a sense of success & satisfaction for your films separate from the external validation of awards?
Cuarón: The actual success of a film is only dictated by time. It is the only true judge of what films are successful and which ones are not. Young films are successful for one year and forgotten two years later. For me, the only reason that I’ll make a film is for what I’ll learn for the next one. The learning curve, for me, is what marks the success of my films.