Alfonso and Chivo bring their double act to Tribeca
Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón and three-time (in a row!) Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki made an irresistible pair at last night’s “Tribeca Talks” session at the SVA Theatre in Manhattan, a highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival. Lubezki was there to interview his longtime friend and collaborator Cuarón, but their easy rapport, a combination of deep mutual respect and good-natured teasing, made the event feel more like eavesdropping on the reminiscences of two great artists.
The two Mexicans met as teenagers, hanging out at the same parties where Lubezki claimed Cuarón always seemed to be surrounded by beautiful girls. Lubezki was amazed that Cuarón at that early age could talk knowledgeably about the color in Antonioni films, while Cuarón was influenced by Lubezki’s musical tastes, learning about artists like Frank Zappa and Talking Heads.
Lubezki had ambitions to be a still photographer, but art school at the time was “in political turmoil,” so he wound up in film school, where he became assistant on Cuarón’s school projects. “Alfonso is probably the most important teacher in my life,” Lubezki declared, while Cuarón insisted, “It was clear that he understood the whole thing way better than me.” Cuarón recalled that even on primitive Super 8 films, “nobody else was concerned about the light.”
Most of their fellow students at film school were much older; they called these young upstarts “the Gerber generation, kids that liked American movies,” Lubezki recalled. “Our school was very left-wing, a lot of documentary filmmakers… They saw us as betrayers.”
Starting their professional careers, Cuarón became an assistant director to American directors on low-budget films shooting in Mexico, and Lubezki was hired as second assistant. “What is amazing,” Lubezki recalled, “is that [Cuarón’s] innate knowledge of filmmaking drove him into almost directing those movies—you were the assistant, but you were very hands-on and very involved in the writing and directing.”
Cuarón didn’t quite return the compliment. “As great a DP as he is, he’s the worst second A.D.,” he admonished, mainly because he was so caught up in what the cinematographer (in this case, the estimable Lajos Koltai) was doing.
Next, they worked together on “Hora Mercada,” “the ‘Twilight Zone’ of Mexico” (“The Toilet Zone,” Cuarón corrected), where Lubezki says his pal became “really prolific” and “learned how to make a shot work.”
Two years after Cuarón made his Mexican feature directing debut Sólo con tu pareja (with Lubezki as DP), the pair landed a gig as director and DP of an episode of the Showtime film noir TV series “Fallen Angels,” with a cast including Alan Rickman, Laura Dern and Diane Lane. “I was like the ugly sheep over there,” Cuarón claimed. “I know you love your location but, you know what, Steve [Soderbergh] saw your location and he loved it too, so…” Helping to relieve the stress, he recalled, was Rickman, who “gave me the most amazing pep talk.”
“My best memory of that was Steve Golin, an amazing producer… You know, Chivo used to take his time, and Golin was just laying down on the floor with his head against the wall, and he was desperate. And suddenly he exploded. In the middle of the whole thing, he screams, ‘You Mexicans are so slow!’ And then he realized he had done a very politically incorrect comment. And everybody was quiet. And I just walked over to him and I yelled, ‘We Mexicans are not slow! We’re lazy. It’s different!’”
Cuarón and Lubezki are both very proud of their first feature collaboration for an American studio, A Little Princess (1995), but unhappy with their 1998 follow-up, Great Expectations, which Cuarón calls “a complete failure.” He confessed, “I said no like five times. I allowed myself to be dragged into it for the wrong reasons... The script was not there, and I got caught in the sense of: We can convey this visually, we can compensate visually. And it starts to be something that is too much.”
After that bad experience, Cuarón took a break and rented some of his favorite films from a Greenwich Village video store to remind himself of what he loved about cinema. The result was his acclaimed, stripped-down (in every sense), low-budget Mexican comedy, Y Tu Mamá También (2001). “It’s about language,” he learned. “It’s not about looking pretty, but looking right… It’s about what jells everything together.”
Cuarón and Lubezki temporarily went their separate ways when Cuarón got the call to direct the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Lubezki had family commitments in Los Angeles and was signed up for A Series of Unfortunate Events, and he didn’t want to get involved with a franchise with “an established look.” But he admitted to finding what his friend had done with the third Harry Potter movie “very moving.”
The dynamic duo were just starting to address the great Children of Men (2006) when they were notified that their hour was up. And they never got around to the amazing, Oscar-winning Gravity. But the Tribeca audience felt privileged to be in their company—we gladly would have stayed another hour.