He's the first Mexican-born filmmaker to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. He also stands with George Clooney as the recipient of the most Oscar nominations in six different categories (in Cuarón's case: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing). On this day for Hispanic Heritage Month, we turn our spotlight on the incomparable Alfonso Cuarón.
How You Know Him
Alfonso Cuarón is best known as a director, but he's also an accomplished screenwriter, producer, film editor, and cinematographer. He might not be a household name, but his movies are. The four-time Oscar winner has directed some of the most visually striking films in recent years. Perhaps his most notable is his Oscar-winning sci-fi drama, "Gravity," which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. He followed that up with the deeply personal pseudo-biopic "Roma" for Netflix. He also lent his bold vision to what is arguably the best film of the entire "Wizarding World" franchise, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
Other notable works include the gripping "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which we recently highlighted. He directed Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow in a modernized adaptation of the Charles Dickens' classic "Great Expectations." But his most striking vision came in 2006, with the sci-fi thriller "Children of Men."
His Life So Far
Alfonso Cuarón was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico. His father left the family at an early age. This left much of his rearing to his mother, a pharmaceutical biochemist who struggled to pay the bills as a single parent of three. If you've seen "Roma," then you've experienced his childhood. Not only did it touch upon his life growing up in Mexico, but it also explored a country that was economically divided and on the verge of boiling over in dissent. This socio-political backdrop shaped his life.
Cuarón strove to break free from what the New York Times, in a profile of the director, referred to as "an absolute lack of freedom of expression." This meant that he had to keep the secret that his father had left the family. To help around the house, his mother employed a domestic worker, Liberia Rodríguez. She became a surrogate mother to him and his brothers. It is she who Cuarón pays homage to in "Roma," using her as the basis for the film's central character. A film that his manager Steve Golin once described to the New York Times as "the most expensive home movie ever made."
This desire for artistic freedom manifested into an intense love of cinema. He pretended to shoot movies with his friends and made it his mission to seek out every cinema in Mexico City. By the 1980s, Cuarón took his love even further. He attended Mexico's famed film school, Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos. It was at this school where he connected with his long-time cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. He also connected with fellow film compatriots Carlos Marcovich, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Alfonso Cuarón's first professional work was in television. He then landed gigs as an assistant director on various small Mexican films before his first break in 1991. The comedy "Sólo con Tu Pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria)," was co-written with his brother Carlos. It was also his first professional collaboration with Lubezki. While the film had trouble getting financing and distribution in Mexico, it gained international attention from festival screenings. The warm reception from critics also put Cuarón on the map. Sidney Pollack contacted him to direct an episode of his noir anthology series "Fallen Angels."
With this series, Cuarón's resume now included a project with Hollywood's elite attached (including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Peter Bogdanovich, and Steven Soderbergh, to name a few). A few years later, in 1995, he directed his first American film, the family drama "A Little Princess." A loose adaptation of its 1905 source novel and 1939 original film, "A Little Princess" wasn't a box office success. Still, it did win over critics. It also earned two Academy Award nominations, including the first for Lubezki.
In 1998, Cuarón adapted another classic novel. This was Charles Dickens' coming-of-age story, "Great Expectations." Moved up from its Victorian setting to modern-day Florida, "Great Expectations" featured top talent, including Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert De Niro. The film didn't connect with critics or audiences. It also had the unfortunate timing of opening in the middle of the grand theatrical run of James Cameron's "Titanic." Being another epic romance featuring hot stars, "Great Expectations" got completely swallowed up and lost in the mix. Much of the criticism targeted the script, but Cuarón still considers it a stain on his career.
The 2000s was the decade that launched Alfonso Cuarón to international fame. 2001 was Cuarón's return to form. After producing two big Hollywood movies, he was ready to get back to his roots. Cuarón envisioned a project that relied more on documentary-style techniques. This project became his breakout road comedy "Y Tu Mamá También." The comedy became an international success with an all-Spanish cast (Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, and Diego Luna). The film subverted the tropes of the typical American road movie, with its raw camera work and depiction of sex and drugs, all set against Mexico's politics and culture. "Y Tu Mamá También" was a big hit in Mexico and abroad. It also landed Cuarón and his brother Carlos their first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The success of "Y Tu Mamá También" led Cuarón to even bigger things. In 2004, he did a "180" on his non-Hollywood ideals and helmed "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." At the time, he received criticism on two fronts. First, for his embracing of big Hollywood productions after taking a step back from them. Second, for the creative liberties he took with the source novel. Over time, "Azkaban," which featured a tonal shift from the previous installments is now regarded as one of the best of the franchise.
In 2006, Cuarón was ready to make the sci-fi adaptation "Children of Men," a project first brought to him in 2001. "Children of Men" had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival that year. Upon release, it received near-universal acclaim from critics, audiences, and even original author P. D. James. The movie earned two BAFTA awards and three Oscar nominations. Cuarón was doubly nominated. First, with his fellow screenwriters for Best Adapted Screenplay, and then with Álex Rodríguez for Best Film Editing. Lubezki earned another Oscar nod for his stark and gritty cinematography.
Building on these successes, Cuarón formed a production company, Esperanto Filmoj (or "Esperanto Films"). The company has produced not only his works but films from fellow Mexican filmmakers. This includes Fernando Eimbcke's "Duck Season (Temporada de Patos)" and Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)." The production house also produced films from Cuarón's brother Carlos, including the acclaimed "Rudo y Cursi," which was a re-teaming of "Y Tu Mamá También" co-stars Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal. Most recently, Esperanto Filmoj co-produced Robert Zemeckis' "The Witches," co-written by del Toro.
The 2010s brought Alfonso Cuarón even more acclaim. It also brought his upbringing and love of cinema full circle. At the start of the decade, Cuarón began to plan the ideas that would turn into his biggest hit both critically and financially - "Gravity." Co-written with his son Jonás, the space drama drew inspiration from his love of science fiction and his boyhood dream of becoming an astronaut. Particular inspiration came from the Apollo 11 lunar landing, which he watched as a little boy, and the 1969 Gregory Peck sci-fi thriller "Marooned." The film, in which three astronauts become trapped in space, also fueled his desire to film a realistic space movie. Cuarón later paid homage to his boyhood love of "Marooned" by including a clip of the film in "Roma."
After its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, "Gravity" took the world by storm. The thriller became one of the most acclaimed and successful sci-fi films of all time. It also became the biggest box office hit, not just for Cuarón, but also for leads Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. "Gravity" earned ten Oscar nominations that year and won seven. This included Best Cinematographer for Lubezki and Best Director for Cuarón. The Best Director win was a landmark for Hispanic filmmakers. Cuarón became the first Mexican-born director to win that award.
The big success of "Gravity" meant Cuarón could pretty much direct any movie he wanted. With that, he chose something very personal - "Roma." Production began after he finished his jury presidency at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival in 2015. "Roma," a story of a middle-class Mexican family carving out a life in 1970s Mexico City, was a chance for Cuarón to honor his legacy. The semi-autobiographical film focused on his family's long-time maid Liberia Rodríguez. With Lubezki tied up with Iñárritu's "The Revenant" and two Terrence Malick projects, Cuarón took on directing duties and cinematography.
The highly praised project was key in many ways. For Alfonso Cuarón, he won Oscars for both his direction and cinematography and the film picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. For distributor Netflix, "Roma" showed the industry that the streamer is one to take seriously.
The Movie to See
We recently highlighted "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and we will soon give equal time to his deeply personal "Roma." Until then, we must recommend Alfonso Cuarón's gripping thriller "Children of Men." The sci-fi film is an adaptation of the novel "The Children of Men" by P. D. James. Cuarón's version of the dystopian story is a mix of hope and hopelessness. Women are infertile and no one knows the cause. For Cuarón, the cause is not important. Humanity only has 50 years left before the final generation roams the planet. Just as all hope seems lost, we meet Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), an African woman and the first woman pregnant in 18 years.
"Children of Men," with its deep themes and religious undertones, impressed critics and audiences on release. It landed on nearly every critics' Top Ten list for that year, not to mention the aforementioned Oscars it received. The film wouldn't have worked without a deep collaboration between Cuarón and his two leads, Clive Owen and Julianne Moore (Owen even received a writing credit). If you're in the mood for something deep, emotional, and captivating, you can do no wrong here.
What's Up Next
Even though Netflix gave Alfonso Cuarón his big canvas, the director recently signed a deal with competing streamer Apple TV+. It's not known at the moment what projects he is developing for Apple, but in 2017 he was shopping around a horror series called "Ascension." Developments have stalled on that project, and its rumored star, Casey Affleck, has left. Also on deck is a long-gestating screenplay Cuarón wrote with his son Jonás called "A Boy and His Shoe." The film follows a French girl as her family moves to Scotland, and the two Scottish boys she meets once there.
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.