The deserved rise and rise of Alfonso Cuaron

With his new TV series Believe hitting the UK this month, Ryan charts the well-deserved rise of talented filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron...

Last year’s Gravity, the winner of seven Oscars, was the culmination of nine years of work for director Alfonso Cuarón and his legion of filmmakers. Breaking new ground for its special effects, Gravity was remarkable in that it made something as tough as simulating action in a zero-G environment look somehow effortless. Yet behind the scenes, the making of Gravity was anything but; it’s only when we take a look at the Blu-ray’s disc extras that it becomes easier to appreciate how time-consuming and downright gruelling the hours of wire-work, motion capture and digital design actually were.

Having earned more than $700m at the box office, Gravity is second only to The Prisoner Of Azkaban as Cuarón’s most financially successful films, and once again marks him out as filmmaker who can match visual splendour with intelligent storytelling.

Born in Mexico City in 1961, the young Cuarón initially studied philosophy and filmmaking before commencing his career in television; one of his earliest credits was as the writer and director on the 80s TV series Hora Marcada, a genre anthology series akin to The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits that also provided a proving ground for fellow Mexicans Guillermo del Toro and Emmanuel Lubezki (who would later become Cuarón’s cinematographer).

Cuarón’s first feature was the 1991 sex comedy Sólo con tu Pareja, which he also wrote and edited – a film that Prompted Sydney Lumet to hire Cuarón to direct an episode of the noir TV series Fallen Angels (also known as Perfect Crimes. Cuarón’s episode was called Murder Obliquely, starred Alan Rickman and Laura Dern, and immediately placed him in esteemed company: other directors in the series included Tom Hanks, Steven Soderbergh, Peter Bogdanovich and John Dahl.

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Cuarón’s first English-language feature films followed a few years later: A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998), which both suffered mixed fortunes. The first, an adaptation of the book of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, was poorly distributed, while the latter, which relocated Charles Dickens’ text to 90s New York, was met with varied reviews.

Cuarón’s first international success came with Y Tu Mamá También (2001) a Spanish-language drama about two teenagers venturing off on a road trip with a thirty-something woman. Explicit, vivacious and beautifully shot, the film’s screenplay (co-written by Cuarón and his brother Carlos) was nominated for an Oscar. It was the widespread success of Y Tu Mamá También that would, in part, lead Cuarón to direct The Prisoner Of Azkaban, a film that’s still widely regarded as the darkest and best entry in the Harry Potter series – author JK Rowling even stated that it was her personal favourite.

Earning almost $800m worldwide, it was Cuarón’s Harry Potter film that enabled him to make the bleak, $76m science fiction film, Children Of Men, a film that took his abilities as a technical filmmaker to new heights.

Adapted from the PD James novel of the same name, Children Of Men is set in a future where humanity has, abruptly and mysteriously, become collectively infertile. Clive Owen plays the dazed everyman who’s forced to protect a young woman who may hold the key to the survival of our species. High on suspense and punctuated by some astonishing action set-pieces, Children Of Men is an unusually intelligent science fiction film, and showcased Cuarón’s ability to orchestrate spectacularly long takes filled with chaos and suspense.

In one, we see a group of masked assassins on motorcycles attack a moving vehicle. The sequence is made all the more breathtaking thanks to the precise placement and control of Cuarón’s camera, as it circles around the characters in the car and details the violence visited on them. Later, we see Clive Owen’s character run into a building besieged by the military, and the camera follows him unflinchingly as he dodges bullets, sprints up several flights of stairs and rescues the woman and her newborn baby, all in what appears to be one seamless take.

Frustratingly, Children Of Men failed to gain the widespread traction it needed to make it a hit; at the box office, its takings failed to cover the $76m it cost to make. But while Children Of Men struggled in theatres, it soared in terms of critical notices and garnered three nominations at both the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs. 

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Around the time of Children Of Men, Cuarón was variously attached to such Hollywood projects as Hart’s War, Runaway Jury, Life Of Pi and the ill-fated Speed Racer. For various reasons, Cuarón didn’t direct any of them. Instead, he spent the next few years developing what would become his biggest hit to date – a filmmaking process that, once the script was completed, would take almost five years to bring to fruition.

The project’s complexity only became more apparent as pre-production went on. On the surface, Gravity’s a simple story about two astronauts left stranded in Earth’s orbit after their craft is destroyed by debris. Yet the premise, as penned by Alfonso and his son Jonas, was fraught with hidden problems – not least the task of achieving a seamless series of long takes in a computer-generated environment.

What’s remarkable about Gravity is just how much of it is created digitally: for the most part, the actors’ faces are the only elements that aren’t computer generated. Sandra Bullock was initially nervous about taking the lead in Gravity, and it’s not hard to see why: its motion-capture special effects required hours of work in harnesses and rigs which jerk the actor around like a puppet. For long stretches, Bullock had nothing to physically react to other than a bank of LEDs that simulated the reflected light from Earth.

The efforts of Cuarón and his team of actors and filmmakers would ultimately bring their own reward. The quality of the special effects in Gravity are such that, when the movie was released last year, there was some debate over whether or not it even qualified as a science fiction movie. But Cuarón’s production crew fabricated every suit and prop in Gravity to look like more streamlined takes on the tools that NASA uses in the present – the work they put in is so realistic that it passes by almost unnoticed.

Beneath all the special effects, what makes Gravity work is Cuarón’s talent as a storyteller. He’s undeniably a technical filmmaker, but he’s also interested in human stories and performances. Gravity was compelling because Bullock’s performance made Dr Ryan Stone so easy to root for. Children Of Men was about ordinary, engaging people thrown into nightmarish, violent circumstances. The effects in The Prisoner Of Azkaban were stunning, but the story of Harry Potter was never lost in the midst of it all.

Cuarón’s next project is the TV show, Believe, which is the story of a young girl (Johnny Sequoyah) with supernatural powers who’s protected by an ex-convict called Tate (Jake McLaughlin). Cuarón is co-creator (along with Mark Friedman) and executive producer (alongside JJ Abrams) on the series, but most excitingly, he’s also the director and co-writer of the first episode. We’ll have to wait and see how it compares to his previous work, but until then, Believe serves as the latest chapter in Cuarón’s deservedly successful career as a master storyteller.

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Believe starts on Thursday 27th March 9pm on UKTV’s Watch (Sky TV 109 & Virgin TV 124)

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