Features and Columns · Movies

6 Filmmaking Tips From Alfonso Cuaron

The writer and director of ‘Gravity’ drops some good advice.
Alfonso Cuaron Gravity
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on October 13th, 2016

Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most inspiring filmmakers working in Hollywood today. He’s made some of the best studio products, from everyone’s favorite Harry Potter sequel to the cultishly popular Children of Men to his Oscar-winning Gravity, and he’s produced some terrific arthouse fare, including his own Y Tu Mama Tambien. Somewhere in the middle is the new film Desierto, co-written and directed by his son, Jonas Cuaron.

The elder Cuaron claimed to Variety in 2014, “I don’t give advice. All advice is good only based on your own life existence.” But the younger Cuaron’s life existence has mostly been about being the son of a filmmaker, and more recently his collaborator, so you know at least he has learned some tips from his father along the way. Below you’ll find some of that and other pieces of advice Alfonso Cuaron has in fact given, even if not always directly.

Film School Isn’t Necessary But Has Its Benefits

Alfonso Cuaron went to film school, at Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos, but he wound up kicked out along with his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, whom he’d met there. That partnership is the main reason he still says film school is worthwhile, even if it’s no longer necessary in terms of educational value. The following quote comes from a BAFTA LA talk from 2014, which you can watch in full below.

Look, I think film schools are fantastic. I love film school in the sense that you create a community. I started working with Emmanuel Lubezki in film school, and he was expelled as well. But I think that the new generations in a way, they don’t need film school, in the sense that for us making film was this big white elephant. It was something inaccessible, expensive, that seemed that you had to have a lot of connections and go through the threads. Now the thing is that any kid does film with their iphones. They have seen enough Behind-the-Scenes and Making-Ofs that they know the whole thing. I still think that film schools are fantastic because of the community. You get to start working with a group of people that is passionate and in the same journey than you. And that’s what I got the most out of film school and, you know, I still work with Lubezki.”

If you are going to pay attention to the lessons at film school, he has this additional tip, shared in a 2014 Reddit AMA interview:

I think some of the important things when you’re studying film is study film history and understand the evolution of the cinematic language. To have a frame of reference on how to develop you’re [sic] own language. But as in everything, the most important thing about studying film is being aware of the world around you and human experience.

Make Movies You Want to See

“I’ve learned a lot of things from him,” Jonas Cuaron says of his father in a 2013 joint interview for the Los Angeles Times, “but one is that when you sit down to plan a movie, you sit down to plan a movie you would like to see.”

The irony in that quote is that Alfonso Cuaron regularly admits to never watching his movies (“I just try to explore what I can learn from the experience and move on.”), that he doesn’t like any of them (save for maybe The Little Princess). Still, you can make something you’d want to see, that you would see were it made by someone other than yourself. It’s hard to separate yourself from the movie enough to enjoy it. But you also just want to love the movie at hand and what it could potentially be in order to be passionate and hopeful about it. He says in a 2o13 interview for The Wrap:

If you’re going to make a film, you have to be kind of an optimist. I remember, early on in my career, thinking, if I get a little financing, I can organize stuff and shoot a movie in two weeks. You just want to make it happen.

During a Director’s Series talk at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (via Lights Film School), Alfonso Cuaron spoke of how Y Tu Mama Tambien was one of those films he made because he wanted to see it:

I rented like twenty VHS [tapes] of the films that made me want to make films in the first place…all these films we used to see [at the movie theatre in Mexico]…That was when I called [Lubezki] to do Y Tu Mama Tambien. We talked about, let’s do the film we would have done before going to film school.”The celebrated end result draws on people, places, and situations the friends knew firsthand…This reminded me more of the movies that I loved. You know, all these movies that were very low budget… It was very close. It was very personal, in a way.

He also says something related to that in a the 2014 Reddit AMA interview, responding directly to a call for advice for aspiring filmmakers:

Stick with the reason why you want to make films and be uncompromising about it. Don’t think of it in terms of work of industry because that would only be a bi-product of your talent and work.

In the video linked below, father and son discuss Gravity and the desire to make movies that surprise you, like they did when you went to the movies as a kid.

Father and Son Team Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron on Writing the Script for ‘Gravity’

Eat the Cereal, Get the Prize

Alfonso Cuaron has done his share of big Hollywood movies that were anything but passion projects, and those have allowed him to do other passion projects, including the new collaboration with his son. Do the movie for them, and you’re rewarded with a movie you do for you. Here’s what he says about working on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in a 2004 Charlie Rose interview:

Here’s the thing. Doing this film is like when your mother used to make you eat this box of cereal. You have to eat all the cereal, because in the bottom of the box …[there’s] a little toy. So you eat all the cereal, and then you get the toy. So doing a Hollywood movie is eating the cereal…And then you get the toy and you enjoy the film. Now the secret here, and what my mother doesn’t know, is that I love cereal.

Of course, Alfonso Cuaron also acknowledges that he’s been advised only to do films for himself, of which fortunately he can make all kinds of movies ‐ like Harry Potter ‐ for himself. You’ll see the contradicting tip in the below quote from a 2015 Empire magazine interview (via Jamuura):

I’ve been blessed with a lot of advice from other directors. Among the many: “Manage your energy”; “Story, actors, location”; “Fail on your own terms”; “One for me and one for myself”; “Don’t eat the red ones.”

It Is Okay to Say No

Another name for this tip could be “trust your instincts.” Even though he seems okay doing one for them, one for him, Alfonso Cuaron doesn’t advise doing just anything that comes your way. One reason he made Y Tu Mama Tambien, described above as the sort of movie he personally enjoys, when he did was because of his unhappy experience directing the 1998 Dickens adaptation Great Expectations. He explained what he learned from the “failure” at his Tribeca Talk event his year (as quoted by Business Insider):

I think it’s a complete failed film. It’s the one I’ve learned the most from than anything else…My first instinct was to say no to that film…I allowed myself to be dragged in for the wrong reasons. And I think [Lubezki] actually kept on telling me every day, “Always trust your first instincts,” because [he] knew the whole time.

“It’s Not About Looking Pretty. It’s About Looking Right.”

Above is another quote from Alfonso Cuaron’s Tribeca Talk this year, again via Lights Film School. He continues here on what movies are not about before concluding more on what they are about:

I love the mystery of cinema. It’s not about performance, it’s not about the script, 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. And it has to do with the use of the [directing] tools as a language.

Understand and Collaborate With the Actors

During the 2014 Reddit AMA, Alfonso Cuaron was asked how to help actors give the best they have. He answered, “Understand their process and allow them to find the character.”

One group of actors it’s helped him to understand for certain projects were child performers. From The Fairy Tale Site, here he talks about his experience with children in A Little Princess and the Harry Potter:

A film I did called A Little Princess was a great experience in terms of working with a great group of girls. One thing I learned was the amazing emotional understanding that kids have when they are into acting or into make believe. It’s not like they’re just making pretty faces or faking it; they go into real places and they’re willing. They have the understanding that it can be a game, in that you can make believe your character is in a lot of pain, but that you have the control of the make believe. With Harry Potter, I was so lucky that these three kids have done a couple of movies already, so they’ve got the whole technical experience. Now they want to take themselves seriously as actors, so pretty much they put themselves in your hands. They’re very eager and willing and courageous. They deliver really interesting performances. It’s a natural evolution in terms of what these characters are becoming.

Additionally, with regards to his work with actors, here he is in 2014 on how at least on a film like Gravity that Sandra Bullock was his “co-filmmaker”:

What We Learned

Alfonso Cuaron loves movies and loves making movies to the point where he can do well in Hollywood by finding the “movies for them” that are also movies for himself. He’s had bad experiences there, however, and he’s learned from them. He has a strong support and collaborative base that he hooked up with early on (and we didn’t even mention his friendship and creative partnerships with Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Innaritu), and now he’s passing on some of his lessons and wisdom to his son.

6 Filmmaking Tips From Guillermo del Toro

Not all that he’s imparted to his offspring and his audience of aspiring filmmakers is essential advice, however. Here’s a specific tip from Jonas in a 2013 interview with father and son for The Wrap: “When people ask me what I learned as a filmmaker from my dad, the main thing is to never do a movie in zero G.”

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.