Oscar-winning Alfonso Cuaron's advice to Singapore filmmakers: 'Don’t listen to me'
The multi award-winning Mexican filmmaker was in town to promote his Netflix Original Spanish-language film Roma, hailed as a 2019 Oscar frontrunner.
He made his name with 2001 sexy coming-of-age road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, helmed one of the best Harry Potter chapters in 2004’s The Prisoner of Azkaban, transfixed us with 2006’s apocalyptic Children of Men and delivered the Academy-award Best Picture in the form of 2013 sci-fi panic attack Gravity.
Last night (Dec 20) at the Filmgarde cinemas at Bugis+, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron shared with Singapore what has been billed as his most personal work yet with a theatrical screening of Roma – the much-celebrated, intimate, poetic portrait inspired by Cuaron’s own childhood in the Mexico City of the 1970s.
The film – Cuaron’s eighth – has been the buzz of the film industry ever since the Cannes Film Festival refused to allow a film distributed by a streaming platform to screen in competition. Roma has since gone on to win the the top prize – the Golden Lion – at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and recently added three Golden Globe nominations and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association best film accolade to the award season haul. The Netflix film is primed for an Academy Award Best Picture nomination, with the potential to make history by becoming the first foreign-language movie ever to win the big prize.
In a Q&A session with aspiring filmmakers and students in Singapore, Cuaron talked candidly about his black-and-white, semi-autobiographical film about a middle-class family and their domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City.
“We can talk technical, geeky stuff here right?” he quipped. “Look at all these faces, such geeks!”
The affable director, who also served as writer, cinematographer and editor of Roma, told the rapt audience why he chose to make such an intimate personal film after the box office-dominating, critic-wowing 3D spectacle that was Gravity.
“Age is one thing,” he explained with a laugh. "There is a point in your life where you come to terms with understanding who you are – that is cinematic standpoint.”
Cuaron went on to explain that “from a pragmatic standpoint” one has simply to look to the story by “my friend Guillermo del Toro about how films are like cereal boxes”.
“Yeah, that’s Guillermo!” he said of his fellow award-winning director with a laugh.
“When you’re a child, you eat the whole box of cereal just because of the promise of that little toy that is at the bottom of the box. So in that sense, in that metaphor, Gravity was the box of cereal. And I had a little toy that I could catch. At that point, it started to manifest in a lot of opportunities – to do bigger films with more budget.
“It was the moment I realised that, ‘Wow, I can cash this, and go back to my country, and do a film in my own terms, with the tools I’ve been learning throughout this journey!’”
His sage advice for aspiring filmmakers and film students?
“Don’t listen to me, that’s the first one,” he exclaimed to a roomful of laughter.
“I guess the only thing I can give is this: Don’t try to emulate. Don’t try to copy. I’m saying this because I think I made that mistake at some point in my career – to try to either be like some other filmmaker, or try to be commercial, or try to engage in some sort of ‘school of filmmaker’. But it’s about your own voice.”
He continued: “Your own voice is the most important. If you’re looking for commercial, that’s where the most commercial asset is that you have – your own voice. If you want to be artistic, that’s where your most important artistic asset is. If you want to be personal, obviously that’s where it is.”
Cuaron also believes that there is no greater school of cinema than film history.
“I’m not talking about film history that is from the 70s… I’m talking about film history from (the time of the) Lumiere brothers. It’s amazing to see the development of film language throughout the years. And it’s such a pleasure. I invite you guys to go and revisit it, or even visit for the first time, and learn about how these great masters did it in the early days. Because sometimes you think you’re doing something so original and then you realise that in the 1920s, it had been done many times already.
“It’s really refreshing. Because it challenges you.”