- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

In a story for this column two years ago headlined “The stories of three amigos,” I talked to three directors about their strangely collaborative friendship in the competitive world of filmmaking.

Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro all had critically acclaimed films come out within months of one another — “Children of Men,” “Babel” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The directors, all in their 40s and hailing from Mexico, are good friends who provide very constructive feedback for one another, whether it’s giving advice on scripts or cutting 10 minutes out of one another’s films. The frankly gushing way they spoke about one another’s work was unlike anything I had ever seen in the business.

While “The Three Amigos” seemed a fitting title for the Spanish-speaking trio, it has turned out to be wrong — there’s now a fourth amigo, one who always shared that collegial friendship but has just started making feature films of his own.

Carlos Cuaron’s Mexican dramedy “Rudo y Cursi” opens in theaters here today. The film reunites actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal for the first time since 2002’s surprise international hit “Y tu mama tambien,” a sexy road movie directed by Alfonso Cuaron that earned a screenwriting Oscar nomination for both brothers.

Carlos Cuaron, during a recent stop in the District, says he never planned to become a director like his older brother. He decided at the age of 14 to become a writer and studied English literature at the Unversidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. “I thought of myself, in the future obviously, as a novelist, an intellectual, surrounded probably by boring people like politicians and diplomats,” he remembers. “Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and that didn’t happen because Alfronso introduced me to filmmaking. At some point, he said, ‘You want to be a writer; help me write the scripts for the things I want to do.’”

That collaboration led to a career of his own. He went to Hollywood and earned a good living writing scripts that, as happens often in Tinseltown, never got made into films.

“In the mid-‘90s, I was one day having dinner with Alfonso and Guillermo,” he recalls. “I was depressed, and Guillermo asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I write all these scripts, they don’t get produced, and it’s like giving birth to dead babies, and it’s terrible.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you direct them?’ It was too obvious to him, but not for me.”

He had never gone to film school, as his brother had, so he made eight short films before tackling his first feature. Mr. Cuaron, 42, also wanted to see if he actually liked directing. He did.

As a writer, Mr. Cuaron already had established relationships with the two amigos he calls “also my big brothers.” He met Mr. del Toro, then a makeup artist, when he and Alfonso Cuaron were working on a Mexican television series not unlike “The Twilight Zone.”

He met Mr. Inarritu when the director asked him to be literary coordinator for a series on which he was working. (“I agreed, with the condition he’d let me direct one of the scripts,” the writer relates.) “There was an instant click there,” he says. “We were not afraid of admitting we admired each other.”

Then Mr. Inarritu met the other Cuaron brother, in Los Angeles. It almost sounds like a four-handed romance. “The moment these two guys met, again there was instant chemistry,” he says. “They’re both very intense and were directors.”

Finally, Mr. del Toro and Mr. Innaritu met. The latter called the former to get his opinion on a film. The two had never met, but the better-known Mr. del Toro showed up the next day at Mr. Innaritu’s Mexican home — all the way from the United States, shocking the director when he opened the door — and spent five days in the cutting room with him.

“It’s strange, but that’s how we operate,” Mr. Cuaron says.

The four amigos are quick to congratulate each other on their successes, but fellow filmmakers aren’t always so friendly. The four have put Mexican filmmaking back on the map, but not everyone in the country seems grateful for it.

“In a country like Mexico, we have both sides of the coin — people proud about that and people very jealous and trashing on us,” he says. “Sometimes they talk too much, and you can read it in the newspapers. Stupid comments like, ‘They are great, but what they are doing is not Mexican films.’ What does that mean?”

He continues: “We believe in good films. We don’t believe in adjectives, like women’s films or gay films or American films versus British films. We just make movies. We try to make good movies. That doesn’t happen always, obviously. But it’s not about nationalities or stuff like that.”

Writing off the criticism from his compatriots as “jealousy,” he observes: “I actually believe the only country in the world that forgives success is the U.S. Because it’s all about that, competition and being successful. In a country like Mexico, where we don’t have that many role models in terms of success, people identify much more with the underdog or the loser.”

The reel Brazil

Documentary lovers have a good weekend ahead of them. The Oscar-nominated “The Garden” opens at area theaters (see review at right). And the Embassy of Brazil and the Smithsonian Latino Center are presenting the film festival Il Reel Time Brazil today through Sunday.

The minifest comprises five documentaries that highlight Brazilian culture through the stories of some of its icons. Three of the films have never been seen in the U.S., while the other two are making their District debut. The opening-night film is “Palavra (en) cantada” (“The Enchanted Word”), winner of the best-doc award at last year’s Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival. It looks at how the work of singers, songwriters and poets can feed on one another.

The festival is free and includes appearances by directors and special guests. The opening-night film will be shown at the Hirshhorn Museum, while the rest will be screened at the Greenberg Theater at 4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW. A schedule can be found at www.brasilemb.org.

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