When Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki (known affectionately by his friends as Chivo) were teenagers growing up in Mexico City, they’d occasionally bump into each other at parties and cineclubs. They developed a mutual respect and later on — when they attended the same film school, the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC) — the two became close friends. As young kids who hung out and talked about the music they loved, what the future held for them — collaborating on a pair of TV shows, six feature films, and winning Oscars for the space odyssey Gravity — was completely unimaginable. This is especially the case since the pair didn’t even finish their studies at CUEC. The details are fuzzy but depending on who you ask, the two were either “asked to leave” or left of their own accord after making the short Vengeance Is Mine. Back in 1983, their choice to shoot the film in English created a stir with their teachers and school’s administration. As a result, Chivo and Cuarón never officially graduated.
The rebellious duo went on to shake up the industry with their creative pursuits both inside of Mexico and in Hollywood. It’s a not-quite-rags, but definitely to-riches story that’s worthy of a movie itself. Albeit not likely the kind of film that writer-director Cuarón would pen or that Chivo, the record holder of the most consecutive cinematography Oscars ever, would want to lens. But at a recent event during the Tribeca Film Festival, we got something even better. Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki came together at the SVA Theater to chat about their friendship, their careers, and to recount hilarious anecdotes from their more than three decades of filmmaking collaborations. After their talk ended, we caught up with Cuarón in the green room to dive even more deeply into his thoughts on his personal and professional relationship with Chivo. Hit play on the video up top to see our interview with Alfonso and read the highlights from his conversation with Chivo below.
On How They First Met
CHIVO: I met Alfonso a long, long time ago before you were all born, and he was a skinny, hippie-ish looking guy and he went to most of the same parties that I went to.
CUARÓN: We were like sixteen maybe? Fifteen?
CHIVO: But I used to see him in parties talking to a big group of girls, and then I would see him in this cinema that was called the CUC, and this cinema in Mexico was the place where we could see what here they call “foreign films.” And after each projection he would be outside talking to the same group of girls. He would be talking about things that were very mysterious to me like the use of color in Antonioni’s movies. He was a young teenager talking about things that I didn’t even know mattered to filmmakers or directors, and I wanted to ask you: where did you come from? [audience laughs] How did that happen so early?
“I knew since I was six that I wanted to be a film director.”
CUARÓN: Actually, I remember the first time I saw him. Because people talked about Chivo. In Mexico, chivo means goat. So it was already a thing I wanted to meet Chivo. It was a similar situation, but mostly it was about music. He was with a group of girls talking about music. And then what happened is that there was a byproduct of the Latin American dictatorships, particularly in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, is that there were a lot of immigrants from South America, particularly from those countries. And a great byproduct was the girls. And at that time it was the new hot girls who had just arrived, and who immediately got…
CHIVO: Alfonso, but how did you become a filmmaker… [audience laughs]
CUARÓN: Because I was watching a lot of movies and reading a lot things about that stuff.
CHIVO: And you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker then?
CUARÓN: I knew since I was six that I wanted to be a film director. But when I met you — he used to have a rock group called Las Aves de Rapiña — and I remember that the reason I was kind of attracted to Chivo is that he was talking and he was pretty much trashing all the music everyone was listening too. And I love his musical taste. I remember talking about Frank Zappa, I discovered Talking Heads because of you. And then I started going to film school and you entered the year after.
CHIVO: Well, I wanted to be a still photographer but there was no art school. The art school was in political turmoil, so I ended up going to film school.
On Learning Filmmaking From Each Other
CHIVO: Alfonso was probably the most important teacher in my life. I became your gaffer when you were a cinematographer, and then your boom man when we started working professional and you were a sound mixer.
CUARÓN: Well that was for survival, but yeah. But it’s true, he worked as a gaffer when I was doing this film, and it was clear that he understood this whole thing way better than me.
Cuarón on Chivo’s Strengths and Weaknesses
CUARÓN: By the way, Chivo in one of these films was my second AD, and as great a DP as he is, he’s the worst second AD. The DP was an amazing Hungarian cinematographer, and Chivo was just looking at how he place the lights. “Chivo! The catering!”
CHIVO: That was the first movie where I called action, and I cried that day. “Ready! Camera! Action!” And as they started shooting, I started to weep.
On Working Together on La Hora Marcada Mexico’s Version of the Twilight Zone
“I think that’s important in our relationship, that there’s a level of honesty that can be brutal.”
CUARÓN: Chivo sometimes makes these comments and you don’t know if he’s pulling your leg or if he’s actually genuinely serious or concerned, or if he’s mocking you. But one day we were looking for locations for the show, and he said, “What do you want to do after this? Do you want to direct soaps?” And I said, “Why?” And it was the same company that produced all the soaps, “I see that you’re so committed here that maybe that’s your thing, and that’s fine.” But he completely shook my ground because suddenly I realized, “Wow, I’m getting a bit too comfy here.”
CHIVO: I think that’s important in our relationship, that there’s a level of honesty that can be brutal. Like Alfonso will see me lighting and he’ll come around and say, “Is this really your lighting?” And I’ll say, “Is this your shitty blocking?” But usually when he approaches and he makes that comment, he’s 100% right.
CUARÓN: That relationship is fantastic, and I remember because that time I got offended when he told me that. But my reaction to that offense was to start writing a screenplay for a feature film. But that’s the thing, there’s these little comments, and I’m not sure how genuinely curious you were or not, but it was the right comment, coming from the right person at the right moment that turns everything in a different direction.
Chivo on Reading Cuarón’s First Script and Dealing With a Diva
CHIVO: So one day I get a call and Alfonso says, “Chivo, I’m going to direct a feature, and it’s called Solo con tu pareja. And this is a serious film so we cannot blow this.” And he said, “Please read the script.” And I think that weekend I was shooting a commercial or something so I couldn’t read it, so he called me on Monday and said “I can’t believe it, you haven’t called me back. If you don’t want to do it, I’ll do it with somebody else,” like a big diva. But what I realized was how serious and how important this was for you. And from that moment I took it very, very seriously.
Cuarón On Feeling Like an Impostor
“I think he’s confused now, because he’s worked with many, many directors because DPs are hookers.”
CUARÓN: We came here [NY] to do color correction, and we didn’t know anything about color correction and pretty much anything about New York. We were just today remembering about that time in New York, it was right before going to the Toronto Film Festival and it’s this timing where on one hand you’re really nervous and you don’t know what’s going to happen with the festival and the future of your film, but it’s this thing of saying, well, “I feel like an impostor. I’m fooling someone here. And I’m here now in New York doing the color correction and going to Toronto, but I have no idea how to do this.” And I still have this feeling.
On Their First Hollywood Shoot and Why DPs are Like Hookers
CUARÓN: I arrive [to the set of Fallen Angels] and the first thing is “Alan Rickman wants to talk to you,” and I was terrified of Alan. So I went to Alan’s trailer and said, “Yes, Alan?” And he just gave me the most amazing pep talk: “I’m here for you, all the actors are here for you, we believe in you.” He gave me the most beautiful pep talk, and I said, “Okay.” And I walk out and David comes and says, “Where are we starting?” and I said, “We’re going to repeat yesterday.” And he says, “No you can’t because it’s five days and you’re already far behind” —
CHIVO: Let me just say something really fast — Alfonso has done that many times. We go the first day, we shoot, we’re on a budget, we’re on a schedule and he says, “I didn’t like it.” So we have to go back the second day and reshoot and it’s a long conversation.
CUARÓN: I think he’s confused now, because he’s worked with many, many directors because DPs are hookers. [audience laughs]
CHIVO: No, it’s true, you re-shoot a lot.
CUARÓN: Who re-shoots more, me or Alejandro [Iñárritu]?
CHIVO: Hmmmm. He re-shoots more than you.
On the Lazy Mexican Stereotype
CUARÓN: My best memory of that shoot was the producer, Steve Golin — he is an amazing producer. Chivo used to take his time, and Golin was just laying down on the floor with his head against the wall, and he was desperate, and so he exploded. In the middle of the whole thing he screams, “You Mexicans are so slow!” And then he realized that he had made a very politically incorrect comment, and everybody on the set was quiet. And I just walked up to him very angry, and yelling at him I said, “We Mexicans are not slow! We’re lazy, it’s different!” [audience bursts into laughter] And then we became friends.
Chivo on Filming A Little Princess and Watching Cuarón Mature as a Director
“I saw one of the greatest moments of Alfonso improvising, like a jazz player at the top of his game.”
CHIVO: There’s a moment in that movie that we’re shooting and the little princess wakes up because she realizes that she’s in the middle of a tornado of flowers and petals, and those petals take her to see this Indian man. That must mean something that you will explain to me later. But we didn’t have money to do this, and you were very upset about it because the producers just came and said, “There are no petals.” And I saw the most amazing, one of the greatest moments of Alfonso improvising, like a jazz player at the top of his game. He said, “I don’t give a shit! Fuck!” [slams table] and he opened the window and put snow, and suddenly in one hour he figured out my favorite scene of the movie, and it’s improvised. And I think it’s only possible because you were a mature filmmaker at that point.
Cuarón On Realizing Great Expectations Was a Failure and Looking to His Favorite Films for Inspiration
CUARÓN: That film was a turning point for me. After that film I was not happy. I was living in New York, I went to World of Video or maybe it was Video City on Greenwich and I rented like 20 VHS tapes of the films that made me want to make films in the first place. And that’s when I realized, I’ve been missing point. By seeing all those things I had taken for granted, I realized: one thing is the foremost, most important thing is cinema, and that’s language. That’s when I said, ok let’s starts from scratch. And that’s when I called you to do Y tu mamá también. [audience claps] We talked about let’s do the film that we would have done before we went to film school.
Cuarón on Chivo’s Reputation as the Slowest Guy on Earth
CUARÓN: Chivo still has the record in the UK of the biggest lighting package ever used in the UK industry. That’s Sleepy Hollow, if you’ve seen it. It looks awesome, but yeah it’s a lot of lights. He’s got the reputation of using the most lights and being the slowest guy on the planet earth.
On the Origins of Y tu mamá también
“He’s got the reputation of using the most lights and being the slowest guy on the planet earth.”
CUARÓN: At the same time I was trying contrived realities and stuff, in your own thing you were trying all this stuff to hide where we came from. Just to come back to, “now we mastered, and it’s not about this, it’s about language. And it’s not about looking pretty, it’s about looking right. It’s not even about looking, it’s about this whole thing of cinema that’s a mystery. And I love the mystery of cinema. It’s not about performance, it’s not about screenplay, it’s not about cinematography, it’s not about music, it’s not about editing. It’s about what gels everything together and suddenly clicks and gives you that experience. And it has to do with the use of the tools as a language, not the great shots or scenes or moments. How you want to narrate your story. And that was the beginning of the conversations of Y tu mamá también.
CHIVO: Something that was very important is that this movie was very personal in a way. And even though we didn’t go through exactly these same stories, we knew people like that, and we knew the places, and we knew the social-political context of the place. And that was very important for the movie, with all the voiceover talking about what’s happening in Mexico.
What’s important about this movie for me is that it’s probably the one I like the most. I’m not sure, but it’s a movie that I also can watch again — and I just did because we did a Criterion version of the movie, and I enjoyed it very much. I knew Diego [Luna] since he was a little kid, and all these places, and the beach; it was very personal. And after this movie Alfonso, you left me and you went to do Harry Potter.
Chivo On Turning Down Harry Potter
CUARÓN: “Hey Chivo, I’m going to do Harry Potter. C’mon, let’s go. Come here and let’s do it together.” Chivo: “No, I’m doing A Series of Unfortunate Events and it’s going to be a bigger franchise.” [crowd laughs] Me: “Okay.”
CHIVO: No what really happened is that we have families, and I had to stay with my family. And I also honestly didn’t want to do a movie that had an established look… When I saw the movie, I was very moved. I almost felt like a brother or an aunt or a cousin that was looking at the work of somebody you love. And it was very moving. It was incredible to see that you had matured to that level and you had created such a complex movie.