Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Iñárritu: How three friends from Mexico took over Hollywood

Aditya Mani Jha

Feb 27, 2019 13:54:12 IST

On an Oscars night marked by universally panned decisions (most notably Green Book’s baffling victory for Best Film), few would have begrudged Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Director for Roma, widely considered the best film of the year. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white, Roma is based on Cuarón’s own childhood in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. And though it missed out on a Best Film Oscar, Cuarón’s victory (and the Best Foreign-Language Film win) underlined just how far ahead of the pack it was in 2018.

 Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Iñárritu: How three friends from Mexico took over Hollywood

Yalitza Aparicio in a still from Roma

This is Cuarón’s second Best Director win, after his 2013 Oscar for the Sandra Bullock-starrer Gravity. Overall, five of the last six Best Director Oscars have gone to the amigos (Damien Chazelle being the exception in 2016) — Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu, often referred to as “the Three Amigos” of cinema. Del Toro won last year for The Shape of Water (and promptly sly-tweeted about winning for “my weird fish sex movie”), while Iñárritu won back-to-back Oscars in 2014 and 2015 for Birdman and The Revenant, respectively.

The dominance of the Three Amigos — at least in terms of critical acclaim and awards, if not the cash register — is a rare bright spot in an era where Hollywood continues to create templates rather than ideas, where phrases like “franchise potential” are often the death-knell for promising but commercially unappealing projects.

Given the amount of cross-pollination involved in their films (they have, in the past, edited, produced and rewritten each other’s works, dating back more than two decades), it’s remarkable how distinct each of their filmographies — and artistic styles — are.

(L) Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo Del Toro.

Cuarón started his career in the late 90s, with a pair of literary adaptations, films based on the classic novels A Little Princess and Great Expectations, respectively. His next project, 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too) was his breakthrough film, a profoundly subtle story that was part road film, part existential comedy, soaked through and through with raw eroticism. Every dialogue, every awkward silence, every wistful look exchanged in the film by its protagonists — Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), Luisa (Maribel Verdu) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) — follows one of Kurt Vonnegut’s much-cited rules of writing; it either reveals character or moves the action along. Cuarón landed a big Hollywood film on the strength of Y Tu Mamá También. This was 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which rapidly became the critics’ favourite among the three films in the franchise up until then. JK Rowling herself praised the film lavishly on her website, also revealing that she was a fan of Y Tu Mamá También.

Thematically, the three films in this period of Cuarón’s career — Azkaban, Children of Men (based on the dystopian PD James novel The Children of Men) and finally, 2013’s Gravity, are all high-octane thrillers where Everyman protagonists must escape prisons, literal or metaphorical, for the sake of life itself. In Azkaban, Sirius (Gary Oldman) must escape the titular prison. In Children of Men, Theo (Clive Owen) must escape a totalitarian regime’s enforcers in order to protect Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the first pregnant woman on Earth in 18 years. In Gravity, of course, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is trapped in outer space, her space shuttle blown to smithereens, and she’s in a literal race for her life.

And now there’s Roma, based on incidents and characters from Cuarón’s own childhood, with several shots echoing earlier moments from his past works, most often Y Tu Mamá También. The story follows Cleo, a live-in housekeeper of an upper middle-class family in Mexico City, and how despite their apparent closeness, the family cannot really understand parts of Cleo’s life. Unsurprisingly, some of the most incisive comments about Roma’s mastery came from del Toro (whose Twitter account is a gift that keeps on giving).

A still from the film Roma. Source: Twitter

A still from the film Roma. Source: Twitter

In a now-famous ten-point thread, del Toro begins by noting: “The opening shot suggests that earth (the shit-infested ground) and heaven (the plane) are irreconcilably far even if they are joined — momentarily — and revealed, by water (the reflection). All truths in Roma are revealed by water. These planes of existence, like the separation within classes in the household cannot be broached. The moments the family comes “closer” are fleeting... “She saved our lives” is promptly followed by “Can you make me a banana shake?” Del Toro then went on to draw parallels between Roma and Gravity, especially the latter’s climax where Dr Stone emerges out of the lake where her capsule lands, and she touches land for the first time since her ordeal in outer space.
Clearly, one’s amigos are one’s first and worthiest audience.

Apart from his bravura tweeting, del Toro has also been the most prolific of the Three Amigos, with three releases since 2013 and 10 films since his debut in 1993 (in roughly the same period, Cuarón has made six, for example). He is, quite simply, the Mozart of monster-lore, a filmmaker of seemingly limitless energy and exuberance, one whose imagery is viscerally thrilling and deeply contemplative at the same time.

After a pair of indie horror films in the 90s — Cronos and Mimic — del Toro made The Devil’s Backbone in 2001. This was perhaps the first film that married several signature del Toro traits: otherworldly beings, the psyche of children and fascism. These themes would be expanded upon magisterially in 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, one of del Toro’s best and surely one of the films of the 21st century so far. Set in an orphanage in 1939 against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone was the first among his films to receive near-universal acclaim. Much like Cuarón landed Azkaban after Y Tu Mamá También, del Toro helmed a pair of Hollywood action thrillers following The Devil’s Backbone.

Still from The Shape of Water, which won the Best Picture Oscar at the 90th Academy Awards

Still from The Shape of Water, which won the Best Picture Oscar at the 90th Academy Awards.

These two films — Blade II and Hellboy — were no run-of-the-mill gore-fests, however. They bore the del Toro hallmark prominently in every scene. Hellboy (2004) in particular was a magnificent achievement. Based on Mike Mignola’s acclaimed comics series, Hellboy showed the world that in the hands of a master, Hollywood’s excesses could not only be kept in check, but actually channelised to create a believable parallel universe; in this case, a universe where a team of mutants and “freaks” operated as the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, keeping the world safe from literal hell-beasts. Once again, authoritarianism was the ultimate villain (the Nazis and Rasputin, in this case) in a del Toro story. As the man himself explained in an interview, “I hate structure. I’m completely anti-structural in terms of believing in institutions. I hate them. I hate any institutionalised social, religious, or economic holding.”

These key del Toro themes — authoritarianism, parallel universes, prodigal children and monsters — would converge magisterially in 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Set in 1944, during the initial days of Franco’s Spain, this is the story of a young girl called Ofelia, who discovers she may be the second coming of Princess Moanna, the successor to the underworld, a place of deities and fantastic beings of all sizes and shapes. Among other things (like the absolutely mouth-watering cinematography on display), this film expertly linked parental tyranny with actual fascism by making the evil stepfather a General Franco loyalist, on the hunt for guerrilla rebels fighting the military government.

Sandra-Bullock-for-Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Gravity.

Perhaps the single most impressive thing about del Toro’s career has been his ability to create universes from scratch — this is abundantly clear in his more recent work, too, like the Gothic horror film Crimson Peak or the thrill-a-minute kaiju (a genre of Japanese horror movies involving gigantic monsters attacking modern-day cities) homage Pacific Rim. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Devil’s Backbone in 2001, “The Mexican director del Toro is a master of dark atmosphere, and the places in his films seem as frightening as the plots.”

All of which leaves us with the most enigmatic of the Amigos — Alejandro González Iñárritu, who’s made 6 full-length films (and a handful of shorts) in nearly 20 years of filmmaking. And what films they are — from the barnstorming, heartbreaking Amores Perros (2000), to the elegiac Biutiful (2010) (which earned an Oscar nomination for its leading man Javier Bardem) and his two Oscar-winners, the wickedly funny black comedy Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015), Iñárritu is the kind of filmmaker who takes massive risks at the structural level.

In his movies, disparate strands of plot weave in and out of view until they reveal their intricate linkages in an emotional crescendo. Both Amores Perros and his later masterpiece Babel (which starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal, among others) resemble interlinked short story cycles; to an extent, this is also true of Birdman, which has now become his signature work.

Michael Keaton in a still from Birdman.

Birdman follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a has-been Hollywood star who shot to fame playing Birdman (a meta-joke on Keaton’s stint as Batman in the Tim Burton films) and is now trying to build a reputation as a serious actor by adapting Raymond Carver’s famous short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway. Through the various characters in Thompson’s life — his daughter Sam, a recovering addict, the obnoxious method actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), his opportunistic best-friend-cum-producer Jake (Zac Galifianakis) and so on — we are introduced to the emptiness that pervades his life, as well as the perpetual agony of self-doubt as an artist.

Birdman, of course, grabbed headlines also because of the unique way it was shot — employing a combination of long takes, mirrors, light CGI and immaculate scene choreography, the film was made to look like it was shot in a single take. Emmanuel Lubezki would win an Oscar for the film’s cinematography — he had already won the previous year for Cuarón’s Gravity (just another example of the cross-pollination among the Amigos mentioned earlier).

Together, the three Amigos are a treasure for film buffs around the world. Perhaps just as importantly, they are vehicles for Mexican culture (Babel and Y Tu Mamá También tell us a lot about that part of the world and its intrinsic rhythms) and art, at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is at an all-time high in the US.

In a lovely joint interview with Charlie Rose in 2006, the three of them spoke warmly about their own and each other’s works, and in a telling moment, Cuarón described Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro), Children of Men (Cuarón himself) and Babel (Iñárritu) as sister films talking about walled-off human beings struggling to communicate with the Other, insisting that this was “neither casual nor a coincidence, because our creative processes are something that we share with one another.” While scripting, they are brutal with each other, Cuarón said, because the objective is to enhance the story as much as possible.

But while shooting, the Amigos “turn into a support group, because we all suffer so much during shoots”. And isn’t that the ideal friendship when you think about it — tough love when necessary and a security blanket when you’re at your most vulnerable?

Long may they live, the Amigos, for the world is a much better place with their art in it.

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Updated Date: Feb 27, 2019 13:54:12 IST