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Cinematic brethren to the core

Mexican filmmakers - and Oscar nominees - Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro have led eerily parallel lives.

By WASHINGTON POST
Published February 11, 2007


Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro are chatting, as they usually do, over the phone, reminiscing about their friendship of 20-plus years.

Since starting out in Mexican television, their lives and careers have intertwined uncannily through the years, from their auspicious debuts (Cuaron's Love in the Time of Hysteria and Del Toro's Cronos) through their biggest hits (Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; Del Toro's Blade II).

And now, with their usual symmetry, Cuaron - 45, handsome, soft-spoken - and Del Toro - 42, generously built, voluble, with a Puckish gleam in the blue eyes peering from behind owlish glasses - have nearly simultaneously delivered two of the most powerful, assured, inventive and exhilarating movies of the past year.

In Children of Men, Oscar-nominated for adapted screenplay, Cuaron reimagines a futuristic P.D. James novel as an eerily resonant portrait of dystopian contemporary global politics. The thriller, starring Clive Owen, unfolds as a classic chase movie while slyly subverting the genre, and contains some of the bravura camera work and production design that makes names like Welles and Kubrick leap to mind.

With Pan's Labyrinth, Oscar-nominated for original screenplay, Del Toro integrates two of his lifelong fascinations: monsters and the Spanish Civil War. A richly textured parable about a young girl who resists her Fascist stepfather by retreating into an often frightening fantasy life, Pan's Labyrinth is a lyrical, Gothic, ultimately deeply moving defense of the artistic imagination, a dreamscape populated by a faun, an enormous toad and a fairylike dragonfly, among several other surreal creatures.

Similar paths

Although in many ways the two films couldn't be further apart, they share an adamantly humanistic sensibility, distrust of ideology, uncompromising vision and a breathtaking use of cinematic grammar. Neither film could be described as a "feel good" movie, but to anyone who cares deeply about cinema at its most fully realized and vital, that's precisely what they are.

"What is scary is that most of the time we're going through the same things," says Del Toro in a Washington hotel room. He is dressed entirely in black, his ever-present leather-bound journal, full of crabbed notes and fantastical sketches, at his side. "Personally, with our families, as guys or creatively. It's like two girls on the phone with one saying, 'I just bought these shoes' and the other girl saying, 'Oh, I just bought them, too!' " (Cuaron and Del Toro are both married; Cuaron has three children, Del Toro two.)

But sometimes those shoes can pinch, and even two promising careers can go into slumps - simultaneously, of course. In 1998 Del Toro, fresh from the unpleasant experience (read: studio interference) of directing Mimic, called Cuaron, who was in New York after making an un-great adaptation of Great Expectations.

Cuaron, who was in town a week earlier (there's that symmetry again), has joined the conversation by phone from Seattle.

"I tell you, the only time we drifted apart was the time we both drifted creatively," he tells Del Toro.

"The only time we drifted apart from ourselves, actually," Del Toro adds. "I remember that conversation so vividly. That's when I told you, 'Listen, we just ate a whole box of cereal. Now let's get the prize.' Remember?"

Cuaron: "I remember, yes. We were coming to the same conclusions about how we were losing contact with ourselves and we were trying to reconnect with the reason we loved cinema in the first place."

Del Toro: "And I said, 'Let's go get a toy for ourselves and do a movie we love.' "

Back on track

The movies they loved turned out to be movies that viewers and critics loved, too. Released in 2001, Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien and Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone represented major breakthroughs for both filmmakers, who had received respect from critics and fans until that point but whose movies were largely genre exercises.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother, Too) was a warm, sexy, bittersweet coming of age tale that introduced the young actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal to an adoring public. It became an art house hit that year and earned Cuaron an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. The Devil's Backbone focused on a group of young boys who, against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, band together to keep a Fascist soldier from stealing a cache of Republican gold.

Both films were hailed as the most serious and personal movies of the filmmakers' careers and put the two men back on track artistically and personally. Since that time they've each made huge commercial and critical hits and, perhaps most important, they haven't gone more than a few days without speaking with each other.

At the start

A week before their telephone conversation, Cuaron was explaining how he met Del Toro. They were both trying to break into the film business working on a Mexican television series, Hora Marcada, Cuaron as an assistant director and Del Toro, who had studied makeup effects with Exorcist makeup wizard Dick Smith, as a special effects technician. Cuaron had just directed his first episode when Del Toro confronted him in an office waiting room.

"Everyone's talking about how he's a genius and I'm, like, jealous of him," Cuaron says. After they were introduced, Del Toro told Cuaron that the episode he had directed was ripped off from a Stephen King short story. Then he said he had read Cuaron's upcoming scripts and told him, "Why do your episodes suck so much?"

Cuaron didn't miss a beat. "I just started laughing like crazy," he recalls, "and said, 'I don't know; what do you think?' "

("I don't know why I said that, it was probably early Tourette's," Del Toro says later, a comment that elicits yet another belly laugh from Cuaron.)

Thus were the parameters set for a friendship that, for all its warmth and intimacy, would also have its share of conflict.

A cinematic triumvirate

The two men, along with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose Babel is an Oscar nominee for best director and best picture, constantly ask each other's opinions - about whether to take on a project, about scripts, edits, endings - then argue with gusto until someone wins.

"I cannot move to the next step without consulting and checking with the two of them," Cuaron says of Del Toro and Inarritu. "So when I finish a script, I pretty much need their blessing or their toughest comments."

The comments can get pretty tough. "They do not hold back," says Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, which produced Pan's Labyrinth. Berney also masterminded the marketing of Y Tu Mama Tambien when he was at IFC Films.

"It goes the other way, too. They're really complimentary. But they're really hilariously funny and argumentative and completely honest, which is refreshing. I love that in a super-competitive environment; they can be really honest with each other, which is hard to do in Hollywood, where it's usually all fake compliments and backstabbing. They somehow keep that relationship they had early on the same, even now that they're major players."

At the movies

See for yourself

Pan's Labyrinth and Babel are showing at numerous bay area theaters; Children of Men is not currently showing. (Babel is due out on DVD on Feb. 20. No date is set for the other films.)