In the wake of the Oscars and filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón win of both directing, cinematography, and best foreign language film, I noticed that there was very little discussion concerning that six of the last seven best directors were people of color (Cuarón for ROMA and GRAVITY, Guillermo del Toro for THE SHAPE OF WATER, Alejandro González Iñárritu for BIRDMAN and THE REVENANT, and Ang Lee for LIFE OF PI). Cuarón, along with del Toro and Iñárritu, are the “Three Amigos” who have been pushing storytelling boundaries since they came on the scene over two decades ago.
And while Cuarón’s work – his cinematic voice – has been honed through a series of startling films, the production of ROMA warrants further inspection, and these two articles from Frame.io and American Cinematographer give us a deep dive into the highly personal work (e.g., the close to 1000 hours to complete the DI and one of the most complex mixes Dolby had ever seen).
As with any narrative artist, Cuarón’s “voice” as a storyteller was honed through his writing, and how the writing is only the blueprint of the scene. At a BAFTA LA lecture, he talked about making Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN and the level of on-set improvisation.
It’s not about changing the nature of a scene, it’s about making it alive. I recognize as I am writing that I have my conception but then I’m going to be dealing with humans and they have their own ways of moving and talking. Sometimes the rhythm that I’m setting in the page is not… and by the way I am not Tarantino. Tarantino is amazing doing that, he is a writer that is about the rhythm of his dialogue. My approach is a different approach, it’s about trying to find the rhythm of the character.
In Y Tu Mama Tambien what often happened is that, Carlos (Cuaron, his brother and co-writer) and I are older than Gael (Garcia Bernal) and Diego (Luna) and they were used to making fun of our slang. And then they would change it into their slang and it was fantastic.
In Y Tu Mama Tambien what we would do for each scene we would say: we’re going to improvise one or two minutes before the scene begins, then we engage into the scene and where we are going to cut you can keep on improvising until I cut. And that improvisation sometimes would inform something that was already written but it was in the context of what was already there.
As a filmmaker (which I’ll distinguish from a “director” in that a filmmaker writes his/her material), Cuarón fully understands that the written word on the page needs to come alive and that those words are the guideposts for the actor who are the conduit that bring the story to life. Every director (and filmmaker) has their barometer for how much of the actual language of the script is said by the actors. For instance, Mike Leigh is famous for developing the “script” through months of improv/rehearsal.
It’s all a matter of taste (not “judgment” because that implies there is one right answer, and in art that is never the case) and how you, as the storyteller, want to tell the story.
When I approach a project, that I’ve written, my concern is injecting vitality in the performance; what’s written in the screenplay needs to be conveyed to the extent that narrative beats are deployed to the audience for clarity and plot-specifics, but how the actors get there… that’s they why I hired them to bring their magic to the sandbox.