Alfonso Cuaron downplays exhaustion with a jovial smile, but the 42-year-old director has every right to be tired. In recent days, he’s not only dealt with thousands of pubescent fans screaming from policed barricades and sat down with hundreds of hungry journalists to promote his latest film, but the hardest challenge for Cuaron? Placating a jet-lagged one-and-a-half year old.
“She wakes up at 3:30 in the morning,” Cuaron says. He’s hardly complaining. Cuaron has years of experience with children, raising a 21-year-old son currently attending Vassar, having worked with child actors in “A Little Princess” and the film he’s promoting today in New York City. You might have heard of it: a flick starring some boy wizard attending some school of magic in some far off land. Cuaron means to discuss the latest cinematic adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s beloved series, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” but in the here and now, he’s recounting the trials and tribulations of raising kids.
“You just don't deal with it,” he says of the huge age gap separating his two children. “It is like those 20 years just didn't happen. It’s crazy. Now my son is carrying a baby and it’s like, ‘Oops, I could be a grandfather.’”
Long before his first son was born, Alfonso Cuaron was simply a boy with dreams. Studying film in college, he jumped immediately into television production, working as a technician and soon as assistant director for Latin projects like “Romero.” “Solo Con Tu Pareja” in 1991 not only marked his true directorial debut, but a jumpstart to his career. The film - about a businessman dealing with AIDS - caught the eye of director Sydney Pollack, who hired Cuaron to direct an episode of the Showtime series “Fallen Angels.” In 1995, Cuaron directed the acclaimed big-screen adaptation of “A Little Princess,” which critics hailed as a faithful, heartwarming adaptation of a beloved classic. Recently, Cuaron became known less for children’s film and more for his recent mature cinematic forays.
In Y Tu Mama Tambien Cuaron examined the boundaries of friendship between two best friends who - with one explosive, inebriated kiss - cross them. The film was hailed for its cinematic mastery, handling an exploration into sexuality in a tasteful manner. So when producers approached him to direct “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban,” Cuaron raised an eyebrow.
He was not alone. Many Harry Potter fans expressed doubt; message boards were rife with fans questioning the direction Cuaron would take beloved characters like Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Some joked he would turn Harry Potter into another sexually charged Y Tu Mama Tambien.
“I was a little surprised at the beginning. I didn't know about Harry Potter. I knew that there were movies and about the huge success of Harry Potter, but I had never read the books. But when I read the script, it made me want to do it and when I read the books I thought, I have to do this movie. It’s just the material, the material is so great.” Cuaron had a big task ahead of him, following in the established footsteps of Columbus, crafting a film that remained faithful to the book and passed muster with millions of screaming muggles. Did he feel the heat? He shrugs easily and chuckles, likening the experience of succeeding Columbus to cooking without having to shop first.
“Chris put together the whole series. He put together the kitchen, went and bought the different ingredients, and cooked a couple of meals; then left me to cook a third meal. So, I had the kitchen and the elements in place already.”
Cuaron took those elements, built upon Columbus’ foundation and left his own lasting trademark. His unique directorial style is evident throughout “Prisoner of Azkaban.” The film maintains a frenzied pace. Cuaron infuses a kinetic energy into scenes: when Harry takes the Knight Bus through the busy streets of London, it’s probably the trippiest bus ride you’ll ever see.
“It [the film] is different because Chris and I … we are two different minds. Different virtues, different philosophies, and different approaches. I just embarked on to this from the standpoint that I know. It is not trying to do things differently or the same, it was just try to do things the best way you know how to do them.” Doing exactly that involved working with talented child actors not only accustomed to working with a different director, but currently experiencing growing pains - handling them involved a deft touch. In order to get the reactions he wanted, Cuaron appealed to their interests. For actor Daniel Radcliffe who plays Harry, that meant appealing to his teenage crush on Cameron Diaz. In one scene which needed the actor to be shocked, Cuaron made it simple: imagine Diaz in a G-String.
“That got out!” Cuaron exclaims with a hearty laugh. “I don't believe in being very precious when you are dealing with kids… Kids hate to be patronized. They just want to be treated like anybody else. They know if I have an argument with someone it’s just adults having a stupid argument, you know? That is the relationship I had with them, it was just to be very straight. I had to restrain my language a little bit, because I have a very foul mouth. I had to restrain my language in English, but I would say things in Spanish. Actually, they learned quite a lot of curses in Spanish. But that was the only thing and even if I cursed… They've heard it before. That was the only point of disadvantage in our relationship, that they would curse and I couldn't!”
The result is a film with some of the best performances Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have done to date, actors who, as they become more and more accustomed to fame and their own skins – feel truly at home with their characters. Cuaron, as he did with “A Little Princess” and yes, even with Y Tu Mama Tambien, works magic. Which leaves the bar raised even higher for Cuaron’s successor. Unlike Columbus, Cuaron will not return to direct the next film – Mike Newell (“Mona Lisa Smile”) has been tapped as his replacement. Cuaron remains steadfast in his decision not to direct the next film.
“I immediately said, ‘impossible!’ I don't know how Chris did it. Or Peter Jackson on “Lord of the Rings.” I don't know, I'm too lazy for that!”
But Cuaron doesn’t discount the possibility of directing another installment in the future. After all, there are still three books left in the series after “Goblet.”
“I would love to. And if they have the same cast, then more than anything. I so much enjoyed working with these guys.”
For now though, he plans to take some time off once the film hits theaters and press junkets ebb. What’s the first thing he plans to do?
“Guess? I'm going to sleep.”
-- J.P. Mangalindan
Dont't forget to also check out: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban