Alfonso Cuaron: The Cinematic Visionary's Skyward Spiral

Alfonso Cuaron on the set of ‘Gravity’/Photo © Warner Bros.

Alfonso Cuarón is a “movie visionary of the highest order,” critics say – and we need no more proof of his focus and endurance than the path he took to launch “Gravity.” Still in theaters, “Gravity” stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts working to return to Earth after a catastrophic accident. The acclaimed film holds a rating of 96 out of 100 on and is up for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Achievement in Visual Effects. It recently netted Cuarón his first Golden Globe as Best Director.

“Gravity” has a theme of adversity and rebirth, and it “rewrites the rules of cinema as we have known them,” said The New York Times, highlighting its spectacular use of 3-D. But the adoration runs deeper than dazzling visuals, New York magazine's Dan P. Lee notes: “With 'Gravity,' he has pushed, nearly to its end, an aesthetic that holds that stories are always artifice, that film can offer something else: a portal through which actors and audiences float into each other, through long, barely edited moments where the camera never cuts, and life in its randomness unfolds and comes at you with a start.”

For Cuarón, who once dreamed of becoming an astronaut after watching the Apollo moon landings on TV, seeing the film completed is its own reward. The fifty-two-year-old and his son Jonas, thirty, hashed out the script for “Gravity” after the elder Cuarón finished the sci-fi drama “Children of Men” (2006). But the pieces took time to gel. Cuarón needed to wait for the technology to develop to depict realistic movement in space; he also had to secure studio backing and the right cast. Once greenlit and shot, the film spent more than a year in post-production. “How do you eat an elephant?” Cuarón has said of the process. “One spoonful a day.”

Since opening in October, the film has grossed more than $266 million in the United States, making it the biggest financial success of Cuarón's career. Admirers notice seeds of “Gravity” in his earlier works, featuring long takes inspired by the French New Wave. The opening scene in “Gravity,” for instance, lasts roughly twelve minutes from an establishing view of Earth to the moment Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone, detaches from a structure she's repairing.

“It is not only about space physically, but it’s about the interior space, and that dance of the two,” friend and fellow director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) has said. Cuarón has said that he wanted to make the audience a “third astronaut” in the film through the camera: “The audience is floating in space, following these characters who are bonded by the loss of physics in zero gravity, floating and rolling and spinning. The idea is to immerse the audience so that your emotional experience is projected onto the screen in a primal way.”

Born in Mexico City, Cuarón soaked up “hundreds of films” as a child, ranging from Steve McQueen action flicks to artier fare from Robert Altman. “I knew early on that I was a nerd and that films were my refuge,” he's said. He tried film school in Mexico, but he was expelled before graduation. He found work on local television shoots before he and his younger brother, Carlos, caught the attention of late director and producer Sydney Pollack with their original dark comedy, “Love in the Time of Hysteria” (1991). Pollack hired Cuarón for the noir-themed cable-TV series “Fallen Angels” (1993), which led to his feature-length Hollywood directing debut, 1995's adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel A Little Princess. Critics praised Cuarón's “keen sense of magic realism” in this tale of a free-spirited girl at a strict boarding school, as well as the film's “visual splendor and touching storytelling.”

After his adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expextations (1998) fell flat, Cuarón reunited with his younger brother to write another original screenplay, 2001's “Y Tu Mamá También.” Cuarón directed the film, released unrated in the U.S., about two Mexican youths (Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal) and their road trip with an attractive older woman (Maribel Verdú). It was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Part travelogue, part road picture, part meditation on class, mortality and intimacy, this extraordinary little movie might be the perfect harbinger of summer, as astute as it is steamy,” the Washington Post said of the art-house hit.

To some surprise, Cuarón next directed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), the third installment in J.K. Rowling's popular book series about the boy wizard. The “poetic” touch he'd demonstrated in his previous films proved a good match for the material. “This is a luminous movie -- luminous, imaginative and affecting,” critics said.

Cuarón earned more accolades with 2006's “Children of Men,” an adaptation of P.D. James's novel about an infertile future where a former activist (Clive Owen) protects a pregnant woman. He was one of five writers on the Oscar-nominated screenplay, but critics especially took note of his “groundbreaking style” in long takes during a disastrous car ride and at the film's climax. “Children of Men works on every level: as a violent chase thriller, a fantastical cautionary tale, and a sophisticated human drama about societies struggling to live,” reviewers said.

Cuarón's post-“Gravity” projects are more down-to-earth but no less ambitious. He's the creator and executive producer of “Believe,” a series slated for NBC about a girl with special abilities. He's also attached to “Tales from the Hanging Head,” an anthology of folk tales linked by the theme of metamorphosis. Other directors on the project include Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Sara Driver (“Broken Flowers”), who wrote the screenplay.

Whether he repeats his current success, he's enjoying how his cinematic vision evolves. “There were times when it felt as though everything and everyone was conspiring against the process,” he's said of “Gravity.” “But the thing about adversities is that they force you out of your comfort zone. The bad outcome is that you might drift into the void, but the other outcome is that you might gain amazing tools for growth and knowledge.”