Highlights from Alfonso Cuaron’s BAFTA screenwriting lecture

On Sunday, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron stopped by BAFTA’s London headquarters to talk about his career and his screenwriting process – and here are all the interesting things I learned.

I didn’t know much about Cuaron as a person but he was a very nice, warm man with a brilliant sense of humour. Like Taika Waititi, he wasn’t prepared for the lecture portion of the event (to be honest, it seemed like he hadn’t been briefed on the structure of it at all) so after standing at the podium for less than five minutes he asked for the onstage Q&A portion to begin.

That’s some of the most interesting stuff I learned during his talk:

– Despite his illustrious, award-winning career, Cuaron still doesn’t think he’s “got it” and will be happy if he does one scene that is good

– He worked hard on the screenplay for Y Tu Mama Tambien and thought everything out but used it more as an “amazing safety net” that they could come back to after doing some improvisation

– He realised he can’t be too strict with sticking to script as sometimes the rhythm of his writing doesn’t fit exactly with the actor and he needs their input to bring it to life

– He remembers Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal making fun of the slang Cuaron and his brother Carlos had written in the script, but now the younger generation make fun of the slang that Luna and Garcia Bernal used in the movie

– Cuaron didn’t read P.D. James’ novel Children of Men before co-writing and directing the movie – all he read was a one-page synopsis. He didn’t want to, but his co-writer Timothy Sexton read it and they realised it had nothing to do with what they wanted to do, so they made something totally different. A screenplay that was loyal to the book already existed but they did their own thing

– He finds doing research can be dangerous because you can fall down a neverending hole. Cuaron cited the project he was working on before Roma – a piece set 200,000 years ago with early humans – he did so much research and became so obsessed with getting all the information in that he got lost and it was dry and he couldn’t find the angle. He plans to go back to it

– He found it a joy to do Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and work with a franchise so beloved. He wanted to focus more on the characters than the fantastical elements. It was challenging for him in terms of scope and he called it “my kindergarten for visual effects”. He had tried to get Children of Men off the ground before HP but was turned down, but managed to get the green light after he had that to his name.

– With Gravity, Cuaron and his son Jonas, who co-wrote it, wanted to tell an intimate story with a big scope and convey information and emotion without talking about them, unlike what usually happens in his movies

– They were so constrained by the technology, timing and the rhythms that there no space to improv

– Jonas wanted it to just be Sandra Bullock‘s character on her own for the whole film, but Cuaron came up with the idea of including George Clooney

– Usually, he writes the first draft of his screenplays within three weeks and goes back for rewrites, but for Roma, he just wrote that one draft and didn’t show it to anybody except one guy for insurance purposes. He knew showing it to others would sidetrack his thoughts and he wanted to keep it pure as it’s personal

– When he’s writing a script, Cuaron doesn’t think about the directing at all because he wants to be free as a storyteller. He doesn’t consider technical aspects when writing as he doesn’t want to be constrained but he will be as descriptive as possible in the script – and he illustrated this by showing us a very detailed page from Roma, which described how the music should fit in with the action

– He cannot start writing a script until he has the main beats, the main conflict and an idea about where it is going clear in his mind. He would feel insecure if he didn’t have those in the beginning. The rest is about finding the flow.

– He doesn’t listen to advice from producers, investors etc. He joked that he just listens and nods and tells them they have “great ideas” before ignoring their suggestions and doing what he was going to do anyway. However, he has trusted filmmaker friends he will go to for harsh opinions such as Guillermo del Toro and Pawel Pawlikowski – he ran his early humans script past the Polish director and his response “killed him” (i.e. he wasn’t a fan).

– He was pretty condemning of modern TV and mainstream films, saying that you can close your eyes and you wouldn’t miss much because they aren’t cinematic. He called these “books for lazy people”.

– He implored everyone to watch Roma on a big screen even though it’s going to Netflix after a limited cinema release. He doesn’t like the way people treat Netflix separately to other film studios – he considers them the same and wouldn’t change his project based on what platform it will be screened on, although he would prefer it if people didn’t watch Roma on their phone.

 

Roma is in selected cinemas from Thursday ahead of a Netflix release in December. Please take his advice and watch it on a big screen! Here’s my review. 

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