One of the greatest risks for directors in the modern era is that they can show flashes of great artistry and a willingness to take creative risks and then get sucked up into a franchise megastorytelling machine like Star Wars or superhero tentpoles and fade off into corporate blandness. I’m not naming names, but we’ve lost several promising young directors to the suits and studio heads upstairs.
One director who expertly managed to avoid that fate is Alfonso Cuaron, the Oscar-winning director behind Gravity and so much more. In 1998, Cuaron had enough pull in Hollywood that he got to direct Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke in a sleek, modern adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Instead of diving further into star-powered Hollywood filmmaking, though, Cuaron followed the film up with his 2001 masterpiece Y Tu Mama Tambien, a small, intimate and sometimes erotic coming-of-age road trip story. The film launched Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal’s careers, and it earned Cuaron several Oscar nominations. By going smaller and more personal, Cuaron had managed to gain more clout instead of losing steam. He then got recruited to make the third Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban, and he injected the film with a more mature and grounded reality than Potter had in its first two installments. The subject matter in Cuaron’s movie got darker and he matched it with his direction, injecting every transition with foreboding tension, magical whimsy, and a whole lot of atmosphere.
But the key to Cuaron’s whole career is that after directing one Potter film, he got back out of the franchise machine. His next film was the brilliant dystopian action drama Children of Men. Then he made Gravity, a technical marvel of a scifi film, and then he made Roma, his personal memoiristic exploration of 1970s Mexico. Cuaron was one of the few who managed to use a massive Hollywood franchise as a springboard for his own career instead of as the end-all, be-all of his career. He made one Harry Potter movie, which I consider to be far and away the best in the series, and then went back to chasing his own muse.
And as a result, Alfonso Cuaron’s career is the stuff of legends.
I’m Evan Rook.