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Los Directores: Mexico’s Famous Filmmakers

Michael Maher

Get to know the three Mexican filmmakers dominating Hollywood and the Oscars. Let’s take a look at los Directores — the Directors.

Cover Image: Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu via LA Times

Over the past few years, nearly every major filmmaking award can be tied to these three filmmakers either through nominations or wins. Not only do they all come from Mexico, they frequently collaborate with each other. Each of their successes has pushed the trio further into the spotlight.

Together, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro have created some of the best films ever made. Not only do they share their successes together, they have also made careers for master cinematographers, writers, and actors.

Alejandro González Iñárritu

Los Directores: Mexico's Famous Filmmakers: Inarritu
Image via IndieWire

Alejandro González Iñárritu was born in Mexico City, Mexico. At 16, he was expelled from school and began to travel the world as a sailor.

Actually, when I think about growing up, I feel most affected by two travels that I made working in cargo boats when I was 16 and 18. One of them crossed through the Mississippi and Baton Rouge and Mobile, Alabama, and another went all the way to Europe. On the last trip, I stayed in Europe for one year with $1,000, working everywhere I could, doing everything. Those years shaped me a lot and taught me the value of exploring different things. I didn’t have a normal academic career. I never studied cinema. I learned from life. – A.V. Club

After his travels, he returned to Mexico City and attended college at the Universidad Iberoamericana. There he studied communications and landed a job as a radio DJ on the rock station WFM. He became the director of the station four years later, turning WFM into one of the most popular radio stations in Mexico. He also began composing music for a series of films.

Iñárritu eventually made his way into making commercials and eventually met writer Guillermo Arriaga. Together the two would go on to make the film Amores PerrosThe film masterfully combined three different stories tied around a single car crash. It was also the film debut of actor Gael García Bernal.

Amores Perros won the Critic’s Week Grand Prize at Cannes and earned an Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The film lost to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Iñárritu next worked on the Mexico segment for the film September 11 as well as returning to commercial work. He created ads for Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, and BMW. He made it a point to always write the commercials as well, which helped him in his storytelling.

I don’t have anything against commercials, and I really like BMWs, to tell you the truth. [Laughs.] One of the reasons why I agreed to do it is that they gave me complete freedom. I just had to have the car in it and write a story around it. I wanted to do something serious set in a Latin American country, but again, it was an exercise in style for me. I want to make something with a guerrilla documentary style. I didn’t care about the car, you know what I mean? In this particular story, there has to be a car, so I put the fucking car in there. If they give me a BMW, then great. But I considered it a chance to make a good short film, and fortunately, they paid me well for it. It wasn’t difficult for me to accept it as a commercial, because I had no restrictions. If I presented that short to somebody who doesn’t know about the BMW film series, I doubt they’d even notice it was a commercial. – A.V. Club

Following his successful collaboration with Guillermo Arriaga, the two teamed up again on the film 21 Grams. The film follows a similar format to Amores Perros, in which three stories are intertwined around an accident. Unlike the first film, this film was made in English. The two followed this film with another tragic tale, this time intertwining four stories in Babel. Together, these films are commonly referred to as The Death Trilogy.

Babel was a hit with critics, receiving seven Oscar Nominations. Alejandro González Iñárritu was the first Mexican director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Directing and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing. Babel earned Iñárritu the Best Director Award at Cannes, the fist Mexican-born director to have won the Prix de la mise en scène.

Iñárritu’s next film, Biutiful, was filmed in both Mexico and Spain. The film earned an Oscar Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Possibly more impressive, Javier Bardem earned an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It was the first time an actor had been nominated for an entirely Spanish-speaking role.

Biutiful was the fourth and final collaboration between Iñárritu and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Since then, Prieto has gone on to work on projects like Ben Affleck’s Argo and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Vinyl.

He followed this film with a series of shorts. His next feature became one of the most acclaimed films in years, Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film was a technological masterpiece, as it moved like a single continuous take for the entirety of the film. Shooting was constantly rehearsed and shot in sequence. It only took two weeks to edit the final picture.

The film went on to earn nine Oscar nominations, winning four. Iñárritu walked away with three Oscars himself for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing. His cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki walked away with the Oscar for Best Cinematography — making him a back-to-back winner. More on that later.

Currently Alejandro González Iñárritu is producing the upcoming tv series The One Percent, in which he directs the first two episodes. He also just wrapped his next feature film The Revenant. Working again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the two are pushing their filmmaking knowledge. Much of the film is practical and natural sets shot with natural light.

Alfonso Cuarón

Los Directores: Mexico's Famous Filmmakers: Alfonso Cuaron
Image via IndieWire

Alfonso Cuarón was also born in Mexico City. He studied philosophy and filmmaking at National Autonomous University of Mexico. It was there he met cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Together the two made their first short film, Vengeance is Mine.

Alfonso and his brother Carlos Cuarón wrote Sólo con tu pareja, a romantic comedy that went on to earn the Best Original Story at the Ariel Awards. Alfonso was nominated for Mejor Ópera Prima (Best First Work) and Emmanuel Lubeski was nominated for Best Cinematography.

In 1995, Alfonso made his first American feature film, A Little Princess. The film earned Emmanuel Lubeski his first Oscar Nomination for Best Cinematography. He followed with a remake of the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations. It wasn’t a particularly memorable film, but it was a decent adaptation.

Alfonso Cuarón returned to Mexico for his next feature filmY Tu Mamá También. The film was released a year after Iñárritu’s Amorres Perros, making Mexico an up-and-coming powerhouse for films. Both films starred Gael García Bernal, who would go on to become an international movie star, producer, and eventually a director himself.

Y Tu Mamá También earned the Cuarón brothers an Oscar Nomination for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It was a monster hit all over the world. Its success earned Alfonso the opportunity to direct a major American blockbuster franchise, Harry Potter.

Cuarón directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which many critics heralded as the best film in the franchise. It took a much more serious approach than the previous installments, and set the tone for all of the following films. This film made the Harry Potter franchise become one of the most successful blockbuster series of all time.

Following the success of Harry Potter, Cuarón was able to choose his next project. He adapted the P.D. James novel Children of Men. He was able to bring Emmanuel Lubezki on board as his cinematographer, and the two once again made another masterpiece. The film is packed full of tiny details and exquisite cinematography. Take a look at this breakdown of the minor background details from Nerdwriter.

Children of Men earned Alfonso another Academy Award Nomination for Best Writing. He also earned a nomination for Best Editing, and Lubezki earned his fourth Best Cinematography nomination. Children of Men was praised for its technical work as well, and the film’s famous long take is still studied. They built a custom car rig specifically for that scene in the film.

As impressive as all of that is, it wouldn’t come close to the technical advances and achievements in Alfonso Cuarón’s next film, Gravity. Pre-production for the film started years before cameras rolled. They crew actually had to wait for the technology to catch up for the shots they had in mind. With technological advancements, like robotic camera arms, they were able to start production. Take a look behind the scenes with this video from The Wrap.

Gravity earned ten Oscar Nominations, winning seven awards. Alfonso Cuarón walked away with Best Director and Best Editing. He was the first Mexican to win an Oscar for Best Director. Emmanuel Lubezki won Best Cinematography, and would win again the next year with Iñárritu’s Birdman.

Alfonso Cuarón is currently writing, producing, and directing the tv series Believe.

Guillermo del Toro

Los Directores: Mexico's Famous Filmmakers: Guillermo del Toro
Image via Blastr

Guillermo del Toro was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. He was raised in a very strict Catholic household, which would go on to influence his mythical world greatly. He grew up making films on his father’s 8mm camera, and his passion led him to study at the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Cinematográficos.

Del Toro was fascinated by special effects and makeup. He studied under legendary special effects artist Dick Smith and would go on to spend ten years working as a special effects and makeup designer. He began directing short films, eventually writing and directing several episodes of the cult series La Hora Marcada. The show was the equivalent to a Mexican Twilight Zone. Other writers and directors included Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki.

Following the series, Guillermo directed his first feature film, Cronos. The film was his first collaboration with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. The vampire horror film is still considered one of the best in the genre. The film won eight Ariel Awards from the Mexican Academy of film. Guillermo del Toro won the Golden Ariel, as well as Mejor Dirección (Best Director), Best Original Story, Best Screenplay, and Best First Work.

Here’s a great interview (with subtitles) of Guillermo del Toro on filmmaking and Cronos from Gabriel Gal.

Following the success of Cronos, del Toro secured funding for his next feature, Mimic. It became known that del Toro earned a $30 million budget for the film. Guillermo was plagued by a multitude of micro-managers, and he was struggling to work on the film. Then things took a turn for the worse. Guillermo’s father was kidnapped and held for ransom.

We would get ransom notes with many syntax and spelling errors. It affects you. – Uproxx

Kidnappers demanded $1 million for the release of his father. The del Toro family had nowhere near enough money to pay the ransom. As the negotiations dragged on, Guillermo wrote notes to help him cope with the ordeal. The kidnapping went on for months, and the story of the ordeal began to make headlines.

Guillermo del Toro had previously made friends with director James Cameron, who had given Guillermo notes on Cronos. Cameron took del Toro to a bank, and handed him over $1 million in cash. Guillermo used the money, and his father was finally released after 72 days in captivity. Following his release, the entire family moved to the United States.

I cannot go back to Mexico as a director because of the kidnapping of my father. A film is a highly visible venture, and I can’t risk it… Every day, every week, something happens that reminds me that I am in involuntary exile [from my country]. – Time

Guillermo del Toro returned to directing with The Devil’s BackboneSoon after, he undertook several comic book adaptations with Blade II and Hellboy. It would be his next feature that would earn him critical acclaim.

El Laberinto del Fauno — Pan’s Labyrinth — is considered to be Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. He had turned down several Hollywood producers who offered double the budget to make the film in English. He did not want to compromise the story and was determined to film in Spanish. In fact, del Toro himself translated the English subtitles for the film. The film was partially produced by Alfonso Cuarón, and Iñárritu helped in the editing bay.

Pan’s Labyrinth was nominated for six Academy Awards. Del Toro was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro won Best Cinematography.

Following the success of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro was chosen to direct the live-action adaptation of The Hobbit. Following the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit was set to become the next major entry in the franchise. After two years of pre-production and development hell, Guillermo del Toro left the project because of MGM’s financial problems. The Hobbit would eventually be split into three separate films, for which del Toro is still credited as a co-writer.

During that time, Guillermo had been working on his first novel. The Strain, and its two sequels, garnered enough of a following that the book was adapted into an original television series years later.

After completing Hellboy II, del Toro turned back to an original story with the kaiju film Pacific Rim. The film was a solid summer blockbuster that spawned comic books, an animated series, and a VR experience.

This is my most un-modest film, this has everything. The scale is enormous and I’m just a big kid having fun. – Shock Till You Drop

Guillermo del Toro is seemingly all over the map. He is working on feature films, producing television series, creating comics, writing, and more. His latest film, Crimson Peak, was released in October of this year. In this video, del Tor sits down with Christopher Nolan to discuss the film and directing in general.

Want more articles on Mexican filmmaking? Let us know in the comments below.