Mex­i­can di­rec­tor Al­fonso Cuarón’s lat­est film is shrouded in mys­tery, yet he is happy to share its se­crets with pro­tégé Chai­tanya Tamhane.


Mex­i­can di­rec­tor Al­fonso Cuarón’s lat­est film is shrouded in mys­tery, yet he is happy to share its se­crets with pro­tégé Chai­tanya Tamhane.

Some­where in cen­tral Mex­ico, a man­sion has been trans­formed into a stu­dio of sorts for di­rec­tor Al­fonso Cuarón’s film Roma, a project veiled in se­crecy. All that Cuarón will re­veal to any­one is that the story takes place in the 1970s and fol­lows a year in the life of a mid­dle-class fam­ily ‘with many el­e­ments and ex­pe­ri­ences of my child­hood’.

Cuarón is a master di­rec­tor, best known for big, bril­liant en­ter­tain­ment movies, such as Grav­ity, Chil­dren of Men and Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban. For Roma, how­ever, he has re­turned to his home­land, where his strato­spheric ca­reer took off with the breezy nat­u­ral­is­tic 2001 road movie

Y Tu Mamá Tam­bién, in which two young men pur­sue the older woman of their dreams. That film was cru­cial in putting Mex­i­can cin­ema back on the in­ter­na­tional map.

The sprawl­ing colo­nial house where Cuarón’s new film is be­ing made has many be­guil­ing fea­tures. There’s a dou­ble grand stair­case at the en­trance and a more sin­is­ter set of steep steps with­out rails lead­ing down to a stor­age area. Most of the ac­tion, though, takes place on the up­per floors. There you will find the pro­fes­so­rial-look­ing di­rec­tor – he could have been in Harry Pot­ter him­self – shoot­ing in a side room, con­cen­trat­ing on the scene with laser-like in­ten­sity. Watch­ing in the back­ground is a young, an­chored fig­ure.

That man is In­dian di­rec­tor Chai­tanya Tamhane, Cuarón’s Rolex pro­tégé, who has wis­dom in his wary eyes be­yond his years. He has just one doc­u­men­tary, a short film and one fea­ture film to his name – but what a fea­ture! Court tells the tragi­comic story of the trial of an im­pov­er­ished In­dian folk singer ac­cused within the Byzan­tine In­dian court sys­tem of abet­ting the sui­cide of a fan. It en­joyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess on the in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­val cir­cuit.

‘When I first saw Court,’ says Cuarón, ‘I saw the work of some­one who un­der­stands film lan­guage, and not just in terms of tech­nique.’ What made the film so fresh was its dis­tanced ap­proach to the in­tri­cate ac­tion of the court­room.

‘I know the in­se­cu­ri­ties of a first film,’ Cuarón con­tin­ues. ‘I am sure that Chai­tanya was crav­ing to shoot things closer and to do some typ­i­cal cov­er­age, but he kept to his ap­proach and that’s the mo­ment when you re­ally make the lan­guage flour­ish. It’s not the usual cin­e­matic wall­pa­per, which I hate.’

Tamhane walks around the set with the calm­ing smile of the cat that’s got the cream, but there’s no ar­ro­gance about him.

He knows what an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity he has and how nec­es­sary it is to soak up all he can through ob­ser­va­tion and care­ful ques­tion­ing. You can see that all the crew like and ad­mire him, and are ea­ger to share their dis­cus­sions with him. He ad­mits to be­ing some­what amazed at watch­ing Roma be­ing put to­gether.

‘Al­fonso’s ap­proach to cin­ema comes from a very re­fined, vis­ual aes­thetic that’s quite alien to me,’ he says. ‘I’m so happy to be ex­posed to some­body whose stan­dards for im­age con­struc­tion are so high and so so­phis­ti­cated. The kind of films I grew up on ei­ther weren’t nec­es­sar­ily well lit or didn’t have a very strong aes­thetic sense, so this is some­thing I have to con­sciously work on. The first step is be­ing sen­si­tised to it, se­condly, as­sim­i­lat­ing it, and then thirdly, ex­e­cut­ing it in your own work. For ex­am­ple, I would go to a lo­ca­tion and if I didn’t like it, I would visit ten oth­ers to find the one that fits the script. Al­fonso can look at a lo­ca­tion and think of 14 changes to set it up in a way that is stun­ning. There was a lo­ca­tion we went to and they had given the en­tire road a wet down and they just placed a scare­crow in the back­ground. That, for me, was just amaz­ing be­cause it would not be my first in­stinct.’

As you watch men­tor and pro­tégé to­gether, chat­ting about other people’s films as they wan­der through the court­yard, past the dance floor that was laid for a scene but also used for an im­promptu party for Cuarón’s birth­day on set, their ca­ma­raderie is ob­vi­ous, ev­i­dent from the con­stant rib­bing of each other’s na­tion­al­i­ties.

Cuarón was treated to a demon­stra­tion of one of Tamhane’s tal­ents at his birth­day party: a magic trick done with pieces of card and a felt pen that left the men­tor daz­zled. ‘It’s not magic per se, it’s il­lu­sion­ism,’ says Cuarón. ‘When he ar­rived, I asked him about his next film, which is about clas­si­cal In­dian mu­sic. We started talk­ing about the old school of magic that came from In­dia and I said, “Do some­thing”, and he did, and I was like, “Wow, that was very cool.” Then I said, “Any­thing else?” and he did some­thing even more im­pres­sive. We were laugh­ing like crazy, I didn’t want to go back to the set.’

As you would ex­pect, be­ing on set is rarely about such en­ter­tain­ment, though Tamhane is con­vinced there is a di­rect and more se­ri­ous link be­tween his il­lu­sion­ism and the cin­ema. ‘All art is magic,’ he says, ‘and films def­i­nitely come from magic but not in any es­o­teric ways. An ac­tor, for ex­am­ple, is an il­lu­sion you’re build­ing. Will the people be­lieve in this per­son? Cast­ing right is 50 per cent of the bat­tle won. It’s about what you can make the au­di­ence feel that’s not in the frame. That psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pect of magic hap­pen­ing in the mind of the au­di­ence is cin­ema.’

On Roma, Cuarón is work­ing his own kind of magic with a clan­des­tine ap­proach, mak­ing sure as few people as pos­si­ble know what the story is about. It’s hard for some­one so nat­u­rally vol­u­ble not to talk openly about his project. When he talks, he dances ver­bally around it and you can feel he is al­most ready to ex­plode. Such se­crecy led to a re­mark­able en­hance­ment of the men­tor-pro­tégé re­la­tion­ship.

‘Ab­so­lutely no­body on the crew has read the screen­play,’ says Cuarón. ‘I have the only copy. Frankly, I’m work­ing with a lot of people who are work­ing very hard but who are a bit con­fused. For me, men­tor­ing is not the same as a teacher-dis­ci­ple thing – it should be hor­i­zon­tal. For Chai­tanya to un­der­stand what I am try­ing to do, I had to dis­close my pieces to him. So I told him, “I think this col­lab­o­ra­tion will be way more pro­duc­tive if you read the screen­play.” It was a treat based on our re­la­tion­ship, of course, be­cause the cos­tume de­sign­ers don’t have the script, the line pro­ducer doesn’t ei­ther. He is now like a mir­ror for me on the set.’

The trust Cuarón has in­vested in his pro­tégé seems des­tined to bear fruit. But Tamhane is in no hurry. He is very much un­der the spell of his next sub­ject, In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic. ‘Ev­ery time I un­der­take a project that is re­search­heavy, I come out of it a new per­son,’ he says.

‘My ex­ist­ing be­liefs have been shaken up in a big way, so it’s al­most like a process of birth, life and death, and then rein­car­na­tion within the time of that project. I have no ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion as to why I got in­ter­ested in In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic. It’s just a bug that came out of nowhere and bit me,’ he adds.

‘One of the as­pects that se­duced me is that there is this el­e­ment of se­crecy, of myth-mak­ing, of sto­ries at­tached to this world and with very ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters. That was my ini­tial en­try point into this mu­sic. And also this se­duc­tive idea of hav­ing to ded­i­cate your en­tire life to an art form that is so dif­fi­cult to master.’

It is a sim­i­lar ded­i­ca­tion that bonds Cuarón and Tamhane, a be­lief in their art form as the only way they can ex­ist. ‘It’s the medium that I think in quite nat­u­rally,’ Tamhane says. ‘I can’t live if I don’t do this.’

But Cuarón has a note of warn­ing for his young friend. ‘I hope that Chai­tanya learns ev­ery­thing that is pro­duc­tive for him,’ he says, ‘but what’s also im­por­tant is that I learned from him. A lot of masters have these cau­tion­ary tales about tal­ented people who could not fol­low the pulse of his­tory. You have to un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing around you and the ef­fect that’s hav­ing in cin­ema. I’m not say­ing, “OK, now every­body should start do­ing Marvel movies”, be­cause it’s not about that.’

Men­tor­ship, he says, has ‘a very self­ish side to it. When you see Roma, you will see it has a cer­tain kin­ship to Court, and that was some­thing I was al­ready af­ter. When I saw Chai­tanya’s film it just gave me more cer­tainty. This guy went all the way for it and I’ll do the same.’

For Tamhane, the experience of be­ing on the set of Roma gave him a thor­oughly ca­reer-af­firm­ing per­spec­tive. ‘The sheer grit, pas­sion, and fo­cus with which Cuarón over­came the chal­lenges on a daily ba­sis was in­spir­ing and re­veal­ing. I learnt that no mat­ter how suc­cess­ful your track record is, or how many re­sources you have at your dis­posal, it never gets any eas­ier. It’s just the na­ture and scale of prob­lems that change. What will even­tu­ally keep you afloat is your love for what you do and your faith in your vi­sion.’

NICK JAMES is the ed­i­tor of the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute’s Sight & Sound mag­a­zine. This ar­ti­cle was pub­lished with kind per­mis­sion from Rolex. Cuarón and Tamhane par­took in the 2016 – 2017 cy­cle of the Rolex Men­tor and Pro­tégé Arts Ini­tia­tive.

Al­fonso Cuarón and Chai­tanya Tamhane

Al­fonso Cuarón and Chai­tanya Tamhane

Chai­tanya Tamhane PHOTO Reto Al­ber­talli

© Chien-Chi Chang / Mag­num Pho­tos

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