In 1994, I was getting my weekly dose of Barry Norman’s Film 94 review show when he talked about an unusual vampire film called Cronos directed the previous year by a first-time Mexican director named Guillermo del Toro. Having won several local awards, Cronos was hitting some screens in Western markets and as a result of Mr. Norman’s review, I tucked away del Toro’s name for future reference.
Over the years, I have become a big fan of his movies, including this summer’s Pacific Rim. With the imminent release of Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama Gravity and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s intriguing comedy Birdman coming up in 2014, I started thinking about the amazing body of work produced by these three Mexican comrades-in-arms in the past 10+ years. This trio has wowed audiences and critics alike with their unique blend of strong visuals and visceral storytelling, built around memorable characters. They have also created a mutual support group that has quickly expanded to embrace and nurture a host of Spanish-language filmmakers.
Guillermo del Toro:-
The busiest, most commercially oriented and therefore, the best known of the trio is del Toro, whose own work has gravitated strongly towards horror, scifi and fantasy.
His mainstream Hollywood films Hellboy, Hellboy II and Pacific Rim have had limited box office success, as he seems to make his movies unapologetically for genre fanboys. The peak of his critical and commercial success came in 2006/07 with the genre-bending Spanish-language fantasy/drama Pan’s Labyrinth. The film was nominated for 6 Oscars, including a best screenplay nom for del Toro.
I only got to watch his breakthrough 1993 feature Cronos last year and it was interesting see how del Toro’s fascination for disparate elements like religion and clockwork return in later projects like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Del Toro frequent collaborators include character actor Ron Perlman (Cronos, the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim) and countryman Guillermo Navarro as cinematographer.
Several emerging filmmakers have had their films produced by del Toro and therefore can claim to be his protégés. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona directed the intense and disturbing The Orphanage in 2006. Canadian comic book artist turned director Troy Nixey directed Don’t be Afraid of the Dark in 2010 with Katie Holmes. Young Spaniard Guillem Morales made the critically acclaimed horror film Julia’s Eyes also in 2010. Versatile Ecuadorian Sebastian Cordero (who just released the well-reviewed scifi thriller Europa Report) had two of his early films – Chronicles (2004) and Rage (2009) – co-produced by del Toro.
Many of del Toro’s films have an element of dark humour woven in; DreamWorks Animation tried to channel some of this into their films by hiring him as executive producer and creative consultant for Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots and Rise of the Guardians. In turn, del Toro got into the relationship as he was keen to get a strong technical understanding of animation for the Pinocchio feature he is developing with Claymation expert Mark Gustafson. I don’t particularly feel that del Toro’s darker sensibilities have worked for these movies and I believe the relationship will end soon as del Toro moves on to other areas of interest.
Speaking of moving on, del Toro is well known for announcing his attachment to a number of projects at a time, only for some of them to fall apart during development. Two of his highest profile dropouts are H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The latter was not really his fault as the production became embroiled in a legal battle and by the time it was resolved, del Toro had decided to work on other projects. However, he spent nearly two years with Peter Jackson in New Zealand designing sets and creatures, so his imprint (and a screenplay co-credit) can be seen on the final films. Other projects he has been attached to (and unlikely to see the light of day) include Disney’s Haunted Mansion, remakes of Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde and Slaughterhouse Five for Universal.
Cuarón too makes mainstream films, albeit of a more cerebral variety. His first English language film, A Little Princess, is a rarely seen little gem. After a misstep with 1999’s version of Great Expectations he came roaring back with the erotic Mexican road trip movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, which received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay and countless other awards. His contribution to the Harry Potter franchise – the 4th entry, The Prisoner of Azkaban – is considered the best reviewed film in the series. And his last film, the dystopian Children of Men garnered 3 Oscar nominations, including another personal one for best screenplay. His forthcoming Gravity is widely expected to earn an Oscar nomination for Sandra Bullock and certainly one for cinematography.
Cuarón has also been active as a producer, supporting del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Iñárritu’s Biutiful. He also co-produced Cordero’s Chronicles along with del Toro. And he frequently collaborates with his own family members; his son Jonas co-wrote Gravity and directed Year of the Nail, which dad produced; his brother Carlos co-wrote Y Tu Mama Tambien and directed Rudo y Cursi, the Mexican comedy-drama which was a big hit in 2008. In fact, Rudo y Cursi was the big coming-together party, as it was co-produced by del Toro, Cuarón and Iñárritu and featured the popular acting duo of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who had made it big with Y Tu Mama Tambien.
I love the look of Curon’s films, primarily as he works with one of my all-time favourite cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki (5 Oscar nominations so far). Besides Cuarón, Lubezki has worked with other visually oriented directors like Terrence Malick and Tim Burton; this alone should establish the breadth of Lubezki’s visual palette. He is equally at home whether creating the drab and gritty visuals of Children of Men, or the lush fantasy feel of A Little Princess, or the everyday look of Y Tu Mama Tambien. His work on the upcoming Gravity is considered to be his most technically challenging yet and no less a filmmaker than James Cameron has said, “I think it’s the best space photography ever done…”.
Alejandro González Iñárritu:-
Iñárritu is the least prolific of the three, having directed just 4 features since his breakthrough work Amores Perros in 2000. This thriller is still my favourite film and in some ways his most accessible work. He has tended to lean towards art house or indie projects, although Babel from 2006 can be considered a mainstream film and is his biggest box office hit to date. It was a major force at the Oscars with 6 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Both Babel and Amores Perros use the multiple-thread/ nonlinear storytelling technique that has become popular since 1994’s Pulp Fiction. I tried to watch Biutiful, but the film was so intense and dreary that I couldn’t go through with it, the 2 Oscar noms for Best Foreign Film and Best Actor (Javier Bardem) notwithstanding.
Besides the hit movie Rudo y Cursi, Iñárritu’s work as a producer has been low profile. But of particular note are the two movies – Nine Lives and Mother and Child – he has produced for director Rodrigo Garcia. The 54-year-old Garcia is none other than the son of famed Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Another interesting Iñárritu collaborator is Argentine director Armando Bo. Bo comes from a filmmaking pedigree (his namesake grandfather was a director of sexploitation films in the 60s and 70s including the first ever nude scene in Argentine films; his father Victor is an actor) and has co-written the screenplay with Iñárritu for Biutiful and the upcoming Birdman. Iñárritu produced his debut feature The Last Elvis in 2012, which won several awards in Argentina and was a hit at Sundance.
And of course, in the same vein as the other 2 directors, Iñárritu shoots all his films with a fellow-Mexican behind the camera, Rodrigo Prieto.
It’s fascinating to think of this extended network of talented Spanish-language artists and filmmakers working on each other’s projects. With del Toro, Cuarón and Iñárritu now entering their 50s it will be interesting to see how their future films will evolve tonally. I certainly feel that they are creating their most complex, layered work ever and I appreciate the fact that they have managed to successfully straddle both the Hollywood system and the Spanish language film world, while maintaining their respective artistic vision.