Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film is shrouded in mystery, yet he is happy to share its secrets with protégé Chaitanya Tamhane.by Nick James — January 2018
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 admit 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, is taking 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 a 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 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 by 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 weren’t necessarily well lit or had a very strong aesthetic sense, so this is something I have to consciously work on. The first step is being sensitized 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 10 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 about each other’s nationalities.
Absolutely nobody on the crew has read the screenplay, I have the only copy.
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 research-heavy, I come out as 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.
The sheer grit, passion, and focus with which he overcame the challenges on a daily basis was inspiring and revealing.
“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 he [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.