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May 2004
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban: An Interview with Alfonso Cuaron

By Wilson Morales

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban: An Interview with Alfonso Cuaron

After directing the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated film "Y Tu Mama Tambien", you may have wondered what Alfonso Cuaron would do next. Director Chris Columbus had done the first two Harry Potter films and wanted a chance to spend time with his kids, so he needed someone who could do justice with the next installment and that person is Alfonso. Alfonso is no stranger to the genre, having directed the popular and critically acclaimed film "A Little Princess" a few years ago. With his vision and flair, Alfonso has added his own style to the successful franchise. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Alfonso talked about what he added to the film and what's it like to work with the kids.


What were your thoughts when you were asked to come along for this film?

ALFONSO: I was a little surprised at the beginning, a little suspicious about the whole thing. I knew that there was a movie and the huge success of Harry Potter but I never read the books and I hadn't seen the films. So when I read the script, immediately I wanted to read the book and when I read the book, I said I had to do this movie. It's just the material. The material is so great.


A lot of people say that when it comes to your films, there is a lot of talk about the positions and cinematography of it. Do you feel like you've added a lot to the film that's different from the other films?

ALFONSO: It's just different because Chris [Columbus] and I have different virtues, different philosophies, and different approaches. I just embarked into this from the standpoint I'm in now. I wasn't trying to things differently or the same. It's just trying to do things the best way you know how to.


How did you approach working with the kids? I heard that when working with Dan Radcliffe, you gave him instructions about Cameron Diaz?

ALFONSO: (Laughs) That got out, that got out. The thing is that I don't believe in being very precious when you're dealing with kids. I remember some members of the crew on the set, at the beginning, were trying to coach you how to treat the kids, how to deal with the kids. I just listened to them but I didn't agree at all. I think that if you are precious like the way they were suggesting - don't do this in front of the kids, don't do that, if you're going to have a fight with anybody, go out so that they don't witness it - I felt that was patronizing them and kids hate to be patronized. They just want to be treated like anybody else. They know that if I have an argument with someone, it's just adults having stupid arguments. That's a relation I have with them, it was to be very straight. I had to restrain my language a little bit because I have a very full mouth and I have to restrain my language in English but I would say things in Spanish, and actually, they learned quite a lot of cursing in Spanish. But that was the only thing and even if I cursed, they heard it before and they kept on working. That was the only point of this advantage in our relationship. They would curse and I couldn't.


What would you have done differently if you could have filmed this with a PG-13 rating?

ALFONSO: Tell me if it would be better if like, it would be like NC-17. If you asked me about NC-17, we can start talking. (laughs) PG-13, c'mon! I don't want it to be a PG-13. I'm not interested in PG-13 because something I love about the Harry Potter universe is that it can be spooky but it's not violent. I don't know what it means exactly to be PG-13 versus PG. I'm not a censor and I don't know how they think. I went through all this censorship things and all this rating things with a previous film and it's so silly the way films are rated. It's not making sense. I don't know why films that are so violent are OK for kids and then some other silly stuff not good for kids. That I don't understand. In terms of ratings, I'm very bad but I have to say I would never do anything differently in this film. At some point, actually, the studio was encouraging to go darker and be more scary but I wanted to keep a balance, because you have the scary aspects but then you have the humor. All the time, the Harry Potter books can be scary but you're engaged because you know you're in a safe place. Definitely, trying to avoid the violence.


You've done two other hugely acclaimed adaptations. How does this adaptation been different from those?

ALFONSO: First of all, you're dealing with a contemporary phenomenon; that is Harry Potter. "A Little Princess" and "Great Expectations" took place in the 19th century. Now we're talking not 20, but 21st century. There is an aliveness about what you're doing. You're dealing with something that is very much alive and that is in the consciousness of millions and millions of people. Besides that, the process is pretty much the same. I'm more proud of "A Little Princess" in terms of an adaptation. It was pretty much the same thing; it was taking the spirit of the book to tell the story. That movie was not literal at all, it took a lot of freedoms in terms of adapting. I also had the opportunity to work with Steve Kloves and he's such a master at doing this thing. A lot of adapting is a lot of discrimination: What are you going to keep and what are you not going to keep? And stuff that you would love to keep that is not necessary, how to make it necessary.


Was there anything you cut that you wished you kept?

ALFONSO: You know what? I'm very happy with the movie the way it is. Actually, for me and movies, I cannot watch my movies because I want to keep on cutting them down. For me, it's about cutting them down rather than to add.


Were there any challenges to the film?

ALFONSO: The challenge is the length of the process. That's the biggest challenge and to keep your pace and stamina and the enthusiasm and the love for what you're doing. It's such a long process. The process is very long and the progress is very slow. It's a lot of patience. Something I learned in this film, because I really believe that for filmmakers, the only reason you make a movie is not to make or set out to do a good or a bad movie, it's just to see what you learn for the next one. If anything, I learned to trust the process.


Was it easier having Chris Columbus there as a producer knowing that he directed the first two?

ALFONSO: It was fantastic. That's another great a thing. First of all, Chris put together the whole circus. He had to build the kitchen and go and buy the different ingredients. He cooked a couple of meals and left me to cook a third meal. So I had the kitchen and the elements in place, so it was so much fun. Also, with experience of "Don't put too much salt in the carrots because they won't taste well." You know? It was great, it was amazing.


Are you sad at all that you're not doing the fourth film?

ALFONSO: Mike Newell is doing it as we speak. We had a conversation, it was not even an option, it was how I would feel and immediately I said impossible. I don't know how Chris did it. Or Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings. I don't understand that. Too lazy for that.


So what are you doing next?

ALFONSO: Getting some sleep.


Can you talk about your theory of close-ups versus wide shots?

ALFONSO: I'm being very disappointed and very disenchanted about close-ups. I'm [talking] more about the way generic Hollywood movies use the close-ups. It's also become just a generic thing. Unfortunately, the close-ups in contemporary Hollywood cinema have lost their strength as close-ups. Now, most of cinema is a cinema of close-ups. It becomes such a generic grammar. I'm talking in terms of film grammar. I've been more into trying to observe from more of a distance of a character with their surroundings and allow that openness to convey as much as possible. But it has to do normally with close-ups and the rhythm of cuts. Most of contemporary cinema is one cut, each half a second. Here, I'm very curious to see how much you can hold visual information. In my previous film, I did it more. It was very wide and the shots were very long, like seven minute long shots. Here, because of the subject matter and the kind of movie it is, you have to adapt and serve the material. But still, I think that the close-ups are using Harry Potter, we don't have that many close-ups. You can go and point a close-up when it's relevant or in most of the cases, you're going to have a close-ups because you have a camera going very wide and eventually, finds that close-up. It's not about close-ups but it's about coverage. Most of cinema nowadays is about shooting a lot and then figuring it out in the cutting room, rather than seeing your film it the head and see what's in your head and not shoot what you have already envisioned in your head.


You mentioned that you had not read the Harry Potter books before but are you a Harry Potter fan now?

ALFONSO: The moment I read the third one, immediately, I went to the first and then read 1,2, 3, 4,5,6,7,8 and 9.


So if they ask you to direct a future Harry Potter, would you do it?

ALFONSO: I would love to. If they have the same cast, than more than anything else. I, so much, enjoy working with these guys.


Are you looking to work with these actors in other projects?

ALFONSO: That would be great. We talk about that all the time. It would be great to do a love story with Emma! Like a teen love story, she would be so amazing.


Do you liken her to any other actresses in terms of style?

ALFONSO: In terms of her style, you know, she's such a natural. She's amazing and you can see in this film the way how she listens to what's going on. Harry can be talking and the way she listens to what's going on. I love that about Emma.


Is that an important thing for an actor or actress?

ALFONSO: To listen? It's more important than talking.

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