On Friday, before the first public North American screening of his new movie, Roma, Alfonso Cuaron was feted with a Silver Medallion tribute at the Telluride Film Festival. I interviewed the Mexican filmmaker onstage as part of that event. Here are excerpts from that discussion, in which we touched upon a career low-point—his making of Great Expectations, which failed critically and at the box office—the F-bomb laden intervention by Guillermo del Toro that convinced him to make Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, and why Roma forced him to look at a key figure in his childhood with new eyes.

Vanity Fair: When you started out in the industry of movies and television in Mexico, you did all sorts of different jobs. You were a boom operator on several projects and a director of photography. How do you think starting in that aspect of the film industry shaped you?

Alfonso Cuaron: I took a very long, many times arduous path. But I would never say thats the path that filmmakers have to follow. That was just my circumstance. Also, the reality of Mexico at that time was very specific. Right now… you have [these] amazing filmmakers coming out, also because theres a security about what they are doing. When I was growing up and doing film, it seemed almost impossible. The generation right before me is almost like a lost generation. Maybe only two filmmakers got to make films, two or three filmmakers in, Im talking about maybe eight years. And so the prospects were very, very poor so … also very early on, I had a son. So filmmaking became also my way of winning my bread and earning my bread. And so, yes, I consider that my background is, Im a blue collar [worker in the] film industry.

The first film you made in the U.S. was A Little Princess [for Warner Bros.] in 1995. What was it like for you to come to Hollywood and make a studio movie?

Cuaron: For me, being in Hollywood was very unexpected. It was an accident of the journey that I took. Pretty much, I burned my bridges [in Mexico], and that was my chance to do more films.… I found myself broke, knowing that my prospects of going back to Mexico were not fantastic. But then, I was invited to meet with [director-producer] Sydney Pollack. And soon after, this movie came up and it was offered to me, and I have to say, it was an amazing, blissful experience, that film.

You next made Great Expectations and then went through a period of soul searching, from which came Y Tu Mama Tambien. Can you talk about that difficult period in between those movies?

Cuaron: Im very grateful for Great Expectations because it taught me what I dont want to do. And what I should not do. Im serious.… What happened is that during that period that I first went to Hollywood and I started to develop projects, I forgot that I was a writer. And everybody told me… its better if you attach yourself to a project thats already going on. And I believed all the Hollywood wisdom. Maybe I lost three years of my creative life that way. And so I did Great Expectations and not exactly for the right reasons. And the only person to blame is myself…. And I felt kind of lost. I wanted to reconnect with the reason why I love cinema. So I went to the video shop and I rented, like, 25 films…. And I just lost myself for a week, watching and watching and watching these films. At the end of that, I called Carlos, my brother, who had written my first film. And I said… “Lets start working on one of the screenplays that long time ago we talk[ed] about.” And I recovered my pleasure, this whole thing of being a writer as well.

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When you were finishing Y Tu Mama Tambien, you were invited to direct a Harry Potter movie, and you were reluctant. I understand that you had a conversation with Guillermo del Toro that changed your mind. Can you tell us about that conversation?

Cuaron: I talked with Guillermo, as I always do, and he says, “Whats happening? Any projects going on?” And I said, “Im going for Harry Potter, can you believe it? And I even made fun of it. I hadnt read the books or seen the films. And then he looks upset with me. He called me flaco, that means skinny [in English]. He says, “Fuckin skinny, have you read the books?” I said, “No, I havent read the books.” He says, “Fuckin skinny, youre such a fuckin arrogant bastard. You are going right now to the fuckin bookshop and get the books and youre going to read them and you call me right away.” When he talks to you like that, well, you have to go to the bookshop. At that time, the fourth book had just come out. And I read the first two, and I was halfway through the third, [and] that was the one they had offered me. And I called him and said, “Well the materials really great.” He says, “Well, you see you fuckin …” I mean, its just untranslatable from the Spanish…. As a filmmaker, it was almost like a lesson of humility, of saying how am I going to do it my own, but at the same time, respecting what has been beloved in those couple of movies?

Roma centers on some extraordinary women in the running of a household and a family. Can you tell us about the women who inspired that?

Cuaron: Yes, this film is autobiographical, in the sense that 90% of the scenes come out of my memory. We shot in the places where these scenes took place. I gathered 70% of the furniture in my home … from different family members spread all around Mexico. And then I cast actors that look as much as possible as the original people. All of that was to follow the story of the character in the film whos called Cleo. She was the domestic worker in my home, the nanny, that we end up becoming part of her family, or she becoming part of our family. The other character is based upon my mother. But we follow pretty much the point of view of Cleo. And the interesting thing for me in this process was that to your loved ones, you take it for granted. You dont really give them an individuality. Your mom is your mom. Shes that person who nurtures you. The last thing you want to hear is about the sexual life of your mom. Everybody laughs nervously. When working, I had extensive conversations with the real-life Cleo. And then, writing her character, I was forced to approach her for the first time in my life, to see her as a woman, and a woman with the complexities of her situation. And a woman that comes from a more disadvantaged social class, that also comes from an indigenous heritage in a society that is ridden by class, but very perversely, like in the whole world, race and class are intimate. Theres the other perverse relationship between class and race. So this is the woman who raised me, its my—its weird to say surrogate mother because its a strange word. Put it this way, thats the case of so many domestic workers or nannies. They have more presence in your life than sometimes the biological mom.

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.

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