Cuarón, Iñárritu, del Toro: The ‘Three Amigos’ Who Changed Hollywood
“The cartel has invaded everything! The festivals, Hollywood! We have kept everything!,” joked Alejandro González Iñárritu chatting with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 2014 on his film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Of course, the winner of two Golden Globes and the recipient of four nominations is far from being a drug dealer. González Iñárritu referred to his amigos, Mexico City’s Alfonso Cuarón (three Golden Globes and two more nominations) and Guadalajara’s Guillermo del Toro (one Golden Globe and two nominations), in his joke as Mexicans and filmmakers who broke into Hollywood together to make history.
They arrived at the same time, although not necessarily together. Sometimes almost like rivals, competing for the same awards. González Iñárritu made his debut with Amores Perros (2001), nominated for the Golden Globe as best non-English film, a category in which a year later, Cuarón competed with Y tu mamá tambiénin 2007, was the turn of Pan’s Labyrinth for del Toro.
That year, González Iñárritu was by Cuaron’s side, a candidate for best director for Babel, a Golden Globe that Cuarón would win in 2014 with Gravity and would repeat in 2019 with Roma (a film that also won the award for best film in a foreign language and for which he was nominated for best screenplay).
González Iñárritu also won the Golden Globe for best direction with The Revenant (2016) after his nomination in the previous year with Birdman (for which he won the award for best screenplay) and being a nominee in 2011 for best film in a foreign language with Biutiful.
Del Toro was the last among the three buddies to win the Golden Globe for best direction, which he finally got in 2018 with The Shape of Water, for which he also earned a best screenplay nod.
Two decades after the arrival of these “three amigos” – as they are called in Hollywood and as they are, indeed – they are changing the rules of the game forever like many other foreign filmmakers did, such as Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, to name a few.
It is something they didn’t even dream about. Because, as del Toro reminded a room full of fellow professionals at the Oscars (when he won for The Shape of Water), “I am an immigrant, like Alfonso, like Alejandro, like my compadres, like many of you.”
What has been their secret? If something binds the three Mexicans apart from their talent, it is their humility. In the same conversation in which González Iñárritu allowed himself to joke with the cartel, he ended up describing their two decades of success as a beautiful coincidence.
González Iñárritu said, referring to the other cinematographic movements, including Italian Neorealism or the French New Wave, “There are always movements that you want to put a label on but we are just a group of friends who are of a similar age. Well, Alfonso is the grandfather (born in 1961 compared to Alejandro, in 1963, or “baby” del Toro in 1964).
“We’ve known each other for a long time and it happened. In the same way that it happened with Italian directors at a given moment or with French directors of the same generation who were also friends.”
The difference is that none of these movements had the influence in Hollywood that the “three amigos” achieved, with films mostly directed in and/or for the American industry as well as immersed in genres typically American like the western (The Revenant), science fiction (Gravity), road movies (Y tu mamá también) or fantasy (Pan’s Labyrinth).
All three filmmakers have managed to play the Hollywood game while also putting their own spin on it. As Cuarón stated to the HFPA, it is a passion. “Even in our silliest films, I am there. With all my passion and my imagination. In that we are the same,” he said in an interview in 2018.
“We always look at something very intimate and that reaches us,” added González Iñárritu in another of his interviews with the HFPA.
In addition to belonging to the same country and the same generation, there are other coincidences. All three come from a wealthy social class in Mexico, a country with its own roots, but they are also great connoisseurs of American culture. And all three, as they would be called in their country, are güeritos (fair-skinned).
They met in the 1980s in Mexico – del Toro and Cuaron working on television in a kind of Mexican Twilight Zone and González Iñárritu, then a radio personality. They were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki.
But no matter how close they were and are, sometimes it can take years before they meet again. Of course, when they do, they are brutally frank, shamelessly sharing their creations and their criticisms.
Del Toro described to the HFPA how the three work. “Alejandro can be and is a very sharp critic and I can also be with his or Alfonso’s work. Always with respect but accepting the comments because it is our mutual support in an industry that is full of betrayals and backstabbings.”
Not everything is critical. Sometimes they are encouragements, like when del Toro met with Cuarón and his wife at the house where they lived in London. The Guadalajara native was haunted by the idea of Pan’s Labyrinth, which he proceeded to tell them about when they had finished dinner with tagliatelle with chicken.
He recalled in an interview with the HFPA, “By the time I got to the end, I was crying; him, too, and we decided to produce it together. We had already done it with The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and with Cronos (1993) but we knew that this was the beginning of a great friendship.”
They had similar conversations when González Iñárritu advised Cuarón on Children of Men (2006) or when del Toro helped González Iñárritu with the staging of Amores Perros.
It’s a group of friends that is much broader than the three of them and expands not only to Lubezki but also to Mexican cinematographers Rodrigo Prieto, a constant presence in Iñárritu’s career, and Guillermo Navarro.
González Iñárritu said, “We are lucky and privileged to have the support of making the films we want and also to support others who are doing incredible things.”
As Cuarón stressed, it is true that his career and the success of del Toro and González Iñárritu have given greater credibility to Mexican cinema in the world.
De declared when he presented Roma to the HFPA, “And in Mexico, it makes you see what you can get if you try. But to say that the evolution of Mexican cinema is due to us is pedantic.
“It would be taking credit away from the new generations that hit very hard with their stories, each one better than the previous one. If you want to talk about a role model that we have facilitated between Guillermo, Alejandro, and me, that one I accept. And it makes me proud to think so. But that’s it.”
It is a role model that continues to give. The production company Cha-cha-cha, founded by the three friends at the height of their joint fame, when by 2018, four of the five consecutive Oscars for Best Film had gone to productions with their label, collecting 25 statuettes between them, is already closed.
But their support for colleagues by profession and nationality is still there. A couple of years ago, the three of them joined the defense of the Film Investment and Stimulus Fund (FideCine), a program that since 2002, had backed 300 Mexican films up to that time. There was an effort to eliminate the program.
Del Toro went a step further, creating the International Center for Animation in Guadalajara, his hometown.
Del Toro remarked on his social media platforms, “Let’s not advocate for ourselves but for those who come: there are thousands of young people who come with strength and new ideas. We want to revive animation as an alternative way of telling stories. We are stimulating creativity to release those voices.”
Of course, all three are not without their critics. The long-awaited Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, the latest film by González Iñárritu, has not been well received at the Venice Film Festival by certain critics who seem to enjoy the idea of stopping this foreigner who wins it all.
And in their own land, the three have been criticized for what has been, in large part, the reason for their success: the fact that they have made the decision, each individually, to leave Mexico where the film industry was not going through its best moment, in search of the necessary budgets and conditions to advance their careers.
The best response to these criticisms comes from del Toro, kneeling on his newly awarded star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, offering a speech close to that very American one who talks about the American dream, but at the same time, like a good Mexican, kissing his flag.
Del Toro said to the HFPA, idealizing once again what it means to be a director in the 21st century, a time when filmmakers no longer have borders: “If you look, we talk a lot about divisions. Alejandro in Babel, Alfonso with Children of Men, and me with Pan’s Labyrinth. Intangible divisions or sometimes that are seen and that obsess us like the concept of borders. And we prefer to unite because of what makes us human.”
Translated by Mario Amaya