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A Tale of Two Cities

Date posted: 01.12.2008

Jonás Cuarón’s feature debut, Año uña, has just started a theatrical run in selected cinemas. Set between Mexico and New York it is a meandering love story - although the writer, director and producer of the film didn’t know this would be the case when he embarked on the project. We caught up with Jonás Cuarón and Eireann Harper (actress/producer/editor) about one of the most unusual films to hit our screens this year.

The original introduction to this film-making duo was made through Mia Bays, our Production Executive on Microwave - Film London's micro-budget feature film-making scheme. She met Jonás and Eireann at the Venice Film Festival - instantly seeing the marketing potential for Año uña.

You may not immediately recognise this fresh-faced film-maker’s full name, but trust in the fact he comes from good stock. As the son of revered director, Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men), he is already making his own distinctive mark in cinematic history. The unconventional film project he decided to develop is already paying dividends – gaining rave reviews across the industry.

“I grew up a lot in movie sets because of my dad – I really admired what he did, but I always kind of stayed away from film because I knew I didn’t want to do that exactly. This is why this project was good as it was my way of realizing that cinema has many different ways of being made.”

What sets Año uña apart from your average film is not just the fact that Cuarón Jnr wrote the screenplay retrospectively, but that it is wholly composed of still photographs. His inspiration was Chris Marker’s La Jetée – a movie from the 1960s which utilises the same technique. Spending a year documenting his life on a 35mm camera Jonás always knew that the end result would be a motion picture of sorts. 

 “I knew I wanted to make a movie, but just took pictures of my everyday life so didn’t know what was going to happen – what events were going to take place…Part of the experiment is we wanted to find a narrative style so we could use the narrative of the photographs, but we wanted to make it engaging and entertaining enough so people could sit through 80 minutes of it!”

He put together an installation and started to identify common themes and characters in his work. He spends a lot of his time with his brother, Diego, and his girlfriend, Eireann, so they naturally became the focus of the story. “He’s a 13 year old Mexican boy and she’s a 21 year old American girl so I knew the story was going to be a story between them and that story interested me a lot because I live part of my life in Mexico and part of my life in the US, so the relationship between both languages and both cultures was something that I wanted to talk about.”

“There are many themes of boundaries – the main story of an impossible love due to the boundary of age, language, culture, but also since the movie was done with still photographs I always knew one of the main themes was going to be one of time and the patterns of time and how nothing lasts forever.” To accentuate the feeling of time passing Año uña has been split into sections – written inserts announcing the seasons throughout the course of a year.

Colour also plays an important part in the film. “Each season goes from black and white and it comes closer to the present it has more colour, because I wanted to play with this idea of photography that is memory. For me, something that happened farthest back is more abstract and with less detail and the closer you come to the present it has more colour and more texture. You remember it better.”

The static visuals are all brought together with the internal monologues of the key characters, their respective conversations, as well as sounds of the everyday. “As the movie had no movement the sound was what was going to give it time and movement. Sometimes you may not see the car moving, but if you hear it, you can imagine it… I showed the movie to a sound designer I really admire, Martín Hernández, and he immediately saw that the movie had a lot of range to experiment with the sound design.”

The entire project was an experiment – playing with, and trying to break, conventions. “A lot of what we wanted to prove with this movie is that you don’t always need a big production or studio backing…We wanted to make a film where all that you needed was a camera and a computer.” Cuarón wanted to use equipment he had at hand, which kept costs low (the first cut cost just $8,000) and gave their small production team boundless creative freedom.

So, does this mean that Jonás has been bitten by the film-making bug? Will he continue carving his own career in the film industry – strengthening the Cuarón family name? And does the future hold another stop motion extravaganza?

“Right now we’re working on a film that you would call more conventional – a screenplay that I want to film in a more conventional way, 24 frames per second. But I don’t think you need use photographs to find new ways of doing cinema. There are many directors that I really admire that film in a conventional way, but their language is new and innovative. But I probably won’t use photographs and write a screenplay next time!”

Find out more about Año uña on the IMdB website. Read about Jonás Cuarón’s micro-budget approach to his film-making process in ‘Tongue Twisting Tale’ on the Microwave website.

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