In “Y Tu Mamá También,” Alfonso Cuarón (“Great Expectations,” “A Little Princess”) uses the structure of a teen sex/road trip comedy to create a far more sophisticated film portrait of contemporary Mexico. While Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) drive through the countryside seducing and being seduced by Luisa (Maribel Verdú), an older woman who probably isn’t even 30, all of Mexico passes by the windows of their borrowed hatchback: the socialist protests, the roadside ceremonies, the machine-gun-toting authorities. While the actors and their characters seem to ultimately share everything, what Cuarón is really revealing — through an unnamed narrator — is the things the characters keep to themselves, like the pang of recognition Tenoch feels as they pass through his nanny’s hometown, the nanny he called Mama for the first three years of his life. The film, finally released unrated here, broke box office records in Mexico last year. On the eve of its New York premiere, we met to talk about sex, politics, collaboration and sex.
So are you psyched for the opening here?
Alfonso Cuarón: Yeah. Very. Very. There was a point where I wasn’t excited about it, when they were going to cut it for ratings purposes, but now I’m excited. We agreed that we were going to deliver an R-rated version. So I went to the cutting room and I tried. I’m not a censor, so I didn’t know what to cut and what not to cut, but they gave me a guide of what would go and what wouldn’t. I did what I thought could be an R-rated version. The movie is 100 minutes long. That version was 75 minutes long, 80 minutes long, but it didn’t make much sense. But then I kept going with the exercise, and I did a PG-13 version, and that was 60 minutes long. The PG, 40 minutes.
And the G?
That’s 15 minutes including credits. I’m kidding. It’s interesting how you can keep cutting. Actually, the MPAA was really cool. We showed a couple of cuts and they said, “You’re just butchering the film.” They liked this film, they respected the film. And when I showed IFC the version I was working on, they agreed this was not the film they signed for, let’s just go unrated. The cool thing is that when exhibitors saw the film, they didn’t see it as a porn film, they saw it was “a film.” Everybody went for it.
What’s amazing is the sex is explicit, but innocent at the same time. It’s clumsy and awkward and real. And funny at the same time.
In this country, it’s like an amazing lesson of aerobics and the Stairmaster together. They are always having sex standing up on one leg. Have you ever tried to have sex on one leg? Under the piano and over the piano.
[A waitress interrupts to take an order.]
So we were talking about sex …
The other possibility of having sex in Hollywood movies is if there is a knife under the bed.
Or one is enjoying it but the other isn’t.
Or it’s a rape. Or you are humiliating a character or punishing a character. But it’s not just Hollywood, in a lot of cinema sex is used as a weapon of power. Actually, I’ve seen a couple of films this year that I respect a lot, but sex still is used as a weapon.
Aren’t you going to name them?
No! Because I respect them. But the thing I have a little frustration about is that sex is always this adult tool to punish or manipulate other people. What about having fun? Having sex? What about getting laid?
What was it like getting the actors to perform that?
It was the whole conceptual approach of the film. We were going to try to create a moment of truthfulness and then to have the camera just recording that moment. So we tried to do that in every single scene. In the supermarket scene, or driving or whatever. And tried to be unobtrusive about it. With the sex scenes it was the same, creating a moment of truthfulness. Working with the actors was about motivations and why this stuff was happening, so we were not really focusing on the sex and the camera would try not to be shy … you know where the camera pans to the fireplace? And by the time we did those scenes, they were already very comfortable with each other.
On the surface it is this funny little sex comedy, but it’s really not that at all. It’s about the things that are going on just outside the window of the car.
When Carlos [Cuarón] and I started writing the script, we made very clear that we wanted it to be a movie about identity. These two young men trying to find their identity as adults. A woman trying to search for her identity as a liberated woman, and I’m talking liberated in a spiritual way, rather than emancipation. And the observation of a country, Mexico, which is a teenage country trying its way as a grown-up country. And Mexico is not just one country, it is many different Mexicos that exist in the same space and time but they don’t really coexist, because of the class issue. Actually, the class issue is pretty universal; even Americans wouldn’t deny that there is a class issue in their country.
What are the odds that a black kid from Compton could become president of the United States? In Mexico, we have a president who was an Indian, and I haven’t seen a black president in the United States.
Or an Indian.
Or an Indian! Exactly, I think they are pretty white, all of them. What makes the film universal is not the sex, but the class issue. It’s an issue that most of us feel very embarrassed about; we try to avoid it, we try to deny it. Nevertheless, we live with it throughout our lives, people serving you. And not even acknowledging that the guy who is serving you is someone who is twice your age and maybe as talented as you are but he didn’t have the opportunity that you had. In Mexico, it is very obvious that until Mexico copes with the class issue, I don’t think it can really become grown up and find an identity as a whole. An example is the thing of the nanny in the film.
By the way, that nanny is my nanny, and that is her town that they pass through. Ninety percent of middle-class to upper-class Mexicans grew up with a nanny, and they are embarrassed about it and embarrassed that they called their nanny “Mommy.” I call my nanny Mommy still, and my own mother, I don’t remember her name. No, I am joking.
You wrote the screenplay with your brother Carlos, and the actors grew up together and are like brothers. How did that affect the filmmaking process?
It makes everything funner, way more fun. With Carlos I’ve collaborated so many different times; he wrote my first film, and even on the studio projects, he’s an advisor for me. Working with him is like telepathy; you don’t have to give explanations. When we have disagreements, it is a quick fight, three minutes and it is over. We wanted the point of view to be very objective. In my other films everything was a very subjective point of view, framed through the experiences of the main character. The key for us to find a way into the script was through the narrator, who is not narrating but giving context. My brother accused me of wanting to do “The Wonder Years.” I had a copy of [Jean-Luc Godard's] “Masculin, féminin” and then he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it.”
And with the guys, it was an amazing gift to have those two guys. They have known each other for so long, and besides being amazing actors, they are so generous. They lent to the characters all of these inner experiences. The characters are so different from who they are, but the emotional experiences they share are very similar. Most of our rehearsals, more than trying to perform, or going through the lines, it was about trying to connect experiences, and trying to connect to that emotion and seeing what that emotion had to do with the scene we were doing. And that helped with Maribel, because as the characters were meeting Luisa, the actors were also getting to know Maribel.
There is a surprise toward the end of the film, when a secret is revealed, and at first it seems a bit melodramatic, but in seeing the film again, I realized that it is actually there in front of us from the beginning. It’s not a secret at all.
That is Maribel. Because of the choices she made in the performance. She made choices through the whole film, and she is so generous. It isn’t written anywhere; it is all her choices.
That scene with the tequila worm and the jukebox is the scene in which she is the most alluring, and at the same time it is the scene where she is …
That’s the only moment that is erotic. I don’t think the movie is erotic. I think her dance, approaching them, is the only erotic moment. And I stole it from another film. [Jacques Rozier's] “Adieu Philippine.” I love that film.