Screen Studies - Y tu mamá también and The Devil’s Backbone
The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema
The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema

Jason Wood

Jason Wood works for the Curzon Cinema organisation. He is the author of The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema and is also the editor of Nick Broomfield. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Faber and Faber Limited, 2006


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Y tu mamá también and The Devil’s Backbone

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 93–114

In 2000 the Mexican political landscape changed once more, with repercussions in due course for the national cinema. For seventy years Mexican politics had been dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri), but the 1997 parliamentary elections saw the combined opposition win more support, thus breaking what was in effect a one-party system with a democratic façade. The 2000 presidential elections confirmed the development, as Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (pan) beat the pri candidate by more than 6 per cent of the vote.

Sensing Fox’s impending victory and a potential for change, democracy and reform, Mexicans had been swept along on a euphoric wave of optimism. Fox assumed the presidency in December, following a high-profile and extensive media campaign aimed at attracting younger voters. He promised sweeping reforms, including better distribution of income in Mexico and an overhaul of state institutions.

Alfredo Joskowicz was appointed Director of the Mexican Film Institute (imcine) in December 2000, and immediately had to get to grips with administering a budget that included much coveted production funds.

alfredo joskowicz film-maker/Director, imcine: I took up my position in January 2001. It’s very hard work. I’m fighting. But I think my background has been very important, because I understand all the difficulties of the sector.

imcine has two substantial areas: the direction of support towards production, and the promotion of Mexican cinema both in Mexico and throughout the world. Promotion is the significant area, and annually we have a national contest for aspiring and developing writers. We invite projects and make a selection of those to which we can give financial assistance for development. We also have a national contest for short films, and we are able to place the winners on the front of commercial features, so that they can play in theatres. It also makes the films easier to position at international festivals and we receive a lot of recognition and prizes for our shorts. We don’t receive any extra subsidies for this, but our aim is to put into position and nurture new actors, writers, directors etc. With regard to feature films, we have two government funds. The first, fidecine received $7 million in 2000, around 70 million pesos. This money was received at the end of 2000 so was used towards features being made in 2001. At the end of 2001 another $7 million was made available, this will go to features being produced in 2002. With these fidecine funds we supported sixteen films in two years.

We have another older fund that was created in 1998 because in this year local feature production was very low. In 1997 Mexico produced only nine feature films, the lowest number since 1932 so the government was compelled to help; foprocine was created to assist quality films. In the last five years, we have used foprocine funds to assist forty-seven films in the last five years. The government put $13.5 million into foprocine, a fund that was responsible for Sexo, pudor y lágrimas (1999), a film that attracted an audience of 5.3 million people. El crimen del padre Amaro (2002), another foprocine-assisted film also achieved over 5 million viewers in Mexico and has gone on to be the most successful Mexican film in our history. Unfortunately, even with these successes the fund is not enough and the $13.5 million has not been recouped. The foprocine fund comes to an end in 2003 so from 2004 fidecine is the only fund that will exist.

To be relatively proportionate you cannot give all of the money to one or two films so the fidecine rules dictate that you can give only a maximum of $700,000 per film or 49 per cent of the total budget. Private producers therefore have to provide 51 per cent of the budget. If we consider the fact that the average cost of a film in Mexico is now $1.5 million, then even with fidecine funding of $700,000, the private producer still has to raise $800,000, which is very difficult. People say that this is market forces but this doesn’t take into account the distribution of the peso at the Mexican box office. Fifteen cents is tax. Fifty-one cents is for the exhibitor. Thirty-four cents goes to the distributor. From this the distributor will recoup the cost of prints and advertising. After recouping these costs the distributor gives to the producer thirteen cents and retains twenty-nine cents. The producer, the one who raises the finance for the film and takes all the risks, is right at the very end of the chain. This is a major problem and not only in Mexico but throughout Latin American countries. What the governments in other Latin American territories have done is instigate tax incentives and channelled money from television and video distribution back into cinema production. Argentina, for example, raised $25 million dollars last year in this way and can now produce fifty to sixty films annually. We must remember that they are doing this despite a period of severe economic depression. In Mexico we do not have such taxes for cinema.

josé luis garcía agraz director: A producer can’t receive money from both funds; it’s either one or the other. In this second fund there are fewer dignitaries and the committee comprises representatives of sectors such as distribution, the cinema owners and the trade unions – this committee is supposed to have a more ‘commercial’ vision.

The truth of the matter is that it’s not enough, and that you do have to look for co-producers among the ‘Anglospoken’ – the US, the UK, Australia, Canada – among whom the hardest to find are the Americans . . .

* * *

carlos cuarón writer/director: In 1997 I started directing short films I had written,[1] and in 2000 I was going to make my first feature but the production collapsed. In hindsight I’m grateful, because I wasn’t ready to direct it – the script wasn’t ready; the producers weren’t ready. And because of that, I sat down with Alfonso and wrote Y tu mamá también.

alfonso cuarón director: My son was in New York and we’d go to movies together all the time; sometimes I would choose the movie, and other times he would. And basically I had to see a lot of crap, and a lot of teen comedies. The problem with the teen comedies is that there’s something really interesting at their core: they’re so moralistic and they have a phoney and overly respectful sense of character. You don’t have to make fun of the characters or invent clever plots to humiliate one or the other, or have them sticking their dicks into a pie. I was lucky, because when my son was ten I made A Little Princess, which, in a way, was a film for me; and then I wanted to do a teen movie for him because of course he ended up being a teen. This movie was Y tu mamá and in many ways I used my son as an adviser. Ultimately my son is very Mexican – even living in New York he’s very Mexican and he sees that the fundamentals and the emotions between teens – most of his friends are American – are basically the same. The politics may be different but the human experience is ultimately the same, they are all insecure, they all want to bed women and they are all in love with the girl who loves the other guy.

Carlos and I had talked about the ideas of Y tu mamá even before Sólo con tu pareja. We were looking for a low-budget film to do before my first film. Lubezki suggested a road trip to the beach, and Carlos loved the idea of two boys and one girl. For various reasons we moved on into Sólo con tu pareja. But, every couple of years, Carlos and I would return to it before putting it back in the drawer. It was in this way that it evolved.

Directors are really perhaps only as good as the projects they choose. And choices can be dangerous, because you can lose sight of what you really want to do. What happened to me was that I was choosing so many projects that I forgot that I could write. And that was part of the beauty of Y tu mamá.

emmanuel lubezki cinematographer: I remember when Alfonso and I were working on Great Expectations and we were both so fed up and having trouble finding the energy and enthusiasm to like our work any more. We both felt that Y tu mamá también was a way of reinventing ourselves.

guillermo del toro director: I think that a career is a learning curve. Alfonso and I have discussed this many times. I remember Alfonso being revered as a visionary when A Little Princess came out and maligned as a hack when Great Expectations emerged. I went through similar stuff with Cronos and Mimic, and I said to Alfonso, ‘People seem to think that you are making a definitive last statement with every movie. It’s not the case; you are searching, in the way that a painter may experiment with a blue period or a green period.

Y tu mamá también: Dirty Dancing – Diego Luna, Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal

alfonso cuarón: I didn’t do Y tu mamá to go ‘back home’; I did the film in Mexico because I always wanted to make it. I never really intended to go to Hollywood, and I don’t regard it as the Mecca of cinema. For many directors, Mexican or otherwise, it’s a goal; for some others it is just part of a journey. For me, personally, it’s the latter. I want to do films elsewhere and everywhere.

Some film-makers don’t need to touch Hollywood. Guillermo del Toro is clear: when he does his Hollywood movies, he isn’t pretending to do his smaller movies, and vice versa; they are two different approaches and two different beasts.

When I did Y tu mamá I did feel that I had perhaps started to lose some of my identity and that I needed to reconnect with my roots – not bullshit nationalistic roots but creative roots. I wanted to make the film I was going to make before I went to film school, and that was always going to be a film in Spanish, and a road movie involving a journey to the beach. All the rest, Mexico versus the big Hollywood giants, is ideology. I have very eclectic tastes in terms of film, and I want to explore these.

Great Expectations, if it was successful or not is not for me to say, but it’s obviously a completely different film to Y tu mamá; it has an entirely different point of view. The same with A Little Princess – I was following the point of view of the main character. Our approach, mine and Lubezki’s, on these films was not to see the world the way it is, but the way it is perceived by the protagonists – to give a heightened reality, almost. On Y tu mamá we wanted to do the opposite: an objective approach to our reality, just to keep our distance and observe things happening.

Carlos and I didn’t find a way into the film until around 2000, when we decided that the context was as important as character and that we wanted a very objective and in some ways distant approach to the story. We didn’t want to take a nostalgic approach.

Abandoned by their girlfriends for the summer, the well-heeled Tenoch (Diego Luna) and barrio boy Julio (Gael García Bernal) meet beautiful, thirtyish Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a wedding. Luisa’s marriage to Tenoch’s cousin is in bad shape. The teenagers seek to impress her by boasting that they are about to embark on a road trip to an idyllic but barely known beach called Boca del Cielo (‘Heaven’s Mouth’). They are surprised when Luisa asks if she can accompany them, and soon the unlikely trio are headed out of Mexico City. The journey (widely seen as an allegory as well as a literal excursion) brings sexual gratification and rivalry for the boys and a lesson in Mexico’s geography, as well as its socio-economic context, for the viewer.

carlos cuarón: We were kind of blocked in the writing and got ourselves stuck with a narrator. He doesn’t actually narrate that much; rather, he contextualizes. And we decided that context – in this case, Mexico, as a country – was character. When we discovered this early structuring, we decided that it was a parallel trip. The woman’s journey is also important, because she too is finding her own identity, perhaps in a much more Spanish way. But, yeah, the two guys are searching for an identity. And I still feel that Mexico is still a teenage society. The difference, I believe, is that the society is much more mature than the government. We are sixteen, seventeen, and pimply and in the middle of the teenage years. And my feeling is that the government is about thirteen and just starting with the hormonal thing . . .

emmanuel lubezki: It couldn’t be just a coming-of-age story and nothing else. The context is so important, and it’s actually a very complex movie told in quite a simple way – that’s what really blew me away. A friend of us who lived with us in Mexico when we were growing up but then moved back to Uruguay wrote to me to say that the film really helped him understand who we were, and how sex was so important to us that, despite our leftist sympathies, it blinded us to the situations that were going on around us. Sadly, Mexico is now such a complex country that if you and a girl were to head to the interstate in a car the chances are that you would be robbed and raped.

alfonso cuarón: The story wasn’t autobiographical, but there are elements from when Carlos and I were growing up. The nanny in the film is played by our nanny in real life, and one of the destinations the trio go through is her town in real life; Carlos and I went to a wedding in the same place where you see the wedding in the film, and the President of the time was present and everybody was more interested in the President than the newlyweds. We also had a car like the one in the film and there is a town the trio visit that is also the name of the street where we grew up. The character of Diego ‘Saba’ Madero, the friend of Julio and Tenoch, is a character that we know. Of course, we both also had trips to the beach and the incident with the pigs in the tent happened to my cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. There’s lots of incidental stuff like that. I think that both Carlos and I are in between Julio and Tenoch – leaning more towards Julio, I guess, socially speaking. What we really wanted to do was convey a universe and an atmosphere that we really knew first hand.

carlos cuarón: It was mainly drawn upon our energy as teenagers and the adolescence I had. It’s not autobiographical, except for the scene where Diego questions Gael about how he fucked his girlfriend in the hotel. This actually happened to me when I was playing for a football team, and it involved someone who was then a very close friend. It wasn’t difficult for me to write this scene, because I already had the dialogue. There are specific things that only very close people would know. For example, our family had a car with the same name as that in the film,[2] and our mother in Mexico City lives in a street after which we named a town in the film.

emmanuel lubezki: I was so happy when I read it – because it was so close to us and to our lives. It was a story that we had talked about for many years, mainly while getting drunk in bars while eulogizing our love of road movies. We would talk about this crazy idea of a road movie with two guys and a girl. To then suddenly see all this stuff written down by Alfonso and his brother Carlos was amazing. The film offered portraits of people that we know and captured them so well. I immediately told them that I had to shoot the movie.

gael garcía bernal actor: I think that this film has a real edge to it and also a lot of depth. I also have to say that I think it’s the best script I’ve ever read. I was laughing from the first paragraph, and really enjoying it so much. The characters and the situations were so alive but also full of subtleties. The depth of the film is perhaps surprising, because it really comes from a very clichéd story. I mean, two guys taking a road trip with a woman – how B-movie is that? It’s Porky’s meets Dude, Where’s my Car? But Y tu mamá had a genuine reason to exist and a connection to real kids who were experiencing the loss of innocence.

emmanuel lubezki: It was also important, and perhaps not unconnected, that the film was independently financed. One of the reasons that film was slow to evolve in Mexico was that the directors had to wait for the government to fund them. I have to say that through a combination of luck, charm – he is the most charming – and judgement, he met Jorge Vergara. Now Jorge is hooked on movies. I had dinner with him last week and he told me he was fucked. I asked him why and he said, ‘Because I love making movies so much.’

Y tu mamá también: Alfonso Cuarón (far right) huddles with his actors

alfonso cuarón: In Julio’s room there’s a poster for Harold and Maude (1971). I wanted to put Godard’s Masculin-Féminin (1966) in because that was the only conscious reference Carlos and I had when writing the script. But it’s probably for the best that the poster didn’t arrive. Character-wise Harold and Maude probably has more to do with my film in terms of the relationship between male and female. It’s also a beautiful film.

carlos cuarón: Alfonso and I wanted to make a very realistic movie that would be like a candid camera. Chilango, generically speaking, is what we use in Mexico City. It’s the language that all Chilangos and all Mexicans would understand. What we did, and what is original, is that we used hardcore Chilango, and you rarely see this in movies. You see it more maybe now as it’s become slightly standardized. In Amores Perros they also speak Chilango but it’s not hardcore Chilango. We were the first to do it with that freedom, that freshness if you will, and it played very well.

emmanuel lubezki: I love the fact that the style that we found to shoot in really suited the movie. When we started work, we weren’t cutting and we were shooting without covering, which is quite a risky thing to do. I remember Alejandro González Iñárritu coming to the set and telling us that we were insane, that we were ruining the rhythm of our movie because we didn’t have anywhere to go. Because he’s our friend and because we rate his work, we panicked – for one night. Then we watched what we had shot, and decided it was still the way that we were going to do it. And I really think that this was the best way to tell the story.

The entire movie is shot hand-held. This all goes back to our original idea of fifteen years ago, in which we would do a low-budget road movie that would allow us to go with some young actors and semi-improvise scenes and have a bare storyline but not be afraid of adding things as we went. We also wanted to work with a lot less equipment, because we felt that the last two movies we had done together in Hollywood before this one had both had a little bit too much. Everything was so slow because everyone was trying to make their work the best possible and everything was so expensive and there was a crew of something like a hundred and thirty people and this can really rob the project of momentum. This also robs you of the liberty to experiment. By consciously making Y tu mamá smaller and by working in a cappella fashion we could move faster and really let the actors go.

In its entirety it is the movie that I am most proud of, full-stop. I see other movies that I have shot and I often like moments from them but I have never liked a whole movie, except for this one. I love the story, I love the actors and I love the surroundings.

Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna acted together in El Abuelo y yo and indeed were friends since early childhood.

gael garcía bernal: It almost seemed as if we had spent twenty years in rehearsal for the film . . . Diego and I were twenty when we were doing the film, playing characters who were supposed to be sixteen, so it was fun to make fun of that, but it also contributed to the evolution of our friendship. We became partners in crime, but in a much more serious way. It was great to work with Diego again. I grew up with him and, to use a football metaphor, we played very well together – because when one of us was about to pass the ball, the other instinctively knew where it was going. We were also able to share in each other’s goals. Isn’t football wonderful to use as a metaphor?

Making the film was incredible, one of the happiest experiences I have had. I would reduce it all to the seven-minute take at the end of the film when the characters are drunkenly talking and dancing in the bar.

Visions of Light: Emmanuel Lubezki at work on Y tu mamá también

Everything was really precise and synchronized, all the crew having at least six tasks to perform, and yet through teamwork and spirit it all came together perfectly. I also think that this scene reveals Alfonso’s true qualities as a director. He would arrive at the location and talk through with the actors and block the scene and then think about where to put the camera. It is the good directors who do this. They work around the story, the actors and the life of the film.

I have many favourite scenes. I love the scenes where Tenoch and Julio fight, and I also love all the car scenes where they are talking.

It would have been much easier if the guy I had to kiss weren’t my best friend in real life! That was like jumping into cold water. But you just have to go for it. And in terms of my career it was very liberating, because after that I was no longer able to be pigeon-holed. I was able to do what I wanted.

There were obviously instances of men who completely disagreed with it. It must have touched a very raw nerve inside them. On the other hand, the majority really went for it and understood it. I was at screenings where people were clapping. This is another aspect of the Y tu mamá experience that I really savoured, seeing how deeply involved people became when watching it. I’m also not specifically referring to Mexico but also abroad, and especially in England where people also shouted and clapped. People became very passionate about it. Which is surprising.

Released in Mexico by Fox, Y tu mamá también grossed over $9.5 million dollars. In the UK, where it was released by Icon, the film took £1.6 million, and in the US, with ifc as its distributor, $13.6 million. The box-office performance was equally impressive throughout Europe and other key territories.

carlos cuarón: I was surprised by the success. We have a huge young population in Mexico, and we knew it, but we weren’t pre-determined about it. We made the movie we wanted and didn’t give a fuck about marketing or how to sell it.

I have my own thermometer when writing, and with this specific script I was laughing a lot, even though it’s not a comedy. I had a feeling it was going to work, but perhaps not as well as it did. In the first place, with these things, you can never tell. In the second place, when I work, whether it’s with Alfonso or whoever else, I’m not thinking in terms of box office or festivals and awards. I just want to do my thing.

Cooling off: Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna in Y tu mamá también
Y tu mamá también: Gael García Bernal

alfonso cuarón: The film, ultimately, is about themes that are very universal. It’s about the experience of searching for identity: and that breaks boundaries of country, class, sex and race. It’s also an on-going process. As Freud remarked, this search for identity doesn’t stop until you’re dead. Also, happily for me and for the film, we touched a chord with a lot of people. We also saw a reality in Mexico that a lot of people were completely unaware of. But if we had made a documentary then a lot of people wouldn’t have cared and consequently wouldn’t have seen the film.

The journey that Tenoch and Julio take subtly reveals a lot about the country itself. Voice-over narration (a device sparingly used throughout the film) reveals that a migrant worker is killed in an accident because of a poorly located pedestrian crossing and a fisherman loses his livelihood to the economically lucrative tourism industry.

carlos cuarón: Those moments were certainly spotted by critics abroad. In Mexico, many of the critics didn’t see it, perhaps because it’s their reality and for them was nothing new. This is not true for all critics. The reviews were 80 per cent positive; the other 20 per cent totally missed it.

leonardo garcía tsao critic/academic: Mine was one of the few negative reviews it got. I think that it is very well made and I think that Alfonso is technically a very skilled film-maker. I also think however that he is very superficial. He is perfect for Hollywood. I thought the narration was a ploy to imbue the film with a false depth.

alfonso cuarón: I was in Venice when the film opened there – and it went on to win two prizes in the writing and acting categories – and at the press conference a journalist described the film as reactionary and bourgeois and how dare I, in a country filled with many social and economic problems, do a stupid film about some kids who want to get laid. My answer to him was that I thought he was racist. Why is it that they can accept a European filmmaker dealing with things in a middle-class or universal context, but Latin Americans are put in a box where we have to make social-realist ideological films? In the 1960s Mexico and Latin America were part of this very ideological movement of film-making; and I think that these overtly political films are so important and it’s great that they exist. But it’s like saying that Mexican artists have to continue to produce murals because Diego Rivera[3] was a muralist and so politically aware. My approach and the criticisms the film suffered were also in part due to the fact that, for good or for bad, I have been living outside of Mexico for twelve years now but going all the time back to Mexico so that I can comprehensively follow the social events that are going on.

A lot of the things that I represent in the film have social connotations, but for Carlos and me what was more important was the human dynamic. Part of the point was how oblivious Julio and Tenoch are to the world around them. Yes, they’re trying to get laid, and for them their biggest problem turns out to be the fact that they have betrayed each other with their respective girlfriends. But around them an entire culture is being stripped right in front of their eyes.

guillermo arriaga writer: I think that Y tu mamá también is among my five favourite films of the last five years. I didn’t go to the premiere; I paid my money and went to see it in a very small rural Mexican city where the audience was quite macho. You cannot imagine the silence when Gael and Diego kiss. I was absolutely thrilled, and very moved by it. I called Carlos the moment I left the cinema to tell him that I viewed it as a major moment for Mexican cinema in an international sense.

gael garcía bernal: Well, it certainly doesn’t patronize or ridicule its characters; it respects them. This struck a chord all over the world because it was a very universal film despite being set in a specific location with a specific social strata.

There was widespread surprise when the film was rated ‘18’ within Mexico, thus prohibiting a teenage audience – who might perhaps prove most receptive to seeing their loves and the challenges they face presented on screen – from actually seeing it.

carlos cuarón: The rating thing is very stupid. Alfonso and I were the first to charge the ratings system in Mexico as being illegal because it goes against the freedom of a parent to raise their child. The film was given a certificate that restricted it to only those of eighteen years of age and older. As a responsible parent, I should be allowed to bring my kid. We criticized the fact that the ratings system in Mexico is controlled by the Department of State. We want it to be an autonomous entity, just like the Electoral Institute in Mexico or the Commission of Human Rights in Mexico. Starting from that, we wanted the whole ratings system changed. In the light of all the fuss that we made when our movie was released, the new administration claimed that they reviewed the whole thing when patently they didn’t. We are still against the members of the board deciding whether or not I am responsible enough to bring my kid to the movie.

gael garcía bernal: The decision was shameful. It was, once again, the government depriving Mexican people of respect. It was complete censorship. In other places that we went to, such as Chile, Argentina and Spain, the film was given a less prohibitive certificate, which encouraged parental guidance. The Mexican government never grows tired of ridiculing people. In Mexico there are some laws and restrictions relating to cinema that are almost avant-garde and quite cool, but on the other hand we have these faceless bureaucrats who establish by their own paradigms and parameters what a film is and who it should be seen by.

People have claimed that the controversy generated by the film was beneficial to it but I don’t think that’s true. Without its restrictive certificate, many more people would have seen it. Mexico is a young country – 50 per cent of the population is under thirty – and so many more young kids would have been able to see the film. Those that did had to break the law to do so, thus creating a really fucked-up double moral standard.

alfonso cuarón: We sued the ratings board . . .

It’s one of the many ways in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri) was very clever in disguising censorship with civic and democratic masks. There is an organization called rtc – Directorate of Radio, Television, and Cinema – and they are the ones who control the airwaves. There is a case to be made in terms of legislation to prevent the guys from the big corporations from completely taking over, but we are talking about a corrupt country. In terms of censorship, every single film that is released in Mexico has to go through a ratings board. I am all for ratings except this ratings board is controlled by the government, so it is political censorship. The person running this bureau has been the same person for the last twenty years, and so everything depends on the humour and taste of this person. This person feels himself to be a liberal and often overrules his advisers and has made comments such as: ‘My colleagues felt this should be an “18” but I think this is an important film so I am giving it a “15”.’ So whoa! It is this one person who decides.

I am all for ratings, but I also believe in parents being empowered in terms of making decisions as to what their kids can and cannot see. I think it is important to make people responsible but I also believe in freedom and I think that freedom and responsibility are very similar. That was part of our plea; more involvement from parents.

The most important thing is to take the ratings system away from the government, to create a board that is independent of government and of any private group. In this group you would have representation of people made up of different religions, races, political persuasions, etc., and that would be, in my view, a better way to proceed. Obviously the government would be involved but they would not be in control. Our campaign revealed that the ratings system is illegal and that it contravenes a lot of fundamental legal rights in Mexico. The government is responding basically by ignoring us and hoping we will go away, but we still have the legal action in place. The government felt the necessity to show that they were the good guys and created a congress to define new ways of rating but it is typical of the government that I could not attend but Carlos was invited and went and listened to a series of speeches. It felt like a preliminary thing but the next day in the papers it was reported as the sitting of a panel in which people such as Carlos Cuarón supported and agreed with everything that was said. I mean, he was just present; he didn’t even open his mouth or anything!

You have the same problem in the UK; I’m thinking of the furore around the language in Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2002). Kids speak like this, but if they want to see a film about themselves they have to see one that shows how a censor would like them to speak. Why are they so afraid of kids seeing themselves the way they are? By censoring it you are not going to stop kids speaking like this. By censoring a movie in which kids have sex you are not going to stop them. With Y tu mamá there were a lot of parents and sexual educators who were promoting the film to be seen by the parents and by the kids and for them to have conversations about it.

Then the board said it wasn’t about the sex, it was about the drugs. We realized that Almost Famous (2000) by Cameron Crowe had a much higher use of drugs but that was rated a ‘B’, the equivalent of a ‘15’. This is also a Mexican-film and an American-film thing. Their attitude is that you can see Americans using drugs but not Mexicans because, hey, we don’t use drugs.

We were also very pissed off with Fox, our distributor, when we began legal proceedings because they made it clear that they didn’t want any part of it. It’s sad that a country that is supposedly going through democratic change still has an institute in which the same guy is still in power.

leonardo garcía tsao: It pandered. That’s why Alfonso and Carlos were so outraged that the film got a restricted rating. It was a publicity ploy to claim that they had been censored. In Mexico anyone can get into the cinema once they have paid for their ticket. There’s no real control. The Cuarón brothers are very smart.

Y tu mamá también: Verdú and Luna

alfonso cuarón: I consider Y tu mamá a cousin to Amores Perros and I think that this is true for audiences in Mexico too. For many years in the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican cinemas there were melodramas and a romanticized idea of reality, and you would be aware of class difference but it was so romanticized that you would always fall for the idea of the servant marrying the rich guy. This romanticized reality was taken over by the soap operas. And what happens now is that audiences in Mexico want to see something that is very direct and which presents reality as it is. They want to recognize themselves; they don’t want a romanticization of their lives. In that sense I think that Y tu mamá and Amores Perros are cousins, because both deal with a society that is fractured by class.

guillermo del toro: What is wrong in doing Y tu mamá, a film described by some Mexican critics as Beavis and Butthead, as a sex comedy/road movie in which we recognize our social identity? This film took a proven generic mould and turned it on its head. Where is the sin in that? This is what makes it good.

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Another Mexican success of 2001 saw the return of Guillermo del Toro to Mexico for the purposes of a long-cherished endeavour.

bertha navarro producer: Guillermo had done Mimic, and it was very tough. He tried to make a personal film in impossible circumstances. The end of Mimic actually has nothing to do with del Toro, and he was very divided by the compromise. After that experience he wrote many scripts. And several projects, including The Count of Monte Cristo with Coppola, fell through. So we felt, ‘Why not now make The Devil’s Backbone?’

guillermo del toro: I had been trying to make the story fit with the Mexican Revolution for many years, and it just wasn’t working. For one thing, I realized that the Mexican Revolution has never ended, and secondly it was a very complicated mess with factions being subdivided into other factions. There were a series of intestinal wars in Mexico that didn’t stop until the 1930s or later. It was very dirty metaphorically, and I wanted the war to be a war that happened within a family, an intimate war where brothers killed brothers – and that was the Spanish Civil War. I wanted a war movie where you could have the war be geographically far away but also have it created within the walls of the orphanage in a very metaphorical way.

Del Toro’s script is set in 1938, with Franco’s forces poised to rout the Republicans. Ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), son of a fallen Republican, is sent to a remote orphanage run by sympathetic leftists Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Casares (Federico Luppi). But there is much there to unnerve him, from the attentions of bullies to an unexploded bomb in the courtyard; the ominous approach of Franco’s troops to the orphanage’s walls; teacher Conchita’s (Irene Vicido) brooding boyfriend Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), and the presence of the ghost of a boy called Santi, who ominously predicts, ‘Many of you will die . . .’

Guillermo del Toro and ‘kid’ on the set of The Devil’s Backbone

guillermo del toro: You have Fascism represented by Eduardo Noriega’s character Jacinto, and you have the people, represented by the children, and you have the old Republicans represented by Marisa Paredes [Carmen] and Federico Luppi [Casares]. All of them felt they were safe from the effects of the war when they were really re-enacting the war, bit by bit. I felt that the overwhelming image of the movie was the ghost looking at the bomb. It’s a movie that doesn’t say that everything ends up happily; it says that the bomb never exploded, the ghost never left the place and the only thing you have as a positive is that the children are going to march.

I have a very early drawing that I made when I finished Cronos that featured a man drowning in a pool with blood floating from his forehead. It was taken from below and I loved this image. All of a sudden I thought, ‘What if a ghost of a guy that has been thrown into a pool with an injury to his head actually walked around with a trail of blood? I found this idea so compelling that I thought this would be the only terrifying thing about the ghost. The rest of it would be like a porcelain doll. It would actually be quite a sad ghost. The idea of showing it very early in the movie was my hope that the movie would eventually clarify for the audience that you shouldn’t be afraid of a ghost – you should be afraid of the living. Never fear the dead, fear the living, they are the real danger.

bertha navarro: Spain for him was great on The Devil’s Backbone. It is still a relatively small film in terms of budget but I think that the film would have been difficult to make within Mexico.

Latin American co-production certainly opened up new possibilities for funding. This is especially true of co-productions with Spain; this has been a valuable source of finance. The Devil’s Backbone was a very special thing. Pedro Almodóvar had seen Cronos and met Guillermo at a festival in Miami, and invited Guillermo to come to him if he ever felt that he had a project that could be made in Spain. Many years passed and we called them to say that we do have a project, and they said, ‘Great!’ They met up again at the Guadalajara Film Festival and the film happened very quickly after that.

guillermo del toro: I had a very happy experience on the film. Film has shown me over the years that you have to remain malleable when faced with financial problems. You have to find the positives under these circumstances. There was a very clear way for me to finance The Devil’s Backbone, and I had already set it during the Spanish Civil War so I didn’t have to make changes as financial considerations as I already was creatively engaged before talking to Pedro and Augustin Almodóvar. I also felt that I would benefit from the international cast and the international experience, and I was happy to open myself to it. I learned a lot from working in Europe – I especially loved the fact that they drink wine at their lunch break . . .

imcine’s approach is very archaic and elitist. It’s also a very classicist. It is almost a form of racism. When people ask me why I went to the States I tell them that I would have been perfectly happy to make movies in Mexico for the rest of my life but there was never an open door, you were always, every time, having to kick it open. Even as late as 2000 when we were trying to raise money for The Devil’s Backbone I went to the head of imcine and asked what it was that I was doing wrong. I pointed out that my movies had made a lot of money internationally, had won a lot of prizes internationally and yet you refuse to support me. They said that they didn’t think I needed their support. I replied that of course I need it. No. I didn’t need it for a project like Mimic but this is me trying to do something else. It was a no-win relationship, and has continued like that.

Few people know this but Guillermo Navarro and I were meeting at my home in Austin to discuss the visuals of The Devil’s Backbone while Guillermo was shooting Spy Kids for Robert Rodriguez. I was showing him some Hammer movies and some Mario Bava movies. He literally arrived at the set of The Devil’s Backbone with only half a day of prep. He shot Spy Kids to a Friday, travelled on Saturday, prepped for half a day on Sunday and then began shooting on Monday. But we didn’t feel rushed because we know each other so well. After we had tested different kinds of filters for the brown sepia tones, we knew exactly what we were doing from that moment on. Guillermo is one of those brothers that you are not given genetically but that you somehow find through life. We bought our house only because Guillermo lives near by.

The Spirit of the Beehive is a seminal movie for me. I even modelled the girl in Cronos exactly on Ana Torrent. That movie, along with the films of Buñuel and the films of Hitchcock, is almost a part of my genetic make-up, buried deep in my dna. Visually, however, I tried to make The Devil’s Backbone completely different from other Spanish Civil War movies. They normally texture it in a different way. I wanted to get the dryness of the landscape and the fact that the orphanage seemed to be almost out of a Mervyn Peake novel – a lonely building in a land of nothing.

One of the things that intrigued me about the Spanish Civil War – and indeed something that intrigued me about any war, even as a kid – was, ‘Why don’t they go away? Why don’t they hide in a cave? How can you not see the oppressors coming?’ All these little musings are because war is not really a purely geographical occurrence. It really permeates our everyday existence and every act that we do.

The American release of The Devil’s Backbone was at a very unfortunate time – shortly after the events of September 11th. Seeing the film in a post– September 11th climate made me understand things in the movie that I hadn’t understood before. It became more relevant. I also understood that when the worst possible situation occurs, you don’t have to be near it – it comes to you.

There are a number of visual references to Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel in the film: for example, a wooden leg worn by the Marisa Paredes character, and a very Hitchcockian keyhole shot.

Something wicked this way comes: The Devil’s Backbone
Marisa Paredes as the Buñuellian Carmen in The Devil’s Backbone

guillermo del toro: Both Hitchcock and Buñuel have great keyhole moments. There is a great one in El (1952) that involves a knitting needle ready to poke out somebody’s eye. In order to get our shot we made an over-sized keyhole. I used to call it the Hitchcock keyhole because it was like one of the over-sized props that Hitchcock used to get depth of field in films such as Dial M for Murder (1953) or the cup of tea that Ingrid Bergman drinks in Notorious (1946). It’s certainly a Hitchcockian–Buñuelian moment, and I dreamed for so long about this sequence and wanted so much for it to be successful. When I finally made it, I was filled with a childish sense of glee at being a little closer to my bastion of heroes . . .

[1] Perhaps the best known of these, Me la debes (You Owe Me), is included on the UK dvd of Y tu mamá también.

[2] The car is called Betsabé. In the booklet that accompanies the aforementioned dvd there is a whole chapter devoted to the car and its history.

[3] Born in Guanajuato in 1886, Rivera is thought the greatest Mexican painter of the twentieth century, credited with the reintroduction of fresco into modern art and architecture, famed also for radical political views and his romance with Frida Kahlo.