The Art of Screenwriting: Alfonso Cuarón
Writing is a challenging task not everyone is capable of, especially in the world of screenwriting. Thankfully, there are plenty of iconic filmmakers and screenwriters we can analyze and learn what makes their work so captivating. Of the greats, Alfonso Cuarón is a name that comes to mind for the best filmmakers working today.
Alfonso Cuarón is a filmmaker known for directing films in a variety of genres, including the family drama A Little Princess (1995), the romantic drama Great Expectations (1998), the coming-of-age road film Y tu mamá también (2001), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), modern sci-fi classics Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), and the semi-autobiographical drama Roma (2018).
Photo credit: NoFilmSchool
Alfonso Cuarón is best known for his stunning visuals, specifically through the use of long takes and moving cameras. Much of that is because of Cuarón’s writing style, that’s based on writing visually rather than just telling a story. Cuarón has stated throughout his career that every screenwriter should know that their writing is meant to be shown on a screen.
As obvious as a statement like that might seem, many writers forget the purpose of their script and instead think of it as a story they need to get through. A Cuarón script does an excellent job of creating a distinct visual, whether you’re watching or reading the story. It’s a way to showcase the work as it’s meant to be shown.
Furthermore, visual writing makes it easier for the director or production team to know what you envision. It makes it straightforward to know who agrees with your vision and what the case will be moving forward. Regardless, a story without good visual writing isn’t a good screenplay.
Example from Children of Men:
OVER BLACK, a news report:
…the world was stunned today by the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet
INT. CAFE DAY
Men and women standing, looking up. Sad and hopeless. Their middle-aged faces bathed in the pale light of the television. They are silently watching.
Baby Diego was killed in a bar fight in Buenos Aires after refusing to sign an autograph…
A man enters the coffee shop, making his way through the people: THEO FARON (55). Detached, unkempt, scruffy beard, glasses, Theo is a veteran of hopelessness. He gave up
before the world did.
Respecting the Story
Part of Cuarón’s success is because of his ability to respect the story he’s crafting. Going into every script, a writer should know and value the core principles of the story. If you don’t know what those respective are before writing, you need to map them out before beginning your script.
It’s about finding what resonates when that first idea pops into your head. When those core ideas are crafted, place them in your treatment and work around them (as long as they work). The goal should be to stay true to the themes and meaning of your film, meaning you shouldn’t let your story falter.
Cuarón is a unique filmmaker who can craft stories across various genres. From the staple that is Harry Potter to the emotional toll that is Roma, Cuarón can write a compelling story from an array of topics. Much of that is thanks to Cuarón’s belief that every film should have an overarching lesson or theme, regardless of genre or story.
Every detail in his films is essential, making the filmmaker prep carefully before moving on to a new project. One of my favorites of his is 2018’s Roma: a semi-autobiographical story inspired by Cuarón's upbringing in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. It’s heavy and dense in a way few films of that genre dare to be.
A lot can be said about writing and selling a writing project. There’s an entire industry based on enticing others to think whatever they’re offering will catapult them to becoming the next Martin Scorsese. Cuarón has gone on record many times stating that filmmakers and artists should only concern themselves with the art they’re doing. The rest will follow.
Considering how unique Cuarón’s scripts and films are, it makes sense that the filmmaker isn’t willing to sacrifice anything because a studio or marketing team suggests he does. Receiving criticism is one thing, but when it comes to writing, you have to improve your craft through practice. Don’t believe in any gain popularity quick schemes.
Screenwriting is a Language
Every writing lab discusses the notion of writing techniques. From screenplay formats to length to how long a scene description should be, all of it is related to learning the screenwriting process. As great and essential as that process is, many forget to log it as a separate entity from how something is typically communicated. It’s a way to express a potential film or television series, and Cuarón is a big believer in recognizing film as a language.