When “A Little Princess” opened in May 1995, almost no one knew Alfonso Cuarón’s name. Big stars didn’t want to work with such an untested director, who had made only one feature in his native Mexico. Those A-listers might regret that decision today.
While “Princess” floundered at the box office, it won rapturous reviews and found a second life on home video. It also gave Cuarón his career. He’s become one of the world’s most lauded filmmakers, capable of making intimate character studies seem big (“Y Tu Mamá También,” “Roma”) and big blockbusters seem intimate (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Gravity”). His efforts have yielded two Oscars for Best Director and a major cultural reconsideration for his underrated masterpiece “Children of Men.”
“In a matter of 20 minutes, I was sold on him,” Mark Johnson, a “Little Princess” producer, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I can’t say that my instinct is that good, because I’m probably wrong as often as I’m right, but in this one, I just knew he was right. One thing I’ve discovered about Alfonso is that he has a very active spiritual life. And somehow he was able to suggest that, so that I knew that that would govern his take on this movie.”
Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” marked the third adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 novel of the same name, following a 1917 version starring Mary Pickford and a 1939 one starring Shirley Temple. With a script written by Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”) and Elizabeth Chandler (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), his edition was the rare contemporary kids film that looked gorgeous and lent proper weight to children’s emotions. It’s a story about loss filtered through the experiences of kindhearted Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews), who is sent to a New York boarding school run by a spiteful disciplinarian (Eleanor Bron) while her father (Liam Cunningham) serves in World War I. When he is reported dead, the headmistress relegates the newly penniless Sara to the scullery, where she befriends a young Black servant (Vanessa Lee Chester) subjected to the white students’ racism. They get a happy ending, but not before enduring cruelty.
Even by today’s standards, the film is immaculate. It doesn’t pander to its audience with hyper antics, nor does it overexplain the thematic severity. In fact, despite the plot’s tragic implications, the whole thing is rather lovely, from the velvety aesthetics to the gentle pacing. Cuarón imbued “A Little Princess” with magical realism, which makes for a nice double feature alongside 1993’s “The Secret Garden,” also based on a beloved Burnett novel.
“Princess” turns 25 this month, and I spoke to Cuarón by phone about his fondness for the movie and where it stands among his storied oeuvre.
In 2013, you said “A Little Princess” was your favorite out of all your movies. Do you still feel that way?
I guess I do. [When] I finish a film, I don’t watch it again. What I keep is the memory of the experience. The experience of doing that film was really, really, really, really beautiful. It was my first big — well, not big, but for me it was huge — studio film, and I had a beautiful story and a cast mostly of little girls that were between 5 to 11 years old. My son, who was the same age as the girls, spent some time on the set becoming friends [with them], and he even had a little part in the film as the chimney sweep. It was great — weekends with my son and some of the girls going to Disneyland, that kind of stuff. It happened in an almost seamless way in the sense of how a few things were developing.
When this movie entered your world, had you been specifically seeking an English-language Hollywood project to tackle?
I was developing a couple of other projects and also trying to develop something to do in Mexico. It was a couple of years after my first film, and I remember I was starting to get a bit anxious about things not happening. It was [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] who first mentioned the project because as a DP, he would receive way more projects than me, and he said, “Oh, I read a screenplay that you may like.” I read it, and I remember I was just halfway through the screenplay and I called my agent and said, “Hey, I want to do this film.” He said, “Yes, but that film’s at Warner Bros., and you’re developing something else there. It’s smaller than that one.” I said, “Yes, but I like this one.” He says, “Yes, but the thing is that I don’t think they will want to meet with you because you’re already developing something for them.”
Was that “The Perez Family,” which you were at one point attached to direct?
No, it was something different. I said, “Well, then, I don’t care if I have to quit the other project. I want to have meetings about this.” It was one of those things. I have the meeting. Bruce Berman was the head of the studio. He was amazing. I went into the room. It was a meeting that was not that long, and at the end he said, “OK, when do you start?” I was like, “Wow, really?”
Are you comfortable saying what the other project that you were developing was?
I better not because I have huge respect for the people who did it, and I have to say I loved every second of working on that other project. That’s the thing: I knew that that one was a more star-oriented film, and I have to say that the stars I had met when I was developing that ditched it. I know that they ditched it because they were not very excited that I was directing the film. I knew that because actually, one of the stars I met that didn’t want to do it — later on, when they changed directors, she ended up doing it. It was just that I was an unknown. I don’t blame the stars. That is just the way it works.
Eleanor Bron is wonderful in “A Little Princess,” but looking back, it surprises me that there isn’t a major A-lister in the Miss Minchin role. I could easily see Anjelica Huston or Glenn Close or any number of women. Was there a conversation at the studio level about casting a more commercial name, or even just a desire on your part as an emerging filmmaker?
No. I was not really craving working with a star. I just wanted to do the film with who I felt was great. I remember having seen Eleanor Bron in [the 1965 Beatles comedy] “Help!” and I found that was an interesting choice. I have to say the studio was just helpful. I had ambitions. I had these complicated scenes with visual effects, and I learned the day before that we were not going to be able to afford it. I remember that morning, getting to set. We started improvising. It’s the scene in which she bows to the Indian neighbor next door from the window. Liesel, who played Sara, was fantastic. I said, “Liesel, you twirl.” She started twirling. I said, “Yeah, that looks good. OK, just put some wind,” and they start putting wind. Then she said, “Yes, but I cannot see the wind.” I said, “OK, let’s have snow.” Everybody on the crew started suggesting stuff. Suddenly it happened. That was pretty much my favorite scene of the whole film.
The snow is such a beautiful image that speaks to why people love this movie: It respects children thematically and aesthetically. We don’t often get kids movies that look this handsome. I know it didn’t make a ton of money when it first opened, but —
No, it did very bad. That, I remember. Somehow Hollywood has this amazing thing: People make sure that you know when your film doesn’t really perform in the box office. But I have to say the people around were super supportive. We had very good reviews, and another thing was collaborating with Patrick Doyle. He did an amazingly beautiful score.
In what capacity did people let you know that this movie did not perform well?
Well, first they congratulate you, and everybody’s very happy about that. Then there’s always the whole thing of people coming and just saying, “Oh, it’s a pity that it didn’t make money.” Hollywood has this passive aggressive thing of being nice: “Oh, it was beautiful film. It’s a pity that it didn’t perform.” Why didn’t you just say, “I like your film”?
That’s a fair point. But it had a big life on home video and grew in the zeitgeist. How would you characterize the scripts that were offered to you after that?
I have to say it was a good period of my life in the sense that suddenly, projects opened up to me. They wanted me to do magical, whimsical stuff, of course, but at that time also I was doing a lot of traveling and stuff, and what I want to say is that I cannot blame anyone about my choices that happened after that one.
Are you speaking to “Great Expectations” in particular? Those reviews were not as warm.
Yes, in many ways. That was my choice, and I don’t regret it. I never learned as much in a film as working on “A Little Princess.” It didn’t last in the theaters. It just came and went. I said, “OK, it’s forgotten.” Then, later on it was nominated [for Oscars] for cinematography and production design, and I was very happy. I’m happy that people keep coming and saying, “Oh, I love that film.” It makes me happy because it’s a film that made me happy while I was doing it.
How would you describe the visual palette that you set out to use?
It’s different from the stuff I’ve been exploring in the last few films. I’ve been doing stuff that’s very objective, where the camera is just observing. With “A Little Princess,” the decision from the get-go was to do a very subjective film. Everything you see, you’re seeing from the point of view of the girl. That’s reflected with the height of the cameras. You’re always over her shoulder, never over the shoulder of another character. There’s a scene in a classroom where you see everything from her point of view, so you see the backs of the girls in front of her. We wanted to go into her perception when she has those acts of compassion. I remember doing it with a lot of conviction. I remember that everything was green. I was kind of obsessed with that color at that period of my life. The costumes, the sets, everything.
“A Little Princess” makes for an interesting companion piece with “Children of Men” because they were both box-office disappointments that later found very passionate fans.
That was passive aggressive. No, I’m kidding.
Yes, you’re right, I’m doing the Hollywood thing. But when you look back at those two movies, do you view them differently than “Harry Potter” or “Gravity,” which were immediate blockbusters, or even “Roma,” which was the toast of awards season?
No. When I finished “A Little Princess,” I was just so satisfied to have finished the film I wanted to make the way I wanted to make it. I remember seeing it and liking it. I said, “OK, this I like.”
Do you not usually have that experience when your films are complete?
I always say that the only reason to make a film is for what you learn for the next one. At the end of each project, I’m highly critical. “A Little Princess,” there was so much innocence going into that film. I’m talking about from a relatively novice filmmaker. I was a late bloomer. There was not so much pressure around it, nor expectations. Of course, in “Children of Men,” the expectations were greater because there was more money involved. I remember finishing “Children of Men,” and [once again] I did a film I wanted to do. But I recognized at that moment it was different because with “A Little Princess,” we would do screenings and you would see the emotional reaction of the people. “Children of Men,” I think, is one of those films that probably audiences have liked better with years. Maybe the zeitgeist was not the right one for when the movie came out. It was this thing of, “I did a film. I have the conviction of the film. But clearly, it is not of interest to people.” It was not very warmly received. I knew at the end of “Children of Men” that I wanted to keep utilizing the language that I was trying to develop in other projects. Whatever I do is only because of the experience of the other films I did before, the good and the bad experiences.
When you agreed to make “Harry Potter,” did part of you think back to how much you enjoyed “A Little Princess,” which is another kids movie based on a popular book?
I’m very grateful for “A Little Princess,” among other things, because I know that J.K. Rowling’s a big fan of the film and [“Harry Potter” producer] David Heyman is a big fan of the film. I was coming out of “Y Tu Mamá También,” which J.K. and David also liked, and actually they felt that it was an interesting combination for “Azkaban.” I remember it was such a different beast. In “A Little Princess,” there was stuff that I think has been in most of my films, dealing with relationships and social class and the place that you have in the world. When I started reading “Harry Potter,” I understood that there were a lot of things that I was intrigued by. I was a little daunted. It was more in the realm of fantasy than what I felt was my comfort zone. In “A Little Princess,” the fantasy itself was very specific chapters, where they were like illustration books. It was not really that our characters were involved in the fantasy.
It’s in their imagination.
Exactly, it was more the imagination. In “Harry Potter,” I had to embrace a world of fantasy, so it was a complete different thing. But what I respected immediately when I read the books is exactly what happened when I read the amazing screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler of “A Little Princess,” in which the universe is treated with so much respect. And children are treated with respect, not patronizing, because a lot of children’s films are very patronizing. This was treating them as human beings who have lots of periods of pain and who have truthful emotions. Then with “Harry Potter,” the material was already there, and you have [screenwriter] Steve Kloves taking exactly that more grown-up approach.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.