​The 80s Mexican Sci-Fi Show That Spawned Hollywood’s Best Filmmakers

Before they were Hollywood's "Three Amigos," Alfonso Cuarón, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Alejandro González Iñárritu worked on <i>La Hora Marcada</i>, a <i>Black Mirror</i>-esque sci-fi show in Mexico.

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Feb 28 2015, 1:11pm

Emmanuel Lubezki. Photo via Flickr user disneyabc

The 2015 Academy Awards marked the second year in a row that Mexican filmmakers have taken home the Oscar for Best Director and Best Cinematography. On Sunday, Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu took home this year's Best Director and Best Original Screenplay awards. Last year Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for his work on Gravity. To top it all off, the director of photography on both Birdman and Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki, scored two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Cinematography.

Iñárritu, Cuarón, and Lubezki, along with fellow Oscar nominees Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim), Guillermo Navarro (Pan's Labyrinth), and Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) are all part of a generation of Mexican-born auteurs who have managed to make their mark on Hollywood. The origins of these goddamn gifted Mexican filmmakers can be traced back to 1988, with the premiere of La Hora Marcada (The Marked Hour), a Mexican television anthology series devoted to tackling experimental horror, science fiction, and urban legends from Latin America. Think of it as the Mexican answer to The Twilight Zone and a predecessor to Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker's episodic sci-fi sensation. La Hora Marcada had only one recurring character: a "woman in black" with a large hat and veil who wouldn't seem out of place on today's American Horror Story.

Cuarón started as an assistant director on the TV show, and Del Toro worked in special effects and makeup. The two young filmmakers bonded quickly over their creative differences after Cuarón directed his first episode for the series based on a Stephen King short story.

According to Cuarón, Del Toro called him up after watching his episode and bluntly criticized his adaptation. "If the story is so good, then why is your episode so bad?" Del Toro asked. If egos had played a role, the quip might have soured the two men's working relationship. Instead, Cuarón and Del Toro began a creative partnership that has lasted almost 30 years.

"I'll tell him if it's [garbage]," Del Toro told the Los Angeles Times. "That's what friends do."

La Hora Marcada was canceled in 1990, but not before Cuarón got the chance to write and direct six episodes. Some of Cuarón's most memorable Hora Marcada storylines involved an amusement park haunted by the ghosts of children and a young man who switches bodies with a serial killer. As for Del Toro, he ended up writing five episodes and directing six. His episodes tended to go more for a mind fuck rather than a straight-up horror story. One episode of La Hora Marcada shared Del Toro's take on a Soylent Green-inspired restaurant serving human meat, a time machine used for colonization, zombies meeting up at a fast food restaurant, and an alien invasion. Another of Del Toro's episodes tells the story of a seemingly friendly ogre who rescues a young girl from her abusive father only to bring her down to the sewer to eat her alive. The episode in particular has many parallels with Del Toro's Academy Award-nominated film Pan's Labyrith, about a girl who discovers nightmarish creatures while confronting the real-life horrors following the Spanish Civil War. Lubezki was responsible for the cinematography in the ogre episode and seven more Hora Marcada episodes, most of which were written and directed by Cuarón or Del Toro.

Although short-lived, La Hora Marcada gave young Mexican directors and filmmakers an outlet for exploring the horror genre on television in a country that is largely dominated by the nonstop production of telenovelas. For the most part, Mexican telenovelas have always had a predictable storyline template: the poor virginal ingénue, the wealthy, wicked family, the happily ever after. By sharp contrast, La Hora Marcada was a departure in form and subject matter, providing Cuarón, Del Toro, and Lubezki more creative freedom to experiment with storytelling and practice different filmmaking techniques.

Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore

"There was no variety of films and few options for talent. The industry was dominated by telenovelas and cheaply made films about escort bars," Mexican film critic Arturo Aguilar told NBC News. "But [these filmmakers] began making new, interesting films about issues such as HIV, experimental horror films, or dramas with different storytelling techniques."

After the series ended, there wasn't an immediate equivalent on Mexican television, so these filmmakers opted for making movies instead. Unbeknownst to them at the time, this would mark the beginning of the Mexican indie film renaissance of the 1990s. Cuarón went on to direct Solo con Tu Pareja, a quirky romantic dark comedy about AIDS and suicide that became an instant hit in Mexico. Del Toro then released his vampire horror movie, Cronos, which grabbed the attention of Harvey Weinstein and led to Del Toro's gig directing the giant-bugs-in-the-sewer thriller Mimic for Miramax. After completing the cinematography for Cuarón's Solo con Tu Pareja, Lubezki signed on to be the cinematographer for Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), the critically acclaimed drama that helped to put Mexico on the global film map.

It was around this time that Lubezki introduced Cuarón and Del Toro to Iñárritu, who was working as a prominent rock radio DJ and had composed the score to four Mexican feature films. It wasn't until Iñárritu released Amores Perros, a gritty film that premiered to a standing ovation at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and received an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, that he cemented his place as a Mexican auteur to watch.

"It opened the flood gates." Del Toro told the LA Times about Amores Perros.

Iñárritu went on to direct 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful and of course, Birdman, his Oscar-winning film about a delusional and frantic actor going through a career menopause. Today, Iñárritu, Cuarón, and Del Toro are known as the "Three Amigos" in Hollywood, the most prominent ambassadors of the Mexican point of view in contemporary film.

Alejandro González Iñárritu on set. Photo via Focus Features, Wikimedia Commons

But it's cinematographer Lubezki who continues to be the connecting creative force between them. He introduced them, after all. Over the years Lubezki has depicting gritty real-life horrors like psychological tension, isolation, suicide, and the supernatural, mixed in with a distinctly Latin American affinity for magical realism. In his 1990 Hora Marcada episode, a man yearning for decides to commit suicide only to be convinced otherwise by his dead brother's angel, who has a dull day-to-day existence even in the after-life. Similarly, in Birdman, when Michael Keaton's character tries to regain his former glory, his superhero alter-ego pays him a visit. But instead of bringing him back down to Earth, the superhero taunts Keaton to jump off a building and fly. The theme resurfaces to more uplifting results in Gravity. After Sandra Bullock's character gives up all hope of finding her way back down to Earth and begins contemplating suicide, George Clooney's character appears, literally out of nowhere, to give her one last reason to live.

Lubezki worked with Cuarón on another Hora Marcada episode exploring how visits from the afterlife (whether spiritual or imaginary) have a role in assisting or preventing suicide. A man's tragic death separates him from his beloved, so he comes back as a ghost and possesses the body of another guy to try and convince his girlfriend to commit suicide so they could all be together in the after-life. Bizarre adolescent love triangles are a popular theme in Lubezki and Cuarón's work. Think of the steamy threesome in Y Tu Mama Tambien. To a certain degree, the theme even appears in the third Harry Potter film. Cuarón managed to create an eerie, morally ambiguous atmosphere in an otherwise family-friendly flick, making Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the most critically acclaimed film in the franchise.

"Cuarón brought to the Potter franchise a quality curiously missing from the two previous films: magic," wrote movie critic Christopher Orr in The Atlantic.

It's magic that Cuarón learned alongside Lubezki and Del Toro while working on La Hora Marcada.

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