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A Big Angel for ‘A Little Princess’ : Movies: Alfonso Cuaron’s spiritual nature convinced producer Mark Johnson that Cuaron was the director for the job.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alfonso Cuaron was just a name in Mark Johnson’s appointment book, an obligatory meeting the producer agreed to while searching for a director for the film “A Little Princess.”

Johnson knew Cuaron had made waves on the festival circuit with a low-budget Mexican AIDS satire titled “Love in the Time of Hysteria” and won a CableACE Award for an episode of Showtime’s neo- noir series “Fallen Angels,” but he was, in truth, hardly impressed by such credentials.

“I probably intended to cancel [the meeting] at some point, but I didn’t pay attention and we had to have it,” Johnson recalls. “I thought it was pretty perfunctory. And in a matter of 20 minutes, I was sold on him. 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.”

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Cuaron knows he wasn’t high on Johnson’s list. What did he do to change the producer’s mind?

“I stripped,” Cuaron deadpans. “He said, ‘OK, OK, I’ll give you the movie, just quit stripping yourself!’ ” Spiritual life, indeed.

“A Little Princess,” based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, relates the tale of Sara (Liesel Matthews), a bright, imaginative young girl placed in an uppity boarding school when her father heads off to fight in World War I. She immediately wins over the other children, including Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), an ostracized servant.

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When her father is declared dead, the wicked headmistress (Eleanor Bron) consigns Sara to the same dreary attic Becky lives in, and Becky must help her friend regain her sparkle and love of life. In Cuaron’s deft hands, the story becomes a magical, mystical tour of a precocious child’s resilient nature.

Actually, Cuaron, 33, does cop to that spiritual nature Johnson divined in him.

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“Life is showing me things that I’ve not seen before, that I’ve been skeptical of before,” Cuaron says. “A couple of years ago, I’d say, ‘Those things are crazy,’ but I’m not like that anymore.”

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“Those things” include the very making of “A Little Princess.”

“This movie was just meant to happen,” he says. “When I got the script, it was . . . vvvv” --he puts out his hand and it trembles--"like it was vibrating. Like it was glowing. I was at Page 17 and I called my agent, and said, ‘I’ve got to do this movie.’ What struck me was the father-daughter relationship, and some tone of mysticism that the whole thing had.

“I believe that movies come to you at the right moment and for the right reasons, even when you do bad movies--if you don’t succeed, maybe it’s because you weren’t meant to succeed,” says Cuaron, who at one point was set to direct “The Perez Family” (which, coincidentally, opened the same weekend as “Little Princess” in Los Angeles). He adds, “I don’t believe in coincidences anymore. They’re hidden messages that are given to you.”

As an example, Cuaron recalls a particularly disturbing “coincidence” that wound up benefiting the film. While shooting a World War I battle scene, he says, “one of the extras had an epileptic fit at the end of a very long day. There was an ambulance. He recovered, but he had amnesia. Can you imagine a guy waking up with amnesia dressed as a World War I soldier covered with mud and blood? That’s weird.

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“What’s weirder is that the point of that scene is that Crewe [Sara’s father, played by Liam Cunningham] is getting amnesia. They took [the man who suffered the seizure] to the hospital and he was fine the next day, but what struck me was watching this man in his mid-30s, he had this gaze when he had amnesia. He was like a lost child. So I told Liam, ‘That’s the approach we have to take with Crewe when you have amnesia--you are a lost kid.’

“All these coincidences. It was really weird.”

Cuaron worked on American features shooting in Mexico before making his first feature. Today, he divides his time between Los Angeles and Mexico and calls his suitcase “home.”

His 11-year-old son, Jonas, (who in turn divides his time between his parents, who have split up) was cast in “A Little Princess” in the small role of a chimney sweep. A little nepotism, perhaps? “Of course,” he says with a smile. “I’m Mexican. Ask our governors.”

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Jonas didn’t at all mind being surrounded by 20 young girls, Cuaron says, adding however that Dad’s job amounted to being part director, part camp counselor.

“I was abused by 20 little girls,” he says, smiling. “This feeling of total bliss and total horror, arriving to the set half-asleep at 6, 7, in the morning, and you’re trying to figure the day out. Then there are these 20 little girls and, as if on cue, they all run at you and try to hug you and tell you all these different stories at the same time. It’s beautiful and it’s horrifying.”

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Star Liesel Matthews, 11, recalls, “We put these pink sponge curlers in his hair. . . .”

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”. . . And we had these bobby pins and hair spray,” adds Vanessa Lee Chester, 10, who plays Becky. “And we would take all these pictures. And he would say, ‘No, we must set up the shot!’ And his hair was all ooo-ugh!

“How do you take direction from someone who looks like that?” asks Matthews.

“That’s one thing, for the girls, but imagine the grown-ups having to take direction from me,” Cuaron says. “They wouldn’t let me take the curlers off. I mean, is it Ed Wood or what? The next thing, I’m going to be wearing Angoras!”

Rave reviews for “A Little Princess” have, predictably, made Cuaron a much sought-after director. But, despite the deluge of scripts coming his way, he says he’s in no hurry to jump at the best offer.

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“What I want to do next,” he says, “is find that next script that vibrates in my hands.”


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