At home during the pandemic with no place to go, Jonás Cuarón suddenly found himself with time to give his kids the film education that his own father — four-time Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón — had given him when he was a boy. He showed them E.T. and The Goonies, Gremlins and Jurassic Park. These were the movies he'd loved when he was their age; they became the movies that inspired his latest film.
Like those seminal Amblin Entertainment releases of the '80s and '90s, Chupa centers on a boy, 13-year-old Alex, who travels back to Mexico to reconnect with his extended family and with his roots. There, he befriends a Chupacabra living on his abuelo's ranch. Like young Alex, Cuarón was about 13 when he first heard the legend of the blood-sucking beast.
"All these other legends like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster felt so distant," he explains to A.frame. Growing up in Xalapa — the coastal Mexican city where he lived with his mother, the actress Mariana Elizondo — "I remember it being all over the news. And since where I grew up was kind of in the woods, I was very intrigued by it."
The first purported sightings of the Chupacabra, which means "goat-sucker" in Spanish, were reported in Puerto Rico in 1995. As the myth spread, so too did sightings of the creature across Latin America. "Honestly, the fact that the myth is very Latin American in its nature — it spread all over the world, but is very based in Latin America — I always thought that was cool." Cuarón's children, on the other hand, had never heard of the Chupacabra, despite growing up in Mexico. He was going to change that.
Chupa, which hails from Oscar-nominated producer Chris Columbus, is not a horror movie, but instead reimagines the myth as a heartwarming family adventure. Early on, Cuarón made the decision to set the movie in the '90s. "It became very fun to play with that nostalgia," explains the director.
"Since my generation is working in cinema right now, I think a lot of projects are playing on the nostalgia of the '90s, but it's done in the U.S.," Cuarón adds. "It suddenly became very exciting to be able to play on that nostalgia, but show how the '90s were in Mexico."
In recreating the Mexico of his youth, the filmmaker "made sure to sprinkle in things from my childhood." The soundtrack features both Beastie Boys and La Maldita Vecindad, pioneers of rock en español. A Volkswagen Beetle that appears in the movie is the same car he had. ("That actually, when I was learning to drive, I crashed.") He cast Oscar nominee Demián Bichir to play a retired luchador, a childhood passion of his own.
"Demián came into the project being like, 'Are you sure I can play a grandpa?'" the director says with a laugh. With Cuarón at the helm, the relationship between Bichir's character, Chava, and his grandson became the heart of the movie. "That character became very important to me because, growing up, my grandmas and my grandfathers truly were the ones that explained to me who my family is, and where I come from."
Cuarón went back to rewatch and study Steven Spielberg's movies, specifically in how films like E.T. discussed deeper issues against the backdrop of a big adventure. Where that movie shows a family going through a divorce, Chupa broaches the grief over losing a parent — and how you move on with a little magic. "When you get to see magic as a kid on-screen, it really helps you believe that there's magic out there," Cuarón reflects. "But the contexts were rarely my own context. In Chupa, it was exciting to be able to do the same, but in a Mexican context."
If Cuarón has one regret about the making of Chupa, it's that his kids — 15-year-old Elias and 9-year-old Camilo — were unable to visit him on set, due to increased safety protocols. They had visited their dad when he was filming his 2015 thriller, Desierto, but "the younger one doesn't even remember." He adds, "This one, I really would've loved to."
He made sure they were involved though, getting their input at various stages of designing the movie's Chupacabra. "I think being able to see me create something magical, it's always exciting for them," he says. And as excited as he was to show them his film, Cuarón had to wait until the premiere, when the VFX were finished and the "Chupa" was brought to life on-screen.
"It was nerve-racking for me, honestly! They were the audience that I made it for, so we went to the screening and I was very, very nervous," Cuarón says now. "It's always hard to gauge the audience, but I tried to spend most of the screening looking at them. And they seemed to really connect with it. I was next to the little one and he seemed pretty captivated by the creature."
The filmmaker hopes to continue the trend with his next project: El Muerto, which casts Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio (aka Bad Bunny) as the titular Marvel superhero and masked luchador. To hear Cuarón explain it, Chupa was his homage to E.T., and before that, Desierto was an homage to Spielberg's Duel. He's keeping his cinematic references for El Muerto a secret for the time being. "Those I want to keep a surprise, because I think they're very exciting." Really, he's making it for his kids.
"I'm watching a whole generation watching a specific type of movies, and I do want to connect with that generation. I want to understand what they're connecting with." And it won't hurt if Cuarón's boys think their dad is a little cooler for directing a Marvel movie starring Bad Bunny. He laughs, "I hope so!"