I AM Alfonso Cuarón: Roma
Academy Award-winning director of Gravity (2014), Alfonso Cuarón, premiered his next film Roma at this year’s Venice and Toronto fall film festivals. After receiving a seven-minute standing ovation, the film went on to win the Venice Film Festival’s top prize - the coveted Golden Lion Award.
Cuarón’s first black and white film shot in 65-millimetre, is a breathtakingly well-photographed and nostalgic tribute to his childhood memories of Mexico, during the 1970’s.
Roma follows the lives of an upper-middle-class Mexican family; the Gutierrez family and their maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Behind the scenes of their familial dramas, the large gap between Cleo’s restricted life and the wealth and privilege of the family she serves; highlights a story both the world and filmmakers often fail to acknowledge.
Roma (2018) official trailer - courtesy of Netflix
Here, the application of Cuarón’s uncompromising artistry lends a startlingly beautiful light on the subject; one that leaves an indelible impression of what cinema can do.
As a first-time cinematographer, Cuarón’s obsession with creating an authentic, semi-autobiographical story about his childhood and the people who influenced his life; has resulted in a deeply intimate, poetic, and arguably—his best film to date.
Cuarón, his producers and lead actors participated in a Q & A at the Toronto film festival lead by the recently retired CEO of TIFF, Piers Handling.
This is the edited transcript of their conversation:
This is a somewhat autobiographical film. But you have chosen to tell it in a very interesting way. You haven’t cast yourself as a serious character at the centre of this film. Can you talk about that choice?
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: Yeah, probably it’s because I never intended to do an autobiographical film.
When the idea manifested, it manifested with three elements: One, to tell the story of the real-life person who the character that Claire is based upon. Her name is Cleo - it’s dedicated to her. And the second one was that the tool to tell that story was my memory. And the other element that was a part of the DNA was that it was black and white.
For the producers: In this day and age, how difficult was it to support Alfonso’s decision to make a film in black and white?
Gabriela Rodriguez, Producer: I wasn’t aware of the challenge that it was going to be in terms of how specifically we had to choose the colours of the wardrobe, the textures on the walls, and everything—because, it needed to pop differently.
So, it was a process of getting used to understanding the film in black and white. He made all of us, including the crew, show him only black and white images of sets, wardrobes, fittings—everything. So, we got into that rhythm, I think, pretty quickly; in order to show him exactly what it was that he wanted.
The extraordinary thing about this film is that you shot it. It’s your first film in black and white. Emmanuel was not available. How difficult was this for you to be both behind the camera, in front of it, and shooting in black and white?
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: It was actually an accident. Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki); he was going to do the film. I wrote it, thinking of Chivo. Chivo and I always have to complain about, mostly; time for production and post-production. We allow a long time for both. And what happened is, I needed more time for pre-production. So, the dates kept on drifting and expanding and there was a point where it was impossible for Chivo to do it because he had other previous commitments.
There were a couple of possibilities of cinematographers that I admired it. But, I realised that the communication was going to be in English. And it was against the process that I wanted because I wanted to reconnect with the material, from the standpoint of my mother-tongue.
Mariana and Yalitza: Is this your first experience on screen? And if it was, what was that like to actually be in a film production, for the very first time, dealing with a very famous director?
Yalitza Aparicio (as Cleo): I have had no experience before; I’m not an actress. I didn’t study to become an actress. But it was an awesome experience, because for me, it was incredible to find out all the people that participate behind the scenes; that make up all the crew and the production team. I found it really, really, marvellous.
Mariana de Tavira (as Sra. Sofia): I am an actress. I’m mostly a stage actress in Mexico. But this process was absolutely different from any other that I’ve ever experienced because we didn’t have the script. We were learning day-by-day what was going to happen to our characters. We were dealing with the unexpected—all the time. Alfonso would speak to each actress separately, and then play the scene and put it all together. What we did was play this beautiful game that he invited us to play.
Nancy García García (as Adela): Yes, it’s correct. It is my first film. It was an incredible experience. I never expected I would work on a project such as this one. Of course, I had all the support and help of Alfonso. I am absolutely grateful about that. It was a fantastic experience.
David, being an executive who has been in this industry for so long, when a project like this comes to you, it’s obviously a risky project. Do you leap to this challenge? What is going on in your head?
David Linde, Executive Producer: At Participant, the company was founded by Jeff Skoll because he believes in the inspirational power of storytelling. And when I first heard the story from Alfonso, about three years ago, the combination of just these characters, the opportunity to express what you see through them, felt to me like an unbelievably original and also incredibly inspirational story. And so, it was one that we felt not obligated to, but one that was very intrinsic to the one that the company is trying to accomplish. So, it was almost a no-brainer.
Nikolás Celis, Producer: I read the script after we finished shooting. I think that we jumped into this boat and float(ed) in that boat, because I think if I had seen the immensity on paper before, it would have been a bigger experience. I think there’s a lot of love, a lot of passion, a lot of Mexico, and I’m happy to have collaborated on that.
This a film full of nostalgia. So, is it a gift for the world, is it a gift for Mexico, or is it a gift for Alfonso?
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: I’m more selfish. I really wanted to come to terms with the elements that forged me; starting with the women that forged me, the family that forged me, and the country that forged me. The nostalgic element, I don’t know, because, I was not attempting to be nostalgic.
The film doesn’t feel sentimental in any way. I mean, nostalgic, but it’s not really a sentimental film. Is that something in terms of the tone of the film that you were really, really careful about?
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: Yeah, this process was more irresponsible in terms of how to measure that stuff, in the sense that; I had a very precise script, a very detailed script, and the only person throughout that process who read that script was David Linde.
And he doesn’t speak Spanish.
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: There you go!
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu - we collaborate very closely throughout pre-production. Then in production; phone calls, panic, phone calls and stuff, and then post-production. But also, powered by Pavel Vladowski. For instance, I share my screenplays, he shares his screenplays. He’s my other Polish brother.
This one I didn’t want to be second-guessed because I knew that they would give me amazing notes that would create maybe better character arcs, maybe better structure. But this was one thing that I had to trust in those images coming out of my memory. So, I was not thinking so much about the tone, but trying to honour those impressions that I had.
Can you talk a little bit about the visual part of the film because it’s so very precise and very specific; the way the camera moves very slowly. Things have become seamless in this film. The cutting is not obvious; it’s not in your face. It’s very dream-like, almost.
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: Yes, I guess something consciously I was trying to do was to honour the sense of space—but also a sense of time—allowing the scenes to flow-in. The camera is more like a ghost that comes from the future and is in that place where you are just witnessing.
It has this thing also about the present looking to the past; the memory looks from the standpoint of today. That is the only way we can approach memory. And that was the reason also I discuss with Chivo while he was there; the idea of shooting black and white, but digital 65. So, it is contemporary filmmaking looking into the past.
What inspires you to make films about humanity, especially at a time like this?
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: It’s just that you just do what you feel is right. And it’s not only that, at least in my case:
Obviously, again, everything goes through a certain prism and it’s a prism of your understanding.
How difficult was that to imagine and shoot?
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: A lot of this comes out of those images that I was trying to honour. And it’s not even images; it’s impressions. You know, memory is a funny thing because it’s a combination of visual tactile impressions. Sometimes (they) are visuals, sometimes (they) are smells, sounds.
So, I was trying to honour that in the best cinematic way. Most of them were very detailed already in the script.
Gabriela Rodriguez, Producer: It was a tough…it was a long shoot. We shot for about 108 days. And we did six months or more of research. We tried to learn not only the visual aspects of everything that you see in the frame, but also what you hear.
So, he was very adamant that the sounds of the city, the sounds of the people that sell the merchandising outside the cinema; they had to be specifically of the correct intonation and the way that they spoke in that time. So, I think everything was very, very well-researched and executed to Alfonso’s specifications.
And they were, actually, I have to say, as demanding as he’s always been in other films. But this one felt like only he could understand. Only he had the script. Only he lived the time period. So, he would say “It doesn’t sound like that or it doesn’t look like that,” and we’re like “Ok”.
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: We had to look for street vendors that were still alive, or retired, or would just lend their voices.
Nikolás Celis, Producer: To say something about this; we tried to shoot most of the film in continuity, which helped everybody. We had the side of the production. We knew the locations. We knew the elements that each scene had. But we had to work on each scene in order, so we could also focus and get into the dynamic of the story.
So, that helped also in our approach towards Alfonso’s vision, not only of a period movie; but also, Alfonso’s childhood movie. You know—understanding that a dog not only had to be a cool dog; it had to look like his childhood dog. So, we had to go and find the pictures of Alfonso’s dog.
Alfonso Cuarón, Auteur: He’s great in the movie, I think.
Roma is Mexico’s foreign-language Oscar submission for the 91st Academy Awards and will have a limited release in theatres starting from the December 14 in the United States, as well as being released globally on Netflix.
About the Filmmaker
Writer, Director, cinematographer
Alfonso Cuarón Orozco is two-time Academy Award-winning Mexican film director, screenwriter, producer, and editor. He is best known for his dramas A Little Princess and Y Tu Mamá También, fantasy film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and science fiction thrillers Children of Men and Gravity.