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A still from ‘Roma’, Alfonso Cuarón’s film based on his Mexico City childhood
A still from ‘Roma’, Alfonso Cuarón’s film based on his Mexico City childhood

Alfonso Cuarón: Making ‘Roma’ felt like a life or death situation

  • Alfonso Cuarón, odds-on favourite for the Best Director award at the Oscars, reflects on his deeply personal film
  • I tried to do this film 12 years ago, maybe a little bit over 12 years ago, and I couldn’t dare. Now I felt, surely and slowly, that I have a greater security to do it in terms of my craft...

A car too big for the garage.

That sums up the sharpest detail in Roma as well as the film’s existence on Netflix, with television and home media too small to contain this monumental motion picture. On 22 January, Alfonso Cuarón made Oscar history by becoming the first person to be nominated for Best Director and Best Cinematographer in the same year. The Mexican director, 57, broke out with 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También and swept the Academy Awards with 2013’s Gravity, a feat he may now repeat. Roma has been nominated for 10 Oscars this year, and I was thrilled to interview Cuarón on the phone, not least because I consider his 2006 film Children Of Men one of the greatest English-language films this century.

Roma is born out of Cuarón’s childhood, and the central character of housemaid Cleo Gutierréz—played by Yalitza Aparicio—is based on the director’s own nanny, the now 74-year-old Libo Rodríguez. Set in Mexico City’s neighbourhood of Colonia Roma, the film is a touching, lyrical, and sometimes harrowing exploration of humanity and adversity, photographed in black and white by the director himself, making his debut as a cinematographer. Cinema is rarely as personal. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Alfonso Cuarón
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Alfonso Cuarón


‘Roma’ is a stunningly shot film, and I can’t quite get over the shot where the characters are shopping for a crib while the revolution breaks out outside. It doesn’t look like you missed Chivo (his usual cinematographer, the award-winning Emmanuel Lubezki) very much on this film. Will you be shooting more yourself now?

Oh, I will keep on doing it. I mean, I’m torn, because I really enjoyed it, but I also enjoy my collaborations, particularly my collaboration with Chivo, so I think that it would depend on the case. I definitely enjoyed doing it, and it’s something that I used very organically in my work.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that you named this semi-autobiographical film after Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film of the same name. What was the influence that film and Fellini had on you?

I would try not to have any conscious influence when I was doing the film, but inevitably all these great masters that are in my DNA are going to come through. And Fellini definitely is one of them. Even if the approach is different, he is one of the masters I admire, whose films I have seen so many times, and that is the thing about influence—sooner or later it is going to come up.

After ‘Gravity’ you had the opportunity to make any film you wanted, on any scale, and you chose this intimately personal film. Is this a film you had been wanting to make for a long time, or did you only feel prepared to make it now?

I tried to do this film 12 years ago, maybe a little bit over 12 years ago, and I couldn’t dare. Now I felt, surely and slowly, that I have a greater security to do it in terms of my craft and in terms of my position, but also, doing it was something that felt almost like a life or death situation.

What was the toughest scene to film? Since this is such a personal film, you were obviously striving for a different kind of authenticity. What was the hardest detail for you to get right?

I think, overall, the first and hardest thing for me was to make sure that the cast was right. The cast that was playing my family, and the location that would represent my home. We worked so hard on trying to get that very accurately. Then the thing is that once we were in that context, I was reproducing moments that were kind of painful. And I was trying to keep these moments at a distance, but at the same time I am trying to make them work with as many people as possible.

There were scenes that were logistically very challenging, like the scene you mentioned of the shop and the riot going on outside the window, because it’s a huge scene with a crowd and they were shooting in a location that is the original location where the events took place, but we were disrupting the traffic of a city. There was a lot of pressure. Some scenes are challenging emotionally, and others in terms of logistics.

My favourite detail in the film is the expertise required to drive that huge Ford into that tiny driveway. Was that something you specifically remembered from childhood?

Oh yeah! That is an intense memory of getting that car inside. It was a whole manoeuvre. It was pretty much like it was described in the film. It was a car too big for the garage, which is something that also speaks greatly about the social aspirations.

What did your family and friends think of ‘Roma’? What was the most interesting reaction from someone close to you?

Well, the most interesting reaction was Libo’s. Libo is the person on whom the character of Cleo was based. And when she saw the film, she cried and cried and cried, and she was not crying because of her own circumstance, but she was crying because she was concerned for the well-being of the children in the film. So, after all these years when she sees her own experience and the hardships she goes through, her concern is still only for the well-being of the children.

As a storyteller, a writer and director, did you learn more about yourself while making this film?

Unquestionably. With any film that you do, that is the point of doing a film. You want to come closer to yourself, and to come to terms with a lot of things about yourself. But this was so close just in terms of describing, very literally, one period of my life. I don’t know if I could salt my wound, but at least I recognized it.

This is such a visually striking film, with stunning sound design. Given its wide release on Netflix, aren’t you concerned details may get lost when people watch this film on their phones and their iPads? Everyone’s not going to be able to get to the big screen for this one.

I think that whoever sees the film on their telephone, they were not going to go the cinema, no matter how many years I would have kept this film in theatres.

Even if you’re very lucky, and you have an experience like Gravity, which was maybe two months in the theatres, nowadays people who want to see Gravity, they have to see it in some digital format. Way more people have seen Children Of Men on Blu-Ray or digital than they have seen it in theatres. Of course I love, and want to protect, the theatrical experience as much as possible, but sooner or later, it is inevitable that your film will live in other viewing formats.

What is important is diversity in cinema. Maybe the reach is even twice as important as having a theatrical experience.

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