Roma: Interview with Director Alfonso Cuaron about New Film, Venice Fest’s Most Critically Acclaimed Feature

Roma, which is Alfonso Cuaron’s most personal film to date, world premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Fest (in competition), courtesy of Netflix

The acclaimed film is now in limited theatrical engagement.

Press conference with AC:  Alfonso Cuaron (director-writer), YA:  Yalitza Aparicio (protagonist, non-professional actress), and DL:  David Linde (producer).

Alfonso Cuaron introduces the cast. Here we have Yalitza Aparicio, she plays the character of Cleo and this is her first film.  Here we have Marina De Tavira, she is an amazing, well technically trained actress.  And what was so interesting was the alchemy between these two women.  Also, I just want to say that they never had the screenplay, so they were learning every day the circumstances of the character and they haven’t seen the film.  They are going to see it for the first time at the premiere in the festival.

Going Back and Revisiting/Reliving Childhood Experience

Alfonso Cuaron:  You know why most people only have the chance to live once?  There is a reason for that.  I was not aware of the consequences.  And it was not until I was deep into the film that I realized how it was affecting me, in many different ways.  And it was a tough shoot and it was a long shoot and there was a lot of detail to be aware of, so not necessarily my mood was always great.  But then it’s when I realized that it had nothing to do with the film and the practical elements of the film, the problems in the film, what I was portraying.  I had to portray characters without any judgment.  Just to give you an example, that scene when the father leaves the mother, it was not really jelling, it was Marina and the other actor.  And I was in a horrible mood.  And I said let’s stop for a moment, and I went to walk on the streets of my childhood.  And when I arrived at the end of the street, I turned around and I said you have to come down.  Look, how many people have the opportunity to recreate their life?  Look at the street, it’s the street in which Eugenio Caballero, the production designer, double plated facades to make them, because they were transformed, to make them look identical to how they were 50 years ago.  We got exactly the same cars that were there 50 years ago.  We have extras that were neighbors I think and were the people who used to live around here.


Scene When Father Leaves Wife and Children

AC: I tell the actor, have you ever felt suffocated? He says yeah, I felt suffocated.  But what I am talking about is emotionally suffocated. I said yes, you feel suffocated, it’s hard to breathe.  The moment you get into the car, you start feeling better.  When you put it into first gear and start going away, finally you breathe after feeling suffocated.  We do the scene, and the scene is fantastic.  And then I realized I was directing the scene in which my father left my family.  And while I have always judged my father, suddenly I realized oh, this man was feeling suffocated.  That doesn’t take away if he was selfish or whatever.  But what he was feeling was that, and that was an angle that I had never realized.

Protagonist: Cleo the Servant

The real life character of Cleo, that for me was this nurturing, mothering presence.  This film forced me to see her as a woman, and as a woman that comes from a disadvantaged social class, and also from indigenous heritage, living in a society where class, money, and race are directly related.  So it was intense, and in some instances very painful.

First-Time Actress Yalitza Aparicio

YA:  For me it’s been a great adventure and an adventure that is still going on.  It has been wonderful to have this opportunity to meet such a wonderful person.

AC:  What I am amazed about, was that everything seemed effortless to her when we were working.  (to Yalitza) What did you find difficult?

YA:  If I had to think of some difficulties, I would have to say that in some scenes maybe I didn’t know what to do, so I received instructions. Alfonso would tell me to take it easy and to not be scared and he would tell me to think that it’s me and it’s about me, so I had to react and show my emotions.

Personal Movie Gestating for Long Time

AC:   I do not have a clear consciousness of when I started thinking of it.  I know that in 2006, I said in some interview that that was my next film.  It was an interview with Alejandro Guillermo with Charlie Rose, and we were talking about our next projects and I talked about this.  And then life happened and I couldn’t do it.  And it was good, because I didn’t have the tools at that time.  And I am talking about the resources on one hand, but frankly the emotional tools to do it back then.  And then a few years, two years ago maybe, meeting with David Linde and I said I decided that I had to do this film and I think it frankly has a lot to do with aging, and frankly you start looking back and you start looking back and confronting that memory and that past of who you are right now. And there’s a big conflict between those two things, there’s a tension between those two things.  And it’s when I decided to do the film that I told, we had a dinner…and he said, he didn’t read the script and he said, okay, let’s do it, start shooting, start prepping.  And then I was like okay, I have to do it.  And also, I wanted to go back in Mexico and do a film in Spanish about what I know, but using all the resources of the big Hollywood films, shooting 65mm, sound, Technicolor, digital effects that we see, but also shooting longer than any other film than I have done, we shot 110 days.  I mentioned Technicolor and I know it’s black and white, but to do the perfect balance in black and white, is super difficult, because we did it kind of like Ansel Adams, so we approached each frame by different tones.

Netflix Vs. Cannes Film Fest

AC:  Well that I don’t know because that’s an answer for two different institutions.  I am a filmmaker and I hope that they get into some happy place.  This discussion has nothing to do with cinema, this is a discussion merely of economic models.  So it has nothing to do with cinema.  So I hope the two economic models learn to talk to each other and figure out an organic balance.  I think it’s just good for everyone.

Car and Parking as Symbols

MDT:  Well that was a real fascinating moment because I needed to crash the car, but sometimes I just really did it really well, and he was like no, you have to crash, you really got into the garage perfectly.  And I was trying to crash and somehow it didn’t happen.  And I was also very scared because the camera was really, really near of where I had to push the brake.  And they were trying to make me confident so I wouldn’t push the brake before, so it was really fun.

AC:  The film obviously comes from my memories and it was that, but what I tried to do was from the standpoint again, that was my memory, the standpoint of understanding of the present, and I understand several things, or at least that is what I tried to convey.  One is the social aspect aspirations, to aspire to something bigger, so they have a luxury car too big for the house.  The father enters in such a maneuver, like very being precise and taking so much care and detail to that, but he is kind of absent with the family, something the Italians would relate to.   And also the car, that’s the reason at the very end that the car comes closer and closer and that is the last image as the car comes closer, is the symbol of the car is a crown, the king has arrived.  And the car also becomes a symbol of the presence of the man.  The reason why the mom, Sofia, crashes the car, is not necessarily because she is a bad driver, it’s because what that car means.  And the problem with Marina doing the scene was that she’s a great driver.  She gets the people, the stunts, to park the car like this, and they go park the car, and she goes perfect, without hitting anything.

Netflix Role in Making Roma

David Linde: I was just talking about this earlier.  As a producer you have several obligations and one is to support the filmmaker and help make the best movie possible.  But it doesn’t end with the movie being finished and it’s your responsibility to make sure the film’s presentation is in line with the filmmaker and in this case Alfonso and your ambitions and what is this that you would like to happen.  And we have spent a great deal of time with the Netflix folks and in talking to various distributors, it was very, very important to us that obviously the film be seen in theaters, but it was also very important to us that the film not fall into what I would call the “foreign language ghetto.” And it would not be defined by being in Spanish, and we wanted as many people to see it as possible.  And distribution these days is really about finding balance and finding balance that supports the movie in the best way possible and they are sitting right over there, and these are very competent and experienced executives.  And they were really articulate in talking about how they would accomplish that, and to be blunt, they were more articulate than anybody else.  And so we were really taken by the idea of finding that balance of both people being able to see it in a movie theater but at the same time millions and millions of people being able to experience it also.  And I am also very taken by the idea that over time, films tend to live or die over nine or ten months, but one of the interesting and beautiful things about Netflix is you actually know where it is and you can find it.  And you can find it very, very easily and it’s an interesting combination of the way that they are presenting the movie, the resources that they putting behind it, was ultimately very convincing and we jumped in.

Seeing Roma on the Big Screen

DL:  We have all known each other for a very, very long time and the world is changing. And it’s changing and I always fall back on my children, our children, I have a 22 year old and a 21 year old and a 24 year old.  And the reality is is that they are incredibly fast and they love movies and they watch movies and they watch them in movie theaters and they watch them on Netflix and other streaming services, and they are incredibly facile.  And they are facile in a way that they experience art.  And in this case cinematic art.  And I think we would all be really, really naïve to think that if we don’t support that kind of interaction with film, then we will not antagonize the audience. And it’s really, really important to not antagonize the audience today. And then the other thing, I actually think and I am going to sound like Netflix’s cheerleader here, but I actually, two things, one of which I think is that Netflix very unfairly gets criticized for being represented of something and this is an incredibly technological breakthrough that people are very, very responsive to and Netflix happens to have really figured it out in a really concrete way that is advancing, advancing, advancing.  So it’s not Netflix, it’s the path that Netflix has captured, something that is very interesting to audiences.  But going back to the end of last year, I can count, just off the top of my head, I can count about ten independent movies that grossed over $25 million last year.  And at least two of which grossed over $50 million.  So this idea that Netflix is hurting the business is bunco.  I actually think what is happening is that people are becoming more interested in movies.  One of the reasons they are becoming more interested in movies is because of services like Netflix.  You have to find this balance.  I try not to be a critical or cynical person, I try to be a positive person as much as I can, and  it’s all our responsibility to find the best thing possible for our movies.

AC:  Obviously the best condition, and this is a film done in 65mm with special sound. For most films, the ideal place to watch them is on the big screen.  And nevertheless, some people don’t have the time for that and some people, they don’t really enjoy it that much.  The habits of watching cinema has changed so much since I was a kid.  When I was a kid, it was about going to the movie theaters and whatever was available and chasing the cine-clubs, but there was always the dream of the access of cinema.  Something we are getting now, is an amazing access to cinema.  I hope that we can find a balance as David says, and I think everybody will win, because again, I think it’s a conversation about two economic models and they should talk and they will find an amazing solution. But what is, and I hear a lot of criticism towards Netflix which I kind of find unfair, because that company is supporting a huge diversity of films.  They are supporting a black and white Mexican film and then they are supporting a film from Korea, from Taiwan, Spain, from different places in a way that more conventional companies don’t necessarily do.  And that diversity is exciting.  If you see how many, forget about small directors and small films, small directors meaning new directors or not so well known directors that are having their break, I am also talking about important directors who cannot find the finance for their films, and Netflix comes and they finance those films.  And I think that is very exciting and I think we need to question that yes, the younger generation is aiming more towards these platforms and interestingly enough and not because of cinema but because of the series.  But that is nothing more than a by-product of the lousy product that most of a big percentage of theatrical distribution has, and a lack of diversity that distribution has.  We are not talking about the 90s or early 2000s and you have this amazing diversity of films and you could see “Titanic” and then see the great foreign films that were playing in all these theaters.  Now it’s very, very specific.  So I think in many ways it’s good news to bring back diversity in cinema.

Personal Film But Not About Him

AC:  I also want to make a point that the film is not about me.  My character is a secondary character, because this is a film about Cleo.  But I understand.  It was that confrontation between memory and my present.  And Mexico was a similar relationship and it became very internal and very complex.  Because even if I had gone to Mexico all the time, I go three or four times a year, this is the first time in 17 years that I really spent a long period of time living there and looking for locations.  I was very specific about that memory that I had.  And we would go to the same place where the events took place, because most of the scenes that you see were shot in the places where the events took place.  And when I would go to that place, I was just looking at the place the way that it was not.  So much has changed and also Mexico, that urban, there’s not urban gentrification or anything, so you go into this place and it’s completely transformed.  And then just comparing that to what it was.  And I am surrounded by a younger crew and everything is compared to the present.  So it was immediately saying well this is my country, listen to my accent, it is not Mexican, it’s Chilean Mexico City.  And nevertheless and in this lingo, I am not fully in this present because all of the present is just charged with that past.  And another thing is, this realization that nothing has changed.  But I cannot blame Mexico, because it’s the world. If anything, all of the things that we deal with in the film, race, class, money, the relationship with women, I have just become more acute.

Auteur and Author of Roma

AC:  If you are the director, the cinematographer was very slow.  If you are the cinematographer, the director was an asshole.  (laughter)  So once I was going through the whole process, remember, this was a project in which nobody had the screenplay, so everything was in my head.  And somehow, probably Chivo could have done it because of this telepathic relationship and also we are of the same generation and we know each other for so long and we have talked about these things for so long so Chivo would have done it and got it quicker.  But I don’t think any other cinematographer would have done it.  So for me doing it, it was organic because I had the things in my head.  And another thing, is that it forced me to be longer on the set, because I am looking at what I was doing, as opposed to going to grab something else, which the cinematographer is setting up the shot.  And what happens when you do that and you are looking at the set that is the set where you lived at and is the same living room and the same patio, more memories are trigged.  And those memories further informed the process.  If editing, I have editing with most of my films, so that is a given, and it’s a part I really enjoy, I enjoy everything, but editing is way more intimate and you also don’t have the whole thing of time ticking and a lot of questions and a lot of people, it’s a more intimate process.  It’s like writing.

The Screenplay

DL:  There was a script, they just didn’t get to read it. But one of the beautiful things I think for everybody involved in the movie, especially the people who were on set every day, was this idea that this script had come from this writer, who had imagined this and essentially actually lived what he wrote, that that carried through every part of the movie.  So you had this incredibly unique situation, the writer sitting there directing the movie and ultimately editing it and things like that and shooting it, and I think it was quite inspirational for the crew to have that experience of where everything was completely fluid through the entire production of the movie.

AC:  The screenplay is very precise, even the descriptions of the details that you see are in the screenplay.  The challenge was that they would have to interpret my description and my conversation about my memory of the thing to do what they were doing.  But the tool was definitely the screenplay, and nobody had the screenplay until a few weeks into the shoot. And I felt that the process in terms with Eugenio in terms of memory was completed and that he should read the screenplay. And by reading the screenplay it would trigger a whole new thing in terms of more details that he brought onto the table.  Anna Terrazas, the costume designer, did the first five weeks of the film without the screenplay, and then she got the screenplay, and also says okay, let me try these different things.  It was a constantly evolving process, but the source of everything was the screenplay.

Many Things Can Go Wrong

AC: It’s a long process, but also it’s a process in which so many things can go wrong.  The biggest thing is that you know that whatever you do is going to be there, it’s going to be there forever.”

Feeling Relief

AC: After the shoot ended, when they ask me at the end of a film if I am happy, I’m never happy, I’m relieved.  If you ask a fox after being chased by hounds for 12 hours and then it goes to a refuge, ‘Are you happy?’ No. The fox is relieved. He got away with it.”

Small Films and Big Films

AC:  Small films and the large films can be joyful either way,  but it’s just a different approach. Roma had a different intensity that I was not expecting because I didn’t know where I was walking. I forgot that I was a writer.  I have a lot of people around telling me, ‘Just read scripts, because if you introduce yourself as a writer-director, your options are going to be narrow.’ I followed that lead for a little bit. Then what happened is I was just at the mercy of the projects that were around, and also not really exploring what I wanted to say.”

Turning Point

Alfonso Cuaron got his major breakthrough with the 2002 Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, which earned him an Oscar nomination.  He went on to make big studio pictures, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and his Oscar-winning outer-space drama, Gravity.

Cuaron is the winner of two Oscars, for best director and best editing for Gravity.  He has four additional nominations, two in the screenwriting categories for Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También.