Roma: Making of Oscar-Winner Director Cuaron’s Most Personal Film to Date

Alfonso Cuaron, alongside with his two peers from Mexico, Alejandro G. Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro, is one of Hollywood’s most innovative and versatile directors, equally comfortable at making big-budget franchise movies (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), inventive epic-scale movies (“Gravity”), and intimate erotic tales (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”).

Roma, the most personal project from the Oscar​-winning writer-director, centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker of a family in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighborhood.

In this artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a vivid and emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst Mexico’s political turmoil of the 1970s. ​

Roma marks Cuarón’s  first project since the groundbreaking ​Gravity ​ in 2013, which was a global hit, starring Sandra Bullock.   It is fourth feature to world premiere at the Venice Film Fest, folloing ​Y Tu Mamá Tambien (Gold Lion for Best Screenplay and Marcello  Mastroiana Award), ​Children of Men (Magic Latern Prize) and ​Gravity (Future Film Digital Award).

Cuarón also premiered ​”The Shock Doctrine,” narrated by Naomi Klein and directed by his son, Jonás Cuarón, at Venice Film Fest in 2007.

Produced by Esperanto Filmoj and Participant Media, ​Roma will launch globally on Netflix  as well as theatrically around the world ​in December.

For the past three decades, the films of Cuarón have transported audiences to unfamiliar worlds, including a Victorian girl’s school, an infertile dystopian future, Harry Potter’s enchanted world, and the vast emptiness of outer space.

In his latest project, ​Roma, Cuarón returns to the Mexico City of his childhood, where a family struggling to remain whole finds strength from an unexpected source.   The filmmaker began thinking about a movie based on memories of his childhood home and the neighborhood around it more than 15 years ago.

Passion Project

After the overwhelming global success of ​Gravity, Cuarón decided it was time to move forward with his passion project. “While I was finishing my previous film, I promised myself that my next would be something simpler and  more personal,” he recalls. “I realized that it was finally the moment in which I could go back and do a film in Mexico, but with all the resources, tools and techniques I’ve acquired over the years.”

With a shooting schedule that spanned 108 days–his longest ever–Cuarón was able to focus on  the details of what he and his family could recall of this moment in time.

According to David Linde, of Participant Media, “I love the way he goes from an epic  film like ​Gravity to very intimate dramatic stories,” he says. “He’s one of the few directors who can make expansive stories that are just as intimate and dramatic as smaller films. Everything he does  has an element of the personal.”

Set in 1970 and 1971 in the then down-at-its-heels Colonia Roma neighborhood, the film is a portrait of Cuaron’s family, his community and of Mexico during a pivotal political moment in the country’s history.

Like the family depicted in ​Roma, Mexico itself was undergoing shattering transformation. Student demonstrations aimed at promoting democracy climaxed in the  infamous Corpus Christi Massacre, when a government-supported paramilitary group, ​Los Halcones (the Hawks), brutally killed 120 people.

Mother Language

Roma is the first film that Cuarón has shot in the country of his birth since ​Y Tu Mamá Tambien, and so he was determined to make the experience quintessentially Mexican. “It was very freeing to shoot a film in my mother language again,” he says. “The spanish we speak is Chilango, which is the  accent that denotes that you are from Mexico City. I dream in Chilango. It’s very organic and instinctual for me. There was a certain subtlety of the language that I wanted to rescue from the time period.”


The casting team interviewed thousands of people. Cuarón then chose a smaller number whom he asked to talk about themselves in brief on-camera interviews. The filmmakers were very thoughtful about the process because it was so particular, in part because of the need for their resemblance to be almost exact to the actual people they were portraying.

“We did a huge search for all of the main characters who are based on people he has known for more than 50 years,” says producer Gabriela Rodriguez. “It was very important part of the story-telling process that we needed to get exactly right.”

Yalitza Aparicio

Cleo is played by Yalitza Aparicio, a young woman with no acting experience who was discovered by the casting director in a rural village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.  “Our whole casting team went from little village to little village. That’s how we found Yalitza. I asked Yalitza who her real best friend is and she introduced us to Nancy García, who in turn plays her best friend Adela in the movie,” says Cuarón.   Coming to Mexico City for the film was only her second visit to the capital. “Yalitza is not a professional actress, but she is the most amazing actress I’ve ever worked with,” says Cuarón. “In some ways she was being Yalitza, but she was also conveying something different. She learned how to assume her role in the smallest details and gestures. Without Yalitza, this film would fall apart.”

Like the way that Woody Allen works, the cast members never saw a complete script of the film (nor did the crew, only Cuarón had the entire script throughout shooting). Each character knew his or her own story, as well as the  group’s history.

Chronological Order

The film was shot in chronological order–very unusual for a feature–and Cuarón talked each of them through what was going on in each scene. “Sometimes I would just tell them what we were doing. For specific dialogue, I would give it to them in the morning, so they could learn it and have a sense of what was happening. The whole idea was to disrupt the notion of  a pre-rehearsed scene.”

Cuarón assembled an exclusively Mexican crew who could contribute their own knowledge and memories to the film. “I really needed people who understood what I was talking about because I wanted everybody to be a resource, either in terms of research of the period or their own  memories.”

Production Design

Production designer Eugenio Caballero, the Oscar​-winner behind the stunning imagery of Guillermo del Toro’s ​Pan’s Labyrinth (in my view, his best film to date), was brought in to recreate the Roma of Cuarón’s past. “To  work with Alfonso on a project about Mexico and in some ways about my childhood was extremely exciting,” he says. “Most of the scenes were shot where the actual events occurred, but we had to  transform virtually every location we used.”  For the main location where most of the film takes place, Caballero literally built an exact replica of Cuarón’s chilhood home. He constructed a set within an actual house that had the historical feeling they were looking for. “Our main set is the family’s home,” he says. “We wanted  not only to recreate the time, but also to reflect their personalities by including particular things that Alfonso and I remembered.”

The production company reinforced the structure, tore down existing walls and installed moveable walls. In the home’s courtyard, an elaborate system of rails and drapes could manipulate the light to resemble day or night, rain or shine. “We had amazing flexibility to stage scenes without interruption as the actors went from room to room,” says Cuarón.   To dress the set accurately, Cuarón contacted his family members in order to retrieve whatever furniture and personal items from the house were still in existence. He also relied on old family photos and what they could all recall from memory.

Old Family Furniture

“The rooms are full of our stuff,” he says.  “There’s an old chair that was in my grandmother’s house. The dining room, the breakfast room and the living room have a lot of the original furniture. There is a portrait that’s supposed to be Sofia and is actually my mother. Many of the objects in the children’s rooms are things we kept or reproduced for the film. Even Borras the dog is identical to my childhood dog, right down to the  name.”  Viewing the completed set for the first time was unexpectedly emotional.  I did not anticipate the impact it would have on me and my family. They came to visit the set and had the same reaction I did. We had not only re-created the interior of the house, but we changed the façade and parked exactly the same cars on the street outside. It was home.”

Mexico Socio-Economics in the 1970s

Re-creating the economic and social contrasts of 1970s Mexico City  was perhaps the most satisfying part of Caballero’s job. “On the one hand, there is Insurgentes Avenue, which was the most elegant, upscale part of the city at that time,” says the production designer.  “There is the middle-class neighborhood of Roma. And then we see the beginning of Netzahualcóyotl, a sprawling slum that was just starting to develop in those years. It’s like a lost city in the sense that they didn’t have any infrastructure.”

Student DemonstrationCorpus Christi Massacre

The reenactment of the student demonstration and the Corpus Christi Massacre was staged at the massive intersection of Mexico-Tacuba where the actual events took place, which is now a  constantly busy part of the city. Hundreds of cars, extras and stunt performers were brought in to reenact the notorious tragedy. “We had to build the furniture store, from where the action is seen,  and totally transform the street to match the historic references,” says Caballero. “It’s a very  well-documented event that we could rebuild on the very place that it happened.”

That was​ the film’s most difficult location, says producer Nicolás Celis. “We took over one of Mexico City’s main avenues, as well as the surrounding streets, and that took months of work,”  he explains. Shooting the scene as authentically as possible wasn’t simple: bicycle lanes were  removed, the street was repainted to remove the lines now dividing the lanes; poles were removed  and neighbors’ water tanks were covered. “A lot of work had to be done over several months so that  the street would look like it did in 1971.”  Costume Designer Anna Terrazas also had to go back in time to find and create period  clothing that would stand out in a black in white film, which requires finding the right textures and  designs. “Alfonso was very involved in the fittings we did for the key cast and even the hundreds of extras to make sure we had the period right and as he remembered it,” said Terrazas. She also relied on ​Cuarón’s old family photos to recreate exact replicas of the family’s wardrobe to dress the cast.

Layered Sound Track

Cuarón and his sound team created the dense audio tracks using Dolby Atmos, which allows sounds to be precisely placed and moved in three-dimensional space. He first used the system on ​Gravity, which won the Oscars for both sound mixing and sound editing.

“Atmos was in diapers back then but I was so impressed,” he says. “I wanted to see what Atmos would do in an intimate  film. With visuals, you see foreground, midground and background. We wanted the sound to have the same kind of layering.”  Sound can be every bit as evocative as visual images, and each street in Mexico City has its own unique soundtrack, according to Cuarón. “That’s something I wanted to honor. Different street vendors call attention to themselves by shouting, or with whistles or flutes or bells. Each car in  traffic sounds different. The sounds have to move from one place to the other when the camera is  moving. When we finished the mix, we sent the files to Dolby and they told us that there had to be a  mistake. These files were six times bigger than any others that they had ever received. It was not a  mistake–it was just the amount of detail that we put into it.”

Music: Lynn Fainchtein

Cuarón worked with music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein to select source music reflective of what was heard in Mexico City during the years the story takes place. The soundtrack includes songs by Mexican singers, English-language rock bands of the era–popular with young  middle-class Mexicans at the time– and Mexican covers of English-language classics, such as Mexican rock pioneer Javier Batiz’s interpretation of “House of the Rising Sun,” heard during Cleo’s visit to the impoverished shantytown where her ex-boyfriend is living.