“Each object carries its own story,” says Alfonso Cuaron, looking around a room filled with props from his film “Roma.” “Almost, you could do a whole film based on each object.”
The Mexican-born director of “Gravity” and “Children of Men” says this while sitting on a couch in the TIFF Bell Lightbox, headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival. A fourth-floor gallery in the Lightbox has been turned into a tribute to Cuaron’s exquisite “Roma,” which is based on memories of his childhood growing up in a suburb of Mexico City. And the objects that surround him, from paintings to record albums to children’s games, are things he remembers from childhood and used in the film.
But he went further than simply filling the frame with his own memories, Cuaron tells TheWrap in an interview that takes place while his film is having its triumphant Toronto premiere a block away. Every set on the film, he says, was filled with the things that really would have been there.
“Every single object was going to be in its place,” he says. “We were filling up the drawers with stuff — even those drawers that were never going to be opened or in any scene. They needed to have that energy.”
And did anybody say to him, “Alfonso, you’re nuts – we’re never going to open the drawer”?
“Pretty much there were a lot of comments,” he admits with a grin. “I know those looks, because I come from a more blue-collar background in film, in which you look at directors and say, ‘Oh, my God, this guy doesn’t know how to make a film.'”
He shrugs. “People would say, ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re never going to open the drawer, what’s the difference?’ But there was a big difference. There is something about the process of trying to portray the real — not trying to be realistic, but trying to get to the essence of the real.”
But with a project so consumed with replicating Cuaron’s own childhood memories, was he confident that “Roma” would connect with viewers who have none of his memories?
“Not at all,” he says. “I just knew that I had to do it.
“This was the historical moment that I can do it. I had the resources after the economic success of ‘Gravity’ – I could raise the money to do things this way. But more important, emotionally I was ready and there was a need. You don’t choose projects, they choose you. And once there was this need of doing this film, you go for it.
“Doing it, I said to people close to me, ‘Look, I have the opportunity of doing this now. I’m not going to question it, but I doubt that this is really going to connect in any way.'”
But the Netflix release “Roma,” a black-and-white gem that is also a love letter to the nanny who helped raise Cuaron and his siblings, and who became part of the family, has connected strongly in its festival premieres. In Venice, it won the Golden Lion as the festival’s best film, before heading to Telluride and Toronto and winning additional raves.
“It has been an amazing surprise to see the reaction that people are having to the film,” Cuaron says. “Yes, critics have been fantastic, but you see people from different cultures that come out crying, they feel so connected.
“Even if the story is about about, yes, my own family in the 1970s in a specific setting in a specific country, it’s about families. It just proves that the human experience is one and the same.”