How Alfonso Cuarón Brought His Memories to Life in ‘Roma’

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “You don’t choose projects, they choose you — it becomes a need, and you go for it,” the director says


Last Updated: December 6, 2018 @ 3:29 PM

This story about Yalitza Aparicio, Alfonso Cuarón and “Roma” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Alfonso Cuarón looked around a room full of furniture, toys, art and music from the early 1970s. “These are fragments of my memory,” the 56-year-old director said of the room in Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, where sets and props from his new film “Roma” were lovingly curated in a special display.

“Each object carries so much story. Almost, you could do a whole film based on each object.”

But “Roma” is about all these objects and much, much more. A loving, meticulously rendered black-and-white trip back in time, it brings to life the large and small moments that the director remembers from growing up in a Mexico City suburb. “Roma” moves slowly and deliberately — at the speed of life, you could say — as it tells the story of a middle-class family and the two domestic workers, one a young woman named Cleo, who came to work for them.

“And then she became the family,” said Cuarón. “Not part of the family, but, like, the family. She glued everything together.”

Above all else, “Roma” is a love letter to Cleo, and by extension to Libo, the real-life woman on whom the character is based. To play the film’s central character, Cuarón’s casting search took him throughout Mexico — including to the small Oaxacan town of Tlaxiaco, where an aspiring teacher named Yalitza Aparicio was dragged to the audition by her sister despite the fact that she’d never acted before.

“Never, never in my life did I have it in my mind to become an actress or be part of a film,” Aparicio said through a translator. In fact, at the time she auditioned she’d never even heard of Cuarón, much less seen any of his films.

“I didn’t know anything about his work or the films that he has directed before,” she said, laughing. “He asked me if I had seen any of the films that he directed, and I said no, and he said, ‘No problem, that’s even better. I don’t want you to see any of them right now because I want your mind fresh. I don’t want anything about me in it. You will have the time afterwards to see all of them if you want.'”

(When the movie wrapped, she watched “Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Gravity.”)

For Cuarón, getting to the point where he could actually make “Roma” had taken a long time. He began thinking about it more than a decade ago, at one point even announcing that it would be his next film, then changing his mind. (“For whatever reasons — life, et cetera — it didn’t happen,” he said.)

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But during the arduous, CG-heavy making of “Gravity,” somebody asked him what his next project would be, and he flippantly said, “One in which the character walks, not floats, and their feet are very grounded on the earth.”

Thinking back to that offhand comment, he laughed. “Maybe that was bringing me back to this,” he said. And while the film began to take shape as he explored his own memories, he took it a step further and sat down with Libo to flesh out the story from her perspective. “I wanted to know every single detail,” he said.

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Aparicio had her own opportunity to meet with Libo before production began — but she was only allowed to know a portion of the woman’s life experience. “She told me her story, but only up to the point where the movie starts,” she said. “Same thing with Alfonso. He told me about the relationship he had with Libo, and how she got to his house.

“They both gave me an introduction, and then when we started shooting was how I started to discover little by little more about it.”

Keeping his lead actress in the dark was part of Cuarón’s master plan on “Roma,” but she wasn’t the only one who was flying blind. “This was a process where nobody had the screenplay,” the director said. “Nobody on the crew, none of the actors. It was only me who knew. And I shot in absolute sequence, so everybody was learning as we were going.”

Added Aparicio, “From the very beginning, he told me I was not going to have the script, and he wanted us to go through the story and live it as if it was our own life. At first I thought it was maybe a strategy that every director had, or some of them, and it was normal. But after a while, I realized that it was not common at all to do it this way.”

Asked if she ever found herself yearning to know what was going to happen next, she laughed. “In fact, that happened every single day,” she said. “I felt this curiosity and I was anxious to know what my character was going to find and go through next. My friend Nancy and I, every afternoon we used to talk about what happened that day and try to guess what was going to happen next.”

And how often did she guess right?

“Never,” she said. “It was always different from what I was expecting.”

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Cuarón knew what was coming because he had lived most of it, but he was also determined to bring his memories to life in just the right way. “This had to be not only about memory, but also about the person who is remembering — me – right now. This narrow understanding of life, looking into that past.

“That’s the thing of memory. You cannot see memory except from the standpoint of the present. For that reason, the black-and-white cinematography is not nostalgic. It is digital, 65mm black-and-white cinematography — pristine, not grainy. It’s the opposite of nostalgic. This is contemporary filmmaking looking to the past.”

The director had originally planned to use his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, to shoot “Roma.” The two men worked out the feel of the film together — Lubezki is the one who insisted on 65mm — and Cuarón’s goal all along, he said, was, “I don’t want Chivo to have any limitations.”

But when the preproduction and production schedules stretched out too long, Lubezki had to drop out. “That was scary,” Cuarón said. “This was two and a half, maybe three weeks before we started shooting. Immediately I started talking with cinematographers I admired, but I realized that with these particular cinematographers, my conversation on the set was going to be in English. And the whole reason of going to Mexico was to do a film in my mother tongue–not only the actors but my creative process.

“I was going around in circles, and Chivo was the one who said, ‘You know what? Just do it yourself. You have to do it.'”

So he did it, while maintaining an obsession with making sure that every item on screen was accurate to what he remembered. (During a party scene where somebody is playing the original “Jesus Christ Superstar” album, the needle on the turntable is in exactly the right place for the song we’re hearing.)

“Every single object in the place had to be right,” Cuarón said. “We had to fill up the drawers with stuff — even the drawers that were never going to be opened had to have the things that would have been in them. It needed to have the energy of that.”

And did anybody say to him, “Alfonso, you’re nuts to be this meticulous”?

“Pretty much, there were a lot of comments: ‘It doesn’t matter,'” he said. “‘You’re never going to open the drawer, what’s the difference?’ But it was a big difference.

“I have read the process of [Carl Theodor] Dreyer, for instance, in “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” It is a silent film, so there is no sound. Nevertheless, he had the actors talking, and what they say, even if there are no titles, is an exact transcription from the original trial. Or [Luchino] Visconti in “Ludwig,” making people bake a cake using the recipe that Ludwig, the man at the time, would have used. And sure, people said, ‘Oh, come on, you’re just going to photograph it, nobody is going to know how the cake was made.’ No, but there is something about the process of trying to portray the real. Not reality, not just trying to be realistic, but trying to get to the essence of the real.”

And in a way, Aparicio thinks that meticulousness extended to the characters as well. “When I talked to Libo after she was able to see the film, she mentioned that when she was watching the film, it was like seeing her own self in the movie,” she said. “All my movements, every gesture I made reminded her of herself, like she was looking at herself from a little bit far away.”

“Roma” has been rapturously received by critics and film festival audiences since it premiered in Venice, and it enters the Oscar race with a good chance of becoming the sixth film to be nominated both for Best Foreign Language Film (it’s Mexico’s entry) and Best Picture. The question, though, is how it will connect with mainstream audiences.

And sitting in a room surrounded by the artifacts of his childhood, Cuarón admitted that he was never sure that such a personal project would be embraced by people who had none of his memories.

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“You don’t choose projects, they choose you,” he said. “It becomes a need, and you go for it. But I remember saying 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.'”

He shrugged. “And it has been a very pleasant surprise to see the amazing reaction to the film. Yes, critics have been fantastic, but the emotional audiences at film festivals and screenings–when you see people from different cultures, people that come out crying, they feel so connected.

“Because even if the story is about, yes, my own family in the 1970s in a specific city in a specific country, it’s families. It just proves that the human experience is one and the same.”

To read more of TheWrap’s Race Begins issue, click here.

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