‘Roma’ Wasn’t Built in a Day

To shape his Oscar-nominated film, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón explored memories of his childhood in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood. When it came to recreating those memories, Cuarón was uncompromising.
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Jorge Ramos is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and news anchor for Univision.
2019-02-19T14:51:10-05:00

Time, or rather a lack of it, had always been the problem. The director Alfonso Cuarón wanted to make another film with Emmanuel Lubeski, the celebrated cinematographer and a close friend of his, known as 'El Chivo', but they wanted to do it at their own pace.

"If I had to pinpoint the greatest constraint we have in filmmaking," Cuarón told me in an interview, "I'd say it's time. So, when I decided to work on 'Roma,' I was determined to do it without any haste. It took me almost a year to prep, and it turned out to be my longest shoot."

Ironically, it was because 'Roma' required so much preparation that Lubeski - a three-time Oscar winner, for 'Gravity' in 2013, 'Birdman' in 2014 and 'The Revenant' in 2015 - could not take part, since he had other commitments.

'Chivo' is the best cinematographer alive, and the movie would've been even more beautiful had he been involved," Cuarón said. "But I'm not sure it would've been more honest. See, I had direct access to my memories, and from my memories to the camera."

When it came to recreating those memories, Cuarón was uncompromising. The production team had to obtain permission to use nearly 300 products that were popular in Mexico in the early 1970s in the film, from toys to cocoa powder, some of which no longer exist. Then the production designer, Eugenio Caballero, took on the nearly impossible task of putting the world inside Cuarón's head on film.

To shape his film, Cuarón explored memories of his childhood in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood. His crew managed to build a hospital set in the film with reclaimed sinks, doors and tiles, and similar efforts went into recreating Cuarón's childhood street. "Eugenio had to build up facades on top of existing ones, because they had been revamped," Cuarón said. Scenes related to the Corpus Christi massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City in 1971 were shot on location, including scenes in what used to be a furniture store. The filmmakers recreated other pieces of Mexico City, such as the intersection where the Las Americas movie theater sat.

"Which of the boys from the film is you?" I asked Cuarón.

"I am the most obnoxious one, the middle child, the one who gets slapped in the face," he said.

"And did you want him to look like you?" I asked.

"Yes, every character had to be played by someone who looked like them."

Yalitza Aparicio - who stars as Cleo, the maid and the backbone of the family in 'Roma' - plays the role of Libo, the Mixtec nanny who took care of Cuarón as a child.

"I never thought about acting," Aparicio told me. She said her mother recalls how when she was younger she didn't like having her picture taken, and was so shy that she wouldn't talk to strangers.

Aparicio's casting was very unusual. "It was in Tlaxiaco (in the state of Oaxaca, and very close to her home). My sister was personally invited to the casting because she is a singer," Aparicio said. "But once there, she told me to take her place, because her pregnancy was a little risky." And then Aparicio's life changed forever.

Yalitza is one of the most terrific actresses I've worked with," Cuarón said. "It's because she is such a sensitive and intelligent person."

Delving so deeply into his memories was a mammoth task for Cuarón. "I don't know if you can recover your childhood," he said, "but I know you can come to terms with the scars left by your past."

He did so in black and white, but employing the latest technology. Cuarón shot his movie in 65 mm film, using the most advanced audio system he could find. "It's the most complex film ever made with the Dolby Atmos system," he said. This is why he prefers that people watch the film in a theater, not on TV. "There is so much information in the background," he said.

The attention to detail in 'Roma' is amazing, and it's why so many of us have found lost memories and lost loves within the film.

P.S. Break a leg at the Oscars, Alfonso, Yalitza, Marina de Tavira and all the 'Roma' crew! Click here to listen to my podcast featuring the interview with Cuarón.

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