Filmmaking: <I>Roma</I>
Issue: January/February 2019

Filmmaking: Roma

The most personal project to date from Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Roma follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a family in Mexico City’s middleclass Roma neighborhood. Delivering an 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.

The film premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Golden Lion, and went on to receive a rapturous response from festival audiences around the globe. Produced by Esperanto Filmoj and Participant Media, Roma launched globally on Netflix as well as at a host of international theaters late last year and is now nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including for Cuarón, Best Director, Best Picture and Cinematography (he also wrote, produced and edited the film), as well as Oscar nods in the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories.

According to Cuarón, he began thinking about making a movie based on memories of his childhood home and the neighborhood around it more than 15 years ago. After the overwhelming worldwide 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 truly able to focus on the details of what he and his family could recall of this moment in time.

According to David Linde, CEO 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 would be a portrait of his 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 a shattering transformation. A series of student demonstrations aimed at promoting democracy climaxed in the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre, when a government-supported paramilitary group known as Los Halcones (the Hawks) brutally killed almost 120 people.

Roma is the first film Cuarón has shot in the country of his birth since Y Tu Mamá También, and 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 casting team interviewed thousands of people and Cuarón chose a smaller number whom he asked to talk about themselves in brief on-camera interviews. The filmmaker team was 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. Film stars Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, both actually received acting nominations as well for their performances.

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.

The film was shot in chronological order — which is also 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 designer Eugenio Caballero, the Oscar winner behind the stunning imagery of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, 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 a near exact replica of Cuarón’s childhood 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.

According to Caballero, re-creating the economic and social contrasts of 1970s Mexico City was perhaps the most satisfying part of this 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.”

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.”

Cuarón and his sound team created Roma’s 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 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.”

Cuarón also 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 even 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.

Roma, currently streaming on Netflix, is also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Mexico), Production Design and Original Screenplay.