It’s too bad Alfonso Cuarón hasn’t made more films in the past twenty years, because every single one seems to be both wonderful and a complete departure from his last project. After spending years working on new technology for his 2013 Oscar-winning adventure in orbit “Gravity,” Cuarón has spent his time since then diving into his own past, excavating and recreating the Mexico City neighborhood he grew up in for the 1971-set “Roma.” While his last two movies relied on nerve-racking narratives that grabbed the audience and never let go, “Roma” is a much more personal and contemplative film, reviewing his childhood through the more mature eyes of his devoted housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and mother (Marina de Tavira).
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Cuarón recently sat down at the New York Film Festival along with Yalitzia and Marina to discuss the experience of making “Roma.” Asked about the origin of the story, the director said, “It’s been gestating for a long, long period, it feels like my whole life.” He thought that this would be his next film after “Children of Men,” and while it fell apart for reasons out of his control, he thinks it may have been for the best because he didn’t yet have the emotional tools necessary. “On the one hand, I probably didn’t have the confidence then, in terms of letting go, because a lot of this process for a lot of us was about letting go, about not having safety nets. On the other hand, it was about the emotional tools in terms of approaching some stuff from my personal life, about people very close to me,” explained Cuarón.
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In terms of the actual shooting, the actors revealed that Cuarón used an unconventional methodology, shooting in full chronological order, to achieve emotional verisimilitude. Marina de Tavira said, “It was absolutely different from any other experience I’ve had as an actress…we were working without a script, he had it, we didn’t.” She said this was the opposite of her usual process as an actor, but “it’s like in life, life surprises you, you don’t think about it until it happens and so the process was just like in life.”
Cuarón praised her ability to unlearn her usual style and to embrace the chaos of this method, in which he would give de Tavira and Aparicio instructions each morning that might totally contradict what they had expected for the scene. While de Tavira was unlearning conventional methods, Aparicio was making her first film and didn’t realize how unusual “Roma” was. “It was my first [acting] experience, so during the shooting, I tried to forget I was in a film and tried to see it as real life, because in life there’s nothing written, just as the director here didn’t give us any lines, so I tried to go through this as if living my own life,” Aparicio said. Cuarón added that her role has extra difficulty because she doesn’t actually speak Mixteco as her character does, so she would have to work learn that language as well partly through working with Nancy Garcia Garcia, who plays her friend and coworker Adela.
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In response to a question on the role of nature in the film, Cuarón said, “We tried to honor the elements – fire, earth, wind, water – but we also acknowledge stuff like heaven and earth. The film starts with earth, in which heaven is nothing but a reflection through the water. And water starts to come up more until everyone is submerged in water. And it finishes looking at the sky, for the first time just framing the sky.” Using these elements helped Cuarón emphasize the transience of life and making peace with the elements of life you cannot control. “Our relationships of affection, they are the only thing we can control…in the end, existence is nothing but a shared experience of loneliness,” he added.
Speaking on channeling his memories into the film, Cuarón said, “The process of making this film was never an intellectual process, it was working from my memory, and my endless conversations with Libo, the real person whom the character of Cleo is based upon.” He said the two of them merged their memories, both exploring shared memories and giving Alfonso perspective on things he never saw as a child, such as the scene of the two housekeepers exercising by candlelight so as not to “waste energy” in the eyes of their employer.
He spoke of the exactitude they used in reproducing the neighborhood, down to trying to cast doppelgangers of the real people and parking similar cars in the right places. As befits a work so preoccupied with memory and the act of remembering, Cuarón invoked Proust and said he wanted to use sound to trigger memories just as the taste of a Madeline transported Marcel. He stressed the importance of sound design in channeling a specific location, saying, “The sound of a city, the sound of a society, every culture, not just Mexico, has its own musical rhythm, that is around us, these are elements around us that we do not control.”
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One idea that Cuarón emphasized repeatedly was the importance of portraying the narrative in an objective manner, allowing space for other subjective experiences. He wanted “to create a very individual experience for the audience, not to give answers or telegraph things to the audience but to allow the audience to participate as in their own memory.”
Viewers can decide for themselves if this method worked, but it certainly worked on star Marina de Tavira, who said, “Everything that I think about the movie came after, because when we were doing it it was about just swimming in the experience and not thinking, not rationalizing anything and then when I saw it, all these thoughts about being a mother, about my lost childhood, about my father that also left, about me living with my kid alone, they started to unfold and arouse and it was really moving, it still is.”
Jalitza added that it was a special experience to see the culmination of her first film, saying, “The first time we saw the film was in Venice, we were together Maria and I, and at the end, we were crying. We felt all this excitement of seeing all the hard work that was behind that time and also seeing the vision of Alfonso… the way he put it all together was fabulous.”
Cuarón seemed happy that the film was so evocative for his performers and added that he specifically used black and white, but not a nostalgic black and white, so the film would be a window to the past from the present. “We didn’t want it to feel immersed in the past, its supposed to be viewed from the present, the approach of audiences, it has to be from their own standpoint, Marina has her experiences, Jalitza has hers, everyone will have their own,” he concluded.
“Roma” will be released on Netflix and in select theaters on December 14.
Check out all our coverage from the 2018 New York Film Festival here.