Alfonso Cuarón On Painstakingly Recreating His Childhood Memories for the Deeply Personal ‘Roma’

'Roma' still courtesy of New York Film Festival

Continuing to dazzle audiences on its festival tour, Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma is making fans even out of the director’s closest friends. Guillermo del Toro, one of the Three Amigos group of Mexican directors that includes Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, was on hand at the New York Film Festival on Saturday to introduce Cuarón’s deeply personal film about an indigenous maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City. Del Toro teased his old friend about how good his movie was, putting it among his top five favorite films – but warned Cuarón not to get too full of himself. Roma was in his ranking’s fifth spot.

On Friday afternoon at a press conference, Cuarón and two of his movie’s stars, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, spoke about their experience of recreating the director’s childhood memories. Cuarón revealed that the project was a long time in the making, and he had once hoped to work on it after his 2006 film, Children of Men. However, life had other plans.

“It was not by choice, it was just by – I didn’t feel secure in that moment,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to take it up again. When I say I didn’t have the tools, is that in one hand, I probably didn’t have the confidence then, in terms of letting go. Because a lot of this process for all of us was about letting go, and not having a safety net and not having inhibitions. On the other hand, it was about the emotional tools of approaching some stuff of my personal life, of people very close to me in a complete way.”

De Tavira also had to learn to let go in order to play the part of the family’s matriarch. “Yes, absolutely different from any other experience I’ve ever had as an actress,” she said. “We were working without a script. He had it, but we didn’t, so he would deliver the information of what’s going to happen day-by-day, and separately to each actor. Then he would put it together, and the magic and life started to appear.”

Aparicio carries the movie as the main character, Cleo, and since her director did not give her a completed script, she had to remain open-minded about what was going to happen next. “During shooting, I tried to forget that I was in a film and I tried to see it as real life, as you live your life because in life there’s nothing written,” she said.

“And I have to add, it’s very admirable what Yalitza and Marina did,” said Cuarón of his actresses. “I would give the written pages, the screenplay, the dialogue, just to, it was mostly Marina and Yalitza, that same morning. The funny thing for Yalitza, she thought it was a normal process of making a film because she had never done a film. She would receive the pages, but not only the pages – a lot of the dialogue in Mixteco, and she’s not fluent in Mixteco. She would have to master the Mixteco every day.”

The impressive craftsmanship of the movie does not stop at the actors’ performances and Cuarón’s direction. He applies the same attention to details like the film’s sound design and what format to shoot the movie on. He interviewed his family’s maid, Libo, to get her side of the story. “It was a merge between my memories and her memories,” he said. “Making sure that a big percentage of that was a shared memory. Some stuff, like her personal life outside of the home, I couldn’t know. It was part of what she would describe to me like doing exercises at night every night with a candle because the grandmother would be upset if they waste electricity. A memory is taken from the prism of my present but it was never an individual choice.”

“Memory was the tool of research for this film, the tool of diving into this film was memory,” he said. “It was about reproducing the spaces or recovering those spaces. Casting people, doppelgangers for the original people, the same costumes, shooting the same street with the same cars parked that looked like the neighbors and so on. The visual aspect of memory is just one single aspect. It’s the cliche that through the smells and taste cause recognition, at least in my experience that is true. The other thing is sound. I would know if I was doing a scene, and that the scene was making sense when it was not only about what I was experiencing there but also my sensorial aspect of what I was looking at, what I was listening to. I wanted to recreate that with sound. The thing was not to give answers or telegraph things for the audience, for the audience to be a participant to the experience of their own memory.”

Although Cuarón’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki was unavailable to work on Roma, Cuarón channeled his style as an inspiration. He also said he wanted to honor the passage of time in the movie, letting mundane things take its course without snappy edits to speed things up. “For example, when Cleo goes at the beginning and is washing the floors, it takes its time,” he said. “She even goes to the bathroom and we just wait for her there. That sense of existence, things that flow in time. It was as much as honoring time as honoring space. The thing about time and space is that time space obviously limit us. It was this whole thing of not giving more weight to characters than to the environment. I believe that one thing is not more important than the other.”

Cuarón ended the press conference on a philosophical note about the way he visually conceptualized his collected memories. “It’s black and white but it’s not a nostalgic black and white,” he said. “It’s an approach of the past into the present. It’s a digital 65 mm black and white, without grain. It’s almost sacrilegious in the terms of the classic black and white, that I enjoy, by the way, it’s not a judgment. It’s a point of view from the present. It’s as if the approach of audiences, it has to be from their own standpoint.”