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Alfonso Cuarón Talks ‘Roma’: Why the Oscar Winner Partnered With Netflix and Became His Own Cinematographer (Exclusive)

IndieWire spoke exclusively to Cuarón and "Roma" executive producer and Participant Media CEO David Linde about one of the fall's biggest titles.

Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón

Capture Pix/Shutterstock

“It’s been a very long process, but I’m excited it’s finally about to come to fruition,” Alfonso Cuarón told IndieWire during his first U.S. interview about his upcoming drama, “Roma.” Four years after “Gravity” won him the Oscar for best director, the 56-year-old filmmaker is returning to the big screen with a project he calls the “most essential movie” of his career. Cuarón insists “Roma” is the film he’s been building towards since his debut, “Sólo con Tu Pareja,” in 1991.

“I always wanted to make a film and be comfortable with it when I finished it,” Cuarón told IndieWire. “With ‘Roma,’ I was satisfied with it when we finished. I was very happy with it, and that’s because it’s the first film I was fully able to convey what I wanted to convey as a film. It’s a story in many different shapes and hints of emotions that have been present since the moment I wanted to be a director.”

In an extensive conversation alongside executive producer and Participant Media CEO David Linde, Cuarón discussed the controversial decision for “Roma” — a movie shot on large-format film best appreciated on a big screen — to partner with Netflix. While the release plans for the movie remain unclear, Cuarón said the streaming giant was the best home for a secretive project that may be the closest he has come to an autobiography, and brought him back to his roots.

“Roma” is set in Mexico City in the early 1970’s. The story follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a family in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City. 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 political turmoil of the 1970s.

Cuarón and Linde refrained from discussing more about the plot, but the filmmaker made one thing clear — it stems from a deeply personal place. Unlike anything else in the director’s oeuvre, “Roma” draws on Cuarón’s own memories of growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Mexico City.

“Ninety percent of the scenes represented in the film are scenes taken out of my memory,” Cuarón said. “Sometimes directly, sometimes a bit more obliquely. It’s about a moment of time that shaped me, but also a moment of time that shaped a country. It was the beginning of a long transition in Mexico.”

“Roma”

Courtesy of Carlos Somonte / Netflix

Cuarón said making the movie was a “charged experienced” because he was working directly with and confronting his own past. The director puts a lot of research into his best-known films: with “Gravity,” it was learning about space technology; for “Children of Men” he studied thinkers’ predictions of where the 21st century was heading in the future. “Roma” forced Cuarón to explore far more intimate territory.

“In this case, all of the research was internal,” Cuarón said. “The characters, they exist in real life. It’s people that I love deeply. I had to take a journey through my own memories, through the labyrinth of memory, and also conversations with the people who were there and who experienced those events with me.”

Cuarón returned to Mexico to make the film, a first for him since “Y Tu Mamá También” nearly 18 years ago. Returning to Mexico City proved “haunting,” Cuarón said, as his past perspectives of the city were confronted by the present day realities of Mexico. Cuarón shot every scene on location where the events depicted took place or on sets that were exact replicas. “I imagined one scene as it happened, and I would revisit that place and it would be completely transformed,” he said.

“Roma” heads into the fall movie season with two major talking points swirling around it. The first is that Cuarón became his own cinematographer on the project. The director previously served as his own DP on several short films and for some reshoots on his features, but “Roma” is the first time Cuarón has received an official cinematographer credit on a feature film. However, Cuarón originally intended for the movie to be shot by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, his longtime collaborator who he has worked with on every film except “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

“Becoming cinematographer was an accident of the process,” Cuarón said. “Chivo was attached to the film, of course, and then because of logistic reasons he couldn’t do it after he had already done some preparations. I’ve been very specific and choosy about working with cinematographers that are not Chivo. The moment that he dropped out was very close to pre-production and the alternatives that I would have considered were unavailable.”

Cuarón didn’t want to hire an English-language DP and have to translate his own experience, so the director made the “scary decision” to become his own cinematographer. The choice ended up being hugely beneficial to the “Roma” creative process.

“When I usually work with Chivo, we are on set talking about the shots, blocking the scenes, we do it in a very detailed way,” the director said. “But then I leave him alone and I go off and focus on other parts. [With ‘Roma’] I was forced to be on the set. By me being there, different transformations would happen and subtle changes to each scene. I was surrounded by my past the whole time and it was part of that essential process that I wanted. The fact Chivo couldn’t do it was in many ways a benefit for the creative process.”

Alfonso Cuarón and David Linde

Alfonso Cuarón and David Linde

Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

The other major talking point around “Roma” is a big one that has left many in the industry scratching their heads: While Cuaron is known to produce big screen experiences, and shot “Roma” on 65mm (the film used the Alexa65 digital camera), the movie will be distributed by Netflix — a company not exactly known for favoring theatrical distribution. Cuarón is the latest high profile auteur to join forces with the streaming giant, but it wasn’t until April that it was reported “Roma” was being distributed by Netflix. The film was invited to be part of the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was pulled due to the festival’s rules requiring conventional theatrical distribution in France. (Netflix eventually pulled all of its titles from the festival, including those in contention for out-of-competition slots.)

Netflix never made an official announcement about the acquisition, which took place well over a year after the drama wrapped production. Linde told IndieWire Netflix officially boarded the project “in March or April, maybe a little earlier” after he and Cuarón met with several other interested distributors.

“One of the things you have to keep in mind is today’s theatrical market for foreign-language films is really, really complex,” Linde told IndieWire, when asked about why the two settled on Netflix. “We had to really think it through and figure out the best way for the film to be seen in theaters, but also to reach the largest audience possible. As we thought a lot about how the film would be presented around the world, Netflix’s presentation was very convincing.”

Linde stressed that it’s “very important for us that the film be seen in theaters,” noting Cuarón shot the movie on 65mm using a “really pristine, almost never-before-seen black and white.” The film’s sound design is also instrumental to the experience, as it was constructed using state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos technology. While all of these production elements make for a unique theatrical experience, Cuarón and Linde said seeing “Roma” on the big screen is just as important as ensuring people all over the world simply have the chance to see “Roma,” period.

Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma”

IndieWire/YouTube

Cuarón admitted a conventional theatrical release “worried” him because “Roma” is a “Spanish-language drama shot in black and white” featuring “a cast of unknown actors.” A source told IndieWire these factors contributed to at least one studio passing on the film since having “no name” actors makes “Roma” a tougher sell. Cuarón wanted to partner with a distributor offering a more aggressive theatrical plan, which is what he said Netflix offered.

“It has to reach the biggest audience possible,” Cuarón said. “For me, when Netflix made a pitch to us, this film being so intimate for me, I was really concerned with the film not being able to reach as much of an audience as possible. Not even talking commercially, but securing a long life for the film … Now that we’re at the end of July, I’m very grateful so far for the way Netflix is handling it and the passion for the film.”

Linde echoed Cuarón’s gratitude towards Netflix when saying the streaming giant has made a “tremendous commitment to the movie.” When asked if Netflix’s pitch included a theatrical release, Linde said “totally,” adding: “The goal is for people to see it in the theater in all its glory and also for it to be seen by as many people as possible. Netflix is curating a distribution strategy that is global.”

Linde and Cuarón declined to speak further about Netflix’s theatrical plans for the film. The streaming giant is known to give its awards contenders a two-week theatrical rollout (see “Mudbound,” “The Meyerowitz Stories,” and “Okja”). Netflix declined to comment on its specific theatrical plans for “Roma,” although the company did say the film will “launch globally and in theaters later this year.”

As IndieWire’s Anne Thompson noted earlier this week, Netflix’s theatrical plan for “Roma” is one of the big question marks of the upcoming Oscar season. Sources close to Netflix told IndieWire that a 70mm theatrical rollout for the movie has not been finalized yet, and its festival screenings are an open question as well. Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey told IndieWire this week that “Roma” would most likely screen at the festival in 4K, though its Bell Lighthouse would be equipped to utilize the Dolby Atmos sound mix.

However it’s seen, “Roma” will certainly make the rounds at the fall film festival circuit, world premiering at the Venice International Film Festival before screening at both TIFF and the New York Film Festival. The film will likely surface in the ultra-secret Telluride lineup as well, becoming the rare drama that plays all four major fall festivals.

“Filmmakers like Alfonso are succesful because they are offering all of us perspective and storytelling that we just don’t otherwise get to experience,” Linde said about the director. “This is a story, an incredibly emotional and really timely story, but one that no other filmmaker but Alfonso was born to offer to audiences around the world.”

Additional reporting by Jenna Marotta, Anne Thompson, and Eric Kohn.

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