On November 1, the 2018 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate eight filmmakers and actors for their achievement in creative independence. We’re showcasing their work with new interviews this week.
Alfonso Cuaron has been a successful filmmaker for decades, and he spent about that long thinking about “Roma,” his personal ode to the domestic worker in the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up. The success of “Gravity” finally allowed him to make the Spanish-language, black-and-white drama with considerable resources from Participant Media and the global platform of Netflix, but Cuaron said there was another reason why he couldn’t make “Roma” when he first dreamed of it years ago.
“I don’t think that I was emotionally ready for it,” he said. “I’d been used to a certain way of narrative thinking in cinema — the narrative safety nets of genre, and a very conventional structure.” For “Roma,” Cuaron enters more ambitious territory, exploring the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) with a pensive, slow-burn approach that gradually bring her life and work into focus. It’s an epic character study comprised of minute details, and Cuaron’s willingness to tackle this material attests to the unorthodoxy that dictates his career moves.
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“In this one, I had to use tools that usually were handled by my narrative muscles,” Cuaron said. “I had to be more free about how my consciousness was dictating what would be or not be there.” Unable to reunite with his usual cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron took on the camera duties and managed many other facets of the production, including the complex Dolby Atmos sound mix. “It’s the first film where I didn’t rely on the support of my collaborators and friends to read the script and give me notes,” Cuaron said. “It was a process that was very intimate, and I don’t think I had the emotional maturity for it before.”
Of course, Cuaron has juggled all kinds of daunting challenges, from the weight of franchise expectations with “Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban” to the cosmic, CGI-laced camerawork of his Oscar-winning “Gravity,” but “Roma” also found him returning to his roots — shooting in Mexico for the first time since “Y Tu Mama Tambien” in 2001.
He discovered that while the film business continued to thrive alongside television and commercial work, it was secondary to a community that swelled since he and his fellow filmmaker “Three Amigos” (Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñarritu) first broke out on the scene.
“Forget about the industry,” he said. “The thing is that the industry and filmmaking are not entirely one and the same. You can have a huge, very active industry and not-so-good films.” But he has been impressed by the range of Mexican filmmakers making waves around the world. He singled out Carlos Reygadas, Alonso Ruizpalacios, Amat Escalante, and his son, Jonás Cuaron, as particularly impressive examples.
“I have to say all or most important international film festivals have an important presence from a Mexican filmmaker,” Cuaron said. “I think that the younger generation is way better than my generation.”
Cuaron never expected “Roma” to be an easy commercial play, but has learned much about that sort of risk over the years. His 2006 dystopian drama “Children of Men” was produced by Universal for $70 million and flopped in theaters. Since then, it has been celebrated as one of his greatest films, and a keen window into the current paranoia afflicting global culture. “I wanted to understand the tendencies creating the 21st century,” Cuaron said. “Those thematics were the things that a lot of important people were screaming warnings about. Now all of those things are really happening. So I think now the film is being taken as more relevant.”
The trajectory for “Children of Men” has taught Cuaron a valuable lesson about the lifespan of his work. “It proves that what matters in cinema goes way beyond awards and reviews,” he said. “The only thing that can tell you that is time.”