“You have a first image,” Alfonso Cuarón said. “You just know that it is always going to be there. You don’t question that.” For “Children of Men,” it was a pregnant woman with a baby, fighting through a parting crowd. For “Roma,” he said, “the first image that triggered everything was Cleo walking up the metal stairs to the rooftop.”
Set in 1971 in his old neighborhood in Mexico City, “Roma” is a deeply personal portrait of the filmmaker’s beloved nanny, who got pregnant out of wedlock when he was a child, and still lives in his family home to this day. As he was conjuring the movie, Cuarón told his brother Carlos (who co-wrote Oscar-nominated “Y Tu Mama Tambien”): “I want to do it. I just know that I need to do it. I don’t know if people are going to see it.”
Now, after wowing audiences and critics on the international festival circuit, “Roma” is the first Netflix movie to not only be released online in 190 countries but to get a full-scale theatrical release. Whether that will boost its Oscar chances remains to be seen.
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The Three Principles
From the beginning, Cuarón and his go-to cinematographer Emmanuel (“Chivo”) Lubezki (Oscar-winner for “Birdman,” “The Revenant,” and “Gravity”), discussed three inviolate principles for the movie.
- The story wholly belongs to the real-life Cleo. Her experience shapes the movie.
- Memory writes the movie. The details that existed in the past become essential to the story.
- The film must be in black in white to tie it to the past, but use digital to bring its sensibility to the present.
“I understood right away that it’s a story about real-life Cleo, the metal stair is memory, and it’s in black and white,” said Cuarón. “Those things you don’t question. Like that image, those things are unflappable.”
After a series of long phone calls with Lubezki, Cuarón decided to shoot the movie on digital 65mm cameras in naturalistic, deep-focus black-and-white. “I wanted it to look like a film from the past, but not nostalgic,” he said, “like the film, it was the conflict between memory and today. It’s also a film that is embracing digital 65: pristine, no grain, amazing dynamic range, in order to look into the past.”
The resources Cuarón needed — about $15 million — came from David Linde, CEO of Participant Media. Linde produced “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and Cuarón’s son Jonás’ film “Desierto.” The two men sat down over vegetarian dim sum in London about two and a half years ago. It took Cuarón about 10 minutes to summarize a Mexican story of scale, scope, and intimacy that would be personal, political, and universal. “When are you starting?” Linde asked. “Well, if you tell me it’s a greenlight I start now!” “I’m in,” said Linde. “Well, but there’s one thing,” said Cuarón. “Except for you, nobody can read the screenplay, not even at your company.” “OK, done!”
He hadn’t written the screenplay yet.
While the script weaves the upstairs — two middle-class professionals with four children who are in the process of splitting up — with the downstairs point-of-view of their devoted nanny Cleo, there’s a lot more going on. “If it was autobiographical, it would be about me,” said Cuarón, who was the oldest boy in the house. “It’s about my family and it’s foremost about the real-life Cleo.” He and the 75-year-old Libo Rodriguez had “endless conversations” as he was “confronting my memory with her memory.”
Cuarón layered in the sociopolitical narrative involving Cleo’s boyfriend and his connection with a paramilitary group. “She was dating someone who got her pregnant and treated her very bad and abandoned her and she had a baby girl,” he said. “That offered me possibilities, looking from my present, to also integrate the social scars that I share with other Mexicans.”
During a year-long ramp-up to production, the film kept growing and the schedule ballooned to more than 110 shooting days. While Lubezki prepped for several weeks, the expanded timeline meant that his schedule couldn’t accommodate the film. As a result, Cuarón would wind up shooting the movie himself on two borrowed, untried Arri 65 mm Alexa cameras.
“In many ways, this movie was designed for Chivo,” he said. “It’s one of those ironies. I was thinking of Chivo and the resources and time we’d need to do the long takes. We always complain about the lack of time, we’re always rushing.”
The filmmaker took painstaking care in choosing locations and cast, with repeated auditions and casting non-professionals to play the roles they have in real life. “Another principle of the film: the receptionist is real life, I can’t tell her what to do, they know what to do better than I do,” he said. “I can’t tell a gynecologist which question to ask. The process of looking for locations was very long, same as casting. Some locations like the beach and the shooting party had to do with the different elements and light, where the perfect light was going be when we shoot. On the beach, you have the family at the end with the sun right behind them.”
For the elaborate multi-part sequence at the picnic/shooting party, the director told different groups of kids and grownups what to do: “I never stage the groups together: if you do, then everyone knows what the others are doing. Nobody had scripts. In the picnic, I would give written dialogue from the screenplay to four or five people. They knew, but the other people didn’t know the dialogue of each one. You stage everything separately. You start shooting and chaos erupts, like life.”
While Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” seems an obvious reference for that sequence, Cuarón said he studiously avoided referring to other films, and changed shots if he realized there was clear precedent. “Nevertheless, the DNA of any filmmaker is filled with references you can’t escape,” he said. “You cannot shoot picnics, rivers, or stairs and escape Renoir.”
For the the pregnancy reveal, with the cameras snaking in and out of rooms among multiple characters in an elaborate dance, the long take was repeated over 60 times over two days to perfectly time the children’s dialogue with the camera moves. Theater actress Marina De Tavira, who portrayed Cuaron’s mother, had no idea what Cleo was going to tell her. That day was even more stressful for De Tavira: His actual mother visited the set with Libo and Cuarón’s three siblings. (The director showed the family matriarch an early cut of “Roma” before she died this year.) “These two women stayed together for all their lives,” said De Tavira. “For Yalitza, it was life, it was not difficult for her. It was Cleo, not Yalitza, trying to act. That’s the magic Yalitza had.”
Cuarón cast Oaxaca school teacher Yalitza Aparicio for her extraordinary empathy with children, but said he withheld information from her all the time. Heading into the climactic birth scene, she had no idea what was going to happen: her reactions were real. “Because I shot in continuity and nobody had the screenplay,” said Cuarón, “they didn’t know what was going on. I staged everything. The last scene Yalitza shot, she is going through the corridor entering the operation room. Then real-life doctors stage the event by the inch, knowing the condition she had, and we rehearse with a double. Then Yalitza came and had a talk with the gynecologist — ‘You will feel pain here, when I squeeze here, this part of the procedure is more painful.’ With that understanding, there we go.”
On vacation when the mother tells the kids their parents are divorcing, “they were not expecting that,” said Cuarón. “Even playing the character, the kid was expecting the news that dad is coming and broke there, in the shot.”
As Cleo, Aparicio also faced real fear when she strode shoulder-deep into the ocean to rescue the kids who have been swept away by a rip tide: She did not know how to swim. “The children said, ‘we know how to swim, if you drown we will rescue you!'” she said through a translator. “I couldn’t see any of them. I didn’t know where they were. I turned around to look for them, I felt fear to go on. But I need to bring them out, so in the end, as the character they are your children, and a mother will do anything for her children and risk her life.” (At this point, the translator and I were both crying.)
Aparicio said she played Cleo in part as an homage to her mother, a domestic worker and single mom in Oaxaca. Now Netflix has assigned her a stylist for her many public appearances. Did she ever dream of getting an Oscar nomination? “Never ever,” she said. “I was not thinking ever about being here. If it doesn’t happen, I’m so happy anyway.”
To bring the sets and locations as close to the director’s memory as possible, Eugenio Caballero’s art department painstakingly recreated the Roma family home in an abandoned building, recovering some 70 percent of the family furniture, and placing objects in drawers that might never be on view. For that stunning opening shot with the airplane reflected in the soapy water sloshing on the garage floor, VFX artists painted in the silhouette of a perfect plane from the period.
Part of the movie’s extraordinary immersive quality are the long takes combined with Dolby Atmos sound, which ripples and flows via multiple speakers around a theater, surrounding the audience. This elegiac recreation of Cuaron’s youth uses Dolby Atmos as its soundtrack (like Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” there is no score).
The film’s sound design is as complex as any the filmmaker has ever tackled. When Cuarón made “Gravity,” Dolby Atmos “was in diapers,” he said. “I fell in love. I was restrained and limited in ‘Gravity’ because I was dealing a lot with silence and lack of sound and needed to make it as dynamic as possible. We loved Atmos for moving around the score. I knew right away this one has to be Atmos as part of that thing in memory: there’s a part of it that is aloof and removed, but there’s another aspect in which your senses carry you through. When I was doing a scene, I knew it was right when I would have those deja vus of memory.”
But with only 23 Dolby Atmos cinemas stateside, most moviegoers will have to settle 7.1 or 5.1 Dolby sound.
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
After screening a 10-minute reel last summer, Netflix beat out some six other bidders for global distribution rights because it promised to deliver a full-fledged theatrical release. It began by putting “Roma” into as many film festivals as possible all over the world, and it opens November 21 in limited platform release on four-walled Landmark cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. Then it expands to about 10 more theaters December 7, and goes wider December 14 — when it hits Netflix. “We want as many people in the world to see it as possible,” said Linde, who had a hand in crafting the distribution plan. (The film will also play in 25 countries around the world, including Mexico, the U.K., Germany, and Italy.)
Along with a squadron of heavy-spending awards campaigners, a robust theatrical release can help boost a movie with Academy voters. As always, Netflix refuses to reveal box office numbers — but do Oscar voters care if it’s Netflix? In an informal poll, Academy voters ranged from passionate to noncommittal in their support for the film, and voiced a general appreciation for Netflix showing the film in cinemas.
So far, “Roma” hits on all cylinders with critics, who will likely give it many prizes at year’s end. As a groundbreaking Best Picture contender, nominations for Director, Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, Original Screenplay, and Editing are in the cards.
Wherever audiences see the movie, Cuarón wants audiences to experience “the loneliness that bonds us,” he said. “It’s about how time and space constrain us, and also create those possibilities of people coming together. It’s about social class and the perverse relationship class has with race, which is overt in Mexico; in the states, you have the same situation. And now with the phenomenon of immigration, it’s getting even more acute even from the sociopolitical standpoint. It’s about the dynamics of how things come together and how they fall apart, the scars that makes us who we are.”