Alfonso Cuarón’s impressive black-and-white memoir of 1971 Mexico City, “Roma,” recognized as one of the year’s best by multiple critics groups, finally arrived on Netflix December 14. Last Sunday on a packed soundstage at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, the writer-director-cinematographer was grilled by his old film school buddy Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who collaborated on six films with Cuarón, including “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Children of Men” and “Gravity,” the movie that won them both Oscars.
Three-time Oscar-winner Lubezki started to prep the film but when the “Roma” shooting schedule ballooned to over 108 shooting days, he was no longer able to commit to the schedule and Cuarón, who trained as a cinematographer, took on the task himself. Lubezki asked his long-time collaborator to explain the many rules he broke while making a film that could earn him his first cinematography nomination, among other things.
Here’s an edited version of the highlights.
Emmanuel Lubezki: Alfonsito, I have a lot of questions. After we finished “Gravity,” Alfonso whispered that he had an idea for another movie. Then he goes away and sends a script and we started to work on it. He is a little like a reptile. When he changes his skin, every time he finishes a movie, his next will be completely different from the previous one. This movie was very different and I was excited to work on it. He disappeared again, went to Cannes, and then said “I don’t want to do the movie.” Then he called me: “Would you come to Mexico?” And it’s what became “Roma.” What happened?
Alfonso Cuarón: I was prepping, sending photos, location scouting in South Africa and the desert. Then this thing “Roma” happened. It originated after “Children of Men,” we talked about that in that period. I was afraid of doing it — and then I had to do it now, because of age. It’s this thing: “OK, I’m growing old. I want to understand who I am in terms of who I was.” It was also the connection of the economic success of “Gravity.” We always have the same complaint when shooting a movie: “It’s not equipment — it’s time, I want to do a film the way I’d love to do it.”
The time you prepped this film informed me so much. I wanted to do the Academy format; you convinced me to go 65 and wide. That started to inform the whole thing. We started talking about lighting.
EL: Why black and white?
AC: I didn’t want a film that looks vintage, that looks old. I wanted to do a modern film that looks into the past. And you kept questioning me about black and white: “Maybe color is better, otherwise you’re going to look back.” That was your argument about the 65, because it brought a different unapologetic quality to the film. It’s not a vintage black and white. It’s a contemporary black and white. Black and white was part of the DNA of the film. When the idea manifested, it was about the character Cleo [Yalitza Aparicio], the tune was memory, and it was black and white. From there you can change things.
EL: You tend not to follow the rules. With this one you are working with non-actors, using complex blocking. You are dealing with dancers who haven’t danced. Was this style developed during the writing, or found in situ?
AC: It was decided on the page, the script was densely described, including sounds. It has to do with stuff we’ve been doing together since “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which changed my approach on foreground vs. background, character vs. social environment, and on “Children of Men,” we elaborated on that. On this one, I decided, “OK, I am going to trust that I already built that muscle and I’m not going to worry about it. I’m just going to make it happen.” When I would first describe to the crew the shot, they would think I was joking!
EL: Something that was unlike “Children” and “Y Tu Mama” was the tempo. The camera is moving at a different tempo than the actors. It’s almost a complex jazz number. Are you describing it to the crew and they are doing it? What is the procedure?
AC: First is to find the space, when I start lensing, to go through the whole thing. Timing was the most difficult thing. People ask always about the beach scene. What was more complicated was simple things like doing a round movement, a 380 inside the house. When Cleo is turning off the lights we have 45 different camera positions, the camera can’t be in one place and panning. It was a floor with lines everywhere. Even before bringing in the actors it was about sorting out the timings. But the actors had to have the flexibility to improvise. Something I learned from you was communicating with the dolly or the operator.
EL: You’re telling them to slow down as you are watching, I see. It does produce a feeling — hard to describe — the camera becomes almost like a consciousness revisiting the story. The camera knows something the actors do not. It’s very powerful. The other thing you do different from all the other movies we did together is the blocking of the scene is perpendicular to the lens. When you track, the actors are moving parallel to the lens. Usually, if I was there: “Alfonso that is very flat, we should compose in the c axis not the x axis.” Why did you do it?
AC: It needed to be objective. We would not have dollies in and out, and embrace the flatness, but compensate for that flatness with background.
EL: This is a very objective film. In “Gravity” we explored the idea of elasticity, we’d be objective and then got into her helmet and it becomes subjective. This movie is really objective 100 percent, like “Y Tu Mama.”
Photo by Carlos Somonte
AC: It’s a ghost of the present visiting the past, objectively without getting involved, just observing, not trying to make a judgment or a commentary, that everything there would be just the commentary itself.
EL: It becomes even more complex, because it’s mysterious and very emotional, I don’t know why. It feels like the camera and the cinematography are not there to illustrate; they are the film itself.
Another contradiction from the book of filmmaking: you rehearse these complicated movements but some of the actors don’t know what’s coming. They didn’t read the script? They know the mechanics, but don’t know where the emotional turns are coming?
AC: They know some of the mechanics but not all of them. It was all the time changing; I was throwing them curveballs. The problem was editing, all the takes were so different. I’d choose something that was so great in context and the next moment find something that did not work. It was a domino effect. You had to go back to the first take and everything changed, the sense of timing and even information. Part of the challenge was a lot of the camera was static and characters moved around. It was more challenging when the camera was moving.
EL: Moving in different rhythm.
AC: It was also luck. For the beach scene, we had to build a jetty, and put a techno-crane to keep the same height. And the day before we shot, tropical storms weakened the jetty. Every time we tried to shoot the scene the cameras would derail. I wanted to have six takes before the sweet spot of the light. We couldn’t get anything, it was derailing 45 seconds after saying action; we would get the beginning. Luck. When the sweet spot came the camera didn’t derail and we have the only good complete shot. I didn’t want to keep on going. I was afraid of safety and also because the light was not worth it. Do a lot of prep so you can be bit luckier!
EL: You were setting up the camera, talking to the actors. When did you have time to do the lighting?
AC: That was fundamental. We’re going to be in the dining room. I knew roughly the shot. From the night before we start doing pre-lights, having extra crew working extra hours to start doing a pre-rig, then I would finish. It was a process. Embracing being a cinematographer forced me to be on the set all day long. When we work together, we work, I go away. Somehow I had to be there, that was triggering more details of the memory of the moment, it was very useful. I was there lighting, and composing. For me, it was: “What would Chivo do?”
EL: Inside the movie theater with interactive light, you shoot naturalistically with a lot of depth. That combination is not simple. It requires that you have a deep stop and that means you need a lot of light. In this particular scene you can see what’s being projected, see the lighting on [the characters], there’s a fill light, so you can see who they are. Then there’s a big change of light. This scene, even for a very old tested cinematographer, is a nightmare. How did you do it?
AC: I don’t want movie lights. I want the scene to be lighting everything in sync with the projection. Projecting 35 mil is not enough light, 65 we can’t afford, we don’t have a big F stop. Shoot 35 open as much as possible, with the F stop you lose the depth the field. So you need power. The solution of how do it was informed by “Gravity” LEDs. We changed the screen for LED lights that would be projecting, and then replaced later in post-production for 35 mm projection. To reach our characters, on top of the screen there was a smaller LED with lesser intensity that was in sync. And also I rounded a bit on the sides. The challenge was the change of light when the lights come up.
EL: Amazing. What about the music, or lack of it? We did it in “Y Tu Mama Tambien” but not to this extent.
AC: In “Y Tu Mama” we chased the source, bringing it more to the foreground. Here the source depends on the distance and sometimes you barely hear it. The music was the sound of the places. That was part of the design from the get-go. It’s described in the screenplay and one of those things that you follow through.
EL: You are never satisfied–“we fucked this up, this is a mistake, we should not have filmed this.” This to me seems like your most successful film. Sorry, if I’m talking like a critic. But it’s a combination of everything that you’ve learned, what you’ve been doing for so many years. Are you satisfied with the movie?
AC: I am very pleased because it’s what I set out to do. I had the luxury that I had the time to do it. In other films there are more conventional narratives. Here I decided what I set out to do. I don’t know if it’s successful. I set out to bring it out unfiltered. And I am satisfied, yes. That I would watch it again, no!
EL: Congratulations, I adore the movie. I think it’s one of my favorite movies.