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Alfonso Cuaron Thrived on Chaos When He Shot His Own Memories for ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuaron, who won an Oscar for directing 2013’s “Gravity,” is back in the awards conversation again this year with a very different kind of film, “Roma,” a clearly autobiographical tale that follows the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 70s. “Roma” is notable for its uncompromising art-house esthetics, its meticulous restoration of Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, and its widely praised black-and-white cinematography, which Cuaron created himself as his own DP. He had originally intended to shoot the film with longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, known as Chivo, but then the DP became unavailable.

What’s the story behind you serving as your own DP for “Roma?”

Chivo started prepping with me. I designed this film for him – the bastard! (laughs) Chivo and I have always had conversations about what are the biggest obstacles to making a good film, and pretty much everything boils down to time. Time for prep, time for production, and time for post. I started realizing that we would need more time and Chivo said, “Man, I can’t do it. I have commitments to two other movies.” That’s why I stepped up. Chivo is the one who suggested it.

Did you consider other DPs?

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Two weeks before the start of shooting I had conversations with people I admired. But then a fear came up. This was going to be my first film in my own country in 17 years. It was all in my memory. I didn’t want to have communications on the set in English when my mother tongue was so important for the process. Chivo said, “Stop fooling around. You should do it.”

You had worked as a DP before.

I was a DP in film school, Chivo was my assistant. And then doing TV I shot and directed most of my shows and served as DP on many other shows. But I never really took the responsibility for a major film.

How do you multitask as director and DP on the same movie?

For this film pretty much everything was in my head. Images were already in my memory. I was just bringing new detail to those images. Working with the actors was the same. Nobody had the screenplay but me. I would give written dialog to just a couple of actors separately, never as a group. Then I would give separate indications personally to each character, and all of that information was contradictory. So when we started rolling it was chaos.

So you were deliberately creating chaos?

Yes. I would say to [actress ] Marina [de Tavira]: “It’s important that your son listens to what you’re saying.” And I would go to the son and say, “As soon as she starts talking just leave.” Or to the other kid, “As soon as your mom talks to you, just keep interrupting.” It was always random.

You didn’t operate the camera, did you?

No, that I would not do. I had an operator. I like to look at the actors directly, not through an eyepiece.

Despite the chaos, did the production run smoothly?

Well, it was awkward for the first three days because I was so used to respecting boundaries. I was the director and it was awkward talking with the gaffer. But after the third day I realized that, wow, I had to take control of this. So I just took over, and once I did that it was pleasurable. And I was allowed to play with the toys that Chivo always played with.

How do you think “Roma” would have been different if Chivo had shot it?

If he had done it the photography would have been way better, but I would have also repressed myself and not done some stuff that I did on this film.

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