Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón didn’t know why, but the instinct was clear: “Roma,” his most personal film to date, taken from his memories of growing up in Mexico City, had to be shot in black and white. It wasn’t about conjuring nostalgia or referencing the neorealist masters of old, whose work would later be name-checked in critical assessments of the movie. It was simply an urge he refused to question.
“You have to respect those things,” he says.
Cuarón originally designed the production for three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”), but in the end, scheduling dictated that he take the leap himself. Serving as his own director of photography, Cuarón opted for the large-format Alexa 65 digital camera rather than celluloid. It was, of course, a purposeful decision.
“It could not be a nostalgic, old-school black and white,” he says. “If this is a film that’s a look at the past through the prism of the present — from my understanding now — it needed to be contemporary: pristine, not grainy.”
The next task was gargantuan: reproducing elements of his childhood from the ground up. Cuarón called on Oscar-winning production designer Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) to bring Roma — the Mexico City neighborhood of both their youths — back to life. That included a meticulous re-creation of the Cuarón family home of the 1970s, outfitted with 70% of the original furniture. Fortunately the production was able to find a house in the neighborhood set for demolition to accommodate the authentic pieces.
“What we did is basically what we do in a studio,” Caballero says. “We designed the house to have movable walls for all the film machinery in order to shoot the way we wanted, and we changed the structure of the house.”
Caballero and his team replaced all the tiles and floors, changed the texture of the walls, filled the space with the remembered accoutrements of childhood and basically treated the location as their personal soundstage. Cuarón would talk about his days as a child, what happened in the various spaces throughout the house, how the rooms were used, even the smell of certain areas. It was an unusual but satisfying way for Caballero to get into his process — particularly since, as with the actors, Cuarón withheld the screenplay from him throughout much of the process.
As for exteriors, the Roma neighborhood of old is naturally lost to the ages. For one sequence that showcases street life in the area, a two-block-long, more than 16-foot-high set was constructed and later completed with digital trickery. “With any exterior, especially a city with such an energetic pace of change as Mexico City, you’ll see there are a lot of elements that are not period accurate,” Caballero says. “We had to remove some things and add some things.”
The black-and-white palette played a large role in the designer’s work as well. He ran a number of tests to see how colors would be reflected on a gray scale, aiming for just the right harmonious contrast. But balancing that with an environment that would be beneficial for the cast was also part of the equation.
“It was important to understand which color would affect the state of mind,” Caballero says. “There are some colors that produce melancholy or some that cheer you up, so I wanted to apply the correct colors for the actors.”
Cuarón says the optimum way to experience “Roma” isn’t just in absorbing the complexity of the imagery. He and his sound mixing team used Dolby Atmos to put the cherry on top, going to painstaking lengths to envelop the viewer in the aural atmosphere of the film, again drawing on his memory of a bustling community. That would be crucial for a movie that has no original score.
“If this is a film that’s a look at the past through the prism of the present, it needed to be contemporary: pristine, not grainy.”
“The specific thing was the sound of a city and the sound of a society,” Cuarón says. “Each society has its own musical rhythm, and it’s a musical rhythm that’s not focused. It’s around us. In a very objective narrative, we wanted to create an individual experience for the audience.”
At 110 days, the “Roma” shoot was Cuarón’s second-most-extensive (outstripped only by “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which was more than twice as long). It would also yield the longest digital-intermediate process of his career, and one of the longest that finishing facility Technicolor has embarked on as well, all in service of an auteur’s exploration of the forces that forged him. Rarely has a filmmaker invited the viewer to gaze so deeply into the intimate and the seminal.
“The thing is, I don’t know what the movie is about. I wish I could tell you,” Cuarón says. “For me it was a kaleidoscope of experience. And I was not confident. It was this kind of need. I was just going to go for it.”