Alfonso Cuarón on the Painful and Poetic Backstory Behind ‘Roma’

More than a decade ago, shortly after wrapping his 2006 dystopian drama “Children of Men,” director Alfonso Cuarón seized upon the idea of making an autobiographical film based on his childhood. Previously, he had worked on various screenplays that obliquely dealt with his upbringing through stories of families falling apart or the absence of a father — tribulations that he himself had endured at a young age. But it took some time before the specificity of his memories would finally coalesce in his latest movie, “Roma,” re-created with painstaking emotion, detail and precision.

“I think I wanted to understand, to put the pieces together,” Cuarón says, speaking to Variety on a whirlwind day of promoting the film ahead of its New York Film Festival premiere. “[Jorge Luis] Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered mirror, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.”

For a filmmaker who has long invested himself in the intimacy of his creations, from the semi-autobiographical road-trip saga “Y Tu Mamá También” to the big-screen majesty of space epic “Gravity” (which earned him a director Oscar), “Roma” — named for the Mexico City neighborhood of his youth — would be Cuarón’s ultimate personal testament. But the 56-year-old filmmaker was not interested in a nostalgia piece, or something akin to his 1995 Hollywood debut “A Little Princess,” which was told from the point of view of a child.

Instead, he wanted to craft a film that peered into the past through the prism of the present, an objective experience seen from the understanding he has as an adult. That is partly why he opted for the pristine imagery of large-format black-and-white digital photography, rather than the grain of celluloid.

“It was probably my own guilt about social dynamics, class dynamics, racial dynamics,” he says. “I was a white, middle-class, Mexican kid living in this bubble. I didn’t have an awareness. I [had] what your parents tell you — that you have to be nice to people who are less privileged than you and all of that — but you’re in your childhood universe.”

The way into these ideas would be through his real-life nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who played a profound role in raising Cuarón and to whom he has dedicated his new film. An indigenous Mixtec woman who joined the family when Cuarón was 9 months old, Rodríguez came from the village of Tepelmeme in the state of Oaxaca — for him a world away from the cosmopolitan bustle of Mexico City.

He admits to having a childlike view of that background. Rodríguez would talk to Cuarón about her hardships as a girl, about feeling cold or hungry. But as a little boy, he would look at those stories almost like adventures. She would tell him about her father, who used to play an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame that’s almost lost to the ages now, or about witch doctors who would try to cure people in her village. To him it was all very exciting.

As his own social awakening began to take hold in later years, Cuarón realized the obvious: Rodríguez was an individual, a woman with needs and an internal life, not simply a caretaker there to bring him smoothies and do his laundry.

“There is a charge of affection that taints everything,” Cuarón says about a child’s bonds with parental figures. “You have a very utilitarian relationship with your loved ones. You’re afraid to stop and see their weaknesses. But it started to be clear she had another life.”

And so the questions began. As he started the journey of writing “Roma,” he began investigating Rodríguez’s life little by little.

Cuarón, who remains incredibly close with his family, frequently speaks with Rodríguez by telephone.

“He was getting all this information without me knowing what it was for,” Rodríguez says through a translator while discussing the film for the first time with any journalist. “‘How do you remember this, Libo?’ he said. ‘Help me remember and understand.’ Then it started to become weird. ‘Libo, what did you used to wear? How did you dress?’ Things like that. I never imagined everything I’m living right now, that a film would be based on me.”

A diminutive woman of 74, Rodriguez wears her heart on her sleeve. She tears up at even a general discussion of Cuarón and the family, let alone when digging into specific heartbreaking moments from her life that are depicted in the film.

She recalls Cuarón as a mischievous handful when he was growing up with his three siblings. He would pull pranks like tying the rope of her apron to the chair while she was sitting in it, and on a few occasions he caused a mini panic when Rodríguez lost him at the local market because he was such a wandering, curious spirit.

“He just didn’t behave,” she says with an infectious laugh.

Cuarón’s sister, Cristina, remembers a holiday dinner gag that had his fingerprints all over it. When the meal was presented and the serving-platter cover removed from the entrée, it was revealed Cuarón had swapped it out for the family cat. “He was so creative all the time,” she says.

Early on, Cuarón wanted to become a pilot or an astronaut. He was enamored of airplanes and would tell Rodríguez that when he grew up, he would take her traveling. However, it soon became clear he was an artist. He was always taking pictures of her, and he would get lost in little illustrated cards depicting events like the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire that were part of his homework assignments.

Cristina remembers a time when she was dancing — alone, she thought. But her brother was surreptitiously filming her from afar. “All the time he was with the camera, making short movies,” she remembers.

In some ways, Cuarón probably owes his eventual career path to Rodríguez, who often took him and his siblings to the local cinema. They would watch double or even triple bills, then gather for hamburgers nearby at the end of the day. Cuarón was dazzled by movies like Brian G. Hutton’s “Where Eagles Dare” and John Sturges’ “Marooned,” a space thriller that served as an inspiration for “Gravity” — and a clip of which even pops up in “Roma.” It was a period he and his brother and sisters refer to as “Libo Mama.”

“Libo, like so many domestic workers, they go beyond a normal job and take on all these roles that are supposed to be covered by the parents,” Cuarón says.

In the film, Rodríguez is portrayed by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo. Cuarón embarked on an exhaustive search throughout Mexico to find the woman who would play the role, beginning in the cities before venturing out into the villages. It was important — not just for Cleo but for virtually every character in the film, no matter how distant they were in the frame — that Cuarón cast the roles himself, drawing on his memory to find just the right doppelgänger. He looked at thousands of video interviews with various individuals, but when he saw Aparicio, who is also from Oaxaca, the search was over.

“It was immediate,” he says. “I’m talking about Libo. I’ve known her all my life. I know her attributes. I know her approach. I know that smile. So it was one of those things when you meet someone and you say, ‘Please, please, I hope she says yes.”

Rodríguez also made an unannounced visit to the set. It was during a scene in which Sofía, the matriarch of the family, played by Marina de Tavira, explains to the children that their father, who has left her — the reality of which she’s shielded from them — will not be coming back home. Cuarón had set up a private tent for Rodríguez to view the monitors as the scene played out, and when he came in to check on her, tears were streaming down her face.

The director with his real-life nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez. Remembering the young Cuarón, she says simply: “He just didn’t behave.”
peter hapak/netflix

“I said, ‘Wow, maybe I crossed the line, and I’m doing something very painful for her,’” he recalls. “I went to her and said, ‘Is this OK with you? If you don’t feel comfortable, you tell me and we won’t do it like this.’ She kept crying, and she said, ‘No, no. Poor kids. Poor kids.’ She wasn’t even looking at her own pain.”

The reaction was similarly strong when Rodríguez saw an early cut of the film. In particular, reliving the anguish of love lost, as well as a gut-wrenching childbirth sequence, left her emotionally rocked.

“One of the toughest things when you are young is just falling in love and loving,” she says through tears. “You fall in love because you’re young and you don’t know, and then things happen. When you start growing up, you would like to change them. But there’s no way to change them. It’s part of life.”

When Cuarón started the filmmaking process, there were three elemental aspects that came to him that he refused to question: “Roma” would be centered on Rodríguez; it would be taken from his own memories; and it would be filmed in black and white. He designed the project to be shot by his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, but the three-time Oscar winner was ultimately unable to participate due to a scheduling conflict. So Cuarón decided he would serve as his own director of photography.

He wasn’t entirely confident that these visions of his past would translate into visual storytelling. All he had was a primal urge to continue pulling on the thread. He didn’t even consult his filmmaker friends Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu as he often does, because their advice about how to craft a better screenplay or a better film would have clouded the instincts he was hoping to follow.

“I was just going to go for it,” Cuaron says. “I wanted this to be about trusting these moments, whatever was going to come out. I didn’t want to be thinking about narrative, and this is the first project where I didn’t want to have any references.”

Not only did Cuarón withhold the script from his creative compadres, but he withheld it from his cast as well, giving them their scenarios daily and allowing for improvisation with the dialogue. He also shot the film in chronological order. The goal was getting at something natural, with the actors discovering their circumstances on a day-to-day basis, like life itself.

Aparicio was nervous knowing she would be portraying someone so close to Cuarón. She didn’t know if she could give life to the character the way he had imagined. But she related to Cleo and her resilience in the face of adversity. It was also helpful that Cuarón cast Aparicio’s own best friend, Nancy García García, in the role of Cleo’s companion, both adding to the naturalism and combating any loneliness she might have experienced on the shoot.

“The trust he had in me helped me imagine that this was my life,” Aparicio says.

For Aparicio, this was how movies were made. But for a seasoned actress like de Tavira, it was an antithetical approach. Cuarón told de Tavira up front that her task would be difficult because she would have to override her instincts. Nevertheless, not having a script in hand was ultimately a gift, she says, because it allowed her to relax into the character and the story.

Before Alfonso Cuarón started production on“Roma,” he knew it would be filmed in black and white and that it would be taken from his childhood memories.
Courtesy of Netflix

“I didn’t have to look forward or analyze what I was going to do,” de Tavira says. “It could sound like an inconvenience, but I quickly understood what he wanted. Actors have a consciousness that we’re acting. We know the words by heart, and we know what to expect — what the other character is going to say. But I would learn that Cleo was expecting a baby, for instance, [on the day we shot that scene], or that Sofía’s son was listening to her conversation on a phone. Those were surprises, and I had to just let Sofía react.”

The design of the picture was meticulous in its re-creation of Cuarón’s memories. The director and his production designer, Eugenio Caballero, luckily found a house in the Roma neighborhood that was set for demolition and restructured it to look exactly as the Cuarón family home did in the early 1970s, adding sliding walls and a removable roof to allow for natural lighting.

The resulting 110-day production was a surreal experience for Cuarón, who would often look around the set and flash back to his childhood.

“At the beginning you’re so concerned that the characters need to look right, and is the costume right; is that the right sweater,” he says. “It was a while before I realized there was a weird process going on inside. It was beyond surreal. There were some moments that it was painful, to be honest.”

On that point, Cuarón recalls one scene when he was directing one of his actors. He didn’t immediately know why, but he became very emotional during the sequence and needed to take a walk to sit with his feelings before returning.

“I went back and I told the actor, ‘You know what? You’re feeling suffocated, and the moment you start the car and you drive away, you start breathing for the first time,’” he recalls. “We did the scene and I was very happy with it, and then I realized I was directing the scene in which my father left my family. But you are directing, so you’re not judging your characters. You’re trying to understand their motivations.”

Asked whether he was able to reconcile painful moments like that from his life, to approach an understanding of the actions taken by his father that left scars — cracks in the wall — to this day, he takes a moment.

“It helped me to at least have an interpretation of motivations, but motivations don’t justify actions,” says Cuarón, who was only 10 years old when his father left the family. “It’s not a moral judgment. It helped me to understand there are a certain amount of emotions behind each of these people in real life, good or bad.”

His sister Cristina puts a finer point on it.

“I have to thank Alfonso for the free therapy,” she says with a laugh.

While there were some discussions with the major movie studios when it came time to sell “Roma” for distribution, Cuarón says he was fully aware that a foreign-language film shot in black and white was unlikely to find a typical Hollywood home.

“This is not the kind of film that the studios generally release. And I’m happy with that,” he says. “After more than a decade in which cinema has gentrified into some sort of product, suddenly we’re seeing a greater diversity going on. Remember the ’90s, in which the big studio movie was coexisting in the multiplex with the foreign film and the film from Sundance? That’s the healthiest way of cinema.”

Cuarón, who was DP as well as director on “Roma,” shoots a scene with actress Marina de Tavira.
Courtesy of Netflix

Cuarón sees echoes of that time in the streaming status quo of today, and that played heavily into his and production company Participant Media’s decision to take “Roma” to Netflix.

“What we’re seeking to accomplish globally is finding the most robust way possible to reach tens of millions of people and also avoid the current marketplace reality that often faces non-English language films,” Participant chief executive David Linde says. “The conversation with Netflix went on for weeks, because that’s vitally important to us and them.”

For Cuarón, the optimum way to experience “Roma” is still in a theater. However, Netflix has yet to solidify its plans for a global theatrical release, which is intended to include select 70mm presentations, or an exclusive domestic run prior to its mid-December debut on the streaming service.

So far, none of the major circuits has committed to releasing the movie. Imax refuses to comment directly but refers to its policy to honor current exclusive theatrical exhibition windows. Netflix film chief Scott Stuber admits that Netflix has no firm plans. “We don’t have it nailed as of this moment,” he says. “There are so many moving parts.”

Cuarón remains confident Netflix will make good on its word to bring his work to the big screen for as many viewers as possible. “So far they have fulfilled all of their promises, and they have even gone beyond promises,” he says.

Breaking with Netflix’s day-and-date religion could go a long way toward the company’s Oscar pursuits. The Motion Picture Academy has largely been resistant to Netflix releases, in part because of the streaming giant’s mission to upset the moviegoing status quo. The first Netflix original film, 2015’s “Beasts of No Nation,” was entirely ignored by Oscar voters. Inroads were made earlier this year with “Mudbound,” which received four nominations, but a best-picture nod has thus far eluded Netflix.

Cuarón says the film had a great deal of interest from international territories, but that Netflix promised the potential of delivering the widest worldwide audience.

For Rodríguez, that’s a beautiful thing. Her reputation for selflessness preceded her, but in hearing how “Roma” has played at film festivals and left such a lasting impact on audiences around the globe, she says she is honored to take part in something so meaningful.

“I feel very proud that the film is producing these reactions and touching everybody’s heart,” she says through tears. “If I could be like a messenger peace dove that goes all over, that would be my dream, because that’s what I feel inside of me. I would like to do something for everybody in the whole world.”

Thanks to Alfonso Cuarón, who made good on that promise to take her traveling, she finally has the opportunity.