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Alfonso Cuarón on His New Oscars, Netflix and if Trump Should Watch ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuarón looks tired.

He was out partying until three in the morning, and the high from winning three Oscars for “Roma” has worn off. He’d like a glass of water, please, and maybe some orange juice. Cuarón has only recently roused himself from bed to don a slightly rumpled tuxedo for a photo shoot at his suite at the Chateau Marmont. The purpose is to commemorate his film’s unlikely journey to the stage of the Academy Awards.

Cuarón is no stranger to Oscar gold, having won editing and directing statuettes for his 2013 space epic “Gravity.” But this victory is more personal. “Roma” drew on his experiences growing up in Mexico City. The black-and-white tale helped him make sense of his parents’ divorce and served as a tribute to his nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who helped keep his fractured home life together.

“I wanted to explore some family wounds,” Cuarón says as he slices into a wedge of avocado toast.

In tackling a painful period in his childhood, the filmmaker also made history. He became the first director to win a cinematography Oscar. He shepherded Mexico to its first foreign language Academy Award. And he ushered Netflix, the streaming service that distributed the movie, into the thick of the awards race, giving the digital player its first significant taste of Oscar glory with his win for directing “Roma.”

More important than records is the impact the film’s success could have on a rising generation of directors.

“Young filmmakers in Mexico, they have Alfonso as a reference,” says Diego Luna, the star of Cuarón’s 2001 film “Y Tu Mamá También.” “You can tell your story, the one that matters to you, the personal one, and there’s an audience for it.”

By turning his camera on Cleo, a domestic inspired by Rodríguez, Cuarón brought the experience of Mexico’s indigenous people into focus. He illustrated the ways in which divides in wealth and station can foster prejudice. “Roma” is set in the 1970s, but its story resonates in our political era.

“They tell us all the time that we’re different,” says Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-winning director of 2017’s “The Shape of Water” and a friend of Cuarón’s. “They tell us that we should not empathize out of gender, out of politics, out of religion.” He praises Cuarón for using “Roma” to shine a light on “people who live a life invisible to a certain class.”

For his part, Cuarón hopes that Hollywood becomes more inclusive both in the stories it puts on-screen and in the distribution models it deploys. Through barely suppressed yawns, a weary Cuarón reflects on working with Netflix and how art can respond to Trumpism.

Did winning your Oscars for “Roma” feel different from your previous wins for “Gravity”?
It was totally different. Last time we got honored with several Oscars for a studio movie with big stars and great visual effects. On paper, “Roma” is not Oscar bait. This is a very specific film. It’s in black and white and in Spanish. It’s a drama. And it felt significant that the Academy was recognizing a film that centers on a character that is a domestic worker from an indigenous background.

Why isn’t “Roma” an “Oscar bait” film?
Oscar bait is usually an “important” story filled with big speeches and big stars. There’s always a big emotional moment at the end with some tears. This is more removed. It demands a greater participation from the audience. Oscar bait is not a black-and-white movie in Spanish and Mixteco. It doesn’t have unknown actresses.

Did you worry that the movie might be too rooted in your personal experience growing up in Mexico City to translate to a wider audience?
I didn’t worry. It was a film I had to do. I didn’t know if a lot of people were going to see it or if it was going to have much of a life, but I had to do it.

When you accepted your Oscar for directing, you said that “Roma” is about people Hollywood relegates to the background. What did you mean?
In the best-case scenario, a domestic worker has a supportive role or is a supporting character in movies. They’re always on the fringes. They’re always functioning in relation to other characters. There is not really a deep look at that character. In “Roma” the camera is directed on this domestic worker, this indigenous character.

What artists do is to see what others don’t and to express that. That’s the reason artists are artists, because they can see something extraordinary in our daily life. It’s to examine things we take for granted or ignore. When you look at a character like Cleo, you are acknowledging the existence of that character. You realize we are not that different. We are similar. That opens the door for empathy, and that leads to understanding. It’s said that cinema can be a machine for empathy. It shows what might seem strange or different to us, and once you can get beyond your prejudices you realize we’re one and the same.

Does that act of empathy give your film a political resonance, given what’s going on in this country? Politicians here often talk in dehumanizing ways about immigrants.
I never intended it to be a political film. I was doing a film about a specific character. The response that “Roma” has been having indicates that there are collective wounds we share as humans. That’s what makes the film relevant for what’s going on nowadays. The film is about the relationship that exists between class and ethnic background. In Mexico, that’s leading to one conversation about racism. But that same conversation can be transported to the U.S.

Because of Yalitza Aparicio [the Oscar-nominated actress who plays Cleo] and her amazing intelligence and civility and generosity, people are embracing her character. By doing that they’re embracing millions of other people like her. This is happening in a moment in which these people have been vilified by Trump. Ultimately the only foundations of the wall that he talks about are fear and hate. Art can sometimes be an antidote to fear and hate.

Alfonso Cuaron Variety Oscars Cover Story

Do you hope President Trump watches “Roma”?
I don’t know. It has subtitles. He’d have to read them all! [Gasps] His mind would be so tired after one hour. Maybe they’d have to freeze-frame things, or someone would have to read the whole thing to him.

Netflix distributed this movie and spent millions campaigning for Oscars. Did more traditional studios want to make this film?
Even if they were supportive, certain aspects — like the black and white or the Spanish language or the unknown actresses — affected their vision for the film. When we spoke with Netflix, those kind of conversations didn’t happen. They were fearless. They were talking about the emotional story of the film. That showed their appetite for the film. They were willing to change their model to accommodate what we were looking for as filmmakers.

You mean Netflix accommodated you by agreeing to release “Roma” theatrically?
That was the fundamental thing, and now we’ve had three months of a theatrical release. Most movies aren’t still in theaters after three months. The marketing push Netflix put behind the film unquestionably made more people aware of it.

Was Netflix always on board with giving the movie some kind of exclusive theatrical release?
It was a conversation. It was a company that had a precise model for a long time, so it was not just “OK, let’s do it like this.” But they responded to its performance. After [the Venice Film Festival, where “Roma” debuted], the conversation started changing. They realized they could be more aggressive about certain things. They responded well when I said I wanted to do a special 70mm release, for instance.

Will the next generation of filmmakers feel as passionate about having their movies in theaters?
I think that is going to prevail. By the same token, there is a greater openness to different formats because they grew up with them. But I think that filmmakers will always love the theatrical experience.

There’s a lot of speculation among awards watchers that “Roma” lost best picture to “Green Book” because people are scared that Netflix is disrupting the industry. Do you think there was blowback?
In the beginning, when I started this process, I felt that. I had friends and other filmmakers say, “What are you doing?” It was almost as if I was betraying something. But I think the conversation has changed. I think most people are recognizing that this film is reaching audiences worldwide in a way that usually only mainstream films do.

For me the conversation about theatrical is super important. I’m a filmmaker. I believe in the theatrical experience. But there has to be diversity. The multiplex theatrical experience is a very gentrified experience. You have one kind of product with few variations. It’s hard to see art-house films. It’s hard to see foreign films. Most theaters play big Hollywood movies.

So if big studios aren’t interested in making adult dramas, how do we ensure these movies keep getting made?
There needs to be greater diversity in how we release our films. Distribution models need to be more flexible, depending on the film. You cannot impose the release strategy of a tentpole film on a smaller film. You may need fewer theaters and longer runs or models in which the so-called window is shorter. We’re thinking in one single paradigm. It’s a moment to start opening up paradigms. Right now it’s a confrontation between economic models. It’s not like one model benefits cinema, and the other does not.

Guillermo del Toro and Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón share a laugh backstage at the Oscars.
Matt Sayles / ©A.M.P.A.S.

This Oscars was the most inclusive in recent memory. There were a record number of people of color honored and a record number of female winners. Is that reflective of a larger trend?
I don’t know. There’s still a real lack of Mexican-American representation in movies.

Is the situation improving?
Everything goes back to the source material. Maybe there will be a superhero movie with a Chicano character, but that doesn’t really get to the core of it. You have to do films that talk about that experience.

Your films such as “Roma,” “Gravity” and “A Little Princess” often center on female protagonists. Why are you drawn to strong female characters?
I’ve never thought about it. Aren’t there a lot of them in life?

Where will you keep your Oscars for “Roma”? Will you store them with your awards for “Gravity”?
I’m moving, so right now everything is in boxes. Maybe for a few weeks they’re going to be in the same boxes as the other ones.

Marc Malkin contributed to this report.

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