GUADALAJARA, Mexico — At the Guadalajara Int’l Film Festival (FICG) to give a master class, “Roma” production designer Eugenio Caballero sat down with Variety prior to the sold-out FICG event on Saturday. As Mexico’s only production designer to win an Oscar (for his work in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”) and who was again nominated for his meticulous work on Alfonso Cuaron’s multi-Oscar-winning black-and-white memoir, “Roma,” Caballero has been keen to allay his public-speaking fears to pay it forward and share what he knows about his craft.
He is set to give more master classes in Doha and in Europe before he decides on which of two current job offers to accept, both of them in Europe. “Not everyone understands what production design entails, not even people in the business,” he said, adding: “It’s more a narrative discipline than an aesthetic discipline.”
“I want to discuss my creative process after I receive a script, although in ‘Roma’s’ case, there wasn’t one,” he added with a laugh. “I never spent so much time talking to a director,” he mused. In their long talks, they discussed the film’s themes of loneliness, family break-ups, women’s role in society then and the socio-political situation of the early ‘70s rather than specific imagery. It helped that he was born in the same neighborhood as Cuaron while his grandparents, whom he visited every weekend, lived a few blocks away.
Finding a much-changed neighborhood forced them to find build entire sets on empty lots. “You should have seen the producers’ faces when we suggested this,” he said, smiling. “Because we were working with mostly non-professional actors, the buildings had to be genuine, of brick and mortar, to help them in their performances,” he pointed out.
Pre-production for the $15 million film took eight months and principal photography, shot in chronological order, lasted 19 weeks. One of his team’s greatest challenge was to find the right cars to match the neighborhoods and in the right colors so that they stood out in black and white. He was also very much involved in post-production where CGI was key to some scenes.
Speaking to a full house of some 900 attendees, Caballero broke down the process of production design – with the help of projections on a big screen behind him – for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “A Monster Calls,” “The Impossible” and various other films of his storied career.
“What I like most about this job is the creation of the movie’s world; you find the sentence that defines the story in the script and then you ask yourself: what do I want to convey, what is the context? Then you scout for locations and begin to understand what you’re going to build,” he told the audience.
Caballero revealed that he was supposed to study international law but soon realized it was not for him and went on to study art and film history in Florence, Italy instead. It was a fateful decision that led him to work with such prominent directors as Cuaron, Del Toro, Jim Jarmusch, Baz Luhrmann, J.A. Bayona and Sebastian Cordero, among many others.
“I usually come in before the director of photography to start developing the movie’s concept with the director; it is very important to anchor myself in the director’s vision. Then the DP comes in and it is vital we are all on the same page for the collaboration to work,” he pointed out.
He talked about the building blocks of color, shape and the intangible importance of each object in a film. “An object can give clues to a person’s character, socio-economic status, emotional state; every object has to help in telling the story.”
“In poetry, the adjective that does not give life, kills; for me the work of art direction must be that precise, everything in the picture must count,” he noted.
Caballero is also in Guadalajara to curate the May exhibit of Del Toro’s renowned collection of macabre art, artifacts and memorabilia, ‘At Home with Monsters,’ from his Los Angeles-based Bleak House, which came close to being destroyed by the fires that razed L.A. in November. “I have selected 50 pieces from the original LACMA exhibit and am adding new ones I have chosen,” said Caballero, who added that he plans to include pieces of Mexican Art that form a thematic dialogue with Del Toro’s collection.