One of the most diverse filmmaking careers in recent memory belongs to Mexico City native Alfonso Cuaron, whose résumé includes, among others, the sex-driven drama “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” the dystopian thriller “Children of Men,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and the science-fiction survival tale “Gravity,” for which he won a directing Oscar.
Cuaron, goes in an entirely different direction, taking an inward-looking semi-autobiographical route, with “Roma,” a quiet, languid examination of a middle-class family in early-1970s Mexico City. Speaking about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Cuaron wouldn’t admit that one of the young characters in the film was specifically based on himself, but it was revealed that Cuaron’s father, like the father in the story, walked out on his family, and that the dog in the film looked exactly like the dog he had when he was growing up. Cuaron, 57, stuck with the idea that the film came from some of his memories, and that memories change over the years.
Q: Why did you decide to make this sort of film at this point in your career?
A: I guess it’s been gestating for a long period of my life. The first time I had the conscious impulse to make this film was 12 year ago. I thought it was going to be my next film after “Children of Men.” But that didn’t happen, because of life. But I think it was for the best. I didn’t feel secure at that moment. I didn’t have emotional tools yet, in terms of approaching some things from my personal life.
Q: Is it true that your actors were working without a screenplay?
A: I had a very precise, detailed script, but the only person who read it was (producer) David Linde. I would give directions to each character individually, and I would give them the written pages of their dialogue, often on the morning we were shooting it, so they would have some expectations of what was going to happen. But we shot in absolute chronological order, so the actors were learning day-by-day what was going on. In life you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day.
Q: You’ve said in previous interviews that the film is about the elements.
A: That’s right. We tried to honor fire, wind, water and earth. But at the same time, we also tried to acknowledge stuff like heaven and earth. The film starts looking at earth in which heaven is nothing but a reflection through the water. Eventually, water starts to come up, with more meaning, and at one point, everybody is submerged in water. And it finishes by looking at the sky. Part of that is that life is something that’s transient, it’s something that is also our individual experiences. There are elements that we can’t control, that are completely out of our control.
Q: The sound design of the film is very striking. What were you thinking about in developing the sound, which seems to come from all directions?
A: I would know that if a scene was making sense, that it was not only about what I was experiencing through the sensorial aspect of what I was looking at, what I was listening to, or sometimes my sense of smell. Even if the smell wasn’t there, it would trigger a memory. I wanted to recreate the same thing with sound. In this film’s case, it was the sound of the sea, and the sound of a society. Every society’s culture has some musical rhythm. It’s a musical rhythm that is not focused, it’s all around us. Like the elements. Like the air and the wind. And that’s what we wanted to create with the sound.
Q: Did you shoot the film in black and white because you trying to be nostalgic?
A: I was not attempting to be nostalgic. This is a look into the past, but from the standpoint of the present. It was shot in black and white, but in digital 65 millimeter. So, it was contemporary filmmaking looking into the past.
Q: Is it true that you sometimes discuss your projects in advance with your director pals Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu?
A: Oh, yes. We collaborate closely throughout preproduction. Then, when we’re in production, there are panicked phone calls and stuff, and then there’s post-production. But “Roma” was the first time that I didn’t consult with Alejandro or Guillermo. I knew that they would give me amazing notes, that might have created better character arches or better structure. But this is one time when I had to trust in those images coming out of my own memory.
“Roma” opens in different cities on Dec. 6 and Dec. 14.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.