While watching Alfonso Cuaron’s visual masterpiece, we are transported back to his childhood, back to 1970s Mexico. The details in the film are a feast to behold. Eugenio Caballero’s production design is so meticulously crafted. whether its hundreds of vintage cars moving through the city’s traffic, using Cuaron’s own personal furniture and paintings that remain from his childhood, or finding the right house for Cleo and the family she loves and cares for.
Caballero says Cuaron did the rare thing of shooting the film in chronological order. Read how he found the perfect iconic tiles featured in the movie and how he used production tricks to shoot in the space needed for key scenes.
Roma was such a personal story for Cuaron. What did he tell you about his vision for his film?
When Alfonso called me, he said he wanted to do this very personal film. He wanted to do it in an unconventional way. He didn’t want to talk about actions, but what he wanted to do was talk about subject and what he wanted to say.
He wanted to explore what would happen within the set. He made it clear from the beginning that it was going to be in black and white. We didn’t want a high contrast black and white film imitating the effect that celluloid would make. We knew we wanted something very modern and picking up the colors that would transform in grayscale.
He said it was a very personal story. We didn’t start by looking at images, we started with conversations. It was probably one of the only films that I’ve ever done in my whole career where I actually got to spend time with my director. We spent long afternoons talking about the details and sounds and what he was feeling. We talked about the family dynamics when they were having dinner.
All of those things helped us build the world that we end up portraying. We also wanted to look at the complexity of Mexico City where worlds often opposite from one another collide and they co-exist. We wanted to talk about loss. In this case, if you think that Alfonso, you see it’s a big break in his life where the dynamic of his family changed. So, we wanted to talk about that. We talked about the condition of domestic workers in Mexico and what it was like back then.
We made all the visual decisions based on that and so for me, it wasn’t just about creating a period film. Each prop you see is carefully placed and it had been taken into consideration before it was put there and how it’d help us talk about these subject matters.
Much of the film centers in the family home and it’s a character in the film itself. What went into designing it?
One thing Alfonso and I talked about was about honoring time and space. We wanted to shoot in the spaces where the real action took place. We knew early in the shoot that it was possible in certain places, but it wasn’t possible in some. One example is in the house and another was the Avenue which we built from scratch.
With the house, we knew we needed a real house. We were working with non-professional actors so it was important for us to have a house with plaster and brick so it would feel real to them.
Whatever house we were going to shoot at, we knew we’d needed modifications. We knew we needed a recreation of what Alfonso remembered as his home. We knew we would be shooting a lot in the house.
The way in which Alfonso wanted to shoot, we needed to have a lot of open spaces with a lot of depth. That meant where we put the camera, we had three to four spaces behind you. We modified that house in a huge way. I remodified about 80% of it.
What happened was there was going to be a house to be demolished. Right now, that house is 12 apartments so that was sad to see because we spent a year of our lives there.
We had a team of construction workers come in to knock the walls down. We created those iconic arches that you see, those were in Alfonso’s home and he had photos from when he had taken them while he was learning about photography.
We stripped all the materials out so we could put in whatever we wanted. We put in the iconic tiles that you see. We were talking about these tiles he had in his house and it reminded me of tiles I had in my grandfather’s house. I knew what we was talking about.
When we were walking and talking about this, we saw this great dynamic between the streets and the house. We actually found someone who would make the tiles that Alfonso had in his house and this man handmade them in the same way they were made in the 30s.
Another thing we considered was the fact we’d be shooting in that house for so many months. The first shot and the last shot of the movie is in the house. The whole shooting period – 19 weeks – that set was running for many months.
The second floor walls, the ones that divide the stairs and the rooms, were all on rails that would go up and down like a guillotine and brought down when we needed. That allowed us to light the rooms and space how we wanted to.
When they eat dinner, that space is between the kitchen and the stairwell. We wanted to place the camera there. There was a little room with the fridge and so we created that room on rails so we could push it towards the kitchen. When we were shooting in the dinner space, we could move it there so we had more camera space.
When we shot in the kitchen, we’d push that little room in the other direction so we’d have space there. We had a lot of tricks there.
Click here to see the world of Roma in color.