Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron was on hand Tuesday at Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux’s 10th annual Lumiere Festival in Lyon, where he gave a master class to a receptive local audience after presenting the French premiere Monday night of his latest opus, Roma.
With Fremaux moderating the discussion, the 56-year-old Cuaron spoke about the origins of a project that would have him returning to his native Mexico after nearly two decades and three features — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and the Oscar-winning Gravity — working in Hollywood and the U.K.
As Cuaron tells it, Fremaux himself was partially behind his decision to make a movie back home. When the two got together several years ago at the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico, Cuaron pitched Fremaux a new project he was working on — and that he still may make — described as a “family drama set either 50,000 or 100,000 years ago.” He had already conducted plenty of anthropological research for a movie he saw, in high-concept terms, as a “Darwinian Adam and Eve.”
Fremaux, perhaps boosted by their Mezcal intake (they both admit to being drunk that night), didn’t seem convinced and told the director to try making something more personal, in the vein of 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien. (Fremaux said that Tambien was rejected by the Cannes selection committee despite his pleadings and wound up playing Venice, where Cuaron has premiered nearly all his films since.)
Out of that night came Roma, an intimate yet epic drama that Cuaron had in mind for some time. “It was the right moment for me to return to Mexico, and I wanted to use the skills I had acquired on Hollywood movies to make something more personal,” he explained.
Cuaron also described the unique production process — Roma was produced by the director’s Esperanto Filmoj shingle and Participant Media — where he was the only person on set who had full access to the script. The rest of the crew and cast were kept in the dark as to the entire nature of the story, with Cuaron giving actors their individual lines and character arcs at the start of each shooting day.
In order for that to work, Roma was shot in order from beginning to end, in a form of controlled chaos. “Each actor received contradictory directions and explanations, which meant that there was chaos on set every day,” the director admitted. “But that’s exactly what life is like: It’s chaotic and you can’t really plan how you’ll react to a given situation.”
Cuaron described how, in one of the film’s pivotal emotional scenes, first-time lead actress Yaltiza Aparicio was unaware of what would befall her character: “Her tears were real tears because she was discovering what was happening to her as we shot.”
Filmed on widescreen digital 65mm and mixed in Dolby Atmos surround sound, which is how it will be shown when it receives a limited theatrical release in certain territories later this year, Roma is nonetheless a movie that will predominantly be seen on the small screen. The film was picked up in April by Netflix for worldwide distribution, and the streamer will be releasing it on its platform in December.
An audience member asked Cuaron what he thought about the upcoming Netflix release, especially as a filmmaker who’s also committed cinephile. (At one point in the talk, Cuaron explained how Swiss auteur Alain Tanner’s 1976 film Jonas Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 remains one of his big inspirations.)
“I’m frustrated that in France it can’t be seen on the big screen, while most of the rest of the world will have that opportunity,” Cuaron replied, underlining how Netflix is planning a theatrical rollout in the U.S. and many other countries. In France, there is a required three-year window between theatrical and SVOD releases, which is why Netflix will only be distributing Roma online in the country.
“When we were looking for a distributor, Netflix very ambitiously imposed itself with its desire to try and get Roma out to all four corners of the world,” Cuaron added. “And to have that ambition for an art house film in black-and-white, and with all the dialogue in Spanish and [the indigenous dialect] Mixtec, is a rare thing nowadays.”
Cuaron also acknowledged that a director today has to find a “juste milieu” between their own tastes and those of the ever-evolving market. “Even movies made for the big screen are only seen that way for three months now, after which they’re mostly watched on digital formats at home,” he said.
Reflecting on his own career, which has taken him from smaller projects like Roma and Y Tu Mama Tambien to blockbusters like Gravity and the third Harry Potter movie, Cuaron stressed how “filmmakers shouldn’t sacrifice their own voices to work in Hollywood” and how “a director cannot make a film if it’s not personal.”
On Gravity, the personal side came from his decision to make a huge studio movie out of necessity when another project he had been working on fell through, facing a number of challenges and obstacles along the way — not unlike Sandra Bullock’s character stuck alone out in space. And on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it was the desire to make a film about the passage from childhood to adolescence, just like Y Tu Mama Tambien tackled the passage from adolescence to adulthood.
“I’m not an auteur who does the same movie over and over again,” Cuaron explained. “I’m more like a cinephile interested in lots of different themes and genres. Each time I make it’s a movie, it’s a movie I don’t really know how to make.”