Alfonso Cuaron on Making the Autobiographical 'Roma' With Netflix

Roma Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

The director of 'Gravity' and 'Children of Men' delved deep into his own past for the black-and-white drama, set in Mexico in the 1970s.

Five years after opening the Venice Film Festival with Gravity, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron returned in style with Roma.

The deeply personal drama is unlike anything Cuaron has done before. The latest feature from the director of Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a black-and-white depiction of life in 1970s Mexico, largely seen through the eyes of Cleo, an indigenous maid working for a well-off family.

“Cleo [is] based on my babysitter when I was young. We were a family together,” said Cuaron. “But when you grow with someone you love you don't discuss their identity, so for this film I forced myself to see as this woman, a member of the lower classes, from the indigenous population ...This gave me a point of view I had never had before.”

Instead of a fixed script, Cuaron said he developed the film from his own memories, recalling scenes and events and then carefully examining them to find their hidden meaning. In a bid for accuracy, he even used the original furniture from his childhood for the sets..

To avoid a “subjective depiction” of the period, Cuaron chose to shoot the bulk of the film in wide shots, slowing panning over a scene, taking everything in.

“Memory can be subject but it can also be objective,” the director said. “I was interested to observe those moments at a distance without a judging eye, not allowing the camera to interfere.”

Despite wearing its art house pretensions on its sleeve, Roma will go out on streaming service Netflix (the film was fully financed by producers Participant Media). That fact has become a point of contention among some cineastes, who object to an austere festival like Venice giving such a platform to a strictly online service.   

But Cuaron defended the decision to work with Netflix.

“A film like this, in Spanish, indigenous, in black and white and a drama, not a genre movie, we know it would have huge difficulty just finding space to be shown in theaters,” the Mexican helmer said.  “This is a film shot in 65 mm — of course the ideal situation would be to show it in a theater on a broad screen. But we have to be aware of the fact that his film exists, and for that I am grateful to Netflix because they allowed me to work in this way."

Roma producer David Linde from Participant Media said he felt it was “somewhat naive” to believe that “in this day and age audiences don't want to be able to see the movie on the terms” they want, whether in a cinema or on a smartphone. “We want the movies to be seen in theaters, but we also want it to be seen by millions of people,” Linde said.

Roma premieres Thursday in Venice, the first of a record six films financed by Netflix that will celebrate their world premieres here. After being snubbed by Cannes, which banned Netflix films from competition this year, the streaming giant has doubled down on the fall festivals. It's full-court press in Venice will be followed by Toronto, where Netflix will screen seven titles, including this year's opener, David Mackenzie's Scottish period epic Outlaw King.

A bigger question is what will happen to these films after they make their festival bows. Despite its growing slate of prestige titles, Netflix has had a tough time generating awards buzz for its films and has been largely shut out of the Oscars. Many attribute that to the company's corporate strategy of releasing all its films day-and-date on its online service and bypassing cinemas (with the exception of award qualification screenings in a handful of theaters).

Cuaron said Roma would screen in theaters “in many cities” and Linde said viewers would be able to watch the film “either in the theater or on Netflix.” But it is not clear whether that will mean a day-and-date, all-platform release by Netflix or if the streaming giant may bend their rules and allow Roma a short theatrical run before its online premiere.

Netflix film chief Scott Stuber is reportedly pushing company chief content officer Ted Sarandos to make a few exceptions to the day-and-date rules. And Curon's Roma, as well as the Coen Brothers' The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs and 22 July from  Paul Greengrass, both of which premiere in Venice, could be the first beneficiaries.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Netflix as a financier of Roma. Participant Media fully financed the film. The Hollywood Reporter regrets the error.