Alfonso Cuarón discussed his career, writing process, streaming platforms and the unfinished project he worked on for two years before making Roma in a wide-ranging BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture in London.
The multi-Oscar winner reviewed his writing process for recently released Roma, the acclaimed study of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Cuarón said the script was founded on three “unmovable pillars”, “One is that it was about the character Cleo, based upon a woman who raised me, I’m part of her family; [two, was] that the process, the tool was going to be memory; and [three, was] that it was going to be in black and white.”
The project is a deeply personal one for Cuarón and contains autobiographical elements. This intimacy and proximity to the subject informed how he handled the script, which he wrote in three weeks, “I finished the screenplay and I never read it again and nobody ever read that screenplay, not actors, not the crew, nobody read the screenplay, the only person who had, the only one was my partner David Linde from Participant, he said ‘well I need the screenplay just because of insurance, otherwise I cannot pay the money’ [laughs]. I said ‘yes, but it’s for your eyes only! ‘And he said ‘yes only give me a draft’ and I gave him the draft it was in Spanish, he doesn’t speak Spanish…”
“I would open the pages, but I would never read the script from A to Z to check structure and stuff like that because I didn’t want anything to taint the process,” he said. “I didn’t show it to my old collaborators like Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Guillermo Del Toro, Pawel Pawlikowksi or Carlos my brother, because I know that they would give me amazing suggestions that would kind of side-track me. I just wanted to preserve the purity of those memories and the way they were.”
Roma marked Cuarón’s first collaboration with streaming giant Netflix. The writer-director has expressed gratitude for the service and how it allowed him to work. The platform also brings obvious industrial constraints, however, and cinephile Cuarón recently lamented the scarcity of theaters available for awards hopeful Roma in his homeland, Mexico.
The Gravity, Children Of Men, Harry Potter and Y Tu Mamá También director was asked at BAFTA whether he would recommend emerging filmmakers to work with streaming platforms or pursue more traditional finance and release models. “I think that is something that is way greater than platforms and theatrical. That is cinema. Cinema is what is important. The other stuff are, they are annoying considerations of showing our films, in any moment of history that, I mean right now is the conversation between streaming and theatrical. Years before was just the consideration of trying to get your film into a theatrical release. The only difference I see is that right now there’s a fight in which two things that had nothing to do with cinema; it’s two economic models, are fighting and eventually it’s going to come into a balance. But I don’t think as a filmmaker we should be concerned about economic models, we should consider, you know, concern ourselves just in terms of film.”
That said, the director advocated that the audience see Roma on the big screen, “No film that I will do is meant to be seen in a telephone, you know. If somebody chooses to see it like that well that’s their choice but I hope that people who care about the art of cinema, they will want to see it in a big screen. As I hope that, please if you happen to see Roma, please try to see it in a big screen.”
Cuarón continued on the subject of content made for streaming platforms, “What we’re experiencing a lot with platforms is not necessarily cinema; it’s more, more connected with TV. That is a different thing, it’s fantastic, it’s a great thing, I enjoy them and they’re romps and I get lost in a soap or in a series but not because of the cinematic value of the thing. I’m getting lost in story, in many ways it’s becoming a media for lazy readers, you know [laughter]…That’s not to put down series, I enjoy them, I’m writing one. It’s so much fun. You don’t have the constraints of the hours, you just keep on developing your character, you keep on developing story. You don’t have to telegraph stuff. I think it’s amazing.”
The multi-hyphenate filmmaker also talked about the danger of over-researching a project. He discussed this in relation to the two-year period prior to Roma, in which he developed a movie about prehistoric man, “Right before doing Roma, I was not going to do Roma, I didn’t know I was going to do Roma,” he stated. “For a couple of years I developed a project with my brother Carlos that dealt with humans a hundred thousand years ago. Early humans, not an adventure, it was more a domestic drama, but 100,000 years ago.
“I was talking with amazing people here, at the Natural History Museum. And reading a bunch of books of very specific things about the early grains; or early theories of language; theories of how language was created; books about the fire; cooking; stuff like very, very specific things. So much, also relations, Neanderthal, Sapiens and the other species of humans…the Naledians and all those other guys.
“And so much so that then we started writing the screenplay, when I felt that I had all this knowledge, what started happening is that I was so obsessed about all of that information to be conveyed in the screenplay, and at the end I got lost. There was the story more or less that we had set up to do, except there was, it was kind of dry, it was kind of…it was making sense, a lot of sense but it I didn’t find the angle, I stopped finding the angle. I found it interesting but, I want to go back to that story eventually, but freeing myself from all that stuff. And that happened right before Roma, and that’s the danger of it, you know. I think that research it’s an amazing, yes, it’s this tapestry in which you access, but it should not be the one leading the game.”
Cuarón stressed the importance for him of a personal connection to his material. He said he felt that prior to returning to Mexico to make the hit coming-of-age comedy Y Tu Mamá También in 2000, he had “lost many years of my creative life…allowing myself to follow the siren call of Hollywood.” He said at the time he spent a weekend holed up in his New York apartment watching tens of movies, a process which helped him reconnect with his passion for film.
During the session, the filmmaker also expressed optimism about the current state of cinema in his homeland, Mexico, “From the standpoint of the creators, it’s so damn exuberant what is happening right now… it’s really remarkable. I believe that the young generation of filmmakers is the best generation of filmmakers in Mexico, probably in the history of Mexico. They have an immense confidence, and that is fantastic. The whole thing of Mexican cinema in my generation and the previous generations, there was lack of really narrative understanding and now the narrative of this, the young generation is kind of second nature. And some are really exploring very interesting thematic elements; I think that… I’m not worried about the legacy of Mexican cinema.”