For production designer Eugenio Caballero, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma was a project unlike any he’d worked on before. Nothing could truly prepare him for this black-and-white epic, the director’s most personal project to date, which he’d been thinking about for over 15 years. In the case of the Netflix original, Caballero was beholden not only to history, and his director’s memories of a specific time and place, but also to the director’s family, who could tell him very honestly if his creations were off base.
Fortunately for the production designer, he too possessed an intimate knowledge of the film’s setting, bringing his own memories to the table, just as Cuarón had with his script. “My grandparents used to live three blocks from where Alfonso lived, so I knew those streets,” he explains, “I knew those images.” Set in ‘70s Mexico City, Roma recreates that era in astonishing detail, examining Cuarón’s experience growing up. When Caballero began conversations with the director—whom he’d only known previously as a producer—the focus wasn’t on specific actions, but on the place where history and emotional memory collide. Unlike most of those who worked on the Oscar-contending drama, the designer was allowed to read a full script up front, immersing himself fully in the “the perfume of [Cuarón’s] memories.”
“Written with a lot of love,” the script certainly came in handy in unlocking “the puzzle” of this vision, though Caballero’s prolonged conversations with Cuarón were equally instrumental, in grappling with a truly monumental undertaking. “We started with a lot of details—what would be on the table where they eat, or what [the children] would be playing with when they have free time. Then from that, we would start to build everything up. It was a delicious process, I have to say,” Caballero reflects. “What was beautiful was that from the moment we started to talk, Alfonso had made an exercise of memory for a long time, so he had a lot of strength in that muscle. But then after the conversations that he had with his family, those memories got stronger, and changed, and evolved.”
In shaping Roma with Cuarón, Caballero was continually surprised by the things their conversations brought back to the surface. “We started to get excited about all the things that we were remembering—specific brands, some films, some streets, the way the light behaved, or the way the hail falls in Mexico City in a certain period of the year—all of these things that were there, somewhere in the emotional memory,” he shares. For the director, though, it wasn’t enough to capture a period in meticulous detail, or through a hazy subjective prism. In this film, every image would present its own context, speaking not only to character and memory, but also to the complex social and political realities of life in “the colliding worlds of Mexico City.” Modern and upscale in parts, the city also possessed horrible slums, and a whole range of environments between these extremes.
For Caballero, the recreation of Roma became profoundly challenging when the production team hit the streets. In certain scenes—like that which recreates the Corpus Christi massacre—entire boulevards from the district of Colonia Roma had to be revamped in ‘70s fashion, or even built from scratch. “That was really challenging for a film of this scale,” the designer admits. But for Cuarón, this unprecedented exercise would make or break the reality of this film—the most extraordinary undertaking in his career to date.
How did you work with color on Roma, knowing that it would be shot in black and white?
There were a lot of tests to experiment before we made the decision of colors. Color, for me, has always been an important thing in my creative process. I think that color and shade can tell stories; they’re not just aesthetic choices, but narrative choices. So, we had a lot of conversations. First of all, we’d choose colors that were period accurate, and do the translation to black and white. We would always carry this kind of translator of colors with us, and then we noticed that a lot of different colors would turn into more or less the same shade of gray. We knew that we wanted contrast in-between the colors of the walls, or the set dressing, the furniture, or the wardrobe, but then there was another [idea] that was very interesting. Since we were working with non-actors, the use of color was very important, as well, in the set. We wanted to use color in the set to affect the emotions, or join the emotions of the actors.
Can you explain all that went into recreating Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood home? With his eye for detail, that would seem like a daunting task to undertake.
We knew at the beginning that we didn’t want to build this on a stage, just because it would lack reality that was needed for this type of story, but also for the non-actors to feel the real thing. But we also knew that we wouldn’t find a house similar or exactly the same as the house in which Alfonso lived. When we went to visit that house, we noticed that it had been completely revamped, with very few remains of what that original house was. We had some pictures and a basic layout, [maybe] a floor plan, but the way the house is in the film, it changed from the original layout.
We needed to find a location that somehow matched and had the bones, so we could build something, and we knew that we needed to do a huge transformation. It had to be practical to shoot, so in the end, we were not just recreating a space, but creating the space where we would shoot, [that would allow for] the technique [required] to shoot a film. We also knew that a lot of the story takes place there, so we needed to have an attractive space. In the end, we looked for a house that was about to be demolished, and actually, the house in which we shot the film now doesn’t exist—I think they turned it into an apartment building. But basically, we took the main structure and reinforced it, and took out all the walls that we didn’t need. We added the kitchen, we added the service premises where Cleo lives, and we put doors and windows where we wanted, so it was like a reconstruction of the house. Obviously, we stripped it out. The tiles that line the patio, we had a picture of them. We saw some of them when we were scouting in different houses with Alfonso, and Alfonso said, “Yes! That was the tile from my house!” And we got them custom-made by an old artisan, who was using the same technique to make tiles that he used 70 years ago. It was a beautiful process of recreating all these construction techniques. Those styles were not really made by a film crew; they were the real thing.
We also needed to have space for the camera and for lighting, which was very specific. Normally you’re very restrained when you’re in a location; you do some modifications, but you’re not allowed to do major modifications. But we did a hybrid in-between what we’d do on a sound stage—where you can move the walls, and put the camera wherever you want—and the location. It was still real, but for example on the roof, we created some slots that would allow walls to go up and down, with a pipe pulley system, like a guillotine blade. That meant that if we needed to move a wall, we would pull a cord, and three minutes later, that wall was out. There was no division in-between spaces, so you could put your light and your camera wherever you wanted.
There was a space in the kitchen, this table where there’s a lot of scenes, and we knew that place had to be connected to the stairway because of certain actions. We knew we needed space for the camera, so what we created was basically a full room that was on rails. You could move it toward the kitchen, or toward the table, with all the set dressing and everything, so you could have more space to put the camera in-between them. When you were there, [the room] looked completely real, but then someone would leave, and the whole room would move, sliding on rails to allow the camera to go there. There were a lot of playful things around that, that would let us light the way we wanted.
You also recreated the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971. How did you pull that off?
We knew that for that specific scene, we wanted to shoot it in the actual place where that happened. Obviously it’s [since] really massively changed, so what we did is we transformed some of that. There are a lot of pictures of the event, from journalists back [then], so we were very accurate, and recreated a lot of things physically. In Mexico, it’s not like you can go to a prop house and get the police gear of that period, so we made it all. We made all the vehicles and adapted them, and then basically ended up doing some things digitally, like transforming billboards, taking some out, whatever we couldn’t do physically. We actually dressed and changed the whole aesthetic of the furniture store. It’s now a gym, and it was completely transformed. We went to that place and stripped it out completely, and put in all the wood grain and everything that was there, and painted the walls. We had the interior facing to the real street in which that happened, but that was not the case in every location.
For example, Insurgentes, which is the modern avenue where they go to the cinema to see Marooned, that was a full build. We knew that we wanted to go to that street, but it was changed so much that we couldn’t do it there. We didn’t find what we needed, so we decide to build it. That set, and the other street in which the mother crashed the car in-between two trucks, both sets were a full build from scratch, even putting in the pavement, the sidewalks. We physically built two blocks of the street, five meters high, so we could contain the action there, [which was] completed digitally. But every single element of that was designed.
The cars of that period are 50 years old. Most of them are beaten up, but you didn’t want them to look like that. Another thing was that normally, when you’re doing a ’70s film, you put in the cars of the ’70s. But that was not the way it was in Mexico; you had cars from the ’40s, from the ’50s, from the ’60s. So, we did the selection of cars and furniture based not on this iconic ’60s and ’70s look, but what really happened in the city, where there’s remains of 30, 40 years before.
The film was shot in chronological order. Did that have any particular impact on your work?
It definitely affected the logistics, but the bigger [issue] was that we needed to have that house. Instead of shooting everything that happened in the house in one month, we needed to have the house for almost a year, to dress and paint it. Basically, they rehearsed there, then we’d shoot a part of the film there—the beginning—and then we started to go out to the different locations and sets. Then, we’d come back and it would have to look like the same day, even if we shot it two or three months later. We needed to somehow build everything to be more permanent.
Apart from the sets we’ve discussed, were there others that you found daunting to confront?
I think a lot of the work that was done in the film is so natural that it’s hard to notice, but for the slum, all the main elements, we made from scratch. All the mud and water, and the houses closest to camera, all of that was built, and we really changed the way it looked. You wouldn’t believe the location pictures. Even with the little forest that’s connected to the hacienda, what we needed was so specific that we ended up transforming the landscape a lot, to have the water when we wanted it. We created those ponds from scratch; we changed the level of the terrain, so we could have everything in one shot, and see the layers. The hacienda itself—that looks like a whole block—probably is divided in six or seven different locations, which were really far away from each other. So, we needed to tie it up into the idea that it’s one space, or at least one building.