What is cinema? It’s a question Alfonso Cuarón has been compelled to answer for as long as he has been making films. Is it a grand theatrical presentation, carefully calibrated and shielded from a home entertainment audience for the longest time possible, or is it much more democratic than that; accessible and open? Is it shot on celluloid and projected such that the tangible sense of each and every frame creates a kind of magic, or can that magic still thrive even when it’s shot and projected digitally, or watched on a screen the size of a phone? Is it epic or is it intimate? Loud or quiet? Bold or subtle?
Cuarón knows that there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. Cinema is something intangible; ethereal. Greater than any one definition or manner of exhibition. Five years ago, in an email to me while he was in the middle of his Gravity campaign, Cuarón put it like this: “Cinema is a mystery that we won’t solve in a lifetime. That’s its beauty.”
It goes a long way to explaining how his new film, which might seem like the small, simple follow-up to the whizz-bang of Gravity, was nevertheless as monumental a production challenge as his last had been. And how a delicate story about the maid who had helped raise him and his siblings in Mexico City in the 1970s somehow became the vanguard of a fight for the industry’s definition of cinema.
Roma was a story Cuarón knew he had to tell. Riding on his previous success, with a long career of hits big and small—encompassing films as diametrically different as Y Tu Mamá También and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—he was able, with Participant Media, to mount a sizeable budget with which to rebuild the Mexico of his youth and restage some of the deepest scars in his country’s recent history.
But, as he explains now, there was no language for how to release a movie of Roma’s juxtaposed scale and intimacy. So he turned to Netflix, then still nascent in its drive to become a dominant force in both film and television, who immediately understood the challenge they were faced with. In the months that have followed, the slings and arrows from those determined that they’ve had the answers to questions about cinema all along have rarely relented. And yet Cuarón’s film continues to endure, captivating audiences around the world, fostering powerful dialogue about the struggles of domestic workers, and earning a sweep of 10 Academy Award nominations—four of which name Cuarón himself. Roma is cinema.
During last year’s awards season, your longtime friend and collaborator Guillermo del Toro was faced with accusations of plagiarism for The Shape of Water, in a lawsuit filed on the day second-round Oscar ballots went out, after the film had started picking up precursor awards. This year, we’ve seen awful stories emerge about many of the movies on this long awards road. What have you made of the negative campaigning that has been going on?
It’s just so ridiculous, man. It’s a concerning thing, because I think it’s getting more intense all the time. The awards season should be a celebration. I was up in Santa Barbara last weekend on a panel with Pawel Pawlikowski, Spike Lee, Adam McKay, and Yorgos Lanthimos, and we’re celebrating, having a nice time, and loving each other’s films. We were happy for one another. I think all filmmakers—and I’m talking actors, producers, directors and writers—are so supportive of other filmmakers, and celebrate other filmmakers. But then there are some in this industry of awards season—which has its own life and has become its own entity—that operate in a different way than how filmmakers operate. It turns this season into something very competitive.
You see it with the media, when they come and say, “What do you think are your chances?” You know what? The problem is that I don’t think there are filmmakers—certainly not very many filmmakers—that think like that. We’re just happy for the ride. We’re relieved in many ways, that our films are performing. There’s always the fear that your film is not going to perform one way or the other. So we’re in the mood to celebrate; it’s great that we are able to be on this ride.
This industry has turned everything into something a bit more vicious; or even very much so. The sad thing is it has become almost like a projection of how political campaigns are nowadays. Rather than politicians showing a vision, it’s about throwing dirt to the opponent. So rather than strengthening the values—and I’m not talking moral values, but the artistic merits of a film and the influence it may be having—it’s about trying to push the others down. I find that very sad. And I hope there’s a way—though I’m not sure there is—that it can be regulated by the Academy. I don’t know how.
It’s always done in secret. And I wonder how much we journalists are complicit.
[The secrecy] is exactly the problem. Everybody always says, “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me.” And there’s so much repetition of the same stories in this awards season that, for journalists, they need more stories to create the drama. Unfortunately the drama is sometimes at the expense of fine films, fine people, and fine filmmakers.
It has also got something to do with the length of the season. It’s six months long, in which the first part, everybody is discovering the films and there’s a surprise factor every time. In that moment, everything is normal. People like some films, they don’t like other films, and that is absolutely fine. But from there it starts turning into a completely different thing. I’m glad you’re mentioning this because these stories come out completely out of context, and if these stories are going to come out, you’re left wondering: why particularly in this moment?
Right. The stories about Peter Farrelly this year related to a story published in 1998.
My opinion on that is, you can question taste, sure. You can debate whether it was in good taste or bad taste, or whether you find it amusing or not amusing. But don’t turn it into something else. It’s sad, because it should be about the celebration at this point. It’s discouraging; it’s really discouraging. It used to be that an award was something that was such a great honor for a filmmaker. The problem is that now the agenda is more important for the companies involved. They have more at stake than anybody else, and that is not cool. It’s not great.
It has been interesting to see how much of the conversation around Roma is a conversation around Netflix; this new model of distribution has been the fuel for those dramatic stories aimed your way. I don’t think the film is getting lost in that conversation, but has the business overtaken the art?
There was that fear at the beginning. It happened a while ago. When all of this started happening with the paradigms shifting, each side had to cement their narrative, and they propagated that narrative. There’s going to be a dominant narrative, and that’s the one that everybody was following. Then, when another narrative starts to come up, there’s a conflict there. Many times I’ve said, “Well, that should be in the Wall Street Journal in the business section, not in the film section.” The business has completely overshadowed the whole thing.
The theatrical experience has become so gentrified. There’s this whole opening weekend madness, and I think that it’s a problem that, while the business model has been sound, it hasn’t necessarily been something that’s healthy for cinema. Because then they make the argument, “Oh yes, but the more audiences that come to the cinema, the more healthy your industry.” That’s true, but what, then, is the cinema you’re offering?
It’s a cause and effect, because then you have studios wanting to conform to that, rather than do something more diverse. What I find interesting now, and I think it has to do with uncertainty about paradigms—the whole thing about platforms versus theatrical and all that stuff—is that you have people in both camps trying to fly the flag of defending cinema. The discussion has nothing to do with cinema; those are economic models. They shouldn’t even touch cinema with their discussions.
So how do you combat that?
I believe those two sides need to come into a balance that I think, ultimately, will be beneficial for both. But what these new options are providing is more diversity of content. Diversity in storytelling, diversity in characters, diversity in countries, diversity in languages, but also diversity in the way in which you see films.
What should happen, I hope, is that a balance between the new paradigms and the old paradigms falls into a healthy place in which the pressure on the film is not so much about opening weekend. For those films that do release theatrically, rather than having a business model in which you have to open in a lot of theaters and sell a lot of tickets the first weekend, you can again open up in smaller pockets of cinemas, but you last for longer and more consistently. That would probably have to coexist with some shape or form of windowing and platforms that are more manageable for everyone.
Roma, as an example, there was some discussion about releasing in theaters at the same time as on Netflix. We opened three weeks before [in theaters], granted, but then it opened up on Netflix and that didn’t affect the theatrical business. Now, we’re in our third month of continuing to play Roma in theaters. We didn’t open in hundreds of theaters, but in smaller pockets. And what starts happening is, in places you would not expect, it became like it was when I was a kid, with word of mouth. You start adding other cities, then smaller cities, or even towns, and people start requesting the film to play in their communities.
How much of a struggle has it been for your producers to figure all that out?
There didn’t exist a model for what we were doing. With Participant Media—who have been amazing partners—we had to invent that model and make it happen. Starting the film off in a handful of theaters and announcing on social media, “You want the film? You have the film.” More and more theaters started to sign up. That was a strategy of the producers and my producing partners at Participant. Participant are not just financiers, they’re involved in every part of the strategy.
We shared the same values, and the sense, from the standpoint of social action, that it was important that a part of the proceeds from the film went to specific organizations, and that we’d offer a whole web of support to those organizations, that they could use the film as a platform for their movements. Like the National Domestic Workers Alliance here, or Caceh, which is a domestic worker’s organization in Mexico, so that the film is at their service, if they want to use it.
The film is a mix of new and old, big and small. It’s a black-and-white movie shot on pristine ALEXA 65 digital cameras; a foreign language movie made for a big budget with a huge ambition; a streaming release that you knew had to have a life in theaters too. Were you aware from the start that it would be defining a new paradigm?
I didn’t even know about Netflix. I have to say, when I started doing this process, Netflix was not even on the radar. I’m going to go further: I didn’t really understand the whole thing. It was a platform I used once in a while, but it was not so relevant in my life. When I started making the movie, I didn’t question. I had to do the film. I didn’t think about distribution or anything. I told Carlos, my brother, “I don’t know if anybody is going to care about or like this movie. I have to do it, because it’s something I need to do.”
Later on, when you start putting it together through the process of post-production, you have to start taking the life of your film seriously. It was a bit discouraging to see the landscape; the conventional landscape. The thing I have to say here is: there are some unsung heroes of distribution and exhibition. They’ve been holding down the fort, and heroically. But they work under a lot of pressure. How can we transgress that? How can we turn it into something else?
Once we saw, more or less, what the film was that we’d made, we had a meeting with David Linde at Participant, and this is the amazing thing about David, because he said, “This is not a black-and-white Mexican film in Spanish and Mixteco, this is an experience.” And cinema is about that. Cinema is about an experience.
There were a lot of conversations with people who really wanted the film, but there was always a filtering of black-and-white, Mixteco, Spanish, Mexican. And I remember the conversation with Netflix in which they got it immediately, and they were kind of fearless about all of that stuff. And then the concern for me was the theatrical, obviously.
Are you happy with the way it has worked out?
It has been amazing. I really believe it’s also this whole thing—going back to Gravity, I had a conversation with Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] about this—that now a lot of audiences are getting used to certain things. Our viewing habits are changing. It’s another reality that we have to face. I can see my kids, and the amazing amount of time in which they spend on streaming platforms, one way or the other. It’s a different thing than how I grew up.
The challenge is now, how we can adapt ourselves to their eyes, but present something that you believe is amazing and great cinema? It’s not so much about, “Let’s impose this kind of cinema on audiences.” It’s also the conversation with them about how they want to watch.
This conversation about paradigms was, I think, part of the need of Alejandro [Iñárritu] and Chivo to experiment with virtual reality. “Let’s try to challenge the form to see if there are ways to do that.”
There was this conversation I used to have with Guillermo about making a 3D film that was a more intimate film. We have the preconception that certain tools are used for certain kind of films. Those tools belong to cinema, not to a specific kind of films. The way that we use [Dolby] Atmos in Roma is unlike the conventional use of Atmos, for explosions and helicopters passing by. It’s about taking the tools you have on the table and trying to transgress from those paradigms. If cinema is to survive and have a healthy life, it needs to reinvent its paradigms.
Imagine if we were still doing films like in the ’40s and the ’50s. They were fantastic films, but there would come a moment in which there’s no new experience anymore. Film cannot be separate from human consciousness—how human consciousness is moving on in terms of the relationship with technology, the relationships with all the gadgets we now have. Rather than follow, it’s so important to try to create the trends.
That virtual reality experience by Alejandro and Chivo, CARNE y ARENA, felt like the first step by VR to establish its new language. What do you think of VR?
I think VR is a different language than cinema, personally. It’s fantastic as a piece of art, and it was great for them to experiment and see. But it’s a new medium. I think that at this point, at least, filmmakers when they are using VR, it’s a little bit like early filmmakers taking the language of theater. But remember what happened with cinema? It started like that and then there were these amazing artists that started creating a language; a language that’s completely separate and that has nothing to do with theater. Actually in my opinion, the best kind of cinema is something that is so far away from theater, it’s closer to music.
I may be completely wrong, but I think my generation of filmmakers are so embedded in cinema. Probably they are taking VR and imposing the models of that different paradigm. And I think it’s going to be up to young artists to take the medium and create the language on its own.
And by the way, my questioning about VR employed as cinema is that it cancels out the purpose of VR, and I can tell you why. The biggest thing that I recognize in VR is a sense of time and space; the awareness of time and space. When you impose a narrative, you lose the sense of time and space, because you’re engaged in a narrative. Same as in our daily life where you’re sitting quietly, not thinking much, you know? We have a sense of time and space. And in the moment that we start thinking, we get lost and time passes.
I tell you that because I remember watching CARNE y ARENA, and as the whole thing opens, you are in the desert. Just in that opening, I could have been there hours; I was just hypnotized by that. Then you start seeing the migrants coming forward, and it was amazing, but I was not aware of time and space. I was following the actions and the characters. I consider what Alejandro did an amazing masterpiece; an amazing work of art that is one of those hybrids between two things. It’s virtual reality, and reality doesn’t have any imposed narrative. Cinema, though, has an imposed narrative.
Alejandro used this new technology to tell a story that has played out for as long as there have been borders between countries. And Roma uses new technology to tell a story set in the past. For all these new advances, the fundamentals of storytelling remain the same. We look to the past to talk about today.
Do you know something? Last week, as I said, I was with this group of filmmakers, and all of the films on that panel were period films, all of them with a strong sense of sociopolitical and historical context. All of them period, and all of them talk about today. Spike is using his film to talk about what happened in Charlottesville. Adam is using the Cheney era to talk about Trump. And Yorgos is talking about contemporary politics and gender and power.
With BlacKkKlansman, it was brilliant how he wrapped everything up at the end. Other filmmakers might have taken that ending of the story and made it a celebratory act. Like after that, everybody lives happily ever after and there’s no more KKK. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s saying, “Look, this is cool, no? It was a funny story, it was an interesting story. But see, this is still going on. And even a thousand times worse, because it’s out in the open now.”
The interesting thing I was thinking is that maybe we’re in a time of an extreme rhythm and rate of topics and events. One thing changes into the other so quickly. Maybe to talk about today, and to make a good comment about today, sometimes we need to step out of time a little bit, to be able to go to the core of the themes without being distracted by the current issues.
But at the same time, the issues remain present.
Yes, but they are part of something that is more substantial than just the anecdotes. Maybe ‘issues’ is not right word; it’s the battery of events in the news.
Roma has its part to play in that. As the “build the wall” rhetoric intensifies, you are telling a deeply human story about Mexico. Alejandro, as you say, made a VR film about border crossings. Guillermo’s The Shape of Water was about otherness, and repressed classes. The three of you have had all this success in awards season as the world has turned. The political vitriol is so powerful and so painful, I can’t imagine it doesn’t circulate somewhere inside when you’re thinking about the stories that you want to tell to the world.
Well, I don’t think consciously like that, but everything is informed by my understanding of my reality; by today’s reality. And that is not just about this very obvious thing that is Trump and the wall, but when I think about it I’m very happy, because Roma has opened up a discussion here and in Mexico about domestic workers.
Additionally, in Mexico, they have had a discussion about racism. You have to see some of the comments there, with some people making all these offensive statements about the caravan of migrants. I mean, a sector of the population is repeating pretty much the same words of Trump. “These people coming from Central America are the worst, they are coming to rape our women; they are rapists and drug dealers.” That’s the same rhetoric as Trump, but segments of society in Mexico are saying it about Central America.
What I’m saying with this is that, unfortunately, some of the themes and issues dealt with in Roma are not specific to Mexico, just as they are not specific to the US. The relationship between social class and ethnicity; all of that stuff is just everywhere. When I was doing this film I was not trying to do a political film, I was trying to do film a little bit more about existence. So I hope that people, if anything, relate to the sense of existence and absurdity of existence in Roma.