Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is the story of one woman’s struggle in 1970s Mexico City, but it is also a story about Mexico, and what the country was going through at the time of Cuarón’s youth.

“It was an attempt to come to terms with and try to understand what existence is,” he said onstage recently at Deadline’s The Contenders Los Angeles awards-season event. “How, on the one hand, we’re limited by time and space, but that same time and space molds who we are. It was so important, then, to give us much importance to the foreground, to our characters, as to our background, that is this mostly social context.”

Roma
Netflix

It was an intimately personal story for Cuarón — the story of his family, his childhood and the nanny who helped raised him. He says he has two mothers: his own, and Libo, who lived with the family. Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, based on Libo’s life story.

Aparicio was training to be a teacher when the opportunity to audition presented itself. “He actually didn’t give us a script to study,” she says of the way Cuarón set up the project. “I appreciated it because it kept me from being nervous about what I had to do, and it helped me live it out like it were my own life. My life doesn’t have a script.”

In fact, Cuarón gave the script to nobody. Only the production designer got a copy, but only after he was already deep at work. Says producer Gabriela Rodriguez: “[Alfonso] gives me always a headache every day, but it’s worth it. It’s my first time as a producer, and it was an enormous challenge. Alfonso had the script, which he didn’t share with anyone. We shot in continuity, we re-created Mexico City of the 1970s that pretty much no one from the crew remembered or knew, because we were much, much younger than he is. But I’m really honored that he gives me headaches and tortures me.”

Says Marina de Tavira, who plays Cuarón’s mother in the film: “It turned out to be a tremendous blessing. For me, coming from a theater background, it made me nervous about how I’m going to build a character not knowing where it was going. It really helped us as actors and characters to immerse in a real-life experience. We were really living the situation the characters were going through.”

Check out the conversation above.