No Script? No Problem - "Roma" Wasn't Built In A Day - Or With A Script
Nearly every film director who's known for being a true master of their craft has a personal film up their sleeve that longs to get out. Typically these intimate and compelling films are showcased at the beginning of their careers. The filmmakers are catapulted to fame and elevated to bigger budgets, bigger stories, bigger stars-so much so, they never quite get back to their roots, seduced by the rewards of Hollywood success. However once in a while the stars line up, and that special story they've held close to their heart sees the light of day. Think Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972), or Louis Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987). Sometimes the timing is right and voila! A masterpiece is born.
Alfonso Cuarón's Roma stands in that lineage. A highly personal, semi-autobiographical memoir of growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, raised by his mother and their live-in housekeeper, this intimate film will be among the first beneficiaries of Netflix's new awards release strategy, receiving limited theatrical exhibition before appearing on their streaming platform. One of the season's most eagerly awaited films, it's already taken the festival circuit by storm. That success is in no small part thanks to its producers, Gabriela Rodriguez and Nicolás Celis.
After having won an Oscar for Gravity in 2013 and known for relatively dark, large-canvas features such as Children of Men (2006) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Cuarón returned to his Mexican roots for a highly unconventional production. He hasn't directed a Spanish-language film since Y Tu Mamá También (2001).
The story of Roma started percolating 12 years ago. Two years before that, a young intern joined his company, Esperanto Films, in New York City. She had just graduated film school and was anxious to work in production. Gabriela Rodriquez hails from Venezuela and has been with Esperanto for her entire career. After interning, she became Cuarón's personal assistant before her promotion to running the company itself. She has worked by his side through his biggest successes. So when Cuarón approached her to produce his passion project, telling her she was "ready to do this," she all but had to say, "yes"-though she admits she was apprehensive, "because I know what letting him down feels like," she confides.
Meanwhile Nicolás Celis has been working in Mexico as a producer and unit production manager for more than 12 years, collaborating with such Mexican directors as Tatiana Huezo and Amat Escalante. He found his way into Cuarón's orbit when he produced Desierto (2015), the feature film debut of Cuarón's son, Jonás. Aside from a few phone calls during Desierto, Gaby and Nico (as they came to be known), never worked together until Roma. They quickly found out that one was the yin to the other's yang. Celis loves dealing with people, aligning the Mexican officials to get on board, though none of them had read the script or even known that it was Cuarón's movie until later. Meanwhile Rodriquez knew the director intimately, understood what he needed and, even more importantly, knew what she needed to do to stay one step ahead and keep him focused. On this shoot Cuarón wore many hats. He, too, was a producer but he also served as director, writer, cinematographer and editor. With so many roles to play, he needed both Celis and Rodriquez to make production happen while he worried about the actors, lights and camera angles. Fortunately neither of his fellow producers was afraid to get in the kitchen and do whatever was necessary to make his creative vision a reality.
Cuarón moved his company to Mexico nearly three years ago to begin pre-production on Roma, which lasted more than 10 months. A long prep allowed the producers to research every aspect of the director's early life in Mexico City, right down to the family dog, Borras. All the research came in lieu of breaking down the script ... because they had no script. Cuarón shared the script with just one person-David Linde from Participant Media, who financed the film and served as an executive producer on it. (We only hope Linde was up on his Spanish. Cuarón provided no translation.) Cuarón's intense secrecy was a safeguard against anyone slipping pages to the cast. He would be working with a lot of non-actors in addition to well-known Mexican talent and wanted the process to be fresh and something he alone had control over. It was the producers' job to allow him his creative process while still prepping the production as best they could.
"We all agreed to participate on this project without a script," Rodriquez tells me over a cappuccino at The London Hotel. "It's like when a kid is told he's not going to have any more cookies. At some point you realize, even if you're crying, you're not going to get the cookie. Let's just see how you get on with your day without the cookie. That's kind of how we felt." The team was compensated with the extremely long pre-production period to provide the time for research, scouting and consulting with the director, discussing shots and scenes. Their location scouts grew bigger and bigger, sometimes bringing in excess of 30 people on a scout. They wanted every department represented at the earliest stage so Cuarón could explain what he would need from them. They had a skeleton of dates, so they knew on a given span of days they were going to shoot "the riot," while on another day they would be shooting "the birth scene." They were still given zero dialogue.
Hiring a team of collaborators to shoot a script that no one was allowed to read created its own set of problems. Those fell to Celis to solve. "I remember during the first meeting I met Alfonso, I asked him, who's going to be the script supervisor? After all this is someone who works closely with the director. Then when we didn't have a script-it was like, how are we going to hire a script supervisor if we won't give her the script? Even the [job title] says it!" When it came time to interview Natalia Moguel, he asked, "Hey, are you willing to work without a script?" Moguel naturally asked Celis what he meant. Nonchalantly Celis told her, "Yeah, yeah, we do have a script, but we haven't read it, so you're not going to read it either. So are you willing to do it?" As everyone did on this shoot, Moguel decided to trust the process, trust her belief in Cuarón and gave it her all. In Moguel's case, that meant developing a completely new way of tracking blocking and continuity without it.
"Once we knew this was the way we were going to operate, we knew we had to be ready for everything," Rodriguez explains. "So we have our wardrobe truck. We have it there all the time. We have backups. It sounds crazy but it's the way we gave Alfonso the freedom for his creative process to flow in case it needed to take a different direction, which it rarely did."
In addition to shooting without a script, Roma also shot in story sequence, which presented another series of problems. But there were plenty of happy accidents that happened along the way. Celis notes that the house they found was an exact replica of Cuarón's childhood home in his old neighborhood, which gives the film its title. It served ideally as a stage, given that the owner told them he was planning to demolish it, so the team could do what they wanted to the structure as long as they left him the lot in good shape. Rodriguez and Celis took full advantage of the permission to knock down walls and open up ceilings without having to put them back in working order.
Cuarón's creative vision lived its details. Everything had to be as it was in 1970, down to the clothes and shoes that the thousand-plus extras wore during the riot scene. A big avenue leading to the cinema as well as a street where the mother is stuck between two big trucks all had to be built, because so much had changed in the urban landscape, mostly due to the earthquake and modern technology.
"I think it was the biggest set ever built in Mexico. But I cannot guarantee that," Celis laughs. "But since I've been working, I've never seen such big construction." Rodriguez confirms that the size of the set took up roughly four city blocks.
The producers and their crew learned to push past what they thought were their limitations. Creating hailstones for a storm scene was another adventure. Cuarón wasn't happy with the fake hail available in Mexico because, while the stones could be different sizes, they were still all the same shape-in other words, not authentic enough to meet Cuarón's standards. There was a company from Canada that made it perfectly, but their work was very expensive. Rather than saying "no" to the director, the producers created a "hail unit" and tried to figure out how to engineer Cuarón-approved hailstones. The production manager came up with the idea of cutting up glue sticks, then melting them a little on hot metal, to create individual, unique hailstones. Rodriguez recalls, "One day Alfonso walks in the office to find five people from production literally sitting there with buckets, cutting glue, dropping them into the buckets, and then those buckets would go out to the truckers who helped us burn them into the different shapes and then those went into a different bucket ... hail-making!" Two hundred kilos of glue sticks later, they had their handcrafted hail.
That effort was typical of the team's "Anything for Alfonso" approach. As Celis explains, "If he had an idea he really liked, we tried to make it happen, find the means. That's something I really learned for life, that sometimes something looks like a mountain you will never be able to climb by any reason or any excuse you might find. But [Cuarón] really pushed us to find the tools to do it and find the way I think this could be solved. He makes you, instead of saying 'no,' to be ready with alternatives, always."
"I don't believe he is a director that separates himself from stories," Rodriguez reflects. "He really does nurture them, carry them and work with them from beginning to end. But I think, in this one, even while he trusted us and said, 'Go ahead-this is what I want, I trust that you will make it happen,' he also had to trust himself even more to say, 'I'm going to do this the way I'm going to do this.' He wasn't expecting anyone to necessarily love or hate it. He wasn't thinking about how to market it while he was making it. He was just thinking, 'This is my process and I'm going to do it' ... and that takes courage. When you're already in that place when you have the commercial and critical success-all that hoopla that's generated from everyone telling you you're great-it takes some courage to say, 'OK. I'm going to do this and whatever happens, I'm going to be OK with it.'"
The buzz surrounding the film is just icing on the cake for these two producers. They put one foot in front of the other, enjoying every step of the process, even when it was daunting. Now they are reaping the unexpected fruits of their labors and find themselves delighted by the amazing reception Roma has received. "I'm super excited with this movie," proclaims Celis. "That it's in black and white, that it's in Spanish ... That all of this is happening, for everybody. It's 'The Little Engine That Could'! We just never expected it to blow up and that people would identify with and find it so accessible."
"To me," Rodriguez continues, "that this has been received the way it has around the world ... I thought Latin America would get it, but the reception worldwide-wow-this is already so much more than I was expecting."
To top it off, this young, self-effacing woman, who has worked long and hard for Alfonso Cuarón, may very well become the first Latina woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. "I feel grateful for the opportunity," she says, "and grateful for the faith that Alfonso put on me to push me and not give me a choice or a way out. The fact that there's a movie out there and it's finished-it's there! We did it! That means the most. To me, what I learned is that I can do it." Both producers reminded me that Roma spelled backwards is Amor-an appropriate grace note that sums up the entire crew's feeling for the unique production.