Eugenio Caballero Interview: ‘Roma’ production designer
Alfonso Cuaron warned production designer Eugenio Caballero from the beginning that “Roma” will be unlike any film he’s ever worked on. “He called me and said, ‘We’re going to do this film. It’s going to be very different to the processes that you’re used to and I’m used to. The first thing is that I’m not going to share the script with you,’” Caballero shared at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Production Designers panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive video above).
Caballero, who won an Oscar for “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), eventually did read the script two weeks before filming started. But the entire pre-production process revolved around extensive conversations with Cuaron about his upbringing in the titular Mexican neighborhood. For the semi-autobiographical film, Cuaron wanted meticulous recreations of his childhood home and Mexico City in 1970.
“We basically started long conversations about the details of his life,” Caballero said. “It was sort of like reverse-engineer. We didn’t speak about how the house was or something, but we started to talk about, what do they in the family have for dinner, what would they talk [about] if they watch television, which toys they play with. We started from that, adding conversation … until we get some pictures of the actual house of Alfonso.”
Because Cuaron was planning to shoot in chronological order to aid the non-professional actors, including lead Yalitza Aparicio, who weren’t aware of the direction of the story, Caballero needed to find a house in Mexico City that he could alter as needed. They ended up finding one that was about to be demolished.
“What we did was we reinforced basically the structure. We took out all the walls and changed all the surfaces, like all the tiles. But we wanted to have a house because it would help the non-actors to feel like they were in a real environment,” Caballero said. “We found an artisan that made these tiles in the same fashion [of] 60 years ago. We reproduced the ones that were in Alfonso’s house. But we knew we wanted to shoot in very specific ways, so we needed certain technical things, like some movable walls and things in the house. Basically, we did a hybrid because we were in a location, but, for example, all the walls of the second floor, we created slots on the rooftop so the walls could go up and down and to the side. It was a very interesting hybrid in between a real house and a set.”
Recreating the exteriors of Mexico City streets was a challenge too as the city has radically changed since the ‘70s, especially after an earthquake in 1985. Caballero and his team relied on research and photos to bring the yesteryear of Mexico City back to life — and his own memories, as he too grew up there.
“In these very long conversations that I had with Alfonso, basically it was a dialogue. I put mine as well,” he said. “We shared a lot of common memories too and so it was a very rich process.”