Alfonso Cuarón took the adage “Write what you know” to new levels when he made Roma, a reimagining of his childhood in Mexico City through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a housekeeper based on Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, the nanny who served his family decades ago. Set in the early ’70s, the semi-autobiographical film follows an affluent family in the midst of crisis as well as Cleo’s own struggles as an isolated young woman living far from her hometown, an indispensable part of her household and yet not a full member of it. So determined was Cuarón to re-create his childhood home that about 70 percent of the furniture on the main set came from his family’s house, and an entire street was meticulously constructed based on the director’s memories.
The credit for the latter belongs to production designer Eugenio Caballero, a 20-year veteran of Mexican and Hollywood productions who also worked on Pan’s Labyrinth, The Impossible, and A Monster Calls. A fellow native of Colonia Roma, the titular neighborhood where Cuarón grew up, Caballero was instrumental in creating Roma’s incomparable sense of entropy and lived-in–ness. He and Cuarón wanted to make sure the objects in the film weren’t mere props but storytellers in their own regard—even when their histories and meanings weren’t readily apparent to viewers. During a trip to Los Angeles, Caballero spoke to Slate about seven of Roma’s most evocative madeleines. Excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity, appear below.
The Taxidermied Dog Heads
The dog heads were a memory of Alfonso’s. He used to go to that specific hacienda. The hacienda obviously has changed a lot since, so when we had to decide what to reproduce, with everything, we wanted to tell more than what you see—we wanted to have social, and sometimes political, commentary. So obviously, having the taxidermied dogs on the wall, it’s completely wrong. It came from reality, but also, it enhanced the idea that sometimes the wealthiest classes in Mexico really like to show off. One thing they have normally is taxidermy pieces, which is quite odd, to live with the corpse of an animal [laughs]. So those dogs worked for us in both ways: They re-create Alfonso’s memory but also tell something about these families’ way of thinking.
We made the dog heads. They’re not real. They’re stuffings. There were some others that were not absolutely perfect, so we touched them up digitally. We used photographs of the dogs in order to make them a little bit more realistic.
The Ford Galaxy
The Galaxy was a status symbol, even if it was completely unpractical. (That specific model was because Alfonso’s parents used to have it.) The original house was built in the ’30s. Obviously we did a reproduction of that house, but the garage of a house built in the ’30s is not meant to have a huge ’70s car. So it was almost ridiculous, the ritual to get the car into the garage. I remembered that from my own experience, my parents’ experience. It’s so middle-class to try to show off power through an object. But it was a very important thing to have, you know? And symbolically, the mother destroys it.
The House, the Tiles, and All the Family’s Stuff
It’s rarely portrayed in the cinema, but in a normal house, you accumulate a lot of things that are completely absurd and nonuseful that start populating the upper parts of the furniture. In Alfonso’s case, the house belonged to the grandmother who lived with them. It’s the house in which his mother grew up, and when the grandmother was widowed, the family went to live in that house. (The techniques of residential construction changed a lot in the ’50s, so the average Mexican viewer would probably know it’s an older house.) So what we wanted to show also was that there were at least two generations of people living there.
The tiles were a very important part of Alfonso’s memories. You start the film with them in a long take. And those checkered tiles—we found an 80-year-old guy who made them with the techniques of 60 or 80 years ago. That was a beautiful thing to do.
That was a moment in which traveling was starting to be accessible to certain people, so it was a status symbol.
Also, we wanted to give an urban feeling, because it was an element that really populated the city. La Roma, the neighborhood, is below the air route to the Mexico City Airport, which is not far away from there. So every time we talked about the details—about the sounds of the street or the perfume of a certain stall in a corner—Alfonso would talk about the planes always passing.
The Human Cannon in the Countryside
The human cannon is something related to the circus, right? And this cannon is part of a political gathering. There’s a stage in the middle of this slum, which has no services at all, with very precarious constructions, with all these cables going in a chaotic way, trying to get electricity to different points. Then there’s this political gathering, saying, “The progress of Mexico.” So we wanted to show in a very strong and visual way how the politicians tried to get benefits from these people in very difficult conditions and sometimes without a lot of education. There’s a saying in Spanish, “Al pueblo, pan y circo.” Bread and circuses for the people. It’s almost like saying, you can do anything you want as long as you give bread and circuses to the people. So there was a big political statement there.
The Pinard Horn (the Old-Fashioned Natal Stethoscope)
It’s like a prehistoric stethoscope. Well, now they use different devices to hear the heartbeat of the baby. Even in the ’70s, you had some other devices. But in this public hospital, or workers’ hospital, they didn’t have all the state-of-the-art equipment. So they used to hear the baby’s heartbeat with these very low-tech devices. It was very common, and it was very useful too.
The City Streets
The scene in which the kids cross the street and go to the cinema—that is a set built from scratch. We built the whole avenue because we wanted a very precise re-creation of that cinema and of that avenue, which were very close to Alfonso’s house. We went to that avenue to scout it, and it was completely changed. So we decided to look for some other locations to reproduce it, but we didn’t find anything that was close enough, so we ended up building it from scratch. We went into an abandoned parking lot in one of the edges of the city in Vallejo, and we built the sidewalks, the tram rails, the trees, the facades, everything. We put 100 cars there, and we did exact reproductions of the interior decorations of all the businesses that used to be there.
I’ve done some big sets: I’ve created a huge set for the tsunami in The Impossible, and the meal and labyrinth for Pan’s Labyrinth. But this was … the tone was unique. We needed to really research and speak with people and design every graphic, every billboard, everything. We wanted it to be a faithful reproduction of that long-lost Mexico City.