When filmmakers make movies set in a specific world capital, they’re drawing from their own memories and impressions of that city. It’s urban planning, plus a little poetry. Often a director films on location; other times, a production design team fabricates a corner or a neighborhood from scratch, a long way from the real thing.
This brings us to “Roma,” director Alfonso Cuaron’s drama now streaming on Netflix and playing a handful of theaters.
Shot in 65 millimeter black and white, set in 1970 and 1971-era Mexico City and environs, “Roma” is a work of fastidious visual detail, much of it inspired by Cuaron’s own childhood home in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.
There’s a simple analog component to the subtle magic of “Roma.” Earlier this week, Cuaron’s fellow Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro tweeted a 10-part appreciation of the film, relaying why he loves his longtime friend’s panoramic canvas of a family, a nation and a distinct point in time. He’s not alone in his admiration. “Roma” very likely will pick up several Academy Award nominations Jan. 22.
“In every sense,” del Toro tweeted Monday, the film is “a fresco, a mural, not a portrait.” And “the fact that Cuaron and (production designer) Eugenio Caballero BUILT several blocks (!) of Mexico City in a giant backlot (sidewalk, lampposts, stores, asphalted streets, etc.) is not well-known. This is a titanic achievement.”
Without seeing a complete screenplay, “Roma” production designer Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) constructed a 1970-accurate six-block stretch of a busy Mexico City street, Avenida Insurgentes. It’s used in a long, lateral tracking shot, for the scene of the live-in nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and the children running through traffic on the way to a movie theater.
It looks terrifically convincing. The open-air industrial space used to build the streetscape was then augmented in postproduction with digital effects. (You can catch glimpses of the digital flourishes when Cleo and company cross a side street that goes on seemingly forever.) Cuaron told American Cinematographer magazine that the pretend street scene was built in the middle of nowhere. “There was no sidewalk, nothing, not even asphalt … it was an archaeological situation, finding the buildings, how they were in the period.”
Then, in the fall of 2016, as “Roma” was being filmed in sequence across an unusually generous, nearly four-month period, they got what they wanted: a visualization of the Mexico City bustle Cuaron remembered from his childhood.
Cuaron is hardly the first filmmaker to imagine a favorite locale on a large scale. Here are four earlier examples of how to dream a city on screen.
“PlayTime,” directed by Jacques Tati, released in 1967. Tati made a widescreen comedy about then-contemporary Paris, full of glass, steel, modernist architecture and creeping urban loneliness. But he built his own Paris outside Paris, erecting buildings of various scales and perspectives, and a variation on Orly Airport. “Tativille,” they called it.
Tati took three laborious years to shoot “PlayTime.” He started conceptualizing the script’s ideas and framework in 1959; eight costly years later, the film’s commercial fortunes were unfortunate, and Tati never fully regained his footing. It’s a grand achievement. The star, as Tati told Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “is the décor.”
“New York, New York,” directed by Martin Scorsese, released in 1977. A notoriously troubled shoot, full of cocaine and affairs, Scorsese’s largely improvised examination of golden-age Hollywood melodramas and musicals starred Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. It begins in 1945 on V-J Day in Times Square, with Times Square built the old-fashioned studio way: in a huge soundstage on the other coast.
“I wanted to make it in the style of the ’40s films,” Scorsese said in a later interview, “with all their artifice and the idea of no reality.” The thinking was that “the sets would be completely fake, but the trick would be to approach the characters in the foreground like a documentary, combining the two techniques.” In a gentler vein, director Damien Chazelle acknowledged the same deliberate clash of styles in his musical “La La Land.”
Throughout his career, New York native Scorsese has met the task of putting his hometown on screen, often shooting on location, more or less realistically (“Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver”), other times diving into the sumptuous, well-appointed fakery of period settings (“The Age of Innocence”). For “Gangs of New York,” Scorsese oversaw the construction of production designer Dante Ferretti’s expansive 19th century Manhattan sets in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.
“One from the Heart,” directed by Francis Coppola, released in 1982. Like Scorsese, Coppola loved the musical form and its dramatic possibilities, along with the visual landscape of soundstage illusions. This Las Vegas love story was shot in the Zoetrope facilities in San Francisco. According to production designer Dean Tavoularis, interviewed for a behind-the-scenes video feature, “Francis said, ‘Why don’t we do the whole movie on the stage?’” Tavoularis doubted he could do that, given the script’s scenes depicting traffic jams along the Strip and shots of McCarran Airport. “Well,” the director said, “think of a way to do it.” Tavoularis’ solution included a 50-foot chunk of a real DC-7.
None of it was supposed to look realistic; “One from the Heart” lived in fantasy, not documentary. It cost a then-staggering $26 million; in the U.S., it sold fewer than $650,000 in tickets.
“Big Hero 6,” directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, released in 2014. This animated feature from Disney and Marvel took place in a brilliantly realized combination of San Francisco and Tokyo called “San Fransokyo,” exploiting two world capitals in one witty stroke. The animation team had access to San Francisco’s city property data, so they started with reams of real-world facts, figures and context for their leap into an urban center with super-tall hills and buildings.
Anything can happen in animation; anything can happen in live-action filmmaking, too, in this fully digital era of mundane wonder. It takes filmmakers of real vision and discernment, however, to create a San Fransokyo. Or Tati’s miniature Paris. Or Cuaron’s memory of Mexico City.
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