ROMA: Turning Your Life Story Into A Screenplay
This week, we’re going to be talking about Roma by Alfonso Cuarón.
Roma is an extraordinary film that harkens back to a different era of storytelling. It’s shot in black and white, despite having a substantial budget. It’s entirely in Spanish. And, in a way, the whole film is a love poem for Alfonso Cuarón’s real-life nanny from his childhood growing up in the Roma section of México City.
The film harkens back to a different kind of filmmaking. An age where storytelling was slower, where the pace was different, where shots were longer without so many quick cuts, and where stories unfolded in a more symbolic kind of way.
And that kind of structure is quite appropriate for Roma, because, in a way, it is a nostalgic look back at Alfonso Cuarón’s own life.
We’re going to look at Roma to talk about how to write a screenplay from real life.
How do you look inside of yourself and find those true stories that matter to you? How do you find the shape you want to put those stories into in order to communicate, not the literal experience, but the emotional experience to an audience? How do you use your real experiences to open up that little piece of your life in a screenplay?
What’s interesting about writing from real life is in many ways these true-life stories are actually the hardest stories to tell.
One of the gifts we have as screenwriters is the gift of metaphor.
If you’re Alfonso Cuarón and you’re writing Gravity or Children of Men, you can look at those experiences from your real life through the veil of metaphor.
You can convince yourself “Hey, this isn’t really me!”
By using the technique of metaphor, using a work of fiction in order, to tell the truth, sometimes we allow ourselves to actually see the truth about ourselves and our lives more clearly.
And, in doing so, we can also help our audiences see the truth about themselves and their lives more clearly.
By abstracting just one degree, or two degrees, or three degrees, or twenty degrees from what actually happened, we allow our subconscious minds to start to give us the clues we haven’t yet processed in our conscious minds. We start to actually see the truth of our experiences, in a way that our conscious minds shields us from in our daily life.
If you have ever been to therapy, you know what this is like. You come in for your first session, and you think you’re in therapy for one reason, and then you start to spend time and you realize you’re actually dealing with something completely different.
This is exactly what writing a film is like. We start with some story we think we’re telling, or sometimes we think, “Oh, I’ve got a great commercial hook…” But then over the course of a year, or six months, or three months, or however long it takes you to write it, you start to realize, “Oh my God, I’m actually doing something very different. I’m actually telling a story about my mother. I’m actually telling a story about my brother. I’m actually telling a story about this thing that happened to me that I can’t make sense of.”
That veil of fiction, the way we convince ourselves we’re using fiction, the way we convince ourselves this character isn’t really me, gives us a level of safety within which to play. That way we don’t have to deal with the entirety of our past until we’ve done the work to get ready for it.
When you start to tell a true life story like Roma, things start to change.
It’s just a fact of life that you are actually the one person you can’t see clearly.
This is a physical fact. When you go around in the world, you’re looking at other people all the time, but it’s only when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror that you actually see what you look like.
In fact, most of us, myself included, have a vision of ourselves that’s from a different era of time. I still think that I’m 33 years old! We actually have a vision of ourselves, but when we see ourselves, it doesn’t always match up with the person who’s in the mirror right now. Physically, we actually just don’t see ourselves well.
But also emotionally we don’t see ourselves well.
It’s extremely hard to look at ourselves. If we could, we would all be capable of change instantaneously. We’d all be capable of being exactly the people we want to be all the time.
But there are layers of ego, and self-protection, and fear, and confusion, and conflicting messages, and concerns, and thought processes and belief systems we have to navigate through to actually look at ourselves clearly.
In order to survive the things that happen, we put walls around our real self that get in the way of us actually seeing ourselves clearly. So to adapt a true-life story into a film, we must find a way around these walls.
Using fiction as a tool is one of the ways we, as writers, get to look at ourselves and heal our wounds or express the beautiful parts of ourselves. Fiction allows us to bypass those filters.
But when we start to tell the story that’s “the true story,” things get a lot harder, because now we no longer have the veil. Now we have to start to look at ourselves clearly, and that’s the hardest thing to do.
So, one of the places you want to start, as Alfonso Cuarón starts in Roma, is by abstracting to some degree, even within the real story, by giving that story some level of fiction.
One of the techniques Cuarón uses is simply to change the name of Roma’s main character. His real nanny’s name was Liboria (she’s actually still alive). He changes her name to Cleo.
And simply by making that tiny little change, he gives himself just a little bit more abstraction, just a little bit, one degree further from the true-life story.
A trick you can use if the main character is you — and you can see it in Roma — Alfonso Cuarón is a character in the film, but he’s actually even more tangential than the main character. He’s actually off to the side, barely a featured character in the piece. In fact, you don’t even know which little boy he is, but he is a character hanging out there.
In Eugene O’Neill’s great play about his family, Long Day’s Journey into Night, which was also made into a really beautiful film, he is finally deciding to confront his father’s narcissism and his mother’s addiction, and he dramatizes the story of all the people in his family except for himself.
In Long Day’s Journey into Night, he decides that Gene was the child who died. He actually writes himself out of his own life story in order to be able to tell the story more truthfully.
We’re all our own protagonists; we all see ourselves as the protagonists of our own stories, but Cuarón takes that character and slides him just a little bit to the sidelines.
He looks at that character just a little bit from an angle, instead focusing the camera on the person who he both loved and underappreciated during this period of his life.
If you’re ever writing a movie where you’re the main character, another trick you can use is to give that character some element that’s very different from you. Find some difference between that character and the way you perceive yourself, something that gives you that one degree of abstraction.
You might think finding that one thing that’s different might actually hide the truth from you, but actually, the opposite is true.
By finding that one thing that’s just a little bit different, that is just a little bit more abstract, what happens is it actually allows your subconscious mind to start to play and feed you that truth.
So, in this case, Cuarón changes his main character’s name. That’s one little trick. He writes himself off onto the sidelines but also uses another technique of amplification.
What Cuarón is doing in Roma, you might have noticed, is hitting his symbology not with a little ball-peen hammer, but with a giant anvil. He is hammering, hammering, hammering on his symbology.
We don’t get to see this a lot in movies anymore, but in Roma, it is unbelievably effective.
For example, we have the symbology of that car that can’t quite fit into the driveway. And then we have the expansion of that symbol when the mother purposefully drives it between those two trucks and destroys the car.
And then, we have the next step of that when she slams it drunk into the driveway. Then the next step of that when she replaces it with a new, smaller car.
And we start to realize, as we play with and amplify that symbol, that the car is a symbol for the father—the husband who abandoned her—and her anger towards him.
And the replacement of the big car with the smaller car is the beginning of the movement back into herself, into building the life she wants to build, rather than trying to fit into somebody else’s walls.
Who knows if that car even existed, or if that driveway even existed? In Roma, the car is a metaphor, it’s a symbol, in the same way when Cleo tells her boyfriend Fermín her little secret in the movie theatre and we watch the plane crashing on the screen.
This is a symbol; a symbol for the way it feels inside of that character. And so what Cuarón is doing is using these symbols and he’s allowing himself to play, not in a realistic world, but in a heightened naturalistic world, in order to get closer to the truth of what this feels like. He is taking the experience of his true life story and he is translating it into art.
There is another level though to what’s happening here because the intention behind Roma actually grows out of the kind of perspective we can only develop over time.
Growing up in this little section of México City, Alfonso Cuarón was sheltered from what was really happening around him. He was sheltered even from the Corpus Christi Massacre, which we end up seeing towards the end of Roma.
He wasn’t aware of the political events. He wasn’t aware of the real life of his nanny. His nanny was simply someone there in the background taking care of things for him. Loved, but barely noticed.
So, what Cuarón decides to do is to create that same feeling in the way he shoots the film.
Many people have talked about Roma and talked about Cuarón’s incredibly wide shots. A lot of people have talked about this idea as if it was a stylistic idea, but it isn’t a stylistic idea. It’s a thematic idea. It grows out of realizing something about yourself.
And you can see that it’s actually another metaphor in the film. The way the film is shot is a metaphor in the film. It’s a metaphor for this wide world of things going on, within which the main character is actually not a part, isn’t included.
If you think of almost every shot of Roma, what we see is an extraordinary landscape where wild, fascinating things are happening. We’re watching parties, and we’re watching games, and we’re watching excitement.
In fact, we’re watching a primer in how to build establishing shots, because every establishing shot in this movie is so specific, so cool, so jaw-droppingly visual.
And of course, this is what we want to do in every shot in our film. We never want to throw away an establishing shot; we want every shot in our film to have something beautiful happening in it.
And in Roma, that something beautiful is growing out of this theme: here’s all this glitz and glamour that distracts us, and then somewhere within that are the people actually making all that stuff happen, keeping the whole darn thing moving, even though most people aren’t even aware they’re there.
The way Cleo’s relationship with the family is characterized in this film is actually quite fascinating and delicate.
This isn’t an exploitative family. They love her. Even the doctor, Antonio, who is terrible to his wife and children in the film, has a moment of genuine tenderness with Cleo late in the film, where you realize he loves her too.
It isn’t that they don’t love Cleo, it’s that they aren’t aware of her. Just like we, as a society, are still not aware of so many of the people who actually make our society work, so many of the people who live on the sidelines.
In a way, you could think of Roma like a beautiful independent version of Forrest Gump.
Like Forrest Gump, Jenny’s floating through a fascinating political period, mostly unaware of the things happening to her. In the same way, the family in Roma is floating through this period, barely aware of these monumental political happenings until those happenings smack them in the face.
Cleo is a character who is too busy with all the tasks she must accomplish just to do her job, all the pressure of taking care of everything for this wealthy family, to even stop for a moment to recognize the sociopolitical context she’s moving through.
You’re watching a character who isn’t the traditional, “I want this, and I’m going for it,” character, but instead a character rooted in every scene in some kind of action related to her work, who has a couple of big choices she makes in relation to her love story, to the family she works for, and to her unborn child.
So, we have a character who is going through a huge journey, but not in a traditional way. Central to this idea is a fabulous line that Sofía, the mother, utters to Cleo in a drunken fit, “No matter what they tell you, women, we are always alone.”
What we’re really watching in Roma is a story of two women in two different societies who have the exact same problem.
Two women moving through a fascinating political period, one who is living in the wealthy stratosphere, and another who’s living in a lower class of society, but both of them moving through the same period and dealing with the same problem of trying to take care of a family in a world where you’re entirely alone.
One of my great mentors was a guy named Bill Cook. Bill Cook wasn’t a screenwriting teacher. He was actually a poetry professor at Dartmouth College. And Bill Cook always said, “In a poem, form equals function.”
His idea was that the form your poem takes relates to the function of what the poem is doing and saying, that these two things are inextricably linked.
In many ways, screenwriting is a lot like poetry. Every line matters.
In poetry, every line matters because poems are so compressed. In screenwriting, it matters in the same way because screenplays are also compressed and everything is moving the story forward.
But also, in screenwriting, every line, and every word matters, because every line and every word is expensive. Every line costs so much money to shoot.
So, like poets, we really have to understand and savor the value of everything we put into our script. Every line, every visual image. There is no such thing as a throwaway moment. We have to get the most out of it. An example of this that you may remember:
There is a symbolic theme that runs through Roma of the spaceman. We see this theme happen visually in a bunch of different ways.
One of the first times it happens is a scene that otherwise could have just been a throwaway scene. There’s a big party out in the country, that later turns really bad when a fire breaks out. But there’s a big party out in the country, and all the wealthy are there, and all their servants are there.
And there is one of these big establishing shots that we’ve come to appreciate in this film, one of these shots that starts with this extraordinary landscape and on these fabulous wealthy people. We see a little boy wandering through the wilderness, and he is wearing a really cool astronaut outfit.
We follow him and he takes us to the rest of the party, and eventually, that takes us to where the camera always settles, back to Cleo, back to these girls all the people around them aren’t even noticing.
And in many movies, this would just be a throwaway shot. It would just be like:
EXT. FOREST – NIGHT
A bunch of people partying. We find Cleo.
But instead, Cuarón finds something special and beautiful about that moment. He finds that little boy in the astronaut outfit.
Later, when Cleo goes to the slums to try to find Fermín– her ex-boyfriend who abandoned her– we see another little boy.
But this time, it’s just a boy with a bucket on his head, playing the same spaceman game in a different class of society.
You can see what Cuarón is doing: he is actually going back to the same well, having come up with that one cool image and not thrown it away, he now gets to build another cool image and not throw it away either.
And if you watch Roma, you see Cuarón keeps going back to that theme in different ways, and eventually, it starts to add up to something: the idea that, in a way, all the characters in Roma are like people in space.
They’re all, as Sofía says, “Always alone.” They’re all– rich and poor– making their way in a vast universe that seems barely aware of them.
The children are isolated from their father, who has drifted off and abandoned them. The mother is isolated from her husband. Cleo is isolated from her lover and from the family she takes care of.
And yet this is also a loving portrait of a society. This is also a portrait of a woman who would do anything for these children, who loves these children.
Roma is about a love that crosses those cultural and economic lines.
And all of that grows from one little image: not the planned image you can come up with as you’re thinking about the structure of the film. The image that comes to you from your subconscious as you’re starting to play with the symbology, as you’re starting to ask yourself, “How do I make this establishing shot cool? How do I play with the form of the movie? What’s the big glossy picture under which the real story is happening?”
One of the mistakes we often make in historical movies, whether adapting a true story from your own life or adapting a story from a historical period, is we focus the camera in the wrong place.
We focus our camera in the wrong place because we think our job is to tell the history of the event.
But that isn’t our job. We aren’t researchers and documentarians, even though research and documentary is part of what we do. Our job as screenwriters is to convey the emotional experience of the event.
A lesser screenwriter would have to think about the structure by which they establish the Corpus Christi Massacre. They would have to think about, “How do we lay in the politics? And how does this build over time? And what were the economic and social and political causes? And how does this all weave through the character?”
We would start to think the research was the story– that we had to capture that historical period.
But the research isn’t the story. The story grows out of the theme. The story grows out of that question about yourself.
How did I not see this woman for who she was? How did I not see the socioeconomic and political events that were happening all around me as I grew up? How was I so oblivious, so out in space while all the
these crazy things were happening to me? How were we all so entirely alone during this period?
Cuarón doesn’t bother to look at the politics at all.
Yes, we get little snippets. We understand during that party in the forest that the guy throwing the party isn’t that well-loved by the villagers– that maybe they killed his dog.
We get to see the fire break out, and then we get that one little vignette of him and his wife drinking their wine while everybody else fights the fire.
But we don’t know what he did. We know there was some kind of thing about land, we don’t know how he relates to this massacre, we don’t know how Fermín got involved. We don’t know why the massacre happened, or exactly what they’re protesting about.
Rather, we’re watching the movie through the eyes of this family, knowing about as much as they know, drifting through the space of a period in time and letting the experience wash over us, Moving through those vast beautiful glitzy shots we’ve gotten to know Cuarón for, and then drifting back to this tiny little portrait of this woman he loves.
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