Our Man in Mexico, Horacio Rodriguez

by Nancy Mills

Finding 30 locations for Roma, which received 10 Oscar nominations and won three Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography), was an enormous challenge for Horacio Rodriguez, LMGI and his location team. But the even bigger challenge was not being able to read the script beforehand.

Director Alfonso Cuarón, LM Horacio Rodriguez and
production designer Eugenio Caballero. Photo courtesy of Horacio Rodriguez/LMGI

Rodriguez, 47, who was born in Poza Rica, Veracruz, Mexico, first thought it would create major difficulties, but he adapted—as he always does. “As we all know, the script and the work plan are the bible of an entire production team,” he says. “At the beginning, for all department heads not having a script and finding out that we should work without a script was really terrible. But as weeks of preparation progressed, it was very enriching to have conversations with Alfonso Cuarón in a direct and very constant way, where he told us about some characters. At locations, he told us how he saw them.

“Fortunately on Roma, the department heads and Alfonso were more or less the same age, and therefore, their memories were in some cases shared by many of us. That helped to visualize what Alfonso told us.”

Production designer Eugenio Caballero, who finally read the script two weeks after shooting started, was enormously helpful to the location team. “I didn’t know the film’s story,” he says, “but this was part of a game we decided to play with Alfonso. He said, ‘I don’t want to show you the script. I don’t want to talk about stories. I want to talk about the subjects we’re trying to show. It’s not about what happens with the actors and their characters. It’s about what are we trying to tell in a social and political context. It’s about the classes, about a family that breaks, about loneliness, about the condition of women in Mexico City at the time. There were a lot of things we tried to convey. I tried to pass all the information to Horacio. ‘This is what I know.  We need a street, and on this street we have to have a house and we’ll talk about these subjects.’   

“I tried to translate that to a visual code. Although I had no script, I had a lot of time to talk to my director. That was the way we got the locations we wanted. It was a very interesting process. It was problematic for all of us, but because I had a director and crew I trusted, it was okay.  From the very beginning, I trusted that Horacio would deliver.”

Photo by Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Caballero had never worked with Rodriguez, he says. “I don’t make movies in Mexico. I’m from Mexico City, but since I did Pan’s Labyrinth (for which he won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Art Direction in 2007), I work around the world. But when we started to work together, I saw that he was a good listener. He told me he wanted to see the places where the real story happened. Only when we started looking did we acknowledge it wasn’t possible because many things had changed a lot in 50 years.”

Caballero speaks highly of Rodriguez. “I’ve worked with many location managers in my life,” he says. “Most of them are very good, although sometimes I find they want a very fast answer rather than a thoughtful answer. Horacio hears what was said, understands and makes notes. He asks questions and comes back with solutions. I was impressed with his strength and that of his team. They really think outside the box. They try to understand what the director and designer want. They worked very closely with me. I think locations has to be part of the art department.  Continuity was very important. A good part of what’s on the screen is actually locations, especially in a film like this. 

“Horacio and his people are really team players. They were very professional in terms of ‘You cannot do that because it’s a historical site.’ They tried to provide some solutions of how to approach certain ideas. They found beautiful locations, but we spent many hours looking for them. If I do another film in Mexico, I’d want to do it with Horacio.”

Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, and Alfonso Cuarón on the set of Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Photo by Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Nancy Mills spoke with Rodriguez about his career and his work on Roma. Caballero provided additional comments.

Nancy Mills: While filming Roma, did you have any difficulties working with Mexican bureaucracy?

Horacio Rodriguez: In Mexico, Alfonso Cuarón is well known, and that helped us a lot while making Roma. Mexico City authorities agreed to fully support the project, and that’s how we managed to avoid any bureaucracy.

Each week, we planned a meeting with all the city authorities to discuss our needs. If we needed to close a street, some subway accesses or some pedestrian accesses, they knew about it. Together, we found alternative routes in advance so as not to collapse the city in some areas.

Working one or two weeks in advance helped a lot. To film the revolt that we see in the furniture store scene, where a student uprising occurred because of government repression in the ’70s, government support helped a lot. It meant being able to control two days of filming in a section of Mexico City that was completely closed, where daily life takes place on a main street.

NM: Can you describe the process for filming in Mexico?

HR: The Mexican Film Commission has its headquarters in Mexico City. It is a support tool because it depends on the Mexican Institute of Cinematography, which operates at a federal level. It’s linked to the 32 states in the country and tourist offices in charge of receiving film projects. There are no independent offices of cinematography. 

The Film Commission issues all the permits. It is the only body authorized in the city to give permission to production houses so they can film on the streets and park the trucks and deal with all the logistics involved in filming.

To film in any of Mexico’s 32 states, you must also make contact directly with that state. They are the ones that support you and set the local regulations, depending on your resource capacity. They can give you transportation or a tourist guide who can show you the whole state, whether you are looking for an urban or rural location. Unfortunately, there is no regulation that applies to all states.

Photo by Carlos Somonte/Netflix

NM: On Roma, were you working in dangerous areas? 

HR: Like all large cities, Mexico City has areas where certain precautions must be taken. And yes, indeed, we were in that type of zone. Fortunately, we made contact with the government authorities, and that helped a lot. The whole shoot flowed in a safe way for the more than 100 crew members, plus the extras.

In order to film in Mexico City, you have to be in constant contact with the city authorities to control the street and access, whether it be pedestrian, vehicular or bicycle. It’s normal to hire security teams—we call them logistic teams. Depending on the size of the production, they can be two people or 50 people. 

NM: How difficult was finding a house in Mexico City to serve as the Cuarón family home?

HR: That was one of our biggest challenges. Searching began with a visit by some department heads, Alfonso and me to the real house where he had lived in Colonia Roma. Because of security issues in the city, the family that today lives in that house didn’t trust us. They wouldn’t open the house because in the beginning we couldn’t say it was an Alfonso Cuarón project. After two or three weeks, we had to tell Alfonso that we should use his name to get the door open. It was the only way we managed to enter that house. In our visit, Alfonso showed us the whole house. Unfortunately for him, his childhood house was already modified. He left disappointed because it was no longer the house of his memories.

For us, it helped us to understand the geography of the spaces that Alfonso required for his project. We searched all neighborhoods, especially the oldest neighborhoods in the city. The Colonia Roma has a certain look in the interiors of their houses. In Mexico City, Colonia Roma is a neighborhood where a middle-high social class lives today. There are not too many neighborhoods like that. 

I think we showed Alfonso around 150 houses—both interiors and exteriors. He was very clear about how the interior spaces should be. Many of the houses we presented did not suit him, either because of the layout, the lack of double-height ceilings or they did not have garages. It was extremely difficult to remove a complete family from the house that Alfonso would use for more than six months.

So we went to a second stage. As location manager, I suggested to Alfonso that instead of looking for a house to rent, it was better to buy it. That way, Eugenio could adapt the spaces in the house and make all the modifications that were needed. In the end, we found a house that had been empty for a year. It was going to be demolished and replaced by an apartment building. Fortunately, we managed to postpone the demolition. It even worked as a cover set when suddenly in the rainy season, we had to do interiors only and that was our refuge.

Eugenio Caballero: It was very important that we had an actual house because we were working with nonprofessional actors, so the idea of going to a studio wasn’t an option.

Fernando Gradiaga as Señor Antonio, Marina de Tavira as Señora Sofía, Marco Graf as Pepe, and Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Photo by Carlos Somonte/Netflix

NM: Roma is set in 1970 and 1971. Was it difficult to find Mexico City exteriors that looked like the 1970s?  

HR: It was a great challenge to recreate Mexico City in the ’70s because when Roma was filmed, the streets looked like 2016. The support of Mexico City’s government was very important because we had to remove a lot of street furniture that did not match the time.

NM: Eugenio read the script a few weeks after shooting started. Did he advise you?

HR: Not really. I think it helped the department heads to contribute our memories to the project in some way. Alfonso and Eugenio guided me only in memories. Before introducing the locations to Alfonso, we introduced them to Eugenio. He knew if the locations would appeal to Alfonso. He was our main filter.

NM: What other locations were challenging to find?

HR: The hospital. It is a real building in a very crowded medical complex, 21st Century Medical Center, in Mexico City. That building was damaged in the earthquake of 1985, and it remained closed until we found it. After talking with the authorities of the Mexican Institute of Social Security, we were able to open the building. They let us use all the space for five months so that Eugenio could create the sets. The only thing we did was do a study, a structural assessment with engineers so that they would guarantee that the building would not fall while we were working inside it. Alfonso very much liked that it was a real building from that time. Also, he liked the fact that his father had worked in that medical complex.

It was challenging to find the right beach. In Alfonso’s memory, the beach should be in Veracruz, and that area of the country has very particular beach characteristics. It had to be a beach where there should not be many people or cars. The sand and waters had to be very similar to Veracruz beaches. Finally, we found it in Tabasco, which is on the Gulf of Mexico.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Roma.
Photo by Carlos Somonte/Netflix

EC: Classic beaches in Mexico are tropical paradises, but we wanted to have a nontropical sad beach—not that cheerful. It was a sad moment for the family. The mother had to tell the children that their father was not coming back.

HR: Another challenge was to find an area where we could build the main streets of Insurgentes Avenue and the Las Americas Cinema. It was for the scene where Alfonso’s family sees the father leave the cinema. Mexico City is a very saturated place with more than 20 million people, and it is very complicated to find free spaces to be able to build sets of this magnitude.

We relied on new technologies and Google Earth to find interesting spaces. We found a space that belonged to the federal government where Eugenio was able to build all those streets.

EC: Alfonso wanted to shoot in some places where it was not possible. We couldn’t film on Insurgentes Avenue, where they cross to go to Las Americas Cinema, and the avenue where the mother crashes the car between two trucks. We built these two avenue sets from scratch on a large site.  

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo and Alfonso Cuarón in Roma.
Photo by Carlos Somonte/Netflix

HR: The rooftop was also a very special location, with very particular views that Alfonso wanted. I asked a collaborator on my team to look for rooftops in houses in the oldest neighborhoods of the city. He took about three months to search and photograph an endless number of rooftops, until Alfonso was comfortable.

EC: For the rooftop, Horacio provided more than 100 options. We ended up with one that we modified, but it was very good.

HR: Finding the location for the Corpus Christi Massacre was not difficult. We filmed it in the historical place where the repression happened. Alfonso was very clear that he wanted to film some things that really happened in those times of his childhood in the actual places.

NM: How did you get into location work?  

HR: After finishing college in 1994, I tried to study film in Los Angeles. I got there but I realized that my financial situation was not going to allow me to study film in the United States. From Los Angeles, I traveled to San Diego, and I worked on different things for a few months.

Then I went to Tijuana, working as a host at the Hard Rock Cafe. That’s where I learned about Fox Studios in Rosarito, which was very popular because they had just finished Titanic. On a day off, I decided to go to the studios and knock on the door so I could also start working there. When I arrived, there were no more projects, but I made good friends with the guards at the main entrance. They were the ones who let me know when projects were coming. One day, they told me that a new project was going to start. I went the first day they started hiring staff with my CV under my arm. Producer Rafael Cuervo was the one who gave me my first opportunity to go to work at a professional film studio.

The first project that gave me the opportunity to work as a location assistant was In Dreams, directed by Neil Jordan. It was three months of work and two weeks of shooting. I continued working at Fox Studios. My second project was Deep Blue Sea, directed by Renny Harlin. After that, producer Rafael Cuervo, with whom I worked on those two projects, invited me to work on other movies in Mexico. Between 1999 and 2017, I met other producers who invited me to different projects—Y Tu Mamá También, Collateral Damage, Apocalypto, The Legend of Zorro, Fast & Furious (Mexico unit) and Terrence Malick’s Song to Song (Mexico unit). 

NM: What do you love about your job?

HR: The variety of the work. From 1997, when I started on In Dreams, to today, I’ve worked in medium- and high-impact projects, national films, foreign films, American films and European films. I have the great fortune of having met more producers, with whom I work and with whom I have maintained good friendships.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Roma.
Image by Alfonso Cuarón.

The Roma Location Team: 

Horacio Rodriguez, LMGI, Location Manager

Claudia Puebla, Location Manager

Fabiola Maldonado, Location Coordinator

Viridiana Torres, Location Coordinator, set “Halconazo”

Isaias Galicia, Location Manager Assistant

Felipe Medina, Alejandra Fonseca, Location Assistants

Ruben Garay, Carlos Anguiano, Juan Lugo, Igor Rechy, Location Scouts

Natalia Herrera, Armando “El Toca” Ramírez, Location Assistants

Marco Vinicio Guillén, Alejandro Uriegas, Diana Altamirano, Location Assistants, set “Halconazo”

Lizeth Monge, Location Assistant