Write Your Screenplay Podcast
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.