A NEW HUMANITY
Acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón uses science fiction to conduct an "exploration on the state of things" in his latest, Children of Men.
By Jason Guerrasio
CLIVE OWEN AND JULIANNE MOORE IN CHILDREN OF MEN.
Set in 2027, Alfonso Cuarón’s latest picture, Children of Men, takes place in a bleak England where it’s been 19 years since the last baby was born. Mankind’s future seems grim, and most of the world has devolved into anarchy. Random security checks and bombings have become an everyday occurrence as Great Britain franticly tries to protect its island from illegal immigrants.
Theo, played by Clive Owen, spends his days in a drunken haze, often escaping the city to smoke pot with his old hippie-friend Jasper (Michael Caine) in the country. But when he’s abducted by a group of refugee freedom fighters headed by his old lover Julian (Julianne Moore), his perspective on life quickly changes. Julian wants Theo’s help transporting a young girl named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) out of the country. Theo soon learns Kee is pregnant and is being brought to The Human Project, a group working towards the creation of a new society. But transporting the girl to the people who can possibly save mankind won’t be easy...
Loosely based on P.D. James’s novel, Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) creates in Children of Men both a heart-pounding futuristic thriller and, like all good science fiction, a complex meditation on the politics of today, most notably the debate on immigration. Shooting handheld with minimal cutting during the action sequences, Cuarón successfully thrusts the audience into the center of the action, turning scenes like a 12-minute roadside ambush into a creative tour-de-force.
Cuarón took time out to talk about the film, his motivation to make it and why he feels his generation “blew it.”
(LEFT TO RIGHT) CLIVE OWEN, DP EMMANUEL LUBEZKI, AND DIRECTOR ALFONSO CUARÓN.
Filmmaker: How did you become interested in adapting and then making Children of Men?
Alfonso Cuarón: It was when I realized that the premise of the book, the premise of infertility and humanity, could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope that I feel humanity has [today]. It was an amazing opportunity.
Filmmaker: I also read that 9/11 was a motivating factor to wanting to do this.
Cuarón: Definitely. I was trying to cope with the reality we’re living. Even before September 11th things were changing. The big phenomenon of globalization that started becoming so obvious in the ‘90s was really having a lot of repercussions. That was pretty much what I was trying to explore.
Filmmaker: Your adaptation of the novel is quite loose. How did you approach your source material?
Cuarón: Once we decided to do this exploration on the state of things – and you don’t have to go very far to realize that the environment and immigration are pretty much on the top of the list – then we had to craft a story. I had the story I wanted to tell so clear in my head that I was very afraid of reading the book and getting completely confused. I read an abridged version of the book, and Timothy J. Sexton, my writing partner, read the [entire] book. But our whole idea was lets find out what elements are relevant to what we’re doing and lets disregard what we think is irrelevant.
Filmmaker: Was there a script already written when you came on?
MICHAEL CAINE (LEFT) AND CLIVE OWEN IN CHILDREN OF MEN.
Cuarón: There was a script and I read the beginning of it and didn’t like it. I wasn’t interested in making a science fiction film and secondly I wasn’t interested in the environment that the book takes place, all this upper class drama. For me it was more important to explore the thematics that are shaping our contemporary world. The P.D. James book is almost like a look at Christianity, and that wasn’t my interest. I didn’t want to shy away from the spiritual archetypes but I wasn’t interested in dealing with Dogma.
Filmmaker: How did you approach your research of the future? Does your version correspond to what you think the future might really be like?
Cuarón: We did a little stuff on how the world may look a generation from now, but the goal was still trying to keep that sense of reality. The biggest challenge was making sure the scenario we’re creating is congruent with the premise that the story is taking place twenty years from now. But, at the same time, whatever we did should not alienate you from the sense of today. The core of the film is [about] today. And that’s a conversation I had with the art department. I [said], “I don’t want imagination, I want references and [to know] why that reference [reflects] today’s human perception of reality.” So I [tried] to actually absorb iconography that has been engraved in human consciousness, and that iconography comes from newsreels and media and to create that sense of recognition.
Filmmaker: The long takes you use in the battle scenes are unbelievable. Did you always intend to shoot those scenes that way?
Cuarón: From the beginning with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki we discussed that even if the camera was bigger and the production value was way bigger, the production was going to be the same as Y tu mamá también in which a character has the same weight as the social environment. In other words you don’t use close-ups because you would be giving more weight to the character instead of the environment. Everything is kind of loose and distant trying to absorb real time and trying to minimize editing and montage. [We] never use editing or montage to cause an effect. It was like the camera happens to be there just to register the moment of truthfulness. That was the point of departure. In Y tu mamá también it was generally speaking about two or three characters talking or having sex and the environment was my country Mexico. Here the complication is that the environment is something that we have to create. And it was not two characters trying to have a conversation -- it was five or seven characters in the context of I don’t know how many hundreds of extras and a battle field. So that took the whole complication a little further.
Filmmaker: How difficult was the shooting of your long-take style in this film, especially given the complicated choreography of many of these sequences?
Cuarón: In a conventional movie you have twelve days to do your set piece as they call it and then from the get go on the first day you’re shooting stuff with your main character and then you have another unit doing explosions and another unit doing inserts so at the end of the day you have hundreds of set ups for the cutting room. The second day you keep on going and da, da, da you keep on progressing. But for us we’d get to day ten of the twelve days and we hadn’t even rolled camera yet. There was a sense of despair and anxiety because on paper [we were] ten days behind. There was a certain amount of tension. Anything can go wrong and actually everything went wrong but we had amazing people like Clive Owen. What amazed me about Clive Owen are his instincts. From his instincts about story and character and then his instincts in the moment in which without coming out of character he would notice that some explosion didn’t happen that was going to queue something else and he’d suddenly take advantage of that one accident and redesign the whole scene in the moment. And in moments like that you just have to rely on your actors because if you’re tying to create a moment of truthfulness those actions are the things that create the truthfulness.
Filmmaker: There also must have been some anxiety in the editing room, because you couldn’t cut those scenes. They are what they are.
Cuarón: Pretty much. When you approach a narrative this way you don’t have a safety net. But I’m lying because actually my safety net was my actors. In the end I learned to trust Clive so much in the sense that if he would smell something fishy we would stop and reconsider. But when things were flowing for Clive I would just know things were right.
Filmmaker: What do you hope the reaction will be from audiences?
Cuarón: I hope young people will see this film. I mean my generation, we blew it. I think we grew up in a world that was pre-idyllic, and we saw the world collapse in front of us and we tried to believe that it was not our fault, that it was not our responsibility. We felt powerless about the situations as if they were very overwhelming and there’s a certain sense of guilt involved in the whole thing. Younger generations, they were born in a world that went to shit already so they have a completely different perspective of what’s going on. I really believe in the evolution of human understanding that’s happening in [the younger] generation and the generation to come. My intention was to take [the viewer on] a road trip through the state of things and then once you go through this journey for you to try to come up with your own conclusions about the possibility of hope in a world like this. At the end I cannot dictate a sense of hope for anybody because a sense of hope is something that’s very internal. We wanted the end to be a glimpse of a possibility of hope, for the audience to invest their own sense of hope into that ending. So if you’re a hopeful person you’ll see a lot of hope, and if you’re a bleak person you’ll see a complete hopelessness at the end.
Filmmaker: You’ve been on a recent string of large-budget films. Do you plan to return to smaller films in the near future?
Cuarón: I think my next movie is going to be a small movie, I hope so. I say hope because something I’ve learned is you don’t necessarily do the films you want to do in the moment. I was going to do Children of Men right after Y tu mamá también and that didn’t happen and that was a good thing. But at this point I’m hoping to do a small film in Mexico. I’ve been missing Mexico. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Mexico. I’m so in touch with it and I think I need to reconnect with my own sense of being.