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Child’s Play: A Conversation with “Children of Men” Director Alfonso Cuarón

It broke my heart when Alfonso Cuarón decided against returning to Hogwarts — the director’s exceptional Harry remains the best in a powerful fantasy franchise. However, Cuarón’s latest project Children of Men demonstrates the filmmaker’s ability to bring cinematic magic to virtually any project, and I’m thrilled he avoided reheating previously explored material and opted out of any potential rut.

Cuarón, in Atlanta to promote Men, took time to chat about the dangers of organized ideologies, the thrill of a good chase scene, and those oft-discussed uninterrupted camera shots — the ones film students will be analyzing for decades to come. What do you think was the cause of the infertility crippling the planet in Children of Men?

Alfonso Cuarón: In a way, I didn’t care that much about the infertility. For me, it was just a metaphor for the failing sense of hope.

I didn’t go into the film wanting to make a science-fiction film. I didn’t want to make a movie about the future. What I was trying to make a comment about was the present. Michael Caine’s character makes a joke about (the infertility), and the juxtaposition of it is that nobody knows the cause. Somebody blames genetic experiments. Another person blames the environment. Some think it’s just nature reversing itself. Like anything in nature and life, it’s really a combination of everything.

The movie is bleak, but it has a deliberate sense of humor. I could tell you didn’t want to turn your audience off to the dark material.

That was important to me, but it was very important to [leading man] Clive [Owen], as well. Clive was trying to rescue every single moment that he could by trying to create some ironic comment or bring some humor to the situation. The journey is bleak, but I believe it is a bleak journey into hope.

Talk about humorous, you even have Sir Michael Caine doing a ‘Pull my finger’ joke.

Oh, that was brilliant. I’m not certain about this, but I’m almost positive this is the first time Michael Caine ever farts and smokes [marijuana] on screen. But it fit his character so well.

The two main groups that stood out from the on-screen chaos were the religious fanatics and the military revolutionaries. To your credit, you don’t make either side look insane. They resemble pockets of comfort people can run to. If you had to face either group in time of need, which would you gravitate toward?

I hope neither of them. That was part of the comment I was trying to make about the situation.

First of all, these people are seen as evil, but they are not. They have their own circumstances that explain why they do what they believe is right, from the standpoint of ideology. So if you asked me which ideology I would prefer, I’d say neither.

When you strip hope from people, it leaves a void, and that void needs to be filled. And very likely, that void is going to be filled by an ideology…. Hope and faith are so connected. Now, when ideology connects with faith, the ideology becomes an item of faith, not a point of discussion. That’s what I find so dangerous about people that fall into ideology. I think that’s the same thing that happens with religion. It can become an ideology tool rather than a spiritual support.

We tried to embrace the spiritual archetypes. Obviously, there’s the spiritual archetype of the nativity with Clive Owen’s character.

I’m so happy to hear you say that, because the nativity story was running through my head as I watched your film.

Well, when you think about it, we have romanticized the view that we have of the nativity. But in reality, the nativity was a very bleak experience. It was a couple escaping after (the government) had murdered all of the children. And they deliver a baby in a barn. It’s a very bleak situation when you think about it realistically.

Though I don’t think Mary and Joseph had to dodge tanks the way your heroes do.

Probably not tanks, but maybe Roman soldiers, and at that time, it probably was as horrible as dodging a tank. But you’re right. Technology has evolved so we now have tanks and weapons, but our sense of ethics hasn’t changed that much.

But as you were saying, audiences are going to respond to this film according to their own sense. People that have a hopeful disposition will see Children as a hopeful film. Religious people will see it as a religious film. So much so that in Italy, following the Venice Film Festival, La Repubblica, one of the papers in Italy, praised the film as a great Catholic film. I’m not even a Catholic. (But) they were investing their own spirituality into the film. And that’s the thing. We wanted to expose the state of things but we didn’t want to preach or dictate (our opinions).

You paint on a large canvas for Children, but you also fill in your backgrounds with miraculous detail. I don’t need to use the term mise en scene with a lot of filmmakers, but it applies to your vision. What were you paying attention to as you rounded out these massive scenes?

You are speaking of the toughest challenge for this film. People ask about the very long camera shots, and yes, those brought a number of technical applications. But it was nothing compared to the complexity of coming up with the backgrounds. For me, the backgrounds are the social environment. And part of the point of making this movie is that the social environment is as important as your leading actor.

Emmanuel Lubezki, my cinematographer who won at Venice this year for his work on this film, kept saying, ‘We cannot afford one single film frame to pass without commenting about the state of things.’

So we had a list of thematic topics, and we’d go back to see what we have and have not commented on. Which issues have become more relevant as we are shooting the movie? We had to keep dating our references, because everything was a reference from events that have been happening in the past few years.

At the same time, you don’t forget that people go to the movies to be entertained, to be thrilled as they’re getting their massages. So you include something as simple as a car chase where the guys are pushing their cars.

It was the slowest car chase scene in the history of the movies.

But it was hilarious. I laughed so hard because you remembered how important it was at that point to break the tension.

Also, you’ve got a hero that runs around in flip-flops. I’m glad you say that because we can talk about the themes and everything, but in the end this is a chase movie rather than a science-fiction movie. It has more to do with The Sugarland Express than it does with Blade Runner. So even if you choose not to get into the themes, you can enjoy it as a chase movie.

I’m a huge fan of films that force their heroes to enter situations or locations where you just know there’s no possible way they’re ever going to get out. For Children, you send Clive into the refugee camps in the final scenes, and the impact is staggering.

That comes from classic literature and pop culture, from The Iliad and The Odyssey. Then you see Star Wars, and it’s the same thing. The great finale means going into the fortress or the big star. You see The Lord of the Rings, and we’re going into this great big volcano.

It’s fun, isn’t it?

Man, it’s so much fun!

Please comment on the film’s impressive unbroken shots. The first time I noticed it was during the attack on the forest road. Was that the first one?

Oh no, there are a lot of ones before that, but they’re understated. We shot this film the way that we would have shot [Cuarón’s earlier film] Y tu mama tambien. The difference with tambien was that the social context in Mexico already existed. Here we had to create the environment.

Apart from the action scenes, there are a number of unbroken scenes early on. Watch when Clive comes out of the coffee shop. The important thing about each shot was to create a moment in which the camera was simply there to register what was happening. The minute we felt that we were calling attention to the shot, we would cut.

But you know, there’s this sense of giddiness when you, as an audience member, realize, ‘Wait a minute. He hasn’t cut away from the action yet.’ I was thrilled to discover those moments, and there are a number of them in your film.

(laughs) One thing is that Emmanuel, my cinematographer, is completely fearless. He had just worked on the Terrence Malick film The New World.

And another thing is that when you do those shots, you have to completely rely on your actors. The responsibility of the timing falls on their shoulders. In many ways, the [final] battle scene depends on Clive Owen’s choices because of timing. That’s why I consider Clive not only the leading man of this movie, he is my writing partner and a co-filmmaker of this movie.

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