INTERVIEW: Clive Owen On ‘Children of Men’

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In the next week or so you are going to see plenty on RopeofSilicon about Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming film Children of Men starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Caine and newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey. The film is based on on the P.D. James novel and offers up a look at the future like you have never seen, and with Cuarón’s talents as a director and Clive Owen’s ability to fall into a character and become barely recognizeable makes this out to be one of the top ten films of the year.

I was lucky enough to see the film almost a month ago and sit down with Clive and talk about the new film, working with Alfonso and the difficulty of playing his character, Theo. Being one of the best actors out there right now I was interested every step of the way and I hope you will be too. Enjoy!

After all the green screen of Sin City and then the all the single takes in Children of Men can you talk about aware you are of that process with these technical styles of filmmaking?

Clive Owen (CO): Hugely aware, and it’s one of the elements of making movies that I actually really enjoy. I love the collaboration of doing shots like those in Children of Men because it’s not just about putting great scripts, great actors and great directors together and you’re guaranteed a great film. There are so many rules, there’s something elusive that’s out of any one individual’s control that makes a film work or not work and when you’re doing one of those hugely ambitious, long sequences of one shots, it’s a genuine collaboration. It’s everybody pulling together trying to make something happen and the responsibility is a collective one. The strongest memory from the movie is how closely I had to work with the [camera] operator on those sequences, because we would rehearse for a very, very long time and it was very painstaking and specific. Then when we come to shoot it, it has to feel like we’re catching it on the run, you have to feel like you’re in the thick of it, and it’s all about pacing. If you hold a beat a bit too long it will suddenly feel a bit manipulative, so we work very specifically about what we want to see and what we want to catch and then when we go for it and you’ve got to shake it up and keep an energy that is loose.

Very adrenalized, those sequences, because there are huge resets. There are like, with those bigger ones, four and five hour resets to try and go again. So everybody is very adrenalized in gearing up for one of those takes and there’s something a bit magical about it.

Were you familiar to the P.D. James novel and do you think there is a possibility of something like what the book and the movie talk about coming true?

CO: I didn’t know of the book and I read it afterward, and it’s like anytime you do an adaptation of a book, that was the start and was a huge inspiration on the movie but Alfonso had a lot of things he wanted to do. What Alfonso has done with this film is very clever, he using the film, set 30 years in the future, as an excuse to talk about present worries, concerns and fears that we all have. It’s an incredibly relevant vision of the future because he is looking ahead and saying, “If we’re not careful this is what where things could be going.” I don’t think the film is that futuristic, if you look at the opening scene my character walks into a café, walks outside and a bomb goes off, that’s the beginning of the movie, that’s the world we’re living in, that’s not futuristic. That’s incredibly relevant and I think it isn’t that far fetched. There are endless scenes in this movie that we’re already familiar with, he’s taken it further than the real thing, but it’s not a fantasy. (WATCH THAT SCENE)

Talk about working with Alfonso and his style of directing?

CO: I was a, and am now an even bigger, fan of Alfonso. He was very high on my “directors I would love to work with” list and even some of his films that were not as commercially successful I think are very special. When he first sent me the script I wasn’t sure about the part, I didn’t quite know why he wanted me to do it. It’s a highly unusual lead part, you look at that character and there are very unusual traits that he’s got. It’s not the kind of part where you can do your thing as an actor, it’s about sacrificing yourself to Alfonso’s vision and not getting in the way of it, which seemed more important than doing any sort of acting. But I went, and I met him, and I talked to him and I found him hugely exciting and he told me his whole vision of the film and his take on the movie and then I came on board and he said, “Now this is the bit I love. I love working with actors, I love the collaboration and we’re going to do this movie together,” and he was very true to his word. I signed on well in advance of the movie, I was shooting other stuff, but we kept in constant contact. When I had a break I went and spent a few weeks with him in New York just holed up in a hotel room talking about the movie, talking about Theo. It’s a genuine collaboration throughout the whole movie. I do think he is a very rare and unique talent.

The thing about his movies, the whole vision, is he doesn’t pander to what he thinks the commercial market wants. He makes his movies, he has a very singular vision, and he goes out there and does it.

What was the direction from Alfonso on those long takes? If you stumbled did you just have to go with it?

CO: Not specifically, no. Somebody is there to abort of something, early on, goes wrong. There’s no point in carrying on and blowing up the side of that building if there was something early on that is obviously amiss. It was really about rehearsing very thoroughly and then Alfonso hands the trust over to George [Richmond, the camera operator,] and I. After one of the takes of the big sequence at the end there was a unanimous sense that that was the one. Alfonso was then very worried because the blood splattered on the camera and then Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematographer) said, “But that’s brilliant! That’s brilliant!” Alfonso, in the end, decided we’re going with it. (Here’s an excerpt of one of the one shots in the movie, notice there are no edits.)

Out of all the one shots in the film how about that scene with the birth?

CO: There were a number of scenes in this where Alfonso was hugely ambitious. When you’re rehearsing and setting one of those up all day long and the light goes and you haven’t turned the camera over and you’re going to come back and carry on tomorrow you can imagine the phone calls that come in that evening with the studio going, “What is he doing? We haven’t turned over?” and he had that sort of attack on certain sequences and the child birth was one of those. We get there and he goes, “I want to do it in one, the whole sequence.” His objective with this movie is to viscerally put you in the action and the best way of doing that is to keep it as much in real time as possible and to not cut away; he wants to put you in the thick of it.

It’s very special when a director gives actors the responsibility of a scene of that length because we have to pace it in some way. We are detecting the pace and we have to keep the scene alive. It was a lot of responsibility on the actors, but also technically it was very demanding for the operator because the whole movement of the camera is incredibly specific where the camera has to settle and sit.

You seemed like such an anti-hero running around barefoot.

CO: It’s a highly unusual lead character for a movie of this size because for the first half of the movie the guy doesn’t even want to be there, he is dragged into it. He’s very reluctant and it’s very unusual to play a lead character that is apathetic, cynical, depressed, drunk, sad really; overwhelming sadness was the thing. Now they were unusual traits, there not the sort of things for a lead character. Eventually he does become engaged, but it’s about the loss – Theo sort of embodies the loss of hope, there’s a hopelessness about him. He’s given up, there is no point to anything. But through the movie he does become engaged again.

Now, the thing about the feet, people like to crack jokes about the flip-flops, but it is actually ingenious. There’s a point in the movie where suddenly Theo is becoming active, he’s become engaged again, and he’s running around, trying to save this girl, which in turn could save the world and Alfonso, who has a huge aversion to sentimentality, put me in flip-flops and this is never going to become the cliché action guy. It was a very deliberate thing on his part but the thing just developed.

Can you talk about filming this after the bombings in London and filming in London?

CO: The scene at the beginning of the movie, where the bomb goes off, was the worst day of filming. It was really upsetting because it was close to the bombings and I was amazed we got permission, because it was a big explosion and we were right in the center of London. It was just incredibly eerie and powerful. It’s a very profound and poignant opening to the movie to have that happen and set the tone and say, “This is the world we live in. This is 30 years time and this is the world we live in.”

I’ve got two young girls and the fear and the trepidation about the future is this feeling of fragility and fear of these things happening. You’re bringing kids into the world and it might become part of their lives, it’s just what we deal with, and that’s an awful and worrying idea.

Taking Alfonso’s vision into consideration was there ever a moment where you were concerned or wondered if this was going to work?

CO: Personally yes, what I was doing, yes. He’s not a dynamic lead character and I’m in every single scene in the movie and when you’re holding a film of this scale and size and you are playing sad and apathetic you worry if that’s holding. It’s not like I can be proactive and take the character and the film and take people through the movie, it’s not that kind of character. I knew, it was my instinct at the very beginning, that I didn’t want to get in the way of his vision, it wasn’t about doing good acting. He thinks very wide, Alfonso, he puts characters in environments. You’ll notice there are very few close-ups, everything is shot very wide and you worry as an actor that it’s holding because you can’t do the strong things because that’s not what’s required. If you are playing somebody who’s reluctantly dragged through the first part of the movie you don’t know if the audience is going to go, “Why should we go with this guy? He doesn’t even want to go on the journey.”

I think the film is one of those that later on, when I look back, it will be one that I am very proud of.

Children of Men opens in theaters on December 25. For more on the film including six clips and plenty of pics click here.

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Weekend: Sep. 27, 2018, Sep. 30, 2018

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