The movie stylings of Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón have ranged from the character-driven road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien to the high fantasy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, two movies that helped put the director on the map.
Cuarón’s latest movie Children of Men ventures more into futuristic sci-fi territory, being based on P.D. James’ novel about a dystopian future where no one’s been able to have kids for nearly 18 years, creating turmoil and chaos worldwide. It stars Clive Owen as a British government official who finds himself working with the mysterious activist group called The Human Project to find a solution.
ComingSoon.net talked to the director via the phone after he had spent a long day doing press for the film.
ComingSoon.net: You started working on this movie some time ago, so what took you so long to finally make this movie? Alfonso Cuarón: I wrote with Tim Sexton the screenplay right after “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and then it didn’t happen, but “Harry Potter” happened, then finally this one happened. It was just one of those things that actually, I’m thankful that it happened the way it happened. Because the way it happened, I had the amazing opportunity to work with Clive Owen. Because of the way it happened, I had the opportunity of doing “Harry Potter” before and that gave me the opportunity of having two years of work relationships in Britain, in London. I got to experience the social dynamics of the British psyche that was so important, then I realized how flawed our approach was of British reality.
CS: Obviously, the world has changed a lot since you wrote the screenplay, maybe getting closer to the reality in the movie then when you started. The world has gotten a little more dangerous. Cuarón: We were just waiting for Bush to invade another country.
CS: So then before the end of the year, you’re thinking? The movie’s look into the future is pretty amazing. Was a lot of that taken from the book? Cuarón: Well, from the book we took the premise of the infertility of humanity, but then we took it as a point of departure to explore the state of things in the first part of the 21st Century, then that triggered a completely different story. Now, I’m very thankful with P.D. James’ premise, because it really triggered my creative process.
CS: In the book, does it ever explain why or how this thing happened? Cuarón: It’s pretty much a thing that happened, just that the approach is a completely different approach. In the book, there’s not such a thing as the immigration issue. Let me put it this way, in the book, the character of Key doesn’t exist.
CS: So that was one of your own additions, including all the immigrant stuff? Cuarón: It’s an invention based upon exploring the state of things. You realize that two of the biggest issues in the times we’re living are the environment and immigration.
CS: We really only see England in this movie, though other places are mentioned. Are we to assume that the rest of the world is actually much worse? Cuarón: Yeah, in this scenario, pretty much the world collapsed. There’s a film by Michael Haneke called “The Year of the Wolf” and I was saying, “Okay, while our movie is happening, in the rest of Europe is ‘Year of the Wolf’ and maybe in America is the new Cormac McCarthy novel. He just released a book that is about the United States having collapsed [“The Road”]. The Coen Brothers are doing his next movie (“No Country for Old Men”).
CS: Even though this takes place in the future, you’ve been trying to brush off the “sci-fi” label. To me, the movie had the feel of a Stanley Kubrick film, something that’s hard to put into words. Are you a fan of Kubrick? Cuarón: Ah, very much so. I’m a huge fan of Kubrick but who that is a filmmaker is not? For me, the important thing of Kubrick is not so much about speculating about the future, it’s about taking different premises as a point of departure to make conceptual explorations of humanity. I think that’s a big important thing of Kubrick is how the abstraction, based on very simple premises.
CS: The dialogue in the movie is fairly minimal, at least compared to “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” yet you have a lot of writers on this. I assume some people started it, and then you worked on it with your writing partner, but was it deliberate to keep the dialogue so minimal? Cuarón: Yeah, what happened and there are so many writers because the writers’ guild. Actually, you’re usually invited to be a part of the writing team; they invite everybody. There are two writers I never met, I never read the material. There’s another writer who was doing stuff while I was doing “Harry Potter” just to keep the project alive. I have to say that for me, this movie is 100% written by Tim Sexton and me. And definitely there’s another writer and that writer is Clive Owen.
CS: So all those writers on the movie is a contractual thing? Cuarón: More than a contractual thing. There’s a Writers Guild thing that if one of the writers is a director, you have to punish the director. It’s an old story and it’s boring stuff, so I prefer not even getting into it. Suddenly, just by the fact that I’m a director, they don’t respect or give you any rights as a writer anymore. It’s so sad.
CS: What was it about Clive that made you think he could pull off some of the difficult things he has to do in the movie? There really are some tough scenes in this due to the long single shots you did. Cuarón: It’s really difficult because part of the thing is the immobility of the character. It’s the opposite of the conventional Hollywood hero, in which he’s coming up with plans and solutions. That he’s very active about engaging and deciding. Here, it’s the other way around. It’s the inactivity that is in the core of this character, and a profound sadness. By the same token, he has to be our emotional vessel to connect with this world. On one hand, it’s this amazing inactivity and the other hand, it’s the generosity of being this window.
CS: Right, because there’s so much going around him and he’s very much like the viewer in that he’s seeing it all for the first time just as we are. Did he know when he signed on that you planned on doing these elaborate long shots? Cuarón: Yes, but without having the awareness that they were going to be so complicated. I knew that the approach was going to be the same as “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” in which character is as important as social environment. We don’t have close-ups, because that is to give more weight to character vs. environment. How to create the moment of truthfulness in which the camera is just registering that moment of truthfulness, so that was the point of departure, except in “Y Tu Mama,” the social environment was Mexico. In this film, we have to recreate the social environment. In “Y Tu Mama,” it was just two characters talking and maybe having sex, and here we have battles and wars and stuff.
CS: You weren’t able to get a ménage a trois into this movie. I was kind of surprised. Cuarón: Man! No, I know! I couldn’t fit it in, man!
CS: There really are some amazing scenes in this like the tracking shot as Clive is going through the refugee camp and seeing all hell break loose. Are you able to do multiple takes of something like that or is that just setting it up and going for it? Cuarón: How many shots do we have of that? We did, after prepping for something like ten days, one afternoon we tried and we blew it very quickly. The next morning was the last day we had in the morning. Seven minutes into the take, the camera operator slipped and fell, and then just in the nick of time, when the light was about to disappear and the sun was about to fade, is when we achieved the shot.
CS: I know there are limits to the amount of film you can have in hand-held cameras. Cuarón: No, we had plenty of footage, because none of these shots are over ten minutes. We were very concerned about that and that was the constant tension. There was a point in which it was not only about if the choreography is fine and everything is fine, it was about whether we had enough film in the mag.
CS: Did you have any sort of chance to rehearse or run-through those scenes before doing them? Cuarón: That’s the thing. The last scene in the movie, in the schedule say we have 14 days to do that scene. In the conventional way, from the first day, you’re shooting and doing inserts and doing little bits and pieces, and here, we hit Day 11 and we haven’t really rolled camera, and believe me, that creates a lot of tension and anxiety.
CS: Especially having actors waiting around for things to be set-up. Cuarón: Well, no, actually the actors were fantastic. It’s more about in paper, in terms of the accountants, you’re ten days behind, and then the thing is that you catch up and you end up doing your scene and you put it in the can and you end up shooting the same 14 days that you were supposed to shoot.
CS: At one point, the movie was going to come out in August or September but then it got moved. Did it need more work done at that point or was it just a positioning thing? Cuarón: Yeah, they changed the whole thing. That was the beauty of it. When Universal saw the movie, and actually, I think that San Diego Comic-Con was a fundamental moment for that. Suddenly, the studio decided to be more aggressive with the film.
CS: Now, it’s coming out mere days before Guillermo del Toro’s movie. Cuarón: Yeah, that is so great. Now is “Babel,” then is going to be “Children of Men” and then it’s Guillermo’s movie. It’s so great. I consider those three movies like sister movies.
CS: They’re very different, but I guess I can see some parallels between the three movies in terms of the way they look at the world. Cuarón: Oh, man. It’s about how ideology becomes communication and it’s about how all the atrocities that people do to people.
CS: So you’re okay with how so many lazy journalists have lumped the three movies together? Cuarón: I’m more than okay. I’m so proud of that. Guillermo, Alejandro and I are receiving the Gotham Award, so that’s also very cool and I’m very happy about that.
CS: Are you going to try to schedule your next movies together, too? Cuarón: That’s the thing. You cannot plan those things. That’s what’s been so enjoyable about this thing. We came from three parallel experiences and that was not by design, it was just by coincidence. I don’t know if you can force these things.
CS: Do you have something else lined-up that you’ve been wanting to do now that you’ve finished this? Cuarón: I want to do a tiny movie in Mexico at this point. I don’t know what it is, but it has to be something very tiny.
CS: Any plans of getting back together with Gael or Diego or some of the other actors from your previous films? Cuarón: This is actually something I’ve been discussing. My brother Carlos is writing a script that is with Gael and Diego that he’s going to direct. He wrote “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and he’s going to direct this one. And with Gael, I’ve been talking about the possibility of a film in the future as well.
CS: Will this be your brother’s first film as a director? Cuarón: Long feature, yes, he’s done a bunch of shorts.
CS: Has he been on your sets enough to know what’s involved with directing a feature and do you expect to offer him some tips? Cuarón: Well, I help in the sense of the creative collaboration that I have with other people, but this is pretty much his baby.
CS: What’s going on with your distribution deal? Do you have any new movies coming out next year? Cuarón: We’re waiting to see what’s happening with a couple of tiny things that we’re trying to land. I hope that everything comes together and those things happen.
CS: Are there any new things you’re producing that you’re excited about? Cuarón: There’s also a couple of things that I’m doing with Guillermo del Toro as well. I want Guillermo to produce for me the tiny thing I want to do in Mexico. Now, I’m getting exhausted about the amount of work that is required when you direct a movie, that I think I’m going to slow down a little bit in the production thing, because I want to have time to live.
CS: Because the last two movies you did were pretty expansive… Cuarón: Yeah, they were so absorbing.
CS: At one point, you were going to do a movie about the Mexican revolts in 1968. Is that something you’re still interested in doing? Cuarón: Well, yeah, but I need to do two things. I need to do more research around it and also now, after coming out of this movie that has all these massacres, I need to take a break before going into new massacres.
CS: Maybe do something a little cheerier or happier? Cuarón: I don’t know about happier, but at least not so violent.
Children of Men opens in limited release on Christmas Day. We can’t think of a nicer present to give someone.