While slightly overshadowed last year by the successes of his friends, countrymen and fellow directors Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel), Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron made Children of Men, a movie arguably more likely than those other acclaimed works to stand the test of time.
That’s slightly ironic, as the film is set in the near future, and predictions made by films set in the future have infrequently come to pass. Cuaron’s secret, however, was filling the powerful film with explicit references to the present, from the ongoing debate over immigration to Guantanamo to the war in Iraq. It’s a haunting strategy that heightens the film’s immediacy and visceral impact, something Cuaron was happy to speak about on the eve of the Children of Men DVD release.
Children of Men
Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2006 (Limited release); 2007)
By consensus, Children of Men was one of the best films of 2006. Yet when it was released it didn’t seem to get promoted with the prestige it deserved.
Alfonso Cuaron: I don’t really know. From my perspective, I saw the people around it dealing with the film with a lot of respect, trying to sort out the best way of presenting the film. Yeah, maybe we miscalculated. Maybe the film should have been released a little earlier. But I have to say, I got so much support from Universal to do the film I wanted to do, a very unlikely studio film. I saw the will of trying to promote the film into the mainstream, so I’m satisfied.
Do you feel that many major studios bristle at films they might deem too intelligent or challenging?
The balance is the budget and how much of an audience you want to reach. There’s the temptation to downplay “smartness,” so that it’s not branded an art-house movie and to play up the action. I appreciate that this is a tough film to sell, in that sense. If you ask me, it’s a chase movie, simplistically. For me, what is important is the thematic element that goes through the chase, but I understand that that is something that is a little harder to convey.
On its face Children of Men may be a chase film, but all of the striking elements in the background almost subvert such a simple distillation.
From the get-go, I wanted to make an exploration of the state of things, but I wanted to do it in a form that’s a journey. You take audiences on a ride. That’s what I mean by “chase movie,” a film that has more in common with Sugarland Express and Blade Runner. But that’s exactly what makes the background so important. It’s something that (cinematographer) Emmanuel Lubezki started working with, in Y Tu Mama Tambien. That’s another movie that, in a simplistic way, is a teen comedy. The important things are the thematic elements that embolden that teen comedy. Social environment is as important as character. That’s the reason there are no close-ups. The camera is always wide-angle, because if you do the close up you favor character over social environment. When we keep it loose, we’re trying to create a tension between character and environment.
There’s a moment in Y Tu Mama Tambien where we catch a glimpse of a dead body by the side of the road in Mexico City. You don’t shy away from showing audiences what they might not want to see.
You can’t shy away from that, if you are trying to explore the state of things.
Many of the images you use in Children of Men are images familiar to millions from the news every night, but those same images in the context of the film take on new power.
The difference is that people are not emotionally involved with the news. That is part of how our society has been desensitized to images. You can see the most horrific things in the news, and people don’t care. It’s something alien that is happening to alien people who live in alien countries. In a film, what happens is that you get emotionally involved, and for that I have to thank Clive Owen. He was the vessel for the emotional journey. He also understood that in many scenes he was just going to be the vehicle through which we explore the background, but it’s a vehicle in which people have invested their emotions.
A lot of science fiction films shy away from such a humanist message. They’re either escapist or fantastical.
That was the point from the beginning. On one hand we have to honor the conventions of the story, meaning we are in the near future. But on the other hand, we have to alienate as little as possible the sense of the present, the emotional feel of the present. The constant mantra of the art department was, this is not about creating, this is about referencing. Everything we were going to see would have to have a reference to our contemporary society. We favored references that have become part of human consciousness. I’m a big fan of every single genre, including escapism and fantasy, but I really respect fantasy when it’s talking about today. Instead of technological science, we’re addressing social science. It’s an exploration of society in the present, projected into the future.
Your documentary The Possibility of Hope features comments from several notable international economist, philosophers and social theorists. That’s not your typical DVD supplement.
I’m not a big fan of director’s commentaries or behind the scenes How many times can you see a camera being loaded or being put onto a dolly track? I thought that these people could not only offer a direct reference to the film but an exploration of the themes that the film deals with. I’m so proud of the documentary—not just because I did it, but because I find these minds that we interview to be so relevant. They talk about something so important. It’s a very quick diagnosis of the world we’re living in now.