Children of men – Alfonso Cuarón’s bleak but genious vision of the past, present and the future

When we say that Children of Men is, without a doubt, one of the best films made in this century, we put this claim forward calmly and only after long and detailed deliberation. The main argument for the inclusion of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian science fiction thriller in this prestigious company actually has little to do with the astonishing and somewhat distressing fact that Cuarón’s vision of the future is so close in resemblance to our current day situation we could even call the filmmaker some kind of a prophet. Yes, the bleak, terrifying image of the world Cuarón foresaw for the year 2027 has a lot more in common with our present than any sane person would possibly hope for, but even the director himself would wave it off and refuse to accept a compliment regarding the visionary aspect of his work, simply explaining there are no prophetic qualities in Children of Men. He made the film with his eyes wide open, aware of the situation in the world and perceiving clearly the obvious signs of what direction the world was taking as early as then. Children of Men belongs to the elite gallery of top-notch films simply because it was made with extreme technical virtuosity, displaying a very high level of talent behind and in front of the camera. Shot by Cuarón’s favorite cinematographer, the great Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, the film demonstrates a unique, precise and shattering vision of the darkness lying before us, characterized by innovative, ingenious use of the camera and a fresh, unexpected news-reel approach to fabulous action sequences we’re still unable to forget. Even today we get goose bumps recalling that car ambush scene shot in one take, blown away by Cuarón’s magic that enabled us to sit among the protagonists and experience the panic, fear and horror as it was happening to us, allowing us, perhaps like never before, to become active participants in those shocking moments of on-screen violence. Moreover, Cuarón’s abhorrence for clumsy, unimaginative, easy-path exposition made sure he used images to reveal the story’s background and offer us all information needed to construct the greater picture. All a spectator needs to do is keep their eyes open. Nothing in this film is on tape accidentally, and even if something was shot by accident (like the famous blood-splashing-on-the-camera-lens detail during the aforementioned thrilling one-take assault scene) was kept in the film for artistically solid reasons.

Casting-wise, the crew was exceptionally composed. Clive Owen was ideal for the role of the terrified individual aware of the level of chaos in the world he lives in, but deciding to deal with it with cynicism and passivity. Years before he established himself as one of Hollywood’s quality choices, Chiwetel Ejiofor proved capable of portraying complex characters. The always solid Julianne Moore might be here only for less than a half an hour, but if we choose to take the meta-path in this analysis, we might say that even the fact Cuarón decided to hire such a strong name for such an unexpectedly short role may suggest it was another way of emphasizing that things might not be as they are presented to us by the media, that the real state of things doesn’t always resemble what the newspapers, often heavily influenced by political forces eager to shape information the way it suits their purpose, like to serve us as facts. Children of Men, we say again, would be a marvelous film even if Cuarón and his writing partners hadn’t managed to describe the world we live in today with such astounding precision. This additional component, however, gives the movie another layer of quality and even greater significance, as well as it perhaps partly explains why Children of Men underachieved at the box office. The Western audience, living in a comfortable bubble, preferred shallow, escapist entertainment which had nothing to do with the unpleasant themes of nationalism, chauvinism, refugee crises and the shape of the future we leave for the following generations.

The film is actually a very loose adaptation of P. D. James’ 1992 novel of the same name. The original adaptation was written by Paul Chart, only later to be rewritten by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby. Alfonso Cuarón was brought on board in 2001, but he chose not to read the original novel, beginning a rewrite with his chosen screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton. The creative process was put to a halt when Cuarón set out to make Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but his work on the film only enhanced his desire to make Children of Men. In his absence, screenwriter David Arata finished another rewrite. Cuarón chose to use several things from James’ work, but decided to stick with his original vision, working with Lubezki to create the special visual identity of the film and, determined to use images in the background as the main means for telling the wider story, even met with the legendary graffiti artist Banksy’s representative to include his work in the film. One of the uncredited contributors to the final version of the screenplay was Clive Owen himself. The film was edited by Cuarón and his partner Alex Rodriguez, who previously collaborated with him on Y Tu Mamá También. Throughout the film Sir John Tavener’s ‘Fragments of a Prayer’ was used so Cuarón could additionally avoid using narrative, allowing the composition to contribute to the explanation of the action and psychological and emotional state of the characters. Besides the classical work of Handel, Mahler and Penderecki, Cuarón also used combinations of rock, pop, electronic music and hip hop.

It would be perfectly legitimate to discuss the message this film sends out to the world, if there is one in the first place, or the true meaning of its puzzling ending. Cuarón himself stated he wanted the viewers to interpret the film on their own, that there is no correct answer, suggesting this kind of ambiguity is an essential part of all great works of art. What some people will see as an undeniable proof of the hopelessness of our situation and the human condition, others might perceive as a beam of light shooting through the darkness and finding its way to all individuals willing to open up to the changes happening around us. For us, this gray presentation on the future and the present will forever be marked with an ounce of positivity and a spoonful of hope. The message we choose to absorb from this film is simple: get up, shake away the collective apathy and replace this couch-potato passivity, if not with real activism, then with eyes opened wide, a sharp mind refusing to be manipulated and, most of all, with warmth and compassion for the people with whom we share this world that’s slowly sinking into self-destruction.

Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton’s screenplay for Children of Men [PDF]

Post-Azkaban, Universal was suddenly more willing to play ball. Cuarón met with studio chair Stacey Snider, who, in Cuarón’s recollection, told him, “I don’t understand this film, I have no idea what you want to do, but go ahead and do it.” It got the green light in 2005, and Cuarón mapped out a plan of aesthetic attack. He recruited his longtime friend and frequent partner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki to be his cinematographer. Together, they hit on the idea of loading up the background with information—graffiti, placards, newscasts—and thus limiting the kind of expository dialogue that often plagues dystopian stories. Cuarón recalls Lubezki declaring, “We cannot allow one single frame of this film to go without a comment on the state of things.”

“I have to say,” Cuarón says, leaning back and scratching his stubble, “it was a very troubled production.” He speaks of people involved in the production “hiding [budget] numbers to try and please the studio,” but others recount different sources of discord. Part of the trouble, according to some of the producers, was Cuarón’s quickness to anger in his dogged pursuit of perfection. “When he arrived on a set, if it wasn’t exactly as he wanted, he could just lay it out on somebody,” Abraham says. “He would say, ‘This is bullshit! This isn’t what we talked about!’ He didn’t say, ‘Oh, this isn’t exactly right. Can we do it a little better?’ It’s like, ‘This didn’t work. If you guys don’t get it right, I’m not shooting it.’” As another producer, Iain Smith, puts it, “Alfonso has what I would call a performance temperament, meaning that he expects the best from everybody. He wasn’t doing it to be egotistical. He was doing it because, like all good filmmakers, he was frightened of failing his subject. That was a good thing. It was a tempestuous experience.” —Future Shock by Abraham Riesman

After nearly a year of searching, Vulture was able to track Cuarón down in the city of his birth, Mexico City, where he’s been working on a mysterious, not-yet-titled film set in that city during the 1970s. For their story on the legacy of Children of Men ten years later, Vulture’s Abraham Riesman spoke with the director at a sunlit restaurant in the hip neighborhood of La Condesa. The following is an excerpt from that interview. Read the full interview at Vulture.

Let’s talk about a few of the most famous shots from the movie. How did you put together the car-chase scene where Julian gets shot?
It was a lot of planning. The problem that I have when I’m writing is, I start imagining the shots. Very early, it was very clear to me that it was going to be a one-shot deal. It was this whole idea of being there in the moment with the character and experiencing violence. We didn’t want glamorous violence. When you constantly cut out, back, forward, you’re presenting the cool ways for a car to crash, as opposed to the random way in which violence happens. So it was in the page, more or less. But then you get into the simple thing of how do you put it together?

Chivo and me, we had, like, a weekly meeting about that shot. I remember the week in which he said okay. First, Chivo says it’s impossible. I say, “I know how to do it in green screen.” I knew exactly why I was saying that, because then Chivo says, “If this shot is green screen, I quit!” [Laughs.] The next day he says, “Okay, I talked to my friend. We can do this.”

The other big single-take shot is the one where Theo is running through the refugee camp. What visual references were you using for the camp, in general?
The camps that were in the Balkans. The ones in the Kurdish refugee camps. And a lot was also Calais.

When Theo runs into a hollowed-out bus in that shot, blood splatters on the camera lens. Can you tell me how that happened?
Initially, there was going to be blood splatter on the lens when they killed Julianne Moore. We were going to add that digitally. But long story short—or long story long—is that for [the refugee camp] shot, we had like 14 days to shoot the whole set piece, except by day 12 we hadn’t rolled cameras yet. As you can guess, by day three that you don’t shoot camera, they send a production guy from the studio to visit you. By the sixth day that you haven’t done it, the creative executive comes to visit you. Well, by the time that you reach the 11th day, the head of the studio is there. That kind of stuff.

And the problem is that we had only two shots a day to do the thing. The morning, then you have to reset the explosions, the screams, the whole thing. Five hours to reset. So you only have another shot right before the light goes away. And the problem is that, we could not extend it to the 15th day, because there was already a commitment with the army or something, one of those things.

So we are in the 13th day, and in the afternoon, we do our first shot. Then after a minute and a half, it just was wrong. So we had to reset for the next day. The next morning we do the first take, and everything is perfect, and we’re about to reach the end. We were running towards getting inside the building, when [camera operator] George [Richardson] tripped, and so the camera fell. So we only had one more shot for one more before we have to move out. It was the end of my career.

Were you panicking at that point?
You know, at that point, you’re just focusing.

Okay, so you get to the final attempt at the shot.
And when we arrived at the bus, the camera goes in, and blood splatters the lens. With my little monitor, I see that I cannot see anything. I yell, “Cut!” But an explosion happens at the same time, so nobody hears me. And that gives me time to think, “Look, I have to roll to the end.” So we kept on going. When we said, “Cut,” Chivo starts dancing like crazy. And I was like, “No, it didn’t work! There’s blood!” And Chivo turns to me and says, “You stupid! That was a miracle! The blood goes here, not with Julianne Moore!” Yeah, that was supposed to go in the other scene, but it happened here.

Let’s talk about the final scene, when Theo and Kee are in the rowboat, waiting for the Human Project’s ship.
What was important was the metaphor of the boat.

What is that metaphor?
We are naturally migrants. I mean, the reason we’re having this conversation is that it’s in the nature of humans to migrate. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. There wouldn’t be humans here; they would still be in Africa. —Alfonso Cuarón on Children of Men

Alfonso Cuaron and the art of long takes

Refocused Media’s Larry Wright has compiled a great video showing back to back all the long takes lasting 45 seconds or more in Children of Men.

I had seen the film a few times before, and couldn’t recall more than handful of shots that I thought would work. I was shocked to find there were 16 of them—heck, there are 6 longer than 90 seconds! They are used in a variety of situations, and to great effect. It was easy to see how I could forget there were so many, as each one simply pulled you further into the story.

Some other stats:

62 shots > 22 seconds (“half of 45,” my original criteria)
39 shots > 30 seconds
24 shots > 40 seconds
16 shots > 45 seconds
6 shots > 90 seconds

Obviously, you should see the film if you haven’t already. My point in doing this is to demonstrate the effect of a long take in a variety of narrative uses, and to give an idea of what a 45+ second shot looks and feels like when directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Enjoy. —Larry Wright, Children of Men videos

See how one of the most iconic shots in cinema was accomplished using Doggicam’s Two Axis Dolly.

Open YouTube video

“On Y Tu Mamá También, we started exploring shots that are longer, where the camera is moving around the actors and there are no cuts and you feel like you’re there. When Alfonso started talking to me about the scene in Children of Men, he said, ‘I would love to do it in one shot, and I have an idea: Why don’t we put the car on a stage and surround it with a green screen?’ Basically, to shoot it as a visual effect. For probably a week, I was thinking that way, until I realized it was absolutely the wrong way to do it. The rest of the movie was going to have a very naturalistic, almost documentary-like feel to it, and maybe the best way to shoot it was to really be in the car with the actors.

At that time, we didn’t have much support for doing those very long scenes, because the other people around us were used to cutting and doing these scenes in a very Burbank way. They’d say, ‘Why bother? What a waste of effort.’ In reality, we could not shoot it more than two or three times, because the scene is so long and the choreography is so complex that it takes hours to reset between takes. So we did our first attempt, and when we said ‘Cut,’ we had achieved it on the first take, and the actors were screaming. They couldn’t believe it! I’ve never seen something like that, where they were shouting like little kids, ‘Yeah, we did it!’ The guy who was operating the crane? He was crying. It was that release of tension.” —Emmanuel Lubezki

A closer look at Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s camera work in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men.

Open YouTube video

Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are responsible for two of the most significant cinematic achievements in recent memory: Y Tu Mamá También (2001), shot in their home country of Mexico with then-unknowns Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and Children of Men (2006), featuring a breathtaking 12-plus-minute single-take sequence. Cuarón and Lubezki made their film debut together in 1991, with Solo con tu pareja, and have since joined Hollywood as two of its most celebrated creative giants. Lubezki, a.k.a. “Chivo,” is the only person to have won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in three consecutive years; this includes 2014’s Gravity, for which Cuarón won for Best Director. In a gift to cinephiles, and as part of the Tribeca Talks: Director Series, the duo discussed their long friendship and creative partnership at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Theater.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film and it surprised me how much it’s grown in relevance since 2006. Novak called the Syrian refugee crisis our ‘Children of Men moment,’ and I think the reason we can say that is because the problems facing us now were already festering in 2006 and long before. I think the point this film wants to make—with its decidedly leftist position—is that the world’s macro problems are all connected. They’re global problems, problems in the global commons. If we ignore that, if we insist on hardening our respective nationalisms, the world might very well look like Children of Men before long.” —Evan Puschak, The Nerdwriter

BAFTA and Oscar winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón sat down with BAFTA LA for a chat about his upbringing in Mexico, his turbulent film school years, his early filmmaking experiences and his flourishing, remarkable career. He revealed the secret motivation for his work ethic: he occasionally needs money.

Cinephilia & Beyond

Posted by on 22. February 2017.. Filed under Alfonso Cuaron,Movies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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