Released in September in the UK, the dystopian sci-fi drama about a world where humanity is fallen into despair due to infertility is the latest effort from acclaimed filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron shot to fame with the highly acclaimed road movie “Y tu mama tambien” in 2001, and followed that with 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” which also drew great notices for its breaking the straightforward and stolid franchise into a new and more artistic direction. Now with “Children” he has another critical hit on his hands. At a press conference last month in Los Angeles, he spoke about the project in detail:
Question: Can you talk a little bit about how this movie is not a futuristic movie but how you see the parallels to things that are going on today such as the whole immigration thing and Homeland Security and that kind of stuff?
Cuaron: It’s obviously a futuristic movie because it takes place in the near future but the reason it takes place in the near future is only because of a convention of story in which we’re talking about infertility and 18 years of infertility. That infertility we use just as a metaphor. We didn’t want to go…in a science fiction movie you would have gone into the whys and the mystery of infertility. We decided to not even care about it and just take it as a point of departure. So based upon that, taking that as a point of departure, to try to make an observation about the state of things. You mentioned Homeland Security and stuff but the movie is not about that. That is part of the observation of the reality that we are living. The whole idea with that is to try to bring the state of things, what is happening outside the green zones that we happily live in and what happens if we bring the world into the green zones. We experience for an hour and a half the state of things and then try to make our own conclusions about the possibility of hope.
Question: I have two questions for you. One is which scene was harder to pull off: the car attack or the birth, and do you have an extended version with even longer takes for the DVD?
Cuaron: You’re talking about…there was another scene that is the battle at the end that comes together with the birth and the car attack. The complication of the car attack, even if the production value is not as bombastic as the battle scene, the problem with the car attack is that you’re in a vehicle in motion. So that becomes a real nightmare in terms of timings, and cues and stuff. More difficult than the timing of the birth scene because in one shot you see how this girl enters the room and delivers the baby. And so we have to plan that like 10 months beforehand, you know, for the girl to get pregnant, to follow her through the whole thing, for Clive Owen to learn how to deliver a baby, and for the baby to come right at the perfect moment in which the camera comes around the legs. So that was the toughest one. We never knew who the father was. We heard that he was yesterday at the premiere. The only thing we asked Clare is to try to make it like a mixed race kind of thing so that’s the only clue that we have. (Lots of laughter)
Question: Alfonso, do you have an extended version?
Cuaron: Oh yeah, about the DVD? We have… The thing is that the movie… When you do films with this approach, in a way there’s a certain amount of precision that is required. It’s not that you do coverage and you have a lot of other material that you might or might not use. You know, it’s just a very precise choreography. The exciting part of it is that as a director I try to create the perfect choreography but then it’s about the accidents that make the scene happen. You know, whatever you choreographed but didn’t happen or there was an accident. You rely on people like Clive Owen who would take the accidents and elevate the accidents into something better. So we have some in the DVD, definitely we have. The DVD is very interesting because we have a couple of scenes that didn’t make it into the film. Not longer versions of the scenes that you saw because that was the length of those scenes. But the most interesting thing is that we are doing in the DVD a documentary about the things that put together the film. We’re doing interviews with people like Seasick Todoroff and Naomi Klein, and pretty much they’re not talking to us about the film but they are commenting about the state of things. In other words, it’s like a documentary approach to what the film is about.
Question: Alfonso, how involved were you in the design of the future and were there some things that you decided on in the future that were going to be or not be like, for example, that you have cars in the future but you don’t have the traffic in London that you see today?
Cuaron: Well, the balance here was and that was the most difficult thing in terms of the design. On the one hand, how to create a reality that if you are watching and you know that the convention is that the film takes place in the future, how you accept that that is the future without alienating the sense of today. And that was the biggest challenge. How not to create supersonic cars that will transport you emotionally and in terms of your imagination, but to make cars that if you look closely that they feel like today. But if you look closely, you say, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that car.’ And that was the toughest balance, but it’s not only about the cars, it’s about how far you push the billboards. You know, I wanted the billboards to look like today but at the same time they have to honor the fact that the story is taking place 20 years from now. So that was the toughest balance to deal with and because … and the other thing was the constant referential thing. When I started working on the film, the first meeting with the art department, they came up with the most amazing… I think that they heard that it was a movie of the future and they undusted all these concept designs – beautiful supersonic cars, buildings, the whole thing. And they were really beautiful but I said, ‘This is not the movie we’re doing. The movie we’re doing is this.’ And inside I had my own file of photographs from Iraq, from Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Somalia, Chernobyl, and I mean this is the movie we’re doing. And the rule #1 in this film is that whatever we see has to have a visual reference of stuff that now has become part of human consciousness and it’s an iconography that mostly came out of the media. So that was the balance, how to make it the future but feel today and that every single thing as Emmanuel Lubezki, my cinematographer, kept saying we cannot afford to have one single film frame — meaning 24 frames per second — so one single photogram that is not commenting about the state of things. So that was the big challenge.
Question: When you were writing, did you have any one cast member in mind? And then after you finished, how did you find the cast that you were looking for?
Cuaron: There were people that Tim Sexton and I used to mention. We used to refer to Jasper as the Michael Caine character. And Clive from the beginning, when we were writing, I remember that we had just seen Croupier. Because I wrote this script with Tim right after Y Tu Mama Tambien. And we kept on saying, ‘Yeah, it’s like the guy in Croupier’ knowing that at that point maybe that wouldn’t have been like the biggest choice for the studio. What is so great is that I didn’t do the film right away. I did Harry Potter. When I finished Harry Potter, suddenly the studio wanted Clive and that was such a fantastic coincidence in the whole thing. Suddenly it was like I had the dream cast and I had a cast that protected me. I consider my cast as other co-writers. They really took care of their characters but they took care of the truthfulness of what their characters were going to do in the context of the story. I have nothing but thankfulness for these guys. They were absolutely amazing. And actually like Michael Caine, you’ve never seen Michael Caine farting before, and he is still Michael Caine but only he is farting and smoking joints and stuff. That is so alien to what he is. It’s just that he is such an amazing actor. We did make-up tests and costume tests. We were in his place and he mentioned from the get go, he says ‘I want to play this like John Lennon’ because he was friends with Lennon. And then he started to tell me how Lennon used to talk like very nasal. And if you see the way he performed the whole thing, he speaks in a very nasal kind of way. And so we’re doing all these make-up and fittings and he looks at himself and that’s the beauty of witnessing the process of actors. You have Sir Michael Caine who is doing his fittings, he goes and looks at himself in the mirror, and his whole body language changed. He stopped being Michael Caine. He was this other character. In that moment, his wife walks into the room and goes next to him and says, ‘Have you seen my husband.’ The wife didn’t recognize Michael so there was a sweet story with Michael. But I think the reason this film works is because of Clive Owen because Clive is the vessel for our emotional journey in this film, otherwise it would almost be like a documentary.
Question: What about Clare?
Cuaron: We looked for… To get to who was going to play Kee, the thing is the options were so open in the sense that we knew that she needs to speak enough English so we can go any nationality. So we did casting in, I don’t know, like 20 different countries. Clare was…and actually because I wanted to, even though in the script she was described as an African girl, we said we don’t want just because of some conceptual thing to maybe miss the great actress who could be playing this role, so we opened up our scope and (claps hands) we end up with Clare. I think that she represented the vulnerability and something that I admire about Clare, she stripped the whole thing of sentimentality. You know, she made it a very rough character. She didn’t do the precious… It was… There was always the temptation to do the cute relationship between Theo and Kee, you know, almost like the central father-daughter relationship. Part of our premise is they cannot have that amazing chemistry because you don’t choose who you survive with. You know, we need to keep a certain tension there, not a comfortable thing of, you know, the father-daughter relationship or even the suggestion of maybe a sensual relationship between the two of them. We wanted to keep it dry, very dry. And that’s another thing of Clare and with Clive is that they keep that dryness but they play those things with a lot of compassion so more than chemistry they had empathy. That is different.
Question: Alfonso, what was your reaction when you first read the book and how did that affect you emotionally. Did you have the same experience with another book?
Cuaron: The truth of the matter is I didn’t respond to the material. I was not interested in doing a science fiction film and also the book takes place in a very posh universe. I respect, I love P.D. James. I enjoy the book but I couldn’t see myself making that movie. And nevertheless, the premise of infertility kept on haunting me for weeks and weeks and weeks. Maybe three weeks I was in Santa Barbara, in one beach in Santa Barbara, when I questioned myself, ‘Why this premise haunts me so much?’ And it’s when I realized that the premise could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope that humanity has today. And that’s when I said, ‘Okay, this can be the point of departure for talking about the state of things today.’ So the next stage was to try to explore what the state of things are and you don’t have to go very far to learn that environment and immigration are two of the main factors that are shaping this world and that are actually very connected. If the environment keeps on going the way that we’re going, it’s actually going to make the immigration phenomenally even more acute. So that was the point of departure, that was… I’m very thankful with P.D. James because she inspired me so much with her premise. Now from the moment in which we started exploring this then we have to craft a parallel story, not necessarily the story that was in the book because we need to honor the story that had to do with the immigration phenomena so we created the whole thing of the refugees and we created the whole thing of Kee as a refugee, the whole thing of the refugee camp. And let me put it this way, in the book, Kee doesn’t exist. In the book who’s pregnant is Julianne Moore. So we just took a big departure there.
Question: In the final movie, do you think the fact that the last baby is Latino and the new one is black has a message or is just a coincidence?
Cuaron: Well I don’t know about that. I didn’t want to make a movie about messages per se. The same as it’s not like Homeland Security. It’s not that it is a movie about trying to send messages about those things, [it’s] about trying to make an observation but then people have to come with their own conclusions. For me there were a lot of metaphorical aspects that worked. We were trying to work with archetypes but also with certain metaphors. The fact of having an African child or the son of an African girl — the child is actually the daughter of an African girl — has to do with the fact that humanity started in Africa. But also to put the future in the hands of the dispossessed and the lower caste of humanity and to create a new humanity to spring out of that. And baby Diego was an homage to the Argentinians in the room. [laughs]
Question: I wanted to know if you would every return to the Harry Potter franchise and what was your reaction to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth?
Cuaron: I would love to have the opportunity of revisiting the Harry Potter universe. It’s an amazing experience to do those films because while you’re doing those films, you’re surrounded by this amazing beneficial energy. Everything that surrounds the J.K. Rowling creation – I’m not talking about the film franchise but the creation of J.K. Rowling — is impregnated with this amazing beneficial energy. So for me it was two amazing years of my life. I wouldn’t mind at all revisiting that. With Pan’s Labyrinth, I find that there are three films that are sister films, that I consider sister films this year. It’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, and Babel. And I think that has to do with [the fact] that we collaborate all the time. We love to stick our forks in each other’s salads. I consult Alejandro (Inarritu) and Guillermo (del Toro) all the time. I love Pan’s Labyrinth. Probably one of the most gratifying moments in my life making films is to be in the premiere of Pan’s Labyrinth in Cannes in which they had the longest standing ovation since 1968. And it was so beautiful to see Guillermo during the first two minutes really touched by the applause, by minute 5 he was crying, minute 7 he was dancing, and by minute 12 he was stripping. [laughs] He was taking his clothes off because suddenly he didn’t know what else to do. And it was so beautiful to witness that, but the power of that applause, it was not only about the hypnotic thing of the applause, it was that I find that the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth has an amazing profundity. It is this ending which the liberation by death of one of the characters is the grief of the character that stays behind. I think it’s an amazing…it has a lot of different connotations. I find that it is a very brave and a very beautiful film. I love it. I love it.
Question: In your film, one of the things that struck me was history. If you don’t try to change it, it will repeat itself and I know a lot of people were talking about immigration and so forth but when they were in the city in that prison, I thought of World War II, about the ghetto, about the Jews and what happened to them. I always wondered how that would play out in the future because I don’t think we’ve really learned the lesson and when I saw your film, I thought, ‘That’s it.’
Cuaron: And the amazing thing is that the direct reference… You see those things and the direct reference was Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Nevertheless, that is the same reference as concentration camps in the second World War. It is so interesting that you say that because in this documentary that we’re doing for the DVD, Slavoj Zizek who is a Slovenian philosopher, he talks about infertility in the film and he says that the real infertility is the lack of historical perspective and that that’s where the real infertility resides and how we cannot expect a renewal because we are so rooted in our past, without having an awareness of that past because we are so rooted to it. He says that the real renewal is ruthlessness and that has to do with the lack of historical perspective that humanity has. Some people, the pessimistics, they think that that is just the way it is. I want to believe… I have a very grim view, not of the future. I have a very grim view of the present. I have a very hopeful view of the future. And I think that that has to do with I believe an evolution is happening. Together with all this greenness an evolution is happening, an evolution of the human understanding that is happening in the youngest generation. I believe that the youngest generation, the generation to come, is the one that is going to come with new schemes and new perspectives of things. It’s as if we haven’t seen the reality from the standpoint that the earth is flat and the new generation is going to show us that actually that is fear, that it’s going around the sun, it’s not the sun that is going around the earth. It’s just that I think that it’s a matter of understanding.
Question: I just wanted to ask you because Clare had mentioned that everyone had a different theory on the father of the baby and you were saying it was…she said that you said that it was divine intervention or immaculate conception. I was just wondering.
Cuaron: Yeah, right. [laughs] Yeah, right.
Question: Did you ever think about…
Cuaron: No, for me? I think she is not very sure of who was it. Actually there was a moment — we cut that out just because of length — but there was a moment in the script, in the movie where she’s talking and she doesn’t really know who ‘since I did so many guys’ -some for money, some for drugs, some just because she was horny, she says. So she doesn’t really know who the father is.
Question: Welll, this comes out on Christmas Day so aren’t there some parallels to the whole…
Cuaron: This is an archetype of the… but at the same time that archetype… You see the Clive Owen character more than Joseph is Moses. He’s the guy who dies before seeing the Promised Land. The difference is that in the Bible Moses dies before he sees the Promised Land because he doubted. In Clive’s character, he dies before seeing the Promised Land because he doesn’t need to see the Promised Land. He recovered what he was looking for which was his sense of hope. And as long as you have that sense of hope, then you do not need confirmation of things.
Question: Has she seen the movie?
Cuaron: P.D. James?
Cuaron: Yes, she’s a big endorser of the movie. She made a statement in which she says, ‘It’s obvious that this film departed from the book, but I’m so proud to be associated with this film.’ She really understood that in a way we took an elaboration of her own premise. So the core of everything is her book.