Alfonso Cuarón is a filmmaker of rare versatility and vision, a man equally adept with the intimate, sexually frank material of Y tu mamá también as he his within the confines of a big-budget fantasy blockbuster like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The Mexican-born director's latest, Children of Men, is his best and most ambitious film to date. A warning shot of a thriller set in 2027 London, Children of Men's bleak, dystopian premise finds the world in complete disarray, with Britain remaining the lone relatively functioning society (as if!) largely through its policy of militaristic imperialism.
Making matters worse, women have been infertile since 2009, hence this foreboding message on one of the film's many graffiti-strewn walls: "The last one to die please turn out the lights."
Enter Clive Owen, who is perfectly understated as Children of Men's soul-deadened antihero, Theo, an ordinary guy who unwittingly finds civilization's existence in his hands.
Sound hyperbolic? Not so fast: Cuarón's subtle guidance transcends the narrative's melodramatic possibilities. Gloriously crafted and affectingly acted, the director's arresting vision of the future -- which, given the strife, hasn't advanced all that much -- takes on the pressing issues of the day (immigration, the environment, globalization, etc.) without resorting to either didactic heavy-handedness or detached irony.
CityBeat recently spoke to Cuarón by phone, his accented voice rife with passion while discussing the creation of a film that can't help but affect one's view of the world in which we live.
CityBeat: Why were you interested in telling this particular story?
Alfonso Cuarón: When I understood the premise of infertility as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope of humanity and also humanity's lack of historical experience and perspective, I realized it could be used as a point of departure to make an exploration about the state of things today, the things that are shaping this first decade of the 21st century.
CB: Yeah, it's set 20 years in the future, but it doesn't look that much different than today, which allows the audience to identify with it much more easily.
AC: That was the whole point of doing the film. We had to honor those (futuristic) elements of the story, but we tried to make those elements minimal. And even those elements, like the cars, we tried to not alienate the sense of the present. Everything else that you see in the film on a social and cultural level is material that has been discussed in the media in the last few years. Yeah, it's heightened in that we put all these elements in the microcosm of Britain, but this stuff is happening now -- though it might be outside of our comfort zones. The problem is that all of this stuff is starting to leak into our comfort zones as well.
CB: Did you intend it to be a kind of wake-up call?
AC: This kind of cautionary tale, it was great in the '70s. Unfortunately, I don't think we have time for caution now. I think that what we require is immediate transformation.
CB: Yet it's interesting that you don't really point fingers, which has caused some to criticize the film for its vague ideologies.
AC: Of course, because many people cling to political or ideological formalism, and I'm completely against that. It would have been so easy to start pointing fingers. We're leaving a void in that sense because we have all these ideological positions that are obstructing our evolution. There's nothing wrong with ideology per se. The problem is what happens when ideology runs amok, and that is really connected to the theme of the film, which is hope. But, yes, I wanted to leave it up to the audience to fill in the blanks. We're trying to make a statement without preaching, trusting that audiences will make their own conclusion.
CB: You have been quoted as saying that "the tyranny of the 21st century is called 'democracy.' " What did you mean by that?
AC: I don't mean it as democracy being this monster, this dictator that is going to come and eat your children. The biggest concern I have with democracy is that it used to be about certain solid values, and it has slowly lost its meaning. And that's happening with a lot of stuff in our world, not just democracy. We're starting to accept things that would've been unacceptable in the past. I think it comes from our hedonistic culture, and by that I don't mean hedonistic in terms of carnal pleasure. I'm talking about hedonistic in the sense of instant satisfaction. We have an economy that is about instant satisfaction and gratification without thinking about what's best for the next generation. We have an economy that doesn't think about if it's ruining the environment, an economy that doesn't think about if it's ruining the lives of other people.
CB: Talk a little bit about the visual strategy of the film: hand-held camerawork, natural lighting, long, uninterrupted takes.
AC: From the get-go, writing the script and planning the movie with Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, we talked that even if the camera was moving that the approach would be exactly the same as Y tu mamá también. Which means that character was going to be as important as social environment. That means that you don't do close-ups. You stay loose so that your character not only blends in with the environment but hopefully you create a tension between the character and that environment. And the other rule was that we we're not going to use montage sequences for effect. The whole goal was to create a moment of truthfulness. It was not about the Olympic Games of one-shot deals. Actually, when the camera was calling attention to itself we would cut. The goal was the moment, and to make sure we were not distracting from the moment. The battle scene at the end used to be longer, and we cut it because it was starting to look like, "Hey mom, look: no hands."
CB: How did you come to Clive Owen for the role of Theo?
AC: Clive was more than just the leading man of this movie: He was a co-writer. He was a co-filmmaker. He understood that the definition of his character in many ways was passivity in the sense that he's a character who's completely disengaged. We wanted to make him a metaphor for contemporary humanity. He's completely detached from emotions and detached socially and politically. A leading man in Hollywood is proactive. They love to have proactive characters who are making choices all the time, who are making the right choices to solve situations. Here we have to follow this character who is completely inactive. That's the magic of Clive, because he embraced that. He was never trying to push me to give him things to do.
CB: The success of the film really rests on his shoulders.
AC: He did it through texture. He has a lot of detail in his performance. The other thing is that he's clinging to this sadness, which is nothing but a longing for something. That thing is hope. I believe he created something that is very recognizable for audiences. If this film works it's because you're willing to take the emotional ride with Clive Owen.
CB: The second half of the story is essentially a chase film...
AC: Yes, absolutely.
CB: But it's one in which our hero wears flip-flops, which was a great little subversive detail in terms of genre expectation.
AC: (Laughing) That was Clive's idea. I got a couple of notes (from the studio) saying, "Are you really planning to have him in flip-flops?" That was part of the thing in enhancing the vulnerability of this character. He's not a hero who uses a gun to defend the girl. He's just an ordinary person trying to cope with the situation and the moment.
CB: So what's next for you?
AC: I think I'm going to do a tiny movie in Mexico. Yes, something very tiny. (Laughing) But that's after I take a big break.