Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Here’s something in anticipation of the Scarecrow Academy session for Saturday, April 30 (2 pm Pacific Time—sign up for the free Zoom meeting at the Academy page. Our topic for this installment of “The Art in Sci-Fi: Science Fiction and the Director” is Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men.
I interviewed Cuaron when he came to Seattle to promote the film in December 2006. Here’s that piece, originally published in The Herald. He’s released two feature films since then, and won the Best Director Oscar for each: Gravity (2013) and Roma (2018).
There are many things to ask Alfonso Cuaron about Children of Men, a sci-fi film starring Clive Owen that mixes up current global worries in a stew of futuristic ideas. Cuaron, the Mexican director of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, sat for an interview in a Seattle hotel room to promote his new film.
Yes, many things to ask, but for anybody jazzed by Cuaron’s incredible camerawork in the movie, there’s only one way to begin. How on earth did he pull off the spectacular, uninterrupted camera shots that punctuate the film with exhilarating regularity? So, as Cuaron settled into his chair with a morning plateful of mango and papaya, I asked him about the technical marvel.
“Well,” he reasonably began, “This is not the Olympic Games of long shots. We don’t want it to be calling attention to itself. Any time the camera gets in the way, we have to cut.”
All right, fine. Now that that’s been said, let’s get around to how freaking amazing those shots are. “You have to choreograph everything down to the inch,” he said, giving credit to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and camera operator George Richmond.
“When you do these shots,” Cuaron said, “a lot of the weight goes on the shoulders of the actors.” Some such shots last upwards of ten minutes and travel long distances. “Over that time, Clive Owen has to be carrying the emotion of the character, but he also has to hit his marks, and be careful that there is an explosion coming.
“You must also be careful of pace. If things slow down, you can’t cut it out later. And accidents happen. In the sequence when blood gets on the lens, that was an accident. Or coming around a corner and having the sun flare on the lens for a moment. You pray for those kinds of things. You could never plan that.”
Cuaron explained that the long take also allowed the social environment around the characters to be as important as them, because it doesn’t emphasize actors in close-ups or reaction shots. He said that “Creating the universe of the film was the biggest thing, more challenging than the one-shot deals. We said to ourselves, we can’t let one frame of this film go without having it comment on things today.
“It’s about the fading of hope. That could be the metaphor for the first decade of the 21st century.”
Although this was his theme, and the story offers an obvious Christian allegory for its tale of miraculous pregnancy and possible renewal of society, Cuaron resisted an easy meaning. “I hate to explain,” he said. “People have to bring up their own conclusions.
“People complain about the film because I’m not pointing fingers at corporations or George Bush or all that stuff. Come on, that’s simplistic. That’s part of the problem, actually. I don’t think politics is part of the solution, I think it’s part of the disease.”
Cuaron was full of praise for Clive Owen, whom he described as a full filmmaking partner. Owen’s character “goes against Hollywood wisdom of what a hero is—he’s not proactive. That’s one of Hollywood’s favorite words. What they mean, really, is that your character has to punch someone. In a conventional Hollywood script, he would be an ex-Navy SEAL.” Instead, Cuaron and Owen saw the character as kin to Bogart in Casablanca. “He doesn’t want to do anything. This fits the passivity and detachment of contemporary humanity. At root of that is a fear of connecting.”
Cuaron also spoke warmly of his fellow Mexican filmmakers, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (whose film Babel is out) and Guillermo Del Toro (whose Pan’s Labyrinth is upcoming). He’d just gotten off the phone with Del Toro, and said that the three all read each other’s scripts and advise on each other’s projects at every stage. “We like to stick our forks in each other’s salads,” he said. “Or papayas.”
April 29, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.