Talking with director Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is a bit like trying to follow the lightning-fast motion of a hummingbird's wings. Get him started on a topic he's passionate about -- such as his latest film, Children of Men, which opens today -- and he metaphorically takes flight; you find yourself trying to think two paces ahead of him to where he's going, just to keep up with the rapid-fire pace of his thoughts.
Cuarón very kindly sat down with Cinematical recently to talk about Children of Men, his philosophical view of the world, and what might be next for him ...
Cinematical: I've heard that you didn't read the (P.D .James) novel before you started working on the film.
Alfonso Cuarón: What I was attracted to was the concept of infertility as a premise. I was not really interested in doing a science fiction film, so I had completely disregarded it. But the premise kept haunting me. It was not until I realized that the premise of the film could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope, that it could be a point of departure for an exploration of the state of things that we're living in now, the things that are shaping this very first part of the 21st century, that I wanted to do it.
So that was the point of departure, because when I understood that, then I saw clearly a movie. So I asked my writing partner, Tim Sexton, to read the book, and I said, okay, I don't want to read the book because I don't want to sidetrack myself or second-guess myself. I had a very clear vision of the movie I wanted to do. So I said to him, you read the book, and based on this movie I'm telling you, there are elements of the book which you will write into the movie. That's what happened.
Cinematical: So you didn't even have a script you were looking at, at that point.
AC: No, no. I'm sure there are producers (pauses) -- this is Hollywood, I share credit with, I don't know how many other writers on this film, and I'm sure they have other projects on this book they never brought to fruition.
Cinematical: I was going to ask you about that -- IMDb lists, I think, three other writers besides yourself and Tim Sexton with screenplay credit.
AC: You see, as far as I am concerned, those other guys have nothing to do with my movie.
Cinematical: So those other writers who have writing credit, they were not sitting around a table with you and Tim, writing the screenplay?
AC: No, no, not at all. It's all a big game, you see. If you are a writer who chooses also to direct, your guild is going to punish you. And deal with credits in a different way than if you were not directing. But anyway, that's the way it is.
Cinematical: That's interesting to hear, because when I saw the film, I knew there were five writers credited, and often that makes for a film that's a mess. But your film doesn't feel that way at all.
AC: Well, that's because these other writers, they did not exist in this movie. It was me, and Tim Sexton, and Clive Owen. That's all. And by the same token, I'm willing to give credit to whoever really deserves credit for the film. And except for Tim Sexton and myself, for me, all these other writers, it's just studio development work that I'm not even interested in discussing, because I don't know what they did, and I couldn't care less.
I met with one writer who was trying to turn this into a generic action movie, and the other two I didn't even meet, didn't even know existed. But by the same token, Clive Owen, now he was a writer. He got involved in this project with Tim and myself, we locked ourselves in a hotel room, and first we went over his character. And he had so much insight that we decided, Tim and myself, that Clive should be involved with the rest of the writing process, even if it was not about his character. I started to admire his instincts, and I asked him to be involved with the rest of the process.
For me, he is also a co-filmmaker. He had a constant awareness of the film we were trying to do; he was not only performing for the film I was doing, he was trying to achieve from a filmmaker's standpoint, not just an actor. Trying to facilitate for me the kind of film I was trying to do. He understood that we were going to do these one-shot deals, and from that he understood the rhythm of the scenes -- that we were not going to use editing to create rhythm. So that it would have to be about what we crafted.
So it was a constant involvement in the discussions about how we were going to deal with the timing of things. And when you have somebody who is aware and concerned about time in this media – that is what you call a filmmaker. Time is intrinsic of the cinema, just like it is in music. Timing is what dictates the movie that you are doing.
Cinematical: Can you talk more about the decision to make the film using one-shots?
AC: The reason for that is, we don't want to favor character over the environment, we want to keep a balance. And that means that you don't do close-ups, because then you are favoring the character over the environment. So you do only very loose shots, because then the character, ideally, blends with the environment and, hopefully, has a conflict. So you can have tension between background environment and your character.
Another thing is not to use editing or montage, trying to seek for an effect. It is to try to create a moment of truthfulness, in which the camera just happens to be there to just register that moment. So that leads into the long shots. Because then you just register the moments as they go. So what becomes important, then, is not the camera, but the moment. If you are going through life and something happens, you don't have the luxury of going , "Stop, stop, guys, and let me get a close-up!"
Now, by the same token, if we failed, if the camera itself, the shot we were taking, was cutting away from that moment of truthfulness, that is when we decided to cut. That battle scene at the end, that shot kept on going. And we said, no, we are losing the sense of the moment, and becoming more about "look, no hands," and so we decided to cut from that moment. It was about trying to achieve the balance of that, about trying to register that moment, making that moment the most important aspect of the whole thing -- not the shot.
But sometimes just by the fact that you're following the moment and you don't cut, it can begin to feel like you're doing it for the sake of your own artistry or whatever, and that was the moment at which we would choose to cut. Because these one-shot deals are not only in the action scenes -- most of the movie was shot that way. So the weight goes onto the actors ... (chuckles) and I don't have to work too much. I just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Cinematical: Can you talk a bit about the casting of Julianne Moore and Michael Caine?
AC: Michael Caine -- ever since we were writing the script, we used to refer to Jasper as the "Michael Caine" character.
Cinematical: I didn't even recognize him until I saw his name in the credits.
AC: (laughs) His own wife didn't recognize him! One time he was dressed up in character, and his wife walked into the room and asked for Michael, and he was right there next to her. And that's when he knew, this is how he wanted to play this character. He wanted Jasper to be like an older John Lennon – he was friends with Lennon -- and he wanted the body language and the nasal voice and the cadence of how he portrayed this character to reflect the way he said Lennon used to talk. And then after we shot some scenes, I saw some old footage of Lennon and it was identical.
With Julianne, now, it was so important to get somebody who would have first of all the credibility of leadership, intelligence, independence.
Cinematical: She's not just a "pretty face" actress.
AC: Well, let's be honest (laughs) -- she is absolutely stunning. But that was not what was key here. She is a very beautiful woman though. But what comes in the foreground with Julianne Moore, that which I so admire, is that strength, that independence. Even when she plays the character of the wife who is oppressed, you have the sense of that intelligence, that mind, that is behind there.
Cinematical: You get the sense that you wouldn't want to mess with her.
AC: (laughs) Oh-ho! You bet you don't want to mess with Julianne! But I have to say, she is just so much fun to work with. She is just pulling the rug out from under your feet all the time. You don't know where to stand, because she is going to make fun of you.
Cinematical: Without giving too many spoilers away -- you made the decision to kill off a couple of key characters early on in the film, which really keeps you on edge, because then you don't know what's going to happen next.
AC: Because, that is life, that's the way it works! That was the point of the thing, this getting rid of the safety net of your preconception that, you are going on a journey with the hero and so everything is going to be fine.
Cinematical: I want to talk about the visual design of the film. I've heard that other people were pushing to give the fill a more futuristic look and that you fought against that.
AC: Well, it was not pushing, really, it was just -- you say, I'm going to do a film that is set in 2027, and you have an art department that gets so excited because, finally, they get to execute concept designs that they've been dreaming to do, for all these futuristic buildings and cars. And gadgets -- they had a lot of gadgets. But the fact is that we didn't want to do a science fiction film.
In this movie, I told them, you unfortunately have to leave your imagination outside. It's kind of like, you know, when you go to a writer's workshop and you have the creative workshop? This film was not the creative workshop, it was the essay workshop. It's not about imagining and being creative, it is about referencing reality. So -- the cinematographer, he said that not a single frame of this film can go by making a comment about the state of things. So everything became about reference -- and not reference about what is around, like, oh, I'm walking around, and this is what I saw on the street, but about how this has relevance in the context of the state of things, of the reality that we are living today.
And most of those things we tried to make references coming from the media, referencing that they had become a part of human consciousness, and that maybe we don't fully remember, but when you see it you recognize something that rings true because you have seen it in reality -- even if you don't really remember it consciously. And so the exercise was to transcend not only reality, but also to cross-reference within the film to the spiritual themes of the film.
So I will give you an example: They exit the Russian apartments, and the next shot you see is this woman wailing, holding the body of her son in her arms. This was a reference to a real photograph of a woman holding the body of her son in the Balkans, crying with the corpse of her son. It's very obvious that when the photographer captured that photograph, he was referencing La Pieta, the Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding the corpse of Jesus. So: We have a reference to something that really happened, in the Balkans, which is itself a reference to the Michelangelo sculpture. At the same time, we use the sculpture of David early on, which is also by Michelangelo, and we have of course the whole reference to the Nativity. And so everything was referencing and cross-referencing, as much as we could.
Cinematical: I've read also that because of 9/11, you really wanted to make this film relevant to today.
AC: Well, I really wanted to make a film that would speak to the 21st century. And the specific dynamics that the 21st century has taken as opposed to the 20th century. I think it's important to separate those elements out, because, I think, there's a certain nostalgia for the 20th century that I don't know is healthy. There's this whole idea of tyranny being created by a single figure, a dictator. In the book, there actually is a dictator of Great Britain, you know, this notion of a Big Brother, a dictator. And we wanted to make this world, this universe, a democracy. Britain is a democracy. But, by the way, being a democracy doesn't mean people are choosing the right things or what is just.
Cinematical: Having the freedom to choose doesn't guarantee people will make the right choices.
AC: Exactly! So that is part of it. I mean I think it is something that is so important, to be very aware of the direction in which the 21st century is going with all this blind faith in democracy. And by the way, I am not against democracy -- I am against the blind faith that is being put in democracy. And any tyranny now can have the makeup of a democracy, and then in a way, you can start to justify all the elements of a tyranny. And suddenly a democracy starts to lose its meaning. Democracy used to be a point of departure – to challenge these things! To challenge tyranny! And now democracy is becoming an instrument to justify a system.
Cinematical: Well, we live in a democratic republic, with the right of freedom of speech, but these days, if you challenge or speak out against the government, that's un-American.
AC: Yes! And together, slowly, in the same way, we are allowing the idea of democracy to drift into an area where democracy becomes a matter of faith. It is an issue of faith, a destination rather than a point of departure. And so you start wrestling with these concepts, with certain concepts like gated communities, and to build up walls instead of building bridges.
Cinematical: You really hit on that in the film by discussing the issue of immigration, and of shipping people off who aren't citizens.
AC: And again -- democratically chosen. It's not that there is this bad guy doing it like Hitler, it is a democratically chosen position. And the idea of tyranny -- a democratically chosen tyranny -- that as a humanity, we are making our choices.
Cinematical: Before we end, can you talk briefly about your next project? IMDb lists several ...
AC: Oh, IMDb -- you cannot believe anything you see on there! I get so mad when I look there sometimes, I don't know where they get this from. All I have right now is one very small film I am just starting on, that is all. No, I am too lazy to direct all that stuff.
Cinematical: Would you ever consider directing another Harry Potter film?
AC: Well, we will see. Let's see how the seventh book ends up, maybe that one -- maybe. It was the best two years of my life, working on Prisoner of Azkaban, so I am not going to say I wouldn't do another one. ...