Remember when I told you that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was great and then you missed it in theaters and caught in on DVD and realized I was right? Remember when the same thing happened with Brick? And Slither? Don’t let it happen with Children of Men. Do yourself a favor and make sure you get out to theaters on Christmas Day or right after and see this movie, which isn’t just good, it’s miraculous.
Children of Men is set 20 years in the future, 18 years after all the women on Earth became infertile and humanity began dying out. Clive Owen is Theo, a man who once had beliefs and principals but is now an office drone with his soul crushed. Suddenly an old flame comes back into his life – she leads a terrorist group and they have their hands on the most precious thing on the planet: a pregnant girl. They need Theo to get her to safety and into the hands of the mysterious Human Project, a group trying to stop the the human race’s slide into extinction.
The movie, directed by Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso Cuaron, is classic science fiction in how it uses fantastical concepts to examine real world issues. And it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking that includes a number of tracking shot so long and so complex and so meaningful that they actually take the crown from Goodfellas. I never thought I would live to see the day.
A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to get on the phone with Clive Owen. Here’s what he had to say.
What people keep talking about with Children of Men are the long tracking shots. As an actor it must be very technically difficult, to make sure you’re hitting every mark while keeping in the moment and in character.
Alfonso was hugely ambitious, and I didn’t realize how ambitious until we were in there and he was explaining how he wanted to do it. There’s something I particularly love about those kinds of sequences, which is that they’re a real illustration of the collaborative nature of movie making. The responsibility becomes collective – no one wants to be the guy who messes up. It’s one thing to talk about me hitting my marks and getting through the sequence and making sure the pace is right and all that, but can you imagine the focus puller, the responsibility on his shoulders – if everything is going fantastic and he doesn’t quite do his thing right it’s a four, five hour reset. There’s something adrenalized about those sequences, and I love the technical side of it as well. We rehearsed those sequences an incredible amount, and it’s very, very specific. Then there’s an element of we’ve got make it look and feel like we just caught it on the run. That can mean, say the scene where I’m running through the camp, if I were to pause too long at one particular point not only is the shot not as good, but also suddenly you become aware that I stopped there so you could see the tank over my right shoulder. I found those very exciting, those sequences.
When you’re working with Alfonso on those sequences, what’s his style like? How is he as a director?
He treats actors with a huge amount of respect because ultimately he can’t dictate the rhythm and the pace – we do that. When he says, ‘I want to do the birth scene in one,’ and it’s a long scene from when we walk into that room until [Swipe for minor spoilers] she literally gives birth to a baby – a baby comes out of her – and he wants it in one shot, he can’t after that day’s shooting go [into editing] and change the rhythm, change the pace. It’s a big, big scene, and an emotional scene – it’s technically difficult, but it’s also difficult from an acting point of view. And he is trusting, he says, ‘I trust that you will get the pace, the rhythm and the energy right.’ I found him very respectful in that way.
I think people will see this film as dark, but there’s really a hopefulness to it.
I completely agree. It’s sort of a bum steer to say it’s a heavy, dark film because it’s also filled with a lot of humor, and a lot of humanity. The thing about his films, all of his films, they’re incredibly rich. They’re a very wide canvass, and his films are very dense. This film, yes, it’s dealing with some bleaker… the vision of the future is an awful place, because it’s the whole premise of the movie. But crammed into that is a real sense of humor, a sense of humanity, and a spirit. I don’t see it as a heavy film.
I’m sure as an actor you must get a lot of scripts. What does it take these days to get you excited about a project?
The director is a huge part of it. If you look at the films of the past few years, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some phenomenal director. I do strongly believe it’s a director’s medium, ultimately. It can help incredibly if you’ve got a great script, but ultimately a really great script with a bad director is never going to be a good film. To me this movie was more about working with Alfonso than it was about the script. It was about loving his films and appreciating that he’s a very unique and special director, and wanting to be involved.
You have The Golden Age, the sequel to Elizabeth, coming soon. You play Sir Walter Raleigh… Have you done many period pieces? I can’t think of that many.
No. Gosford Park, I suppose was a period piece. I’ve done some on TV, but it’s been a while.
Do you like them, or do you find that you prefer modern stuff?
I don’t think it’s that different, really. The danger with some period movies is that people start acting strangely different – they treat it a bit more like theater, they present the performance a bit more. It definitely has to be a different form – you can’t go in there with a modern energy – but they’re living, breathing people and in their day it was present day. I don’t treat it that differently.
You talk about film as a director’s medium – are there directors you’re dying to work with now?
There are a lot of really, really great directors. There are a lot of people I would love to work with. When you ask that question I suppose the first people that spring to mind are the Coen Brothers, because I’ve been such a fan of theirs for such a long time.
I have to ask this because my readers will kill me if I don’t – what’s up with Sin City 2?
I honestly know absolutely nothing about it. I know when we finished the first one Robert was talking about doing A Dame to Kill For, which Dwight would be involved with, but I have no idea when, I don’t know who would be involved and no one has ever talked to me about it. So I have no idea.
Do you like the idea of having Dwight as a franchise character you can revisit every couple of years? Is that something you’re interested in at this point in your career?
I’m certainly not out there looking for a franchise, but I’m a huge fan of the original movie. I think Robert did an incredible job. I think it’s a bit of a ground breaking movie, so there’s no question it would be an exciting idea to do more of them.
I need you to spill some behind the scenes movie magic secrets – can you really spit a ping pong ball back and forth like you and Julianne Moore do in the movie, or is it CGI?
All I’m going to say is you try it. [laughs]
In a moving car, no less!
Children of Men is really your film – you’re in almost every frame, and it’s about your character’s journey – but you’re surrounded and supported by some amazing actors. What’s it like working with Michael Caine and Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor?
Any sort of success is getting the chance to work with really good people, and as you say, there are some amazing actors in this. It’s also an indication of how much respect Alfonso has got because people got involved to work with him.
Someone I know who saw Children of Men said, ‘Did they film this movie yesterday?’
It feels so current. So many of the problems in the film are problems we have today, or are problems that are rooted in 2006. Do you feel like there’s more hope for the future than what we see here?
I think Alfonso has been very smart. He made a film set in the future which people thought would be a huge futuristic design thing, and it wasn’t that at all. What he’s done is he’s using it as a platform to discuss things that are concerning us deeply now. That’s why in some ways it’s more relevant than films set in the present, because he’s addressing big issues. And it’s not a futuristic film – at the start a guy walks out of a coffee shop and a bomb goes off, and he says, ‘This is the world we’re in.’ It’s London in 2027. It’s a very disturbing beginning because you think, ‘My God, this is the world we live in now. This is still going on in thirty years time.’ I think it’s a hugely relevant film, and I don’t think you feel distanced by the fact that it’s set in the future at all.
But do you feel hopeful at all today? Things seem bad and to be getting worse in the here and now – do you have hope that 2027 won’t be as bad as 2027 in the movie?
You’ve got to feel hopeful. I’ve got two small children, and it would be a terrible thing if you had a completely bleak outlook. I look at the beauty and the spirit of my little ones. You have to be hopeful. But at the same time, this film is also flagging thing up and saying, if we’re not careful this is where things could be heading.