Alfonso Cuarón is quite a talker, and when we started he was already running about an hour late from previous interviews. Our interview was cut regrettably short because of his lunch appointment at Café Flora (he was quite excited about the vegetarian Oaxaca tacos). Luckily for you, dear reader, that means less sober discussion of long shots and camera acrobatics and more animated talk about the hot topics of politics and religion. After I reassured Cuarón that Seattle is both progressive and Democratic, we began.
THE STRANGER: You've been doing a ton of different types of projects over the last fifteen years or so—do you see any through-line or any commonalities in your body of work?
ALFONSO CUARÓN: I’m just one of those people who write in the moment, and once I finish a movie I never see it again. So I’m not very good at trying to find a through-line there. I’m too close to the source. The Criterion Collection re-released one of my first films (Sólo con tu pareja) and I had to ask Emmanuel Lubezki—he was the cinematographer on that one as well—to do the color correction, take care of everything. Because I couldn’t watch it.
Did they ask you to do a commentary track?
I never do commentaries.
It's like rock artists. You see them and the music, some dancing—and then they talk, and it’s like, “and, and, and, and, and…” I don’t want to see them talking.
And yet you do interviews.
In an interview, you can respond, and then be quiet. In a commentary, you have to keep talking. And what’s that saying? It's better to be quiet than let people think you are stupid.
You came to this project when there was a screenplay already drafted?
So did you work straight from the novel?
I just took the premise of the book. I took the premise of the novel as the departing point. When I understood that the premise could be used a metaphor for the fading sense of hope—and the lack of historical perspective, and the lack of respect and caring about the next generation—I realized that it could be a point of departure to do a film that was... I wasn’t interested in doing a science fiction film or a futuristic film, but I thought that it could be a film that could explore the things that are shaping the perspective of the 21st century. You go very far when you start doing that exploration, into the environment, or into immigration. So we crafted a script that would go along the lines of immigration. None of this was in the book.
I recently interviewed Alejandro González Iñárritu, and you guys often talk in interviews about having an affinity with each other’s work…
You know what it is? This year we have three sister movies. That is, Babel, Children of Men, and Pan’s Labyrinth, by Guillermo del Toro. I don’t know if you’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth.
I’ve seen all three.
And the three films are completely different. Present, past, future… One is fantasy, one is science fiction, if you want to call it that, and the other is a realistic drama. But thematically they are very similar. I think it has to do with—that we like to stick our fork in each other's salad.
From the beginning of the process, we're talking—before even writing, we're talking about the projects and we're arguing, fighting, and getting pissed off at each other about not understanding one thing or the other, and that keeps on going until the very end of the project. Even now after the end of the project we keep on doing promotion together. Sometimes I do as much promotion for the others’ movies as I do for my own.
Well, one thing Alejandro Iñárritu said to me that he didn't think he was making a political film with Babel. He thought that it was humanist rather than political. And I don't think that you could say that at all of this film.
I was very clear that I wanted to make a comment about the state of things and when you try to make a comment about the current realities it is impossible not to be political. Not in the sense that I am attempting to do politics, but when I am exposing my observation about a reality, I am sure that politics go into that observation. Because it is about my concerns about reality. I cannot claim that my movies are universal and about every single angle of reality. No, it is a very narrow scope and it’s related to the way I perceive it. And that is tinted by my own politics. I have to tell you that part of this dynamic with Alejandro and Guillermo, I remember sending Alejandro one script, one version of this movie, and we had this big argument on the telephone.
What did he say?
He said, this isn’t a movie, it’s an essay. Where are your characters? Before, I was so concerned about putting together the film’s universe that, in a way, I was too distracted from character. From then on all the focus became character because then I said the theoretical frame is open a bit. I was so focused that I completely dismissed the other element that was the character. For me, character and social environment are each as important as the other. For me, this is not the story of Theo, Clive Owen’s character, it is the story of Theo and the social environment which he moves through. It’s not that the social environment is the backdrop for this adventure. The social environment is adventure.
Can you talk a little bit about the introduction of Kee, the Claire Hope-Ashitey character? She wasn't in the book.
No, she was not. When we decided to make this follow the line of immigration we decided to make this character an illegal immigrant. And then we decided that we wanted her to be a black African. There are many different reasons—one is, that as far as we know, human life sprang out of Africa. There is the notion that the future of humanity resides on the dispossessed—the lumpen of the lumpenproletariat on that continent.
There’s also an obvious parallel with the nativity story in that section as well.
Oh, yeah. But the thing is, when we think of the nativity story now, we romanticize it in beautiful tableaux in which everything feels warm—even the snow. When you think of the reality of the situation of how that could have happened. And with Tim—that’s my writing partner, Timothy Sexton—we discussed, yes, in a way it’s a contemporary nativity, but doing it realistically. If you think about this movie's story, you are talking about these people escaping after they butcher all the children. In other words, there's no children around. There is this couple and she's carrying in her womb the possibility of hope for humanity and they are crossing in a situation of war. It's very similar to the nativity story.
But we romanticize everything in these beautiful tableaux. If you think about the story in the Bible, this couple is escaping because there is a guy who butchers all the kids in town. That's pretty weird to start with, and they have to escape, and then she's pregnant, and they are escaping in a donkey. The Bible never says all of these things with winter and all of this snow but our culture has absorbed the nativity with reference to snow and stuff. In winter, the snow, it's not like the tableaux. It's damn cold. These guys pretty much had to deliver a baby in a barn with other animals. That sounds so romantic to be in a barn with other animals.
All of these things look so warm in our romanticized tableaux, but if you think of the reality aspect of it, it was pretty grim. Now we tend to romanticize it and look for the hope and all the pretty messages of this event. So that was a reference, but we tried not to do a religious film. We tried to embrace the spiritual archetype. In a sense Clive's character is more like Moses than Jesus. The important thing of Clive as Moses is that he died before seeing the Promised Land. The difference is, Moses died because God punishes him because he doubted. Here his character dies because he doesn't need to see the Promised Land. He has already achieved what he was longing for: his own sense of hope. In a way, you can consider that the Promised Land is hope.
The viewer doesn't get to see the Promised Land either.
We give a glimpse of a possibility of hope because you cannot impose hope. Hope is like democracy. You can't impose hope. It's a contradiction of terms. Hope springs from within, so you cannot impose a sense of hope without being hypocritical. I mean you can do a happy ending and have Clive Owen running, surrounding by 360 children next to the surf in a Caribbean island with Kee waving goodbye in the distance surrounded by a bunch of kids. And maybe you have a satisfactory ending, in which people go out, smile, feel good, and then forget the movie right after they get to the parking lot.
What we try to do is present a glimpse of a possibility of hope so audiences draw their own conclusion—after going through this journey through the state of things—as to whether there is room for hope after that. We live in times where you cannot do cautionary tales anymore. There is no time for caution. There only time for transformation. I believe that hope can be an amazing springboard for transformation—if hope departs from a very realistic standpoint. If hope doesn't become a substitute for reality. A lot of people confuse hope with illusion or delusion, and pretend that reality is not the way it is.
In my experience, when people watch this movie, it tends to be older people who take a pessimistic view. My generation and older, they feel more guilty about the way the world is. The opposite of hope is guilt.
I thought it was despair.
No, because my generation and the older generations are completely paralyzed. They see that things are going in a very bad direction, but they don't know what to do. They try to stick to archaic solutions like building walls and separating and creating more divisions between people—because they are completely paralyzed. They don't know how to cope with all this.
The idea of The Human Project in the film was, for me, a metaphor for a revolution in human understanding. And I believe that is there is more hope in the younger generations. I believe that the younger generations are going to come up with a Copernican revolution. Meanwhile, in the older generation, we don't have the solution of transformation. All we can do is base our choices not on what is beneficial for us, but what is beneficial for the next generations. Not what is beneficial for economic growth but what is beneficial for the future generations—because what is good for economic growth is not necessarily the same as what is good for the people.