Children of Men: 8 Behind-The-Scene Facts About Alfonso Cuaron’s Movie

Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Children of Men
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

In just a few years, Children of Men, the Alfonso Cuaron-directed the sci-fi tale starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor, will cross the barrier that we’ve already hit with Back to the Future Part II and Blade Runner, where we surpass the future date the movie is set in.

Of course, that will hopefully be a good thing, as Children of Men doesn’t have the most joyous of futuristic qualities like Back to the Future’s hoverboard or self-lacing Nikes - or even Blade Runner’s flying cars - instead telling a bleak, but ultimately hopeful, story of trying to protect the first child born in nearly 20 years.

Children of Men is celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2021, and while some find the story to hit harder now, let’s use this chance to celebrate Cuaron and company's work on the intricate, dour, and epic story with some Children of Men behind-the-scene facts.

Children of Men

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Cuaron Nixed Any High-Concept Designs To Create A More Broken-Down Future

A lot of science-fiction films conceive of set designs and technologies that portray stunning advancements, but that wasn’t what Alfonso Cuaron was looking for with Children of Men. When setting the film in 2027 - 21 years ahead of when it was made - Cuaron specifically sought a future that would be recognizable and rundown; ignored by a world that’s future is non-existent without children.

This meant that the art department team had to forgo their first instincts. In an interview with Brad Brevet, Cuaron describes meeting with the art department and seeing their concept drawings from other sci-fi films they had worked on, featuring supersonic cars and cool gadgets.

Cuaron had to say no to all of these, as the film that he had in mind was more reminiscent of war-torn and refugee countries like Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, and the nuclear disaster site, Chernobyl. He described the look that he wanted not as imagination, but as “reference;” with the world being immediately recognizable to the audience.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Clive Owen Nearly Starred in Blood Diamond Before Joining Children of Men

Clive Owen was having a big moment from 2004-2005. He earned rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for the Mike Nichols’ film Closer, and then had one of the key roles in the hugely popular adaptation of Sin City. Not surprisingly, Owen was in demand, but had he veered left instead of right, we may not have seen him as Children of Men’s Theo.

In a 2017 interview with Vulture looking back at the making of Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron revealed that his leading man was almost cast in the Blood Diamond role that went to Leonardo DiCaprio. Ultimately Owen picked Children of Men, and as he tells it, Cuaron was the motivating factor, saying that he was on his list of directors he wanted to work with.

Michael Caine in Children of Men

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Michael Caine Based His Character On John Lennon

Another key pickup for the cast was Michael Caine, who has the supporting role of Jasper, Theo’s long-time friend and outlet. Jasper is also a bit of a hippie who loves to smoke pot and who was a bit different from Caine himself, who tends to be more conservative. So, he found inspiration in the form of John Lennon.

Caine, who rose to fame right around the same time as The Beatles, became close friends with Lennon, bonding over their working class upbringings and a shared sense of humor, Caine wrote in his autobiography.

When Caine pitched basing Jasper on John Lennon, Cuaron loved the idea, as he recalled to Vulture. The look of Jasper certainly is reminiscent of Lennon, with the long hair and beard.

Clive Owen in Children of Men

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The Production Team Created Every Single Newspaper Used In Julianne Moore’s Introduction Scene

Early on in the movie, Theo is captured by members of the anti-government group the Fishes as part of a plan to rendezvous with Julian, his estranged partner and leader of the Fishes. This meeting takes place in a shed covered from top to bottom in old newspapers. Beyond the fact that these guys are still getting a printed newspaper in 2027 (something we may sadly lose before then), what’s crazy about this set design was that the production crafted each and every story on those newspaper pages.

Of course, someone as detailed as Alfonso Cuaron wasn’t going to just let the pages be gibberish and not having any meaning to the story. As described in a special feature on the Children of Men DVD, the production crew had to write headlines and stories for each piece of paper used on the set, basing them all on what kind of stories may have happened in the years leading up to the events of Children of Men. This often includes terrorist attacks, refugee crises and, of course, infertility.

Next time you watch Children of Men see what stories you can spot in the scene.

Children of Men

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

One Of The Film’s Long-Takes Happened Because No One Heard Cuaron Say Cut

Perhaps the biggest hallmark of Children of Men is the multiple one-shot scenes it has throughout. Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki were meticulous and innovative when it came to capturing these scenes, which would run for several minutes (Lubezki would top even this with Birdman appearing as one continuous sequence). However, one of the one-shot scenes that appears in the movie was the result of nobody hearing Cuaron say “cut.”

In the last act of the film, when all Hell breaks loose in the refugee camp, we get an extended one-shot scene following Theo as he tracks down and rescues Kee and the baby. Cuaron said in multiple interviews they had about 14 days to shoot the scene, but because of all the things that are going on, it took four to five hours to set up, meaning, at best, they could get two shots a day. Even worse, Cuaron says 12 days into their allotted time they hadn’t even rolled the cameras yet.

The scene was finally ready to go on the afternoon of the 13th day, but the first take only went about a minute before Cuaron called cut. The next - and final - day their first take is going nearly perfect, but the camera operator trips. There was just one last chance to get the shot.

Here’s what happened on that final take, according to Cuaron via the Vulture interview:

And when we arrive at the bus, the camera goes in, and blood splatters the lens. With my little monitor, I see that I cannot see anything. I yell, ‘Cut!’ But an explosion happens at the same time, so nobody hears me. And that gives me time to think, ‘Look, I have to roll to the end.’ So we kept on going. When we said, ‘Cut,’ Chivo starts dancing like crazy. And I was like, ‘No, it didn’t work! There’s blood!’ And Chivo turns to me and says, ‘You stupid! That was a miracle!’

Cuaron further explained that they planned to have a blood splatter on the camera (through digital effects) for the earlier one-shot where Julianne Moore’s character dies, but Chivo recognized that it fit perfectly in this instance and that’s what made it into the film.

Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Children of Men

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The Child Birthing Scene Was An Improvised One-Shot Take

Despite the amount of planning that went into crafting each one-shot scene in Children of Men, sometimes you just have to go with your gut, and that is what Alfonso Cuaron did when he decided to make the scene when Kee gives birth another one-shot take.

Clive Owen told Collider that it wasn’t until they got to the set to shoot the child birthing scene that Cuaron decided he wanted to do it as one-shot. Owen describes the decision as part of Cuaron’s effort to viscerally put the audience into the action by doing as much in real-time as possible and avoid potentially manipulative cuts.

Clare-Hope Ashitey with baby children of men

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The Baby Was Created By Combining A Doll And CGI Tracking

So, where did the Children of Men baby come from? Well, when a mommy and da -- wait, sorry. In this case, the baby was a combination of an animatronic doll and CGI technology.

On the Children of Men DVD, a special feature details the creation of the baby as the one-shot plays out. After Kee is laid on the mat and Theo takes their guide to the door, crew members put Clare-Hope Ashitey in a special rig that would allow them to simulate childbirth. When the moment came, out came the animatronic baby for the actors to hold. The special effects team then used CGI tracking on the doll so that they could then provide realistic movement.

Clive Owen in Children of Men

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Banksy Almost Provided Artwork For Children Of Men

One artistic feature that didn’t come to fruition in Children of Men was having artist Banksy create special artwork which would be scattered throughout the film.

Cuaron, again to Vulture, said that he was a fan of Banksy while he was still just coming onto the scene in East London. He managed to get in touch with his manager and they met for coffee, though it turned out to be an odd, ideological interview, according to Cuaron, with the manager sitting behind him and asking questions; on brand for Banksy's reputation as an unpredictable artist.

Ultimately, Banksy did not sign onto the project, though he did allow for one of his existing murals to be used in the background of a scene, which fittingly enough is a preserved piece in the Ministry of Art Theo visits in the film.

Children of Men is available to stream now for free on Peacock. You can also listen to the ReelBlend interview with Alfonso Cuaron from 2019.

Michael Balderston

D.C.-based cinephile. Will dabble in just about any movie genre, but passionate about discovering classic films/film history and tracking the Oscar race.