Using Data To Create Scenes That Stick, Like Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón

“Children of Men” (2006) did not win any Oscars. But the film is getting some serious attention now, a decade later.

This is happening because our reality is catching up with the fiction he depicted in the film. The film is based on a dystopian science fiction book.

Yep – the state of the world today is that bad. It did win the BAFTA for cinematography and for production design. On this particular topic of production design I would like to focus here. The set design is very important to this movie, more that most movies, because there are almost no close ups. A lot of things are going on in the background, very detailed wide shots make this movie a memorable masterpiece.

So now journalists are asking Cuarón:

How did you know this is what reality would look like? How did you know how the refugee camp in London would like? And he replies: It was already the reality.

In reality, today, America, not Britain, is first to crack down on refugees. But full on Brexit is coming soon. So maybe Britain second.

The Vulture magazine has given these question and the director’s point of view the most thoughtful attention so far; their author Abraham Riesman wrote a terrific piece “Is Children of Men 2016’s Most Relevant Film”, and later published the entire Cuarón interview transcript. The transcript adds a lot to the knowledge about why this film seemed so real, now more than ever.

From the transcript we learn that even when using the most imaginative scenarios, in the most creative way, like Cuarón did, accurate data is the best tool for leaving an imprint in people’s memory.

It is so because our brain works a bit like velcro – The “Velcro theory of memory” says that the more “hooks” we can put into an idea, the stickier it will be. (Made To Stick, by Dan & Chip Heath, pp. 109–111).

Data = real facts that people can recognize, will help a fictional story stick. If you want to make your story stick in people’s minds, use data.

2 examples of how accurate data was used to design powerful and memorable scenes in “Children of Men”:

Geography, architecture details:

Riesman: …Theo is running through the refugee camp. What visual references were you using for the camp, in general?
The camps that were in the Balkans. The ones in the Kurdish refugee camps. And a lot was also Calais.

Demographics of extras:

The work with the casting was very specific in doing demographics. The way of choosing the extras was, X amount of Germans, X amount of Hungarians, X amount of Algerians. It was a percentage. We tried to be as specific as possible with that.


In order not to spoil your next screening, I will leave it here and not go into more details like avian flu and mad cow disease, early works by street artist Banksy,  and referencing Pink Floyd’s album cover design.

Featured image above: Alfonso Cuarón, on the set of “Children of Men”. Photograph by Jaap Buitendijk/Universal Studios



If you are one of those who worry about climate change, and recent politics, the Vulture interview transcript is a very good read indeed.

Riesman: How worried are you about climate change?
Cuarón: It’s one more trouble. The thing is: If I’m worried, I’m worried. Yes, I’m not worried about me. I’ve had a good run in this life. I still go to forests and get to see the beach. It’s troubling in what I think for my children. It’s terrifying. It doesn’t seem that there’s a big reverting factor. It doesn’t seem like anybody really gives a damn. One more time, the election of one person becomes more important than … All the media reports, and all the left, and all the liberals just focusing on what, in Sanskrit, is maya — an illusion. Then, when all this change of power dynamic happens, we are shocked. We should not be shocked. All of this stuff was happening around us.

Riesman: Do you think we’ll be able to reverse the effects of climate change? Or at least survive as a species?
Cuarón: Look, what is at stake is not the world. The world’s going to be fine. Nature is going to be fine. Maybe another version of nature that is unimaginable for us, but still. There would be, still, pockets of populations that will scatter around the world. What is at stake is the culture as we know it.

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