In the view of Vulture‘s Abraham Riesman, the most famous shot in Alfonso Cuaron‘s Children of Men is the six-minute, 19-second unbroken take in the third act, showing Clive Owen winding and lumbering through a dusty, blown-to-shit refugee camp, dodging gunmen and bullets and tanks and blasts of shrapnel.
“I think we had 14 days to shoot the whole set piece, except by day 12, we hadn’t rolled cameras yet,” Cuaron tells Riesman. On the afternoon of the 13th day, they were finally ready to film. But around the 90-second mark, Cuarón yelled ‘cut’ because, as he puts it, the take ‘was just wrong.’ The reset took five hours, meaning they lost the daylight and had to go home. The morning of the final day dawned, and they gave it another stab. The cameras rolled, the scene commenced — and then camera operator George Richmond tripped and the camera fell. Five hours of reset later, Cuarón had only one chance left.
“Action. Owen ran, Richmond followed, and astoundingly, all was going smoothly. They got to a hollowed-out bus filled with people, through which Theo is supposed to scamper. Suddenly, one of the squibs misfired and, horror of horrors, a squirt of fake blood landed on the lens. Cuarón, watching on a monitor, felt his world collapse. ‘I yell, ‘Cut!’ he says, recounting the moment like a ghost story. ‘But an explosion happens at the same time, so nobody hears me.’
“The camera kept rolling, and Cuarón realized he had no choice but to let it play through, even though he was sure the shot was ruined and had no idea how he would proceed.
“’When we said, ‘Cut,’ Chivo starts dancing like crazy,’ he says. ‘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!’
“Chivo was right. One of the film’s enduring strengths is how it uses hyper-minute details to lull you into accepting the plausibility of this dire reality: bus advertisements that hawk trendy clothes for dogs (kids may be gone, but capitalism isn’t, so wouldn’t the Gap push you to dress your pets?); Theo casually asking Julian if her parents were ‘in New York when it happened’ and never explaining what terrifying event ‘it’ might have been; or the elderly, white, German refugee using her native tongue to indignantly weep about being herded alongside Schwarzen.
“The blood-squib shot encapsulates this aesthetic, and has since become famous — an eerie moment that, once seen, can’t be shaken, even ten years later.”