Abraham Riesman is a cultural journalist and the author of True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee (as well as a forthcoming biography of Vince McMahon). He sat down with The Backstory crew to talk through the dopamine rush he got from watching the 2006 Alfonso Cuarón film Children of Men, and how it helped him establish his moral compass in storytelling.
An edited and condensed transcript follows; listen to the whole thing below.
Abraham Riesman: There were so many things working against this movie as a marketable product, and yet of the people who saw it, I've yet to meet a single person who can talk about seeing Children of Men and walking away disliking it.
And I was one of those people. I saw it on New Year's Day, about a week after it came out. I had gone to a local movie theater in Chicago, Illinois. We were going to go see, I believe, Letters from Iwo Jima, which was also out that year and they were sold out. So we had to go see something else. And we knew nothing about Children of Men because it had been marketed so poorly, and without a whole lot of market penetration, all we knew was that Clive Owen was in it. And we all liked Clive Owen. I don't even remember how I liked Clive Owen, but I had a lot of enthusiasm in some way for him. So it was like, "Okay, let's give it a shot." So we saw it and it was one of the most profound experiences — not just moviegoing, but just experiences, period — of my life. I mean, I was so deeply moved by the experience of being able to watch this story unfold on screen in a theater without any foreknowledge of anything that was going to happen.
I mean, you can't recreate something like that. That's a once in a lifetime moment of engaging with a piece of art and I haven't thought about it... I haven't forgotten about it since.
Sean Williams: What stuck with you about the film?
Abraham Riesman: I would say it... For one thing, it kind of gave me a new benchmark for how good filmmaking could be, and that's a blessing and a curse. It's wonderful in that it kind of expanded my horizons and made me wonder, “Well, what else is there that feels like this?” and that branched off into various aesthetic adventures, but also I would say the biggest influence is probably more of a political one.
I've really been inspired by the ideas that are present in that movie. I really find myself fixated on the fact that this movie kind of predicted where we were going to be at. And I know it's a simplistic thing to say obviously, but when it comes to the refugee crisis, to environmental decay, having sudden catastrophic effects to-
Sean Williams: Police state.
Abraham Riesman:... police state, closed borders, all of this stuff. It was enormously prescient, but also as Alfonso Cuarón told me for the article I wrote about this, he didn't see it as predicting the future because he was paying attention and seeing that all of those things were all present in 2006 when it came out or before that, when he was conceiving of his take on the movie. So, if you're paying attention, the future's already here, and it was the politics of that movie have really stuck with me.
As things have progressed with the ongoing climate and refugee crisis, I find myself finding a moral compass thinking, “Okay, well, how would I approach this from a frame of reference like Children of Men?” And then to get back to my original point, there's the aspect of feeling... I feel like my horizons have been expanded for movies, but also it means very few movies can live up to that experience. I have this benchmark that makes me forever clutching to try and get that feeling again.
Dan McQuade: One thing I found very interesting is after you saw it the first time you went back to see it a bunch more times, and I feel that's not something I've done to a movie since I was, I don't know, 16, and that was basically because it was either that or hang out in a Wawa parking lot, or a diner or whatever. What made you continue to go back to it right away?
Abraham Riesman: I mean, it was purely hedonistic — the adrenaline and dopamine rush that I got from watching it that first time. It wasn't the most high-minded thing. It was not like, "Oh, well, I have to solve the puzzle of this movie." It was like, "I want to feel that feeling again."
So I just kept seeing it to try and recreate that. And it's never been the same as that first time, but every time it electrifies me, I mean, I can't get enough of the experience of consuming these images, these sounds, these performances. It's just, I know I sound crazy right now, but it's really a tremendous piece of work ethic.
Sean Williams: Nope. You don't sound crazy at all. We all have a movie or a piece of music or something where it grips us like that.
Abraham Riesman: Where you're just like, "It's perfect. There's nothing I can change."
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