The Mexican filmmaker talks about capturing the cosmos, Sandra Bullock and the benefits of 3-D.
By David Fear
In space, no one can hear you scream. But if you sit in the audience of Gravity, you're likely to hear shrieking as an astronaut repairing the outside of her ship (Sandra Bullock, in a career-high performance) suddenly finds herself in the middle of a debris storm. In a single opening shot lasting almost 20 minutes, viewers are white-knuckling through a maelstrom of flying shrapnel and spinning shuttle parts. (See it in 3-D and IMAX if you can; you'll be thankful you did.) Once things calm down, our heroine has been separated from her lifelines, her crew—including wisecracking engineer George Clooney—and her trip back to Earth.
That this cosmic disaster film is both an incredibly visceral experience and an attempt to fashion an existential treatise on Big-Picture topics—life, the universe and everything—can be attributed to Alfonso Cuarón. The 51-year-old Mexican director has been wowing movie lovers since the mid-’90s with intriguing literary adaptations (Great Expectations; Harry Potter and the Priosner of Azkaban) and vibrant, visionary works (Y Tu Mamá También; Children of Men). None of which will prepare you, however, for what feels like one seriously sweaty-palm–inducing trip through the stratosphere. Time Out talked to Cuarón as he was getting ready to do press in Los Angeles.
Time Out: This started with a project your son [Jonas Cuarón] was working on, right? Alfonso Cuarón: Something he still is working on, actually: A project called called Desierto. Basically, Jonas gave me his screenplay and asked me to give him notes. I read it and told him, I have no notes—but would you help me write something just like this?.
Time Out: Is it fairly similar to Gravity, then?? Alfonso Cuarón: It’s similar in that it’s two characters and they’re dealing with a hostile environment. Both films feature people going through a difficult emotional journey. But Jonas's film is set in the desert.
Time Out: So how did that go from two people trapped in the desert to being trapped in space? Alfonso Cuarón: I had always wanted to do a space film, so I told Jonas, let’s move things up. You know, very high up. We started with one single image: An astronaut, untethered from a ship and drifting into the void. The idea that this character is trapped in a bubble, and it takes something extreme to get her out of it. [Pause] This was all happening while I was going through a lot of adversity, creatively and otherwise, so the idea of a person being lost and having to go through a rebirth was a very attractive notion. Time Out: I imagine it was, though I’d wonder how attractive the notion of having to recreate the cosmos from scratch was. What kind of technical challenges did you face? Alfonso Cuarón: It was what I would call a very naïve process. When we were writing, we could do whatever we wanted, so it was pure bliss. It wasn’t until we’d finished that I put on my producer and director’s hats and went “Oh…” [Laughs] But I immediately sent the script to Emmanuel Lubezki—I call him “Chivo”— and said “Chivo, take a look at this, it’s this small movie with two characters. I think we can do it very quickly.” Time Out: A small movie? Really?!? Alfonso Cuarón: Yeah, I figured there would be a fair amount of CGI, but it would be pretty straightforward. [Sighs loudly] The first thing we did was four or five days of tests with the current technology—this would have been 2008, I think—and we quickly realized that by day two, nothing was going to work. So we essentially had to build our own technologies to get the realistic look we were going for. That’s why it took four and a half years to make the film.
Time Out: You’ve said that your goal was to make something that looked like a Discovery Channel documentary that had gone horribly wrong. Alfonso Cuarón: We wanted it to be as photorealistic as possible. When you’re operating under a comic-book aesthetic, you can do whatever you want. The problem is when you’re trying to deal with the reality that we all know, which is the version of space that’s recognizable from those hi-resolution photographs taken from miles above the earth. Chivo and I had a similar situation with Children of Men, when we were mixing special effects with a realistic attempt to do a ruined future and make it look the London we knew.
Chivo was also obsessed with how the light from space would look…it’s a completely unfiltered sunlight, totally foreign to how we see light that comes through Earth’s atmosphere. Light also bounces off of the planet’s surface and is projected back, and the light from that bounce is different depending on the whether you’re orbiting over the Sahara or the Pacific…sometimes it’s reddish, sometimes blue-ish or green-ish. It had to be perfect. All the time. He was like God, saying “Move the sun two million miles to the left!” [Laughs] He loved saying that!
So, throw all that in, plus the idea of making a "realistic" movie in space, plus live-action elements involving actors…it just became this impossible endeavor. Somehow, we did it.
Time Out: You mentioned the actors, and there were several stars who were attached to the project initially…. Alfonso Cuarón: Well, attachment is an overstatement here. There were some conversations with several actors, and some of those conversations were more serious than others. We did a number of screen tests—some with known stars, some with unknowns. Let’s call it a “period of exploration.” I mean, the first few years really was just us trying to figure out how we could make the movie at all, given the standard that we had set for ourselves. Once that was in place, we were ready to approach actors seriously.
Time Out: Sandra Bullock's performance really feels unlike anything else she’s ever done. She has to carry most of the film. Alfonso Cuarón: I don’t think people realize what a disciplined actor she is. She worked out and prepped five months before we started shooting. She trained like an astronaut, basically; it was insane. Keep in mind too that, in order to make this manufactured notion of moving in space seem realistic, we had to pre-program cameras and use robots….
Time Out: I’m sorry, robots?!? Alfonso Cuarón: Yes, to simulate the idea of weightlessness; there’s a weird pulling thing you can see when you use wires to lift people up and down. But if you use robotics, you can lift actors up in a very controlled, very co-ordinated way. You have to choreograph everything very carefully, and actors have to hit their marks just right…the whole thing becomes sort of like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.
Time Out: If Fred Astaire were a robot. Alfonso Cuarón: Oh, and we had the puppeteers who did War Horse, as well as stunt people, who would move objects by her and sort of help guide where she should be looking, if she was being showered with debris, etc. So there’s that, plus all of the lights and camera movements are pre-programmed; you have actors in these uncomfortable, painful rigs for up to ten, 12 hours a day that are all pre-programmed; you have things lifting you up and down that are pre-programmed in a very precise way. Then, in the middle of this, is an actor who has to give a performance. It’s very daunting. She’d work through these things for hours and hours, and then we’d roll camera, and… you’d see nothing but all this spontaneous emotion. Once you’d yell action, she’d make it seem effortless.
Time Out: Can you talk a little bit about why you went for a long, single take as the first shot of the film? Alfonso Cuarón: Chivo and I have been exploring the possibilities of using long, single-shot takes for a while now, ever since the Y Tu Mamá También days. Our theory behind those shots, and especially the shot you’re talking about, is that it gives the character and the environment equal weight. You let one thing inform the other—or let them clash with each other. And like you mentioned before, those great Discovery Channel and IMAX documentaries about space were a big influence; in this particular case, we wanted emulate the long, loose shots that they use when they’re panning along the cosmos. Plus, it’s space—what are you going to cut away from? [Laughs]
We wanted to make everything seem like the most banal space mission imaginable. To them, this is another day on the job. When disaster strikes, you follow her character objectively as she rolls and spins—you are still an observer. Then, at one point, the viewer’s perspective and her perspective merge, and now you are the one looking out of that visor, rolling and spinning in space. Eventually, we pull you back out of that perspective a bit, but if we’ve done our job correctly, you should feel like you’re another astronaut, floating next to Sandra’s character. Audiences relate to characters going on a journey by default. But we really, really wanted to make filmgoers feel the terror and despair of those first 20 or so minutes, so that when the pendulum swings to hope, you feel that hope as well. And doing all of what we were talking about in one single shot was our way of getting to that part immediately.
Time Out:You’d planned on shooting this in 3-D from the beginning, right? Normally, the technique feels like a band-aid—but here it’s a key element in regards to what we’re talking about. Alfonso Cuarón: Do you know why you normally hate 3-D?
Time Out: Why? Alfonso Cuarón: Because it’s usually done horribly! There are only a handful of films—Pina, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Life of Pi, Avatar—that have used it in an integral way, and that’s really it. 3-D is an afterthought for most movies, something you do to try and up the commercial value of a movie shot in two dimensions. Look, I’m not going to defend the medium, but: When you see a movie conceived with 3-D in mind, it can really blow your mind. It’s a creative tool that very few people have taken advantage of. You can use it to make an immersive experience, which is what we had to do here: You had to be with Sandra as she floats through space, you had to be there with her as debris is flying at her. To me, Gravity in 2-D is only 20 percent of the experience.
Time Out: What do you feel Gravity has in common with your other films? Alfonso Cuarón: [Pause] They are all road movies. Seriously, Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, even the Harry Potter film…they’re all essentially road movies. This one just happens to be a road movie in space.