“Gravity” is a must-see for any cinephile. Alfonso Cuaron and a team of gifted artists have produced a deceptively simple outer space thrill-ride about two marooned astronauts spinning in zero G who must figure out how to return home. The reason it took Cuaron four and a half years to make the movie he describes as a “big act of miscalculation” is that he, like James Cameron and others before him, had to create his own tech tools. The real issue? He wanted to use his customary long shots–in 3-D– to pull the viewer in (the opening stunner is 13 minutes long). That’s not how VFX are done most of the time–usually they are fitted together in tiny bits to fool the eye. (TOH’s “Gravity” review here; for more detail on the VFX, Bill Desowitz’s column here.)
George Clooney and Sandra Bullock anchor this story; he’s the experienced astronaut in charge of a brilliant rookie who is fighting nausea as they hover outside their spacecraft installing a device that she engineered. The gender dynamics are fascinating, as she needs his expertise to survive the debris storm that sends them hurtling into space, but it’s up to her to find the inner resources to survive. Bullock is smart, lean and athletic, like an astronaut (Ripley comes to mind), so that when she’s stripped of her spacesuit in her skivvies she’s admirable and vulnerable but not overtly sexy. It feels right. Bullock is a surefire Oscar contender, as is the movie.
As you can see from the Q & A below, many complex decisions went into making this movie both exhilarating and believable. “One of the main purposes in writing this story was to be a roller coaster ride of an adventure,” said Jonas Cuaron before the first North American showing of “Gravity” at Telluride; he and his co-writer father followed the screening with a Q & A.
“The space setting provided the metaphorical elements we wanted to play with,” said Alfonso Cuaron, who originally told his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that this small film with two characters would take a year to make. “We started talking, if we have a character who is following her inertia into the void, leaving behind Earth, life and human connection, she literally lives in her own bubble. We’re working out something metaphorically: adversity, rebirth, new knowledge. These were the themes we wanted to play with. In every scene we wanted to know these themes.”
“The characters are overcoming the challenges presented in life,” said Jonas, “to experience rebirth. Space is a very perilous setting. Anything that goes wrong is really bad… We let our imagination go wild…it was like a space documentary gone wrong.”
Because there was not that much dialogue, said Alfonso, “every single word was magnified.”
After the film went on to wow the Toronto Fest (see press conference video and trailer below), I grabbed Cuaron and veteran producer David Heyman of “Harry Potter” fame on the phone.
Anne Thompson: A body tumbling in free fall in space is a deeply primal fear; when did it come to you?
Alfonso Cuaron: It was my very first image. When you’re in the writing process, you get a very primal image, then you expand from there. That was exactly the image we had as a point of departure.
You have collaborated with your brother Carlos as well as this time, your son Jonas. What does working closely with someone else bring?
AC: First, the two of them are amazing writers and collaborators, and great writers in their own right. On top of that, there’s a shorthand of communication, in that in aesthetic terms we are in the same neighborhood. We have a lot of disagreements, as with any collaborator, we fight and disagree, but we come to terms. Whatever is the best thing for the story. There’s a lot of shorthand, and shared experience, the references are easier.
Does Jonas as a younger writer bring a fresh sensibility?
AC: It’s very refreshing, because he brings all this new energy and not a set of prejudices that I already deal with. He injected new energy, one that said “let’s make this fun.” He’s filled with subject matters and themes, to keep it moving and deeply exciting, without prejudices like “that’s not serious enough.”
I am fascinated by the gender dynamics of the two astronauts.
AC: It’s not that George Clooney’s character knows more about space because he’s male. We wanted a woman who is completely out of her comfort zone and out of her element. We needed–yeah, to have George as a woman as well would have been a whole weird statement. By the way, part of what she has to do in order to achieve her goal, she has to cut her her attachment with the male figure. Organically with Jonas, when we started discussing the story, it was a woman. We didn’t question it, it was instinctual and organized. As part of the film’s theme is this character who has to regain her nurturing quality. It’s a theme of rebirth and fertility. It’s not sexual, it’s a fertility of the impulse of life, in which the backdrop of the character is Mother Earth. All the elements make sense. She had to be woman, not a macho hero pissing around.
The character in the end is going back like a fish out of water. There is not anybody coming to save her. She does that out of her own wits. Remember, even when George’s character comes back, it’s a projection of herself in a dream.
This movie brooks comparison with “All is Lost,” which is also about a sole survivor struggling to get home.
AC: I am looking forward to seeing “All is Lost,” by the way, which is also coming out this year. Another kind of similar thing, historically in the past, is “Castaway,” which goes back to Robinson Crusoe. There is this fascination with exploring this isolated character.
How much did the script change during production?
We shot most of what was in the screenplay. The dialogue was very little changed from the first draft. The thing was the poetry and energy Jonas brought to table, trusting in the moment and the metaphorical value of the setting, the primal emotions and fears involved, which were already filling the dramatic needs. You have literally and psychologically a woman drifting into the void, she is a victim of her own inertia, living in her own bubble, from life and a human connection. That is an amazing point of departure. We know the journey of rebirth: this woman has to shred her skin and come out of the bubble to try to seek an outcome of all her adversities, and a rebirth of new knowledge of herself. It’s the story of this woman who is born again and can walk again.
I firmly believe that no other actress working today but Sandra Bullock could have pulled off this role.
AC: I agree with you, not only because of everything that Sandra brought to the table. The script didn’t change. Every single scene was there from the beginning. What changed was when Sandy was involved, she started taking a magnifying glass to every single moment and scene to make sure we were conveying things in every single moment, knowing that we had very little dialogue, emotionally we are truthful and honoring those things. With dialogue she was so precise, working so closely with Jonas and myself. We new we had so little dialogue that every dialogue was going to be magnified, so which elements with so minimal elements would we be able to convey and scream out loud the theme.
Even though she’s a trained dancer, the physical demands were great.
AC: The physical aspect, not anybody can do what she did. On the one hand the physical discipline she went through to make this film, the training and the workouts. She also has an amazing capability for abstraction. Those emotional performances, it was as if they were an exercise in abstraction, like she was bonded to very precise cues. And physically that was very difficult: she trained and practiced like crazy, together with the stunt people and special effects. And the puppeteers from “War Horse” were helping her, supporting a leg or an arm, all the floating elements, they were creating approaching objects toward her in perfect timing. Then after she practiced so much her whole concern was only about emotions and performance.
Imagine a ballet dancer with really strict physical discipline in terms of what a body has to do, positions and precise choreography, who goes through months of training for one choreography so when they are performing they have expressiveness and emotion.
What was the most challenging scene to realize?
David Heyman: When Sandy comes into the ISS for the first time. She takes off her suit, then goes into fetal position, all in one shot. It was the most difficult. All the objects, getting the suit off, and into fetal position in such a way that it felt effortless, not as it was–she was sitting on a bicycle with one leg tied down leaning back in a 12-wire rig, with puppeteers. One of the things you forget about Sandy’s performance, which seems so truthful, is all the effort and physical exertion that went into making it, the precision of the technical aspects. She had to move her hands at a third of speed — zero G –while talking. Each shot connects with the next at very precise points where her head began and end and begin and end. She’s on a bicycle stringing uncomfortable with people moving around on 12 wires, through it all, with no gravity. Physically the body must not show the tension, so it looks effortless. What I loved about it is the performance behind the visor shines through, her eyes. You can’t slouch your shoulders to show sadness or weight, it’s just the eyes.
How did you handle your sound rules?
AC: There is no sound in space. So the only effects that convey sounds are breath, dialogue, radios, and also interaction with characters hold something and grab something with a vibration that will transmit into your ears. There are no other sounds. We tried to experiment without sound, but silence becomes redundant. We wanted to express silence so have sound, but we have music, which is used as part of the emotional projection of our character.
On an immersive stage, something interesting we did with the film, is the whole score is composed for Surround Sound. In conventional music, it’s to the right and left of the screen, here we did music that comes from different places in the room, moving from place to place, just to help aid disorientation, like it’s spinning around you. Our composer [Steven Price] used pieces from German composer Stockhausen, with the orchestra sitting in the hall but not on stage, they were scattered around the room. When the music started the players were walking and moving around. You have an amazing dynamic sense of space and motion.
Who was most responsible for making the technology go where it had to go?
AC: Jonas was pushing, saying, “this is going to be cool.” Chivo [Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] and VFX supervisor friends were pushing to make the technology work. David Heyman was helping to keep everything afloat. Chris DeFaria the VFX executive was enthusiastic. I have to say the whole Warner studio was supportive even if they were flying blind.
DH: Two key creative collaborators were Chivo Lubezki, Tim Webber the VFX supervisor was instrumental in Alfonso realizing his vision. And VFX exec producer Nikki Penny, because with a show like this every shot has a VFX element. Alfonso, who has a clear vision of what he wants to do, finds different ways of expressing that vision. While the whole film was pre-visualized, Alfonso found ways to improvise with the material we had. That required real dexterity, on Tim and Nikki looking after the FX. Somebody at the studio, Chris DeFaria, deserves a lot of credit. He helped us, before we started shooting film, in the long R & D period, trying to figure out how to do the long shots. These shots take up 30 minutes of the film. You couldn’t hide behind cuts which many other films create in CG with long shots. It was a very lengthy R & D to figure out how to do it. Chris and the studio allowed us to go on that journey and spent oodles of money before we saw a frame.
The movie took a lot longer than you planned as you figured out the technology. Was the studio impatient?
AC: The truth of the matter is at the same time that I am dealing with them, it was very clear that the budget was what it was. They never said, “Hey dude, this is a space movie with one character floating in space!” They were not going to spend more money, but at the same time, they were very patient. We were developing this for years and didn’t know if it was going to work. The day before we started shooting, it was not working. We started shooting and during the shoot we didn’t know if what was shooting was going to supply the next part of the pipeline for 5 or 6 months.
Last year we were supposed to release in November but we were not ready. These guys said, “ok we need a couple more months, we need a year.” They were not happy, but they stood behind me. I wasn’t too happy either really.
DH: There was an increased budget. but it wasn’t a radical increase. Initially when Sandy came aboard, that has an effect on the budget, with two stars. The below the line were separate elements, the production and post production. We kept a bit in our back pocket. The studio didn’t shy away from allowing us to use technology because they liked what they were seeing. In March we were pretty much done, waiting to do the Dolby Atmos mix. Alfonso looked at the film and had a new idea which involved flipping the first shot of the shuttle coming in so it was upside down instead of right way up, so there was more sense of being in space in zero G: “I can’t believe I haven’t thought of this before!” The studio were so excited by what they were seeing that they said “OK.” We didn’t quite realize that it would take 2 1/2 months.
Was James Cameron helpful?
AC: A few months ago I showed Cameron stuff, and early on, when I was trying to figure out how to make the film. It was not achievable using conventional technology. I went to talk to him. I’ve known him throughout the years. I showed him some of the pre-vis I have done, he was a big fan of the script. He loves space exploration, and said, “You know what? You will make it happen. You will have to develop some tools.” He made some tech suggestions that were relevant. “There is technology, the trick is how to figure out the tools.” In many ways without his work on “Avatar” or “Life of Pi,” “Gravity” would have been unthinkable. They opened the medium as as a tool.
What did 3-D add to the equation?
AC: Our original title was “Gravity: A Space Suspense in 3-D,” which we wrote when 3-D was still cool. I always wanted to do something in 3-D, for “Gravity” was a particularly immersive experience for all your senses. The problem is that it’s misused and in many ways has been a commercial afterthought for films that have not been designed in 3-D, which is a tool. All films should not be in 3-D– I’m not saying “Avatar,” “Pi,” “Pina” or “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
When was the first 3-D film made? People tend to think it was in the 50s, “House of Wax.” It was 1896, after Lumiere shot 3-D films, it was commercially not feasible to keep on doing it, so they kept 2-D. In many ways Lumiere had this intense experience with 3-D, which is the way we see. The concept of 3-D is something more organic to film than what we give it credit for, using it for gimmicks not for the immersive experience.