This week sees the release of Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) science fiction epic, Gravity. Already a hit around the world, no one expects anything different from the UK release. It has garnered a huge range of critical acclaim, including on Front Row Reviews. Check out what was said at the recent press conference for Gravity.
Director Alfonso Cuaron
Writer Jonas Cuaron
Sandra Bullock – Dr. Ryan Stone
Producer David Heyman
AC: Jonas came up with this notion of doing a film that is a rollercoaster of human emotion. It’s a film that you’re on the edge of your seat from the beginning for, very suspenseful, tension all the way through, but at the same time, it’s a projection of a deep emotional journey. Between the emotions and the ride, there would be other things expressed mostly through visual metaphors. And the intent was to do something very cathartic, with which audiences could connect and express their own emotional experience into the journey. And so space was a great setting for that.
JC: It became a great metaphor. When we started talking about the themes we wanted to tackle, adversity was one of the main ones, so setting it in space seemed perfect. We started talking about possible scenarios, we had this image of an astronaut floating and spinning away into this huge void. Not only did it become a great metaphor for adversity, but also the existential void of the character.
Then you came on board, David?
DH: I’d worked with Alfonso before on the third Harry Potter, and when he asked if I’d join them, there was not a moment’s hesitation. Alfonso is one of the most brilliant directors, a good friend and he’s done so much work I admire. I knew I was going to be on for a hell of a ride, and it was. Alfonso is always pushing everyone, he never settles, it’s riding such a high wire act that you could easily topple, and that’s really exciting. Sometimes it’s scary, but really thrilling to be part of. Because you know you’re reaching for something extraordinary. I read the script, which he and Jonas had written and it was beautiful. Then we started to try and make the film and went, ‘Oh my goodness! This is something!’ Because the film is about dealing with adversity and we didn’t have a clue how we were going to do it.
DH: It’s been a remarkable journey. And Alfonso found Sandy.
AC: In the street. She was lost. Just like that!
SB: It’s all true!
Sandra, can you talk about dealing with adversity?
SB: Yeah, I had been such an extreme admirer of Alfonso’s body of work, and it was one of those dreams: ‘If I can only work with…’ The joke in my office was, every time we had a script, ‘Do you think Alfonso will direct it?’ We knew the answer was no because he writes his own material. But I always used his films as examples of things I loved, to say what we should aspire to. And then it came up that he had this project and I had no intention of working. They said, ‘he’ll come to Austin.’ I said, ‘What? Alfonso Cuaron is coming to Austin?’ And he did and the conversation that we had when he came had nothing to do with how to make the film or what kind of film we’d be making, it had to do with the emotional core of what he felt this film was about. I was immediately able to relate what I felt I wanted it to be about and they both happened to be the exact same thing. And that was mind-blowing. Usually you’re meeting with someone you’ve held in such high esteem and they end up not being as bright as you want them to be. And then I met Jonas, and we talked about character development and nuances and the technical side came in and it was the great unknown. But you talk about life paralleling art, it was – we had great adversities every single day that he had to deal with, that David had to deal with, that Jonas had to deal with. Just on a logistical level, these things never existed before they started making this film. So every day you were battling something because your comfort zone was gone, but I think in the end, for all of us, it was, as Jonas says, an existential journey that spat us out at the end. You figure out what you’re made of and what’s no longer applicable and I’m so glad I had that experience with this very specific people, because we all needed to learn something and came out the other end having hopefully learned it.
Sandra, as you may know, a Japanese team are going to the International Space Station in November. Is there anything you would ask them to do while they’re in space?
SB: Be safe.
AC: By the way, she left some keys in one of the modules, so if they can bring them down?
SB: A lipstick and some keys! It’s my favourite lipstick and they don’t make it anymore, so if they could just bring it back… I know it’s s simple thing but it would mean the world to me.
AC: You know, we have been discussing that. I’m a bit torn about the whole thing because one part of me, as a member of the audience, I just love the experience of going into a cinema and going through the ride of it. What happens to me if, before you see the film, too much has been shown about how you did it, it takes away the illusion. It’s like when you go to see one of those great magic acts. You know that it’s an act – people don’t float. Or maybe some of them do… But it’s just the poetry of the concept. The great illusionists, what they do is, they’re telling stories. The last thing I want to know is how they do it. Later on, I guess that is our responsibility of filmmakers to other filmmakers to share the knowledge and that is something I’m all for. If any filmmaker or producer calls you and says, ‘How did you do it?’ you spill the beans completely, because that’s how knowledge evolves. But part of the DVD will have features on the technologies. Still, no matter how much in depth you go in a documentary, even for me, it’s so abstract to understand. You need wizards like Tim Webber the visual effects supervisor, who understands it. You can get the basics but not the deeper principles. I don’t even understand how we did it!
Sandra, how comfortable did you feel in the space suit? How sexy did you feel in it?
SB: Wow, sometimes questions come at you that you just don’t know how to answer! For the most part, I was never in a space suit. There were pieces of a suit with weird things attached to you for the CGI crew to be able to navigate once you’ve done the action, to go in and overlay a suit. The Russian space suit was really the only one I wore. It was so exquisitely made. You talk about the technology on film, the technology that was invented or created to execute these works of art was beautiful. They were confining, restrictive, and that’s as they feel when they’re wearing them up in space. I’d love to tell you they were sexy, but there’s nothing sexy about them.
AC: The Russian suit was very sexy.
DH: Much sexier than the American one.
SB: Well, yeah, because it was slimming. But it wasn’t built for survival outside of the capsule. It’s built for limited work outside. The American space suit is built the way it is because it’s a life support system. It’s a space ship. And the Russian one literally has a very limited time, to the minute, that you can spend outside and survive.
SB: Because it was designed for use inside the Soyuz capsule.
AC: There’s another Russian suit that is similar to the American one, another bulky, huge thing. This is the one that is designed to be used inside the space pod and works for limited exposure to the void. So you can survive, but it’s limited.
Alfonso, Gravity needed very specific lighting. How did you work with Emmanuel Lubezki (Cinematographer)?
AC: We call Emmanuel “Chivo.” And Chivo is all about light. He’s the master of it. In a way, he sees things differently than any of us. He’s amazing, the subtlety he has in his eye. Something he was really obsessed with when he got involved with is light in space. Because it’s unlike any light we know on planet Earth. It’s an unfiltered light. Here on Earth, wherever you do, there is atmosphere. And the atmosphere refracts the light. He checked zillions of references for light in space, talked to astronauts, talked to everybody, asking the weirdest questions. And what he liked is this idea that, in space, light is completely unfiltered. Not only that, but on Earth you have different colours of light, of sunlight, depending on factors like the time of day, the atmosphere, that sort of thing. In space there is only continuous colour, except one minute in sunrise and one minute in sunset. So he worked very hard to replicate that light, and even harder to replicate that in a virtual reality so the two realities would match – live-action and virtual. He was working in virtual lighting and he got the dream that he always had. It was so fantastic to see him working with the computers and the experts, because he could utter the words, ‘Move the sun 100 million miles to the left!’ He loved that. He always complains about that when we shoot other films – ‘Can you move the sun over there?’
Jonas, for a young filmmaker like yourself, it must be a dream come true to actually work and see how a master – your father – does his thing. So my question to you us –
My question is, how was this a learning experience for you, and Alfonso, how was it working with your son, writing the script?
JC: For me, it was a great learning experience that started many years before. We had collaborated before this on a different script. And I guess I just grew up around him doing films and pitching me scripts when I was little. Instead of reading me bedtime stories, he would pitch me his scripts. So he was surprised I was going into film?
JC: Upset, yes! So for me it was a great learning experience in the sense of seeing how the words get translated into film. Also, the process with the actors, where the whole emotional ride is on Sandra. It was cool to see how you can make a character more than just words and give it a life.
AC: For me, it was just working with a really cool writer. And actually, the energy of this film, it doesn’t have the energy of any of my other films, that’s something he brought to the whole thing. He was clear about this concept of making it tight, keeping the tension from the get go. And the other thing I saw as you grow older and start making your films and people and indulge a little bit, you start getting into stupid ideas. And he would come and not take those seriously. Through him, I learned the value of going back to entertaining. You think you have important things to tell and you need to be serious, and he kept on saying, ‘We have to make it fun.’ He reconnected me with my love of cinema. I went to the movies because it was fun to go and that’s what he helped me learn.
SB: There was nothing fun about making this film! Even when George and I were together in whatever contraption we were tied into, struggling with the technology, fun is not the word I would use. I think, out of anger and frustration towards Alfonso for putting us there, George and I were so in sync that we felt the need to make fun of Alfonso and the way he speaks. So George and I basically became Scarface.
AC: Yes, but I’m Mexican. They imitated me like a Cuban!
SB: You’re right. As you said, our job was to entertain, not for authenticity! So as Jonas taught you, maybe we were trying to teach you that maybe Mexican wasn’t as funny as Cuban at that moment and that’s why George and I chose Cuba. And it makes a better face.
AC: Guys, face it – you were trying Mexican and you sucked.
SB: So it was a good stress relief and I finally had a partner to vent on.
AC: She was locked in a box for the technology and the communication was through radio. So she was alone in this box, and we have these witness cameras, just to make sure she’s okay.
SB: Which I always forgot were there.
AC: She forgot and every time I would go to a mic and say, ‘Sandy?’ this was the reaction… (Rolls eyes)
SB: Also because that ‘Sandy?’ came after a take, and it meant, ‘We have to do it again because your nose might have gone a quarter of an inch too far forward when you were trying to act the role…’ Or my hand was not where it should have been when we were starting, so we need to do everything over again even though I felt I nailed something.
AC: She is! And there was, ‘Sandy, can you do less bubbles, please?’
SB: Bubbles? Oh! Yes, in the tank! And I’m more than happy to die… Bubbles means there’s air coming into the air pipe. Less bubbles, okay…
AC: (Mimes Bullock blowing lots of bubbles)
Sandra, how did you compose your performance, especially acting against machines or nothing?
SB: I don’t know. Composing means you have a beginning, middle and end and a fluidity to what you’re doing. This was done in tiny little sections and then you had these long stretches where you had to wait for the camera to get to you and it ended up, for me, the easiest way to rhythmically figure out how to give them what they needed and have some linear story was musically. Alfonso had a bag of music and songs and sounds and I went through the catalogue and started pulling songs for each scene that made me feel something because I knew I would be isolated, and I needed something that would be a quick fix or wake me up in some way, so it was always the rhythm of some kind of music or song, whether it was just in my head or something we piped in. After we shot enough, I was able to say, ‘Can you play back in my ear what we just shot?’ So I could hear the breath, get the level of hyperventilation or fear, get worked up to that point and they could roll camera. The more we shot, the more I had to go back and reference to piece this together.
AC: I think, in my perception of what happened, you just nailed it. Sandy composed this. In the script, it was very precise and it was already composed, but through harmonies. It was a harmonic script. And they were very complex harmonies, interweaving into each other. Sandy came and gave a melody. And she gave the lyrical factor to it, including arias at certain points. There’s no question of that – it was pure Sandy. She was pushing for that, and it was refreshing.
David, given that you’ve worked twice with Alfonso. Was the process the same, or has he evolved as a filmmaker?
DH: He’s taken a big step back! No, I’d say this is a more personal film to Alfonso than Harry Potter.
AC: No! Anyway, keep on going…
DH: I think partly because it evolved through him and Jonas writing it together, the film is about adversity. And when he began working on it, the film came from a place of his own adversity when he started. Harry Potter was different because he was brought into it. Though in typical Alfonso fashion, he made it his own. He’s a master director and he has knowledge of every single aspect of filmmaking. What he doesn’t know, he learns. So on Harry Potter, he knew a little bit about visual effects, but by the end of it, he knew everything he needed. With this one, he’d never made a 3D film. It was a journey, but he learned and knew what he wanted to do and made the tools work for him. What I love about Alfonso is, as much as he’s a master of every aspect, he’s a humanist. And with everything he’s worked on, he finds the truth in moments and makes the film so much more than the story it is, he takes it to a mythic plane for me. So he’s a challenging director to work with, because he’s pushing everyone to do their very best. He doesn’t settle. Ever. He’s a brave director. He changed everything in Harry Potter – every costume was different, every performance was different, he made it and frankly allowed us to carry on to the end. He allowed us to grow up. That obsession with every moment means that everyone working around him has to be on their game and for me it’s a privilege. Has he evolved? He’s a lot older than he was! He’s got a lot more grey hair.
AC: The grey started with Harry Potter, by the way.
SB: That scene, and correct me if I’m wrong, was in everyone’s mind. I had to be in top core strength because I had to collapse myself on this bicycle seat. When I saw it in the pre-vis and the piece of music they’d set it to, it was so emotional and had so much weight for all these reasons. I know it was a big scene for Chivo, for everyone. You could just feel it. So when we shot it, it was a tense day because the helmet was supposed to come off, how do we do it in slow motion? One leg is taped to this pole, everything is contracting and we worried so much – at least I did – that when we finally shot it, we had that piece of music we all fell in love with and we played it. I said, ‘Just play it, and the rhythm will find itself.’ And it did, it took a couple of takes, but after, I think, the sixth one, it was so silent, no one had to say a word, everybody knew that it worked.
AC: You prepped for that scene for months…
DH: She couldn’t show any strain!
SB: At one point, Alfonso said, ‘Sandy? Does your leg have to shake?’ I told him, ‘I am slowly contracting using my core at this speed… That is a muscle, Alfonso. That’s what muscles look like and it’s supporting my entire body!’ ‘Okay, don’t shake it, then. You can have the muscle, don’t shake it!’ But all those things Alfonso said, the metaphor, the visuals, the feelings I wanted people to have for themselves when they watched the scene, I didn’t want to be responsible for messing that up. And to me when tragedy hits, we would like to go back to the womb and start over again because it’s the safest place you ever were. To be able to show that, that sense of peace, that sense of beauty and silence was daunting. Every single aspect had to be perfect. I remember where everyone was, how it felt sitting there. Shooting it was like doing modern interpretative dance with Martha Graham, but such an emotional day and I just wanted Chivo and Alfonso to be happy. When there was silence and I didn’t get an, ‘Er, Sandy?’ I knew. I started crying. Everyone had their moment. No one looked at each other. We wanted so badly to be in a story where you get the feelings you do from reading a book. Fantasy, suspension of belief, I don’t think film has been able to have that for a while.
The movie’s about rebirth. Is this the rebirth of your career?
SB: I’ve been granted many times to have different experiences. There’s the work and there’s a career. I can’t control the career aspect because it’s all about timing and other things. For me, it was a rebirth in my excitement at filmmaking and my part in it, and what I’m allowed to be a part of. Alfonso didn’t have to be collaborative, but he’s one of the most collaborative people I’ve worked with. So it was a rebirth in my faith in why I chose this profession.