Alfonso Cuaron and Sandra Bullock Talk About The Challenges of Making ‘Gravity’

By October 4, 2013
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Gravity is a stunning cinematic achievement. If you can catch your breath between all of the tense action sequences, you’ll likely spend a considerable amount of time wondering how the heck this movie was even made. At the press junket in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, writer/director Alfonso Cuaron, his son Jonas (who co-wrote the film), star Sandra Bullock, and producer David Heyman spoke about the challenges of making the film, Bullock’s opportunity to play a complex female lead, working with NASA astronauts to insure accuracy, and much more. I’ve transcribed the most interesting bits for you below.

Alfonso was asked what changes he had to make in his way of thinking in order to convey a nontraditional approach to the directions (up, down, left, and right) in space:

That was the biggest challenge since early on, even before we got into the technical solutions, when we were considering the choreography. Our brain thinks from the standpoint of gravity – of horizon and weight. It was a whole learning curve, because it’s completely counter intuitive. The way you start working is with pre-viz animations. The problem is that draft people – people that draw, animators – they learn how to draw based on horizon and weight. It was a big learning curve with experts coming to explain the physics of zero g, and what would happen. You would tell who was the new animator in the room, because it was the guy who was completely stressed out and wanted to quit.

Sandra Bullock was asked what kind of training she underwent in order to convincingly portray the feeling of being in zero g, and what the filming process looked like on set:

If there had been a green screen, it would have been nice. There was just blackness, or bright white lights, or metallic objects…you had to retrain your body from the neck down to react and move as if its in zero g without the benefit of zero g moving your body. Everything your body reacts to with a push or a pull on the ground is completely different than it is in zero g. So to make that second nature took training and then weeks of repetition and syncing it with Alfonso’s camera and the mechanics and the mathematics of it all and then separating that from your head, where you had to connect and tell the emotional story.

On her first reaction to seeing the film for the first time:

I always say, an actor, when you see yourself for the first time, you spend all your time just watching yourself and hating yourself and picking your performance apart, saying ‘I look horrible, I should quit!’ There was no time to pick apart one’s performance because you were inundated with the extreme beauty and emotion that he created visually. I hate using the word “technologically,” because it sounds like an inanimate object…it was turned into such an emotion and such a visceral physical experience with this movie…I think I was lucky enough in my career to finally be able to view a movie I was in as it was supposed to be viewed, as a newcomer.

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Ms. Bullock spends the majority of the movie by herself on screen, and someone wondered if she considered that as an added layer of pressure during filming:

I never thought, ‘I’m the only person on screen.’ You had the story, the elements that Jonas and Alfonso wrote. The technology was a constant character around you. I always went back to ‘what was in their heads that I need to honor and help execute?’ So I never once thought, ‘I’m the only person,’ because there’s George, who’s a vital part of this film and who represents this outlook on living and if you don’t have that, this film would not exist.

What was Alfonso’s experience with the NASA astronauts like?

It’s very humbling because you can write a whole fiction and you’re talking with people who have done that in real life. Obviously there were certain things that informed the script – in an early draft, we had scenes that, after talking with one astronaut, we realized were absolutely moronic. Stuff that would never happen. Even if this film is not a documentary and is a fiction, we wanted to within the frame of that fiction make everything as plausible and accurate as we could. Definitely the physics of space, we tried to be super accurate. But in the other stuff, there are so many aspects in terms of orbits and trajectories and a lot of physics that are involved with traveling in space, we could not be – we had to take our leaps in terms of fiction.

What was it like for the father and son team to work together?

Alfonso: [I asked Jonas] to help me write something like that. Something that you’re on the edge of your seat, really tense, suspenseful, a ride – he called it a roller coaster ride – but at the same time is a deep, intense, emotional ride. And to weave between the two of those a lot of thematic elements that are told through visual metaphors.

Jonas: Working with him was a great experience because we had this conversation about doing a movie in this style and finding a way – because it is a big challenge to, on the one hand, have this non-stop action element and be able to juggle themes. I guess the biggest challenge was to engage the audience on an emotional level, and that never really came to happen until we started working with George and Sandra. I learned a lot from my dad and also a lot from George and Sandra because that’s when I really figured out how a character can come alive. It’s a movie that’s a huge gamble – I’m glad [Sandra] didn’t notice – but it was a huge gamble because the whole movie that’s on this character’s shoulders. It was really impressive to see how both on paper in the collaboration and also on screen, she manages to really engage the audience for ninety minutes.

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In a movie culture filled with fantastic roles for leading men, what was it like for Sandra to play a terrific female lead?

I’m always longing to do, emotionally and physically, what my male counterparts always got to do. I just felt envious every time I saw a movie I was in awe of, and it was usually a male lead. Those kinds of roles weren’t available. They weren’t being written. So in the last couple of years, whether it was by us searching for something and turning it into a female character or developing it yourself, you weren’t seeing it, but in the past couple of years, things have shifted. You mentioned The Heat – that’s one thing, and the fact that Alfonso and Jonas wrote this specifically as a woman. It wasn’t an afterthought. I think it was an integral part of the story. I don’t want to say ‘revolutionary,’ but it’s revolutionary, and the fact that a studio on blind faith would fund something as unknown as this is revolutionary. So to be able to be the person to do it is beyond humbling. It made you realize, I have to step up and be the best version of myself, so whatever’s asked of me, I can produce.

As the junket wrapped up, the elder Cuaron spoke about the thematic elements he and his son worked into the movie:

You can see this film as just a big metaphor. This is a film about a woman – forget about space – it’s a film about a woman who is drifting into the void. It’s a woman who is a victim of her own inertia. It’s a woman who lives in her own bubble and confronts all these adversities, and these adversities bring her farther and farther away from human connection, and farther and farther away from a sense of life and living. All these other elements are voices, voices that are part of her own psyche. They represent that search of life, even as she’s despairing – there’s that part, your brain can be telling you, ‘I’m giving up,’ and there’s something that makes the species keep on going. Life keeps on going. In many ways you can see it as a metaphor of an internal journey of a woman. But instead of taking place in a city, in an apartment, with other adversities, it’s just in space.

Gravity is in theaters now.

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Ben is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured at ScreenRant.com, FirstShowing.net, MySpace.com, GeekTyrant.com, and many more sites across the web. Some of his favorite movies include The Rocketeer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tombstone, Lucky Number Slevin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Collateral, Double Indemnity, Back to the Future and The Prestige. Follow him on Twitter: @BenPears.