By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 4, 2013 at 10:51AM
"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.