Instant Classic

10.03.13

Alfonso Cuarón on the Making of His Instant Sci-Fi Classic ‘Gravity’

It took four and a half years to bring the magnificent 3-D film to the screen. The director retraces the journey for Marlow Stern, from Robert Downey Jr. and Angelina Jolie’s departures to creating the most groundbreaking cinematic voyage ever put to film.

It’s been seven years since we’ve seen a film by Alfonso Cuarón, the visionary director behind the best Harry Potter adaptation—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—the post apocalyptic drama Children of Men, and several other stellar works.

Cuarón took a brief hiatus from filmmaking after a divorce and a move to London. Then he was set to shoot the indie European road film A Boy and His Shoe, with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Daniel Auteuil, when the financing fell apart. So Cuarón, joined by his son, Jonás, began laying down the groundwork for the groundbreaking sci-fi epic Gravity, about a female medical engineer and a veteran male astronaut who, after debris from a destroyed satellite crashes into their vessel, are left tethered to each another and desperately fighting to survive. They finished the screenplay in early 2009, and titled it Gravity: A Space Adventure in 3D.

“Space fascinated me because I’m from the generation that saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon live on TV,” says Cuarón. “I was 7 at the time. Also, Lost in Space was one of my favorite shows on TV back then.”

It took Cuarón and his son two and a half years to, as he says, “put the technology together” to make their space saga. During that time, the production was plagued by negative buzz from industry gossipmongers.

“The casting carousel was just amazing Internet gossip,” he says with a laugh. “Suddenly, a casual coffee with someone becomes a deal. With Natalie [Portman], I had a conversation with her for one day, and it’s not like we got into offers or any of that stuff.”

In addition to Portman, who was rumored to be attached to the role of Dr. Ryan Stone, the female medical engineer, other A-list actors seemingly came and went over the years, and the project appeared doomed. Cuarón admits to having “long conversations with Angelina [Jolie]” before she exited the project to direct In the Land of Blood and Honey, as well as “serious conversations” with Robert Downey Jr. for the role of gregarious astronaut vet Matt Kowalski.

“With Robert, we talked about the film, his character, and I even did a script rewrite for him,” says Cuarón. “But when we defined the technology, it became clear that it would be incompatible with what he was best at, which is being physical, as well as riffing and changing the screenplay. The movements in this film had to be pre-programmed, like, you have 12 seconds to move from here to here, so it would have been miserable for him.” He pauses. “It was clear that it was not going to work.”

“It’s like they were performing inside an iPod, and they have to pretend that they’re floating in space, relating, and having all these emotions.”

In addition to testing “dozens of unknowns” for both roles, as well as rumors of screen tests by Marion Cotillard and Scarlett Johansson for Dr. Stone, Cuarón finally cast Sandra Bullock in late 2010. And then, in December 2011, George Clooney stepped into the role of Kowalski.

The film was scheduled to be released in November 2012, but Cuarón was not convinced it was ready. When Warner Bros. asked if he needed a couple of months, Cuarón says he replied, “I need a year!”

“They were very supportive but weren’t too happy,” he says. “And then you see reports that say the movie is in trouble, and you’re like, ‘We can’t even be in trouble yet! At least let us finish it and show you that it indeed sucks first!’”

He laughs, adding, “The amazing thing is that the more money it takes for a movie to get made, the more you feel like everybody wants you to fail.”

With a price tag of $80 million, Gravity wasn’t cheap, but it was still fairly reasonable for a film of such magnitude. Cuarón was also on firm ground with Warner Bros. after directing Azkaban for the studio, which grossed $800 million worldwide. Like that film, Gravity was produced by veteran David Heyman.

Casting headaches aside, the real challenge was the technology, Cuarón says. First, there was the 3-D element. According to Cuarón, Gravity was designed for 3-D “from Day 1,” and in the four and a half years of making the film, “about three and a half was for 3-D work,” he says.

“I had my misgivings about 3-D in terms of the blacks, whites, and color,” he says. “I understand the bad rap that 3-D is getting because because the conversions are crappy and because the films aren’t designed for 3-D. It’s a completely different medium. The length of the shots need to be longer, and then there’s the parallax. If you’re constantly cutting and switching your parallax, it’s an exhausting experience for the audience in 3-D.”

The 3-D work on Gravity was designed and supervised by Chris Parks and created at the design houses Framestore and Prime Focus. And the work pays off onscreen. Shrapnel hurls toward the audience, tears float in midair, and the bodies of Bullock and Clooney swing 360 degrees from foreground to  back. No film has ever come so close to recreating what it’s like to be in outer space. Even the great James Cameron (Avatar) sang the film’s praises to Variety, saying, “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.”

“Experiencing this film in 2-D is only getting about 20 percent of the experience of Gravity,” says Cuarón.

Another challenge, in addition to the 3-D rendering, was capturing the experience of being in outer space. Cuarón, along with his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, had conversations with astronauts and physicists about recreating the behavior of zero gravity, including how objects would react to specific movements by the astronauts.

“The toughest thing was the phenomena called gravity,” he says, “because throughout the whole film, you’re fighting gravity.”

Cuarón and Lubezki explored several options to capture the “disorienting effect.” Green screens, wire rigs, underwater tanks, and even the “Vomit Comet”—a high-altitude jet—were tested, but nothing clicked.

Finally, the duo came up with the idea of rotating lights around a stationary actor to make it appear as if he or she was moving around rapidly. They developed a 9-by-14-foot “light box,” nicknamed “The Cage” and lined with six giant LED panels composed of, he says, “millions of lights,” which surrounded the actors, who were held up by harnesses that appeared invisible on screen. Then they designed “a race track” outside The Cage where a car-manufacturing robot with a camera installed inside would race around it and pop its arm inside various openings, to recreate the effect of floating and spinning around in space. The background, meanwhile, was added in post-production.

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Every single shot, he says, was choreographed in advance, so actors were given specific marks.

“As Chivo says, it’s like they were performing inside an iPod, and they have to pretend that they’re floating in space, relating, and having all these emotions,” says Cuarón.

The film utilizes very long takes, include the much-ballyhooed 17-minute extended—and jaw-dropping—film opener. The team had to make sure all the robots and lights were in place and the synchronicity of all the elements was intact. Cuarón has become renowned for his long takes, including a spellbinding car crash sequence in Children of Men, as well as for switching the point of view back and forth from the audience to his subjects on screen.

“It has to do with giving the same weight to character and environment, and exploring both in real time,” Cuarón says, pointing to space exploration documentaries that were all accomplished in a single take. “Also, we wanted it to be an immersive experience where you go from observing the characters objectively, the asteroid strikes, and we start following our characters rolling, and then we lock on our character and the camera starts rolling with the character, and then the camera goes into her POV and it becomes a first-person experience. So, the camera becomes the POV of the audience, and it’s the audience that’s rolling with the characters, and the cameras are following the same rules of physics that the characters are.”

Although the individual shots, many of them several minutes long, were pre-choreographed, and the actors were working strapped to a harness inside a light box surrounded by bright lights with a mechanical robot buzzing around them, the performances are astonishingly strong, especially Bullock’s, which is nothing short of masterful.

“Throughout shooting, Sandra was completely abstracted from all the technology,” says Cuarón. “Chivo even bit his hand, he was so impressed. So the performances are, for me, more extraordinary than the technology.”

The other big element was sound design. Since there’s no atmosphere to transmit sound in outer space, there is no sound present unless objects are interacting with each other—like Bullock’s medical engineer drilling in screws or shrapnel crashing into their doomed shuttle. Cuarón and his sound team wanted to be as literal as possible about it, approaching music as an immersive tool with real surround sound, which has garnered praise from real-life astronauts.

“The conventional wisdom is that music comes from right, left, and center, and maybe you’ll hear some source music from behind,” he says. “But here, we had a score where the harmonies or noises are coming from different sources around the room, are constantly dynamic, and are moving and crashing into other noises, helping you experience it like you’re rolling around without a center. In Gravity, there’s no up and down because there’s no center—no straight point of reference. We kept on saying, ‘We have to kill the tyranny of the center.’”

From a thematic standpoint, Gravity will inevitably be grouped with several other accomplished survival films being released this awards season, including 12 Years a Slave, which recounts the real-life saga of Solomon Northrup; Captain Phillips, which stars Tom Hanks as a seaman held hostage by Somali pirates; and All Is Lost, a superb film featuring Robert Redford as a sailor lost at sea.

“The obvious thing,” says Cuarón, “is that it offers a very interesting cinematic challenge for filmmakers, but I also think there’s definitely something about the individual in adverse circumstances. There’s a big sense of adversity that’s happening right now in the world, and these movies deal with how we can cope with it.”