Oscar Frontrunner

02.19.14

Alfonso Cuarón On ‘Gravity,’ Creationists, and Bonding with Sandra Bullock Over Divorce

In an in-depth interview, the auteur discusses his Oscar nominated film ‘Gravity,’ its Darwinian ending, and his journey from persona non grata in his native Mexico to one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood.

The prohibitive favorite to win this year's Best Director Oscar is none other than Alfonso Cuarón—and with good reason. 

It had been seven years since the Mexican filmmaker thrilled audiences with his post-apocalyptic saga Children of Men, which earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing (Cuarón is, like the Coen Bros. and Soderbergh, one of a handful of filmmakers that also edit their films).

Then came Gravity.

Directed by Cuarón from an original screenplay by him and his eldest son, Jonas, and shot by his longtime friend and collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, the 3-D film centers on Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission who, after their shuttle is destroyed by space debris—and all communications with Mission Control are lost—finds herself tethered to veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and struggling to survive.

Gravity was one of the most awe-inspiring films of the year, boasting cutting edge 3-D, visual, and sound effects that made audiences feel like they were actually in space. None other than James Cameron called it “the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time.”

Cuarón, who’s picked up Golden Globe, DGA, and BAFTA awards for Best Director, spoke about his space—and professional—odyssey.

I read that your father was a nuclear physicist, and that you studied philosophy at university. Gravity seems to meld these two fields, science and philosophy, together.

I've seen this printed other places, but my father actually wasn't a nuclear physicist—he was a technician in a field called “nuclear medicine.” He did diagnostics things, so not exactly a scientist. But I don’t know! I’m very curious about science but I can’t say I’m a science expert. But I studied philosophy and was doing film at the same time, and ever since, it’s something that keeps me very curious. I keep on going back to it. Yes, there’s a certain philosophical-theoretical frame of mind that I’m very interested in, and I always hark back to it, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously. In Gravity, we’re asking fundamental questions of adversity and the nature of existence—and the nature of existence as a speck in the void filled with adversities.

We’d briefly discussed the ending of Gravity, which is very Darwinian. It has Bullock’s character entering into, as you said, “the primordial soup,” and then crawling on all fours before standing upright.

Yes, that was intentional. In many ways, the film deals with that urge for living; that urge for life. And this urge for living is something that’s shared with the rest of the species’ on this planet. It’s something that’s part of that great mystery. In the human experience, we share so much with the rest of nature. On one hand, there’s the image of this character who went through a process of rebirth and now she’s putting her feet back on the ground, taking her first baby steps towards a new life, and in a bigger metaphorical sense, there’s this comment of evolution. Even more literally, life came from space—not unlike our character reentering earth and colliding with the water.

We still, surprisingly enough, have a lot of creationists in the U.S. Just the other week, science educator Bill Nye debated this creationist, Ken Ham, on evolution on national television, which caused quite the stir. It was all so ridiculous.

Great! [Laughs] I don’t even know what to comment about it except, yeah… [sarcastically] the world is 5,000 years old, and, yeah, dinosaurs came 4,000 years ago. And the dinosaurs were there to tempt our fate, right? Or something like that? I don’t understand the need of certain people to bring forth their faith by just contradicting scientific facts. I don’t understand why people cannot just be so happy and comfortable with their own beliefs and accepting facts. I don’t think that any of the facts contradict the fundamentals of the faith.

Alfonso Cuarón
Director Alfonso Cuarón on the set of Gravity. (Julio Hardy/Warner Bros. )

One of the things that struck me about Gravity is that it seems to be a reflection of what was going on in both your and Sandra’s lives at the time you were setting it up, which is that you were both coming off divorces, and this film is really about someone being attached to and relying on another, and then separating from them and struggling to regain their footing.

When [me and Sandra] met for the first time, we didn’t talk about space or technology or any of that. We just talked about adversity—and not even in the context of the film, but in the context of our lives. In an abstract way. We’d happened to be going through a process of adversities and we were trying to make sense out of them. It created a very interesting bond between the two of us, and a common understanding of what we were looking for. A lot of work was on fine-tuning the screenplay to really try to get into the emotional core of every single one of these scenes, and that common understanding that we had on the subject was very important.

I wanted to go back a bit to the beginning of your career since I’ve been following it for some time. I read that you were kicked out of film school after working on the short Vengeance is Mine?

Vengeance is Mine was written and directed by Luis Estrada and I was the DP, and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] was my assistant and gaffer. But it’s true, I was kicked out, and then later, Chivo was kicked out as well. There are a lot of different, contradictory versions of what happened, but on one hand, our generation—me, Chivo, and Estrada, who was kicked out as well—had a really different mentality than the school. I would say that the school was very dinosauric about things—about energies, and the way of doing things. The other big aspect that happened is that I’m sure we were really obnoxious and annoying brats, so it was a marriage of those two things.

I don’t understand the need of certain people to bring forth their faith by just contradicting scientific facts.

A Little Princess is one of the better children’s films of the ‘90s. How did you end up coming to America and directing it?

When I did my first film [Solo con tu pareja] I burned my bridges with Mexico—particularly with the Mexican government.

They refused to distribute it, right?

For one year, they tried to punish me at the time. And then when they released it, it was a big, big hit in Mexico, and they had to release it because there was a lot of pressure. At the time, the only way to do films in Mexico was if you got a sponsorship from the government, and it was unlikely that I would’ve been sponsored for my next film.

Why did the Mexican government have issues with Solo con tu pareja? Was it the subject matter—a dark comedy about a vengeful nurse convincing a man he has AIDS?

No, it was more that in order to do it, a lot like film school, rather than taking the Mexican government and treating them as my benefactors, I treated them as my business partners—and they didn’t like that. They didn’t like that at all. I tried to do things my own way, so when I said that I wanted to seek international distribution of the film, they told me that I was arrogant because nobody gave a damn about Mexican films, not even the Mexicans. That was the attitude of the guys who were in charge of that. And I was outspoken about those things, so they didn’t like that. Things have changed quite a lot ever since. So, Solo con tu pareja premiered at many festivals, including the Toronto Film Festival, and it attracted the interest of agents and producers, and then Sydney Pollack saw the film and invited me to develop a project with him—a project that never happened—but then he invited me to direct one of the episodes of a TV anthology that he was doing called Fallen Angels.

Right, for Showtime. And a lot of big names—Soderbergh, Tom Hanks, etc.—directed episodes of that series.

It was cool of Sydney because I was the ugly duckling because everybody else was an established filmmaker, and I was this unknown guy that Sydney pretty much imposed. It was very cool of Sydney.

So first came A Little Princess, which got great reviews but floundered a bit at the box office, and then it was followed by your adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, which seemed like a project that may have been thrust upon you by outside forces—agents, the studio, etc.

My pain was self-inflicted. I cannot blame anyone. I was the one who took the wrong turn, and made a film for the wrong reasons. But at the same time, I never learned as much as doing that film because I learned everything I should never do again. One thing was trusting my first instincts, since this was a movie that I’d passed on 3-5 times. Then, I allowed myself to be talked into it, and the rest is history.

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After Great Expectations, you went back to Mexico to make Y Tu Mamá También, which seems like the opposite of your Hollywood experience—a more renegade, personal film. Were you in search of inspiration after that bad experience?

I needed to go back to my filmic roots and fall back in love with cinema, so I revisited all the films that made me love cinema in the first place. Also, another thing happened that I learned in retrospect: I wasted so many years of my filmmaking life becoming reactive in Hollywood, and just becoming a reader of screenplays, as opposed to creating my own material. That was a big, big change. So I wanted to fall back in love with cinema again, and started from scratch.

At one point in the film, there’s a poster of Harold and Maude hanging in the background, which is one of my favorite films. Was Y Tu Mamá También inspired by it?

The funny thing is that it was supposed to be Masculin Féminin by Godard, which inspired the film, and we couldn’t get the rights to it, so they gave me a choice of posters to choose from, and when I saw Harold and Maude I thought, “Okay, that one’s good.”

I still think your Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the best one. After Y Tu Mamá También, what convinced you to return to Hollywood, and take part in a massive franchise?

Well, what happened was after Y Tu Mamá También I wrote Children of Men, and it was right after September 11, and I really wanted to make the film, but nobody wanted to do it, so I found myself without a project. And then this opportunity came along. I didn’t understand why they were even calling me until David [Heyman, producer] asked me if I had read it and I said I hadn’t and he said, “You’re such an arrogant prick. You’re going to go out right now, get the book and read it, and I’ll call you tomorrow.” And I called him the next day and said, “Man, it’s pretty damn good!” But then I said, “But it’s a sequel.” And he said, “If you really immerse yourself in the material, it may be your most personal film.” And it was a process of, on the one hand, embracing the material that I liked, and then working within the frame of something that was already established by two other films, and the challenge was how to turn that into my own film without alienating the fans of the first two films. It was a very interesting challenge. I was also intrigued by visual effects, because I had never done a visual effects film, and I wanted to learn about it as a tool.

Like Gravity, Children of Men has this amazing long, continuous take—the car shootout. Where does your affinity for long, tracking shots come from?

Ever since film school, I’d do some of those—in A Little Princess and Great Expectations there are a few. But it was not until Y Tu Mamá También that I started doing them systematically from the standpoint of language. We started talking about giving as much weight to the environment as we did to the characters, and to display those things in real time.