Alfonso Cuarón On His Spellbinding Sci-Fi Film ‘Gravity,’ Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Alfonso Cuarón discussed his sci-fi instant classic, ‘Gravity,’ at the 40th annual Telluride Film Festival.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Believe the hype. Gravity, the seventh movie from acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón—and his first since Children of Men, back in ’06—is not only the most technologically innovative film since Avatar, but also the most vividly rendered cinematic depiction of space exploration ever.

Cuarón’s film, which he co-wrote with his son Jonás, centers on Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her very first Space Shuttle mission. Since she only has six months training under her belt, Matt Kowalsky, a breezy veteran astronaut on his last mission, played by George Clooney, and another astronaut, Shariff, join Stone. All of a sudden, Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris, paying homage to Apollo 13) orders the team to abort immediately. Debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is headed straight for them, faster than a speeding bullet. It crashes into their shuttle, Explorer, killing Shariff, along with the crew, and leaving Stone spiraling into space.

This opening, a continuous 13-minute shot in impressive 3D, is one of the most awe-inspiring film sequences in recent memory. Through some nifty camera trickery, Kowalsky is seen looping around Stone in a circuitous spacewalk as she works on fixing a technical problem, and then, when the debris hits, the perspective shifts back-and-forth from the astronauts’ somersaulting bodies to POV shots of the wreckage to tight close-ups of Stone’s terrified face. The music, too, shifts violently from strident noise to deadening silence, as do the visuals, which juxtapose the splendor of earth with the darkness of the great beyond. This is probably the closest most people—that is, ones who can't splurge on a $250,000 trip courtesy of Virgin Galactic—will get to feeling like they are in outer space.

Eventually, Stone and Kowalsky end up tethered to one another with an umbilical cord-like strap, navigating the abyss in search of the International Space Station.

In addition to the extraordinary audio-visual components—they may as well just hand the film all the effects Oscars now to save time—Bullock’s fearless performance helps Gravity approach transcendence. I don’t remember the last time I was this invested in a movie character’s survival.

Cuarón discussed the making of Gravity during a Q&A following its U.S. premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. Here are the best bits.

On where the idea for Gravity came from:

“In a way, it was because of a script that Jonás had written which is actually a film that he is prepping to direct. He showed it to me years ago and wanted notes, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t have many notes, but I want you to help me write a film like this.’ It’s a film that is very tight with only a few elements and you’re in constant tension, but through that tension, you’re juggling different things and subject matters. The movie he’s doing now takes place in the desert and there’s only two characters, so we talked about the setting of space because we thought it provided this metaphorical element that we wanted to play with. We started talking, and pretty much the whole idea came to us in one afternoon. We thought that if you have a character that’s drifting, getting further and further away from earth—where life and human connection exists as we know it. She lives in her own bubble. We wanted to do a film about adversities, and the possible outcome is a rebirth, or new knowledge.”

On making your ideas a cinematic reality:

“This whole film was a big act of miscalculation, and that’s why the film took four-and-a-half years to make. We thought it was going to be easy. When I finish a film, the first thing I do is send it to Chivo—that’s Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer—and I said, ‘Chivo, look: this is a small movie, two characters, we’re done in one year,’ and for the next four-and-a-half years, he reminded me that I told him that. I knew that there was going to be some visual effects but I thought with some rigs I’d be able to achieve it. When we started to run the whole thing, it became very clear that the technology to create the film didn’t exist, so we had to invent the technology.”

On the technology invented to create Gravity:

“The problem with shooting the film is the combination of lack of gravity with long, extended takes. We tried different things, like the Vomit Comet—the plane that goes up and down—but that didn’t work. When you put actors in rigs you can feel the strain, so you can only shoot for a little amount of time, plus you have limitations because there are lots of wires around. For a big part of the shoot, there was this 9’ x 9’ empty cube, and inside the cube’s walls were LED screens. In the center of the cube there was a rig for the actor, and it was very difficult to put the actor in, and the rig would balance in different positions. What would happen is the actor would experience the point of view of the character through the projections in the LED lights. That was important because you cannot make actors go like this [spin around], so we had to keep the actors more or less still, and we moved the camera and the lights around them. Practical lights didn’t do the job so we used LED lights, because the light just travels from screen-to-screen. The cube had a gap from which the camera could see, and outside there was a long track with a robot—the ones they use to build cars—and there was a camera on the robot going in-and-out and up-and-down the track… It was like a ballet of technology going on. And outside the cube, there were just rows and rows of geeks on computers.”

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On the rigors of acting in Gravity:

“Everything was really painful for the actors, so I admire what Sandra and George did. It was on the one hand painful, but also an exercise in abstraction, because they were sometimes performing against nothing—just very specific marks. Sometimes, the takes would be many minutes long, and they would have to memorize the different marks with precise timing, because [the lights and animations] was all pre-programmed. With Sandra, it was like a ballerina rehearsing cues for a long time, so when we were shooting, she would just forget about all the cues and just perform. I found it amazing what she did. She’s so precise… Sometimes, Sandra was just performing a monologue that had a lot of technical requirements. A lot of her scenes are very long and very laborious, and she’s just talking and talking and it’s just one single shot.”