Directed by Alfonso Cuaron from a screenplay co-written by Cuaron and his son, Jonas Cuaron, “Gravity” is a white-knuckle thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney that pulls you into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) in command. But on a seemingly routine mission, disaster strikes and the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space. Opening October 4th, the film is produced by Alfonso Cuaron and David Heyman.
At the recent Los Angeles press day for “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron, Sandra Bullock, Jonas Cuaron and David Heyman talked about conveying the physics of space properly, their research, preparation and training for making the movie, dealing with an emotionally grueling role, having the film rest largely on the shoulders of one actor, how Jonas’ script “Desierto” inspired the father-son screenwriting collaboration, the decision to tell the story economically, striking the right balance between the sound and visual design, the atmosphere, and the storytelling, and their thoughts on the possibility of a sequel.
Question: In most depictions of space we have a sense of up, down, left and right, and you effectively do away with that in your depiction of space and gravity. Can you talk about what kind of changes you had to make in your way of thinking to convey the physics of space properly?
Alfonso Cuaron: That was the biggest challenge since early on, even before getting into the technical solutions. When we were conceiving the choreographies, I would bring things from the standpoint of gravity, of horizon and weight. It was so weird to try to. Actually it was a whole learning curve because it’s completely counterintuitive. The way you saw the choreography is pretty much with previz, meaning animations. The problem is that draft people, people that draw, animators, they learn how to draw based upon horizon and weight. It was a big learning curve with experts coming to explain the physics of Zero-G and what would happen. You could tell who was the new animator in the room, because he was the guy who was completely stressed out and wanted to quit. Eventually, it starts to become like second nature, but it was a tough one.
Q: Sandra, can you talk a little bit about what you had to do training-wise? Was it a different type of training for the spinning and did you do this with green screen?
Sandra Bullock: If there had been a green screen, it would have been nice. There was just blackness or bright white lights or metallic objects. Basically, what Alfonso said, you had to retrain your body from the neck down to react and move as though it’s 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 just took training and then weeks of repetition, and then 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 to the emotion and tell the emotional story. There were various contraptions that existed on the sound stages. When I first saw them, I just made them my friend as quickly and as physically as I could, because if I didn’t, they were so confusing and complex. You had to figure out how to communicate in a language that you’re not understanding coming at you and it didn’t make sense with my rhythms. And then going back and going, “That doesn’t make sense. Can we musically do this because then rhythmically I will know.” It was such a collaborative experience.
Alfonso Cuaron: But you were very involved from early on, not only in the animations. We were blocking and staging and making sure because everything was going to be preprogrammed. What was amazing is that you would go with your training people and have conversations about the rigs and the stunts, and say, “Okay, what is it exactly that you have to reinforce in your body in order to control this thing?” But also, with the previz, with the animations, you’d say, “Okay, also with this motion, if I’m going to keep my arm holding like this and floating, how much strength am I going to need?” It was very specific the workout that you were doing.
Bullock: It’s just core strength. From a dancer’s perspective, you’re just making sure you weren’t going to hurt your body, and you could be very agile and graceful to maintain your body in a rig that’s load bearing, and the load is your weight for long hours of time. And there’s always going to be tweaks and things like that.
Q: When you saw the finished film for the first time, what was your reaction?
Bullock: The first time I saw all of it put together was in Venice. I always say, as 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 and 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 Alfonso created visually. I hate using the word technologically because it sounds like it’s an inanimate object. We always go to things like this. Technology is something that’s heavy. It was turned into such an emotion and such a visceral, physical experience in this movie. I don’t know how they did it with sound. Coming here behind your head, all of a sudden you found yourself affected in ways that you were not planning on being affected. So, we had that same reaction. I think George and I both did. We went, “Wow!” You can’t really speak after the film is over. I was lucky enough in my work and career to finally be able to view a movie I was in as it was supposed to be viewed as a newcomer.
Q: Alfonso, can you talk about some of the challenges you faced in terms of striking the right balance between the sound and visual design, the atmosphere, and the storytelling?
Alfonso Cuaron: All of those are tools for the same thing. They are tools to convey the emotional journey. On their own, each one of those things is meaningless. They can be cool, but they don’t convey the emotions you want to do. So, everything is working and functional. The script in many ways was very solid in terms of the structure. From the moment we finished the first draft, pretty much nothing changed in terms of each one of the moments and each one of the set pieces. What changed quite a lot was with the involvement of Sandra and George, because suddenly there was clarity about this emotional journey and how we were going to convey those emotions. In many ways, that was the big hanger, you might say, in which all these other elements start to hang from that core. It was very strange, because as technological as this film sounds, it was a big collaboration between artists at the end. Tim Webber, the visual effects supervisor, is an artist in his own right. Emmanuel Lubezki, the head cinematographer, is an artist in his own right. Everybody was trying to make life easy for everyone else, knowing that the essence of this was this emotional core that happened with the collaboration of the actors. So, all of those other elements were falling into that. That’s the reason why with the music, composer Steve Price was collaborating with the sound designers. Usually, historically, when you [make a film], there’s a fight between sound designers and composers. They are always fighting. You’ll see them in the mixing room, and they’re always fighting because the composer wants the music to be heard and the sound designer wants the sounds to be heard. But here, they were working together on all of this stuff. That started early on with the selections of moods and music that Sandra has in each one of the scenes when she was performing. It was a very holistic process in many ways.
Q: Sandra, this had to be an emotionally grueling role for you and you were amazing. Was there anything you learned about yourself that you took away from this experience?
Bullock: Well, I’m sure. You never quite know what changes until one day you wake up and you go, “Wow, I’m reacting to things differently. I feel differently.” I’ve always said that the experience of meeting an artist that you are in awe of and you hope to create with one day is usually disappointing, because you put them up on a pedestal, and then you’re like, “Wow, that’s not a nice person.” But the exact opposite was true in the meeting with Alfonso. I got to meet a human being whose evolution as a human being was just so bright.
Alfonso Cuaron: You mean “bean” like “beans”?
Bullock: (laughs) Beans? What did I say? Oh, beans. B-e-i-n-g. If you can’t understand Alfonso, I’m more than happy to translate. I know it’s difficult. And he is speaking English when he’s answering your questions. (laughs) I knew that we were on similar paths in life and how we looked at beings and events and the unknown. We didn’t really know why we were there. You’re just going, “Okay. How do you deal with that?” And then, we went into the technological side and we went, “Wow. I don’t know how I’m going to pull this off.” And then, I met Jonas and went, “Wow, his son and his co-writer is exactly the same.” There’s a sense of calm and understanding and it always went back to the emotion of the story. Then you meet the producer and you’re like, “Oh, here comes the person I’m going to hate.” And there were times when he would come over to the trailer at the end of the day, and I knew why he was coming, where I did not like him at all. But, all of our priorities were the same in that we were all stepping into a completely unknown world. They had been in it far longer than I was. I had to play catch-up. The important thing for me was I can’t selfishly take journeys anymore because I have to take a little boy along with me. I said, “If you make it an amazing experience for him and make it so I’m not somewhere not paying attention because I’m so worried about where is he and is he having fun. Is this a good life experience?” David turned the backlot of a soundstage in rainy London into a wonderland for a 1-1/2-year-old. Everything was bumper-guarded. People would go, “What is that?” and I’d go, “That is to protect a child’s head, all of it.” We can go through the technical aspects of working and how you change, but there was just a level of kindness and collaboration, and I think the general sense of the unknown bonded everyone together on such a human level. If you have an experience that spoils you, it ruins it for a lot of other people, and I can say that that honestly happened.
Q: What was it like to be the only actress on screen and perform for a great deal of the movie by yourself?
Bullock: I never thought about that. I never thought about I’m the only person on screen. I thought you had the story, the elements that Jonas and Alfonso wrote. The technology was a constant character around you. How were the visuals? 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. He represents life and his outlook on living, that if you don’t have that, this film could not exist. So I never thought of it until I started doing press and everybody’s freaking me out going, “How do you feel that this rests on your shoulders?” I’m like, “How is it now my problem? I didn’t write this or produce it or come up with the cockamamie idea to make a space movie.” I still don’t think about it, because I feel like I’m third or fourth on the list of characters before the story, the emotional visuals, the sound, the experience of what they’ve created.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the research you did for the film, the people at NASA that you talked to, and how that helped you understand your character and what she’s going through?
Bullock: We had a lot of technicians around us that helped me literally with knowing where buttons were in the Shenzhou and the Soyuz. What would I do? Is this correct? I was more concerned about body work and how it worked in Zero-G and there was no one to ask. You have people explaining, “Well, this is what happens” but I’d go, “It’s just not registering.” My brother-in-law was actually with a friend of his at some wine packaging place and the guy said, “Yeah. My sister is an astronaut.” And my brother-in-law went, “Well my sister-in-law is getting ready to be an astronaut.” So he got my number to Katie (NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman) who was at the ISS (International Space Station) at the time and she called, and I was able to ask someone who was experiencing the things that I was trying to physically learn. I was able to ask her about how the body works and what do you do? What do I need to reteach my body physically to do that cannot happen on Earth? We needed to get the puppeteers and everyone together on the same page. As Alfonso says, we think this way on Earth. It’s just the oddest thing to reprogram your reactions. So it was just a coincidental, fortuitous thing that happened over wine that got me the final piece of information that I needed. And so, that was it.
Q: In your conversations with Katie, what fascinated you about her job and what did she tell you about the psychology of being an astronaut and her experiences?
Bullock: We had one phone conversation. Apparently, they’re not allowed to just accept calls whenever you feel like calling the ISS and our work schedule was so crazy. So our connection was always sort of ships passing in the night. My character wasn’t an astronaut. My character wasn’t someone who wanted and aspired to be an astronaut. All those questions were for George. I mean, that’s the research that he had to do. My character was just someone who happened to be in a position where it was easier to train her to just execute this one mission and then go home. But what I did learn from them, which was so beautiful, which again applies to George, is just their emotional point of view on life, and why they go up there, and why they specialize in something on Earth, and why they want to go to space to see how it operates in space so we all benefit from it when they get back. That’s more of a George question.
Q: Alfonso, what was your experience with the NASA astronauts? How did that help inform what you were trying to accomplish?
Alfonso Cuaron: Well it’s very humbling because you can write a whole fiction. 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 have scenes that after talking with one astronaut, we realized were absolutely moronic, that there was stuff that would never happen. Even if this film is not a documentary and it’s just a fiction, we wanted in the frame of that fiction to make everything as plausible and accurate as we could. Definitely with the physics of space we tried to be super accurate. But with other stuff, where there are so many technological aspects in terms of orbits and trajectories and a lot of physics that are involved in traveling in space, we had to take our leaps in terms of fiction.
Bullock: By “leaps” he means “leaps” not “lips.”
Alfonso Cuaron: (laughs) No, I mean lips. But as to the other stuff, the truth of the matter is that for a big chunk of time you’re talking with those people and you don’t care about your movie anymore. You want to hear what they have gone through. You want all the detail. It’s amazing. Another thing that I have to say is this film is not a documentary, because in real life they have hundreds of alternative procedures for each thing that happened. If you think about it, in 40 years of space exploration, there have been a handful of incidents. It’s been very limited. There are missions all the time and you are going to the most hostile place that any human has ever been. And it’s because these people are so well trained. They are not trained just to do what they’re supposed to do. They have to have alternative thinking of many other procedures. So these people are really remarkable and that’s something that I admire in the space program. It’s a bunch of people that are so qualified that you just feel stupid. You feel like a movie director.
Q: Alfonso, I read that you were inspired to write “Gravity” after reading your son’s script, “Desierto,” about two immigrants stranded in the desert. Is that true?
Alfonso Cuaron: Yes, when I read the “Desierto,” Jonas gave me “Desierto” to give him notes and I read it and said, “Well I don’t have that many notes, but I want you to help me write something like that. And what I mean by something like that is to write something where you are at the edge of your seat and it’s a really tense and suspenseful ride.” He called it a roller coaster ride. But, at the same time, it is a deep, intense, emotional ride. And interwoven between the two of those are a lot of thematic elements that are told through visual metaphors. And yes, I asked him to please help me do something like that.
Q: How was it working together?
Jonas Cuaron: Working with him was a great experience because we had this conversation about doing a movie in this style and finding a way. It is a big challenge on the one hand to have the non-stop action element and be able to juggle themes. 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 also. For me, I learned a lot from my dad and also from George and Sandra, because that’s when I figured out how a character can come to life. It’s a movie that was a huge gamble. I’m glad she didn’t notice, but it was a huge gamble because the whole movie was on this character’s shoulders. It was really impressive to see how both on paper and in the collaboration and then also on screen she manages to really engage the audience for 90 minutes.
Alfonso Cuaron: And the rest of the experience was just two writers working together.
Bullock: And if I can just also say, there’s a complimentary film piece that Jonas did which is there’s a moment where I’m speaking to Earth and the character’s name is Aningaaq (voiced by Orto Ignatiussen) and he’s an Inuit. He went there and shot this absolutely beautiful complimentary piece of loneliness and emptiness on Earth where this man is calling from. It’s so beautiful that I get goosebumps just thinking about it, and hopefully, you’ll be able to get to see it. Again, it’s the apple tree. The talent is just overwhelming. It’s a beautiful piece that complements what happens in the film, and you just get a little gift later on and it’s beautiful.
Q: Will it be on the DVD perhaps?
Bullock: I don’t know. (joking) Warner Bros. doesn’t consult me on that.
Alfonso Cuaron: (laughs) Yes, it will be on the DVD.
Was the Spanish line that Sandra had in the movie a line that you threw in as homage to your Mexican heritage or was that something Sandra just improvised?
Alfonso Cuaron: (laughs) What do you think?
Bullock: He loves Mexico.
Alfonso Cuaron: That line obviously was very funny because she just dropped it. It used to be, “I don’t speak Chinese.” So she turned it into “No hablo Chino.”
Q: Sandra, you had to go to some pretty dark places as a mom in this role. Was that difficult for you to film?
Bullock: Oh yeah. No one wants to think about that. I just kept thinking what a strange job. If I personally can’t feel it, I can’t do it. I kept having to say in the beginning, “What would I do?” And I realized I might be far worse off than she is. So, you just have to go there and know that at the end of the day you can unplug and you can go home and do something that a lot of parents can’t or people who were parents can’t.
Q: We’ve seen you in “Heat” and “The Blind Side” and so many different films, but one of the great surprises of this movie is how unexpected it is to see you in this kind of a role. What was your reaction when you got offered it?
Bullock: I was always longing to do emotionally and physically what my male counterparts always got to do. It was like I just felt envious every time I saw a movie that I was in awe of, and it was usually a male lead, and those kinds of roles weren’t available. They weren’t being written. So, 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 last couple of years, things have shifted. You mentioned “Heat” and that’s one thing. And then, there’s the fact that Jonas and Alfonso wrote this specifically as a woman. It wasn’t an afterthought. It was an integral part of the story. 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 me realize I have to step up and be the best version of myself so whatever is asked of me I can produce. So yes, every day I’m so grateful.
Q: For David, I understand this is your first film since the “Harry Potter” movies, and Warner Bros. and Jo Rowling just said they’re going back to doing that. Will you be producing those?
Heyman: I can’t talk about it right now. All I can say is it’s great that Jo had no need to go back to this universe, the world of not Harry Potter per se, but the world of Harry. And she’s chosen to do so because she felt the need to tell a story. That she’s doing it means it’s going to be very, very special.
Q: For Alfonso and Jonas, there isn’t a single wasted moment in this film. Time has a real presence in this. Why tell the story in such an economical way? It’s a very short narrative? Why not give more space and time to it?
Jonas Cuaron: The main idea that we had in the beginning was to do this kind of stripped down narrative where there would be a non-stop pace and in that way we would manage to engage the audience on that emotional and thematic level. The idea behind it is that when you engage the audience on such an instinctive, almost adrenalin-like journey, you’re connecting more directly with them. It becomes like a cathartic experience working with the adversities that the character, Ryan, is going through. Obviously, the audience hasn’t experienced that, but they can project their own experiences into that journey.
Alfonso Cuaron: Yes, that’s what Jonas kept saying, that it was about the audiences using their own emotional experience to partake in the journey with the characters. So he was always saying it was visceral and primal and to keep everything just like that. And he was a pain like that, I have to say. He looks like a very nice boy, but every time I tried to expand on stuff, he pretty much accused me of being old (laughs), but in a very nice kind of way.
Q: For Sandra, sound is so important, but your voice is one of the most reassuring things while watching the film because it carries us through this journey in such a specific way. How did you reach that emotional level?
Bullock: Alfonso and I talked a lot about the voice. It’s very specific the voice and the breadth. Where in the register is her voice when it’s someone who’s that cut off? If I went a little higher pitched in my panic, it always rang false. Unless it was absolutely perfect for that moment, we always went back going, “Next time let’s do it in that other register and try and stay there.” And then, the breath was always followed and where the level of hyperventilation was at that moment. And then, back in ADR again. Can we go back through with a fine tooth comb and find any false tones in the voice, any breaths that are not connected? And are they too fast? Should we slow them down to match? There was a lot of time spent on that. I mean, the meticulousness with which you were allowed to work on this movie is unheard of. So we were always able to go back and say, “I don’t know why, but it just didn’t feel right. Can we go back and just try other levels with the voice?” We always wanted to give her a voice based on her experience and where she was in life. So it was unapologetically cut off and monotone, (laughs) much like my own, but very distinctively her.
Alfonso Cuaron: But the detailing Sandra took the whole thing from mapping. Yeah, I would be involved with her, but at the end, she was driving the boat of mapping up the breaths because a lot of that was about breathing and the tone of voices. And then, how we shot it. We kept on being very aware of how we were shooting it. And then, when we put it together to see exactly where we needed to model it. And yeah, we had disagreements. Sometimes I said, “But I think here there should be more panic.” And she’d say, “I’m not a damsel in distress.” I’d say, “No, it’s not about being a damsel in distress. If I was up there in that situation, I would be screaming.” She said, “Yes, but you’re a wimp.” So, end of conversation.
David Heyman: Can I just say, the other thing when you talk about Sandra’s performance that I think is remarkable is how much of it is done through her eyes. For a huge portion of the movie, what you’re seeing is this (her eyes). There’s not a body or a gesture that can reflect sadness or weight or whatever it may be. It’s not the physical. You don’t have the physicality with which to express these things. It was her eyes. And those eyes are behind a visor. And yet, she tells the whole story and that was amazing.
Alfonso Cuaron: I agree.
Q: Was it a conscious decision not to show us the people on the ground who are just as involved?
Alfonso Cuaron: The thing is that would break out of the almost existential experience that you get with your character. You can see this film as just a big metaphor. Forget about space. This is 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 who confronts all these adversities. And all these adversities just 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 that are part of her own psyche, that represent that search for life, that even as she is despairing, there is that part of her brain that can be telling her, “I’m giving up.” And there is something that makes the species keep on going. Life keeps on going. It is this search for life. In many ways, you can say that it’s a metaphor for just an internal journey of a woman, but instead of having this story take place in a city, in an apartment, with other adversities, it’s in space.
Q: There’s a common history between the protagonist in this and the protagonist in “Children of Men” and how they use the adversity they’ve encountered in their lives as a jumping off point for finding hope in a hopeless universe. Do you view the films as linked? Could you have done this without doing “Children of Men”?
Alfonso Cuaron: (laughs) Well, it’s hard to tell because life just happened like that. Both are road movies. One is in space and the other one is on Earth. I really don’t know. One film happened first. It’s life. Your actions and your experiences shape your moments and your decisions. Yes, obviously, I wouldn’t have been able to do this before “Children of Men” because the process of “Children of Men” took me also on a journey of personal adversities. The point of departure when we started working with this screenplay, I was in the midst of one of those periods in my life where everything is an adversity. When I started working with Jonas and we decided to do this film about space and stuff, we talked about the theme as adversities and the possibility of a rebirth. In other words, maybe I was clinging to the film with the hope that there was going to be an end to those adversities and a rebirth, and a rebirth meaning new knowledge. So, in that sense, I think it would have been impossible just because of the experience I have from other films.
Q: People are saying that there has never been a film like this, and it’s going to be changing the future of filmmaking, and it’s another career-defining moment for Sandra Bullock. Do you think this film needs a sequel?
Alfonso Cuaron: (laughs) Well, we always said that, and we were very tempted to do this: When she comes out of the water, she’s just walking, and then suddenly you hear [makes a whistling sound like space debris falling rapidly from the sky followed by a giant thud] something coming out from space and it’s just going to crash, killing her.