Alfonso Cuarón on the long, strange trip of 'Gravity'

Posted by · 10:49 am · September 25th, 2013

Alfonso Cuarón is ready to move on from “Gravity.” Four years of work on his space odyssey including preparation, digital pre-visualization, barrier-breaking technological advances and on-set innovation to achieve what is easily the most realistic depiction of space on film to date have taken their toll on the director and he’s ready to pursue the next thing.

“I’m more than eager,” Cuarón says. “I need it. It took so long that I have already processed the film. Even if I finished the last details before Venice, the whole film for me was very old news.”

It speaks to Cuarón’s philosophy as a filmmaker. For him, the joy of a movie is the experience of the work. The “aftertaste,” as he calls it, is what he takes away. He watches his films once with an audience and he moves on quickly to the next thing. And that, by the way, is how “Gravity” started clicking to life.

Cuarón was prepping a project in 2008 with his son, Jonás, called “A Boy and His Shoe.” The story of a young French girl spending a summer in Scotland with her family who crosses paths with two gypsy Scottish boys was set to be a very low budget, no frills sort of thing. But the financial crisis of that year caused the film’s financing to fall apart and the Cuaróns were stuck looking for another project. Jonás had just written a script called “Desierto” and he asked for notes on it, but his father had none. Instead, the tension of the piece made him want to pursue something similar and so he asked Jonás to help him write “Gravity,” a film that would be full of all the themes of adversity and how a person can grow and learn a lot from that adversity that they were experiencing in real life with “A Boy and His Shoe.”

“We said, ‘Let’s not lick our wounds; let’s move on,'” Cuarón says. “Jonás and I have similar sensibilities, broadly speaking; we’re in the same neighborhood. I think he’s less stuck-up in concepts, though. What happened with me in this process is I dusted off a lot of prejudices. For him, doing something fun and entertaining is not a pejorative thing, it’s a plus. With ‘Gravity,’ he keeps on saying, ‘This is something which you are at the edge of your seat. Things keep on moving forward and we juggle all these themes but while things are moving forward.'”

And “moving forward” is a succinct way to put it. “Gravity” is almost a procedural in the way it is presented, boiled down to a set of point-A-to-point-B obstacles as astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) find themselves drifting helplessly in space after a whirlwind of unintended debris shatters their in-orbit space shuttle.

The action is captured by Cuarón’s cameraman colleague Emmanuel Lubezki (along with plenty of help from digital effects wizardry) in a series of extended takes of up to 13 minutes in length. It reminds of Cuarón’s last film, 2006’s “Children of Men,” which featured three dazzling centerpiece single takes. But capturing drama in one uninterrupted frame is something Cuarón has been interested in for some time.

“I did this film, ‘Y Tu Mamá También,’ that is just single takes, and some of them are quite lengthy,” he says of another Lubezki collaboration. “In most cases the camera was rarely moving. The theory that we started developing there is a character in context: character and environment should have the same weight. Rather than doing a film that is in close-up, where the weight goes to character, we wanted to something that is wider, where character informs context and context informs character. So it’s a comment on both. We wanted to keep exploring that theory in ‘Children of Men,’ but together with that, on ‘Gravity,’ we wanted to convey a sense of what we know as space exploration footage. It tends to be single shots just because you don’t have the luxury of cutting around. But at the same time we wanted it to turn into an immersive experience, where audiences feel like they’re part of the journey, like they’re almost a third astronaut next to our characters.”

Indeed, that immersion extends past mise-en-scène to exhibition technology. The soundtrack has been mixed for Dolby’s new Atmos experience while the film will be released in 3D and IMAX. 3D was actually a part of the equation from the beginning. The original title of the screenplay was “Gravity: A Space Suspense in 3D,” and when Cuarón and his team began prepping the film early on, more than four years ago, 3D maestro Chris Parks was working on the footage and pre-visualizations.

“We started planning every single decision that was going to inform how we were going to shoot and then how we were going to apply the 3D, because we didn’t want 3D to be a gimmick, we wanted it to be part of the experience,” Cuarón says. “And I have to say, I had misgivings about 3D just because of the quality of the picture. It milks the picture. You don’t have great blacks, you don’t have great whites, it murks the color. But saying so, if I see ‘Gravity,’ as much as I like the quality of the picture in 2D, 2D is only 30 percent of the full experience. I think for ‘Gravity’ it’s 3D.”

But Cuarón doesn’t cop to being a technical wizard or geek himself. On films like “Children of Men” and “Gravity,” technology has simply been forced up to the level of his vision. “There are some people, like James Cameron, who really know about that stuff,” Cuarón says. “And thank God for that because if it was not because of people like him, films like ‘Life of Pi’ or ‘Gravity’ would be impossible. But for me, I just want to try to figure out the tools to achieve the shots or the cinematic experience I’m looking for.”

A lot of the technology Cuarón and company developed for “Gravity” obviously has a very specific use: achieving a zero-gravity effect on actors. But after the long and grueling experience of this film, he is certainly not interested in doing any other movie about people floating around. “Whatever I do next, I just want people to walk,” he jokes. Nevertheless, certain technological barriers have been knocked down for any filmmakers interested in shooting a space film, and the ripple effect will not be inconsequential. But Cuarón is quick to note the possibilities of LED lighting, which he used on the film.

“I think it’s going to be the next step in cinematography,” he says. “It’s still in diapers because LED lights, most of them come with a lot of problems with flicker and stuff, but the possibilities of lighting with LED lights is just the amazing complexity of color you can give. If you use movie lights, there’s only one color that is going through. But if you shoot a plate of your environment and you project it with LED lights, the thing is that you’re conveying all the colors of the environment. And that’s what we did. I love in ‘Gravity’ the complexity of skin tones, because in a way, she [Bullock] is being lit by the sun and the Earth and everything spinning around.”

The process was so long and detailed throughout that Cuarón says he never really had the distance to properly enjoy the shots he and his team had conceived. They were, again, “old news” for him long before an audience at the Venice Film Festival finally got a look. Not only that, but ever the perfectionist, he kept finding issues and problems to fix. Everything was just adjustments on top of adjustments, technical problems on top of technical problems.

“At some point, Tim Webber, our visual effects supervisor, started saying, ‘Calm down. You don’t have to worry so much. This is really good. It’s looking very good,'” Cuarón recalls. “And I was just like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know about the level of contrast in this little bit,’ you know? And then we were doing the grading with Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] and Steve Scott, the grader, says, ‘Wow, this is amazing material,’ but I was, ‘Yes, but I’m not sure about this or that.’ And then Chivo, he never likes anything, he started saying, ‘No, this is really cool. I’m so happy about this.’ But it was by bits. You hear it from the visual effects, from the grader, from your DP, but you don’t have the cohesive experience until you see it through the eyes of the audience, and that is the great thing.”

By the time he was there for the first public screening at Venice, he was just numb to the whole exercise, skeptical, even. “And that screening had so many technical problems,” Cuarón recalls. “So I was like, ‘Well, that’s the nature of this film. More technical problems.’ But then the response at the end of the screening was absolutely amazing…It’s not only, obviously, the rendering and how it looks, but the emotional journey.”

Indeed, there is a human underneath all that razzle dazzle, one carrying most of the film on her shoulders entirely: actress Sandra Bullock. The role seemed to be a bit of a revolving door for a while as Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie were all in the mix at some point. But in Bullock, Cuarón ended up with not just an Oscar-winning leading lady, but one whose background in ballet would help her through the taxing physical demands of the role.

When Cuarón first met Bullock, they didn’t talk about the technical aspects, about space, nothing of that sort. It was all about the sense of the film, the emotional journey the character takes. He walked away from that conversation knowing he had a creative cohort, not merely an employee, and that distinction would be crucial.

“When you do films like this, characters are so exposed,” Cuarón says. “You don’t want an actor working under your instructions; you want a collaborator. And she was so up to it. She was kind of fearless in the sense that she was going to be, in many ways, very exposed and at the same time minimizing dialogue as a tool. It was just about her expressiveness and her inner emotional life.

“I think it’s remarkable what she did, and it’s even more remarkable when you know the limitations she went through during the shoot, in the sense that everything was absolutely pre-programmed. It required a lot of physical training to accomplish the shots. On top of that she was bound by choreography and sometimes dozens of cues in a shot with precise timing. It was amazing. I remember editing the film and just watching the performance, saying, ‘I don’t believe this woman.'”

Viewers may well feel the same about Bullock and “Gravity” on the whole when it opens nationwide on Oct. 4. See it on the biggest screen possible and enjoy the trip.

[For more from Cuarón, check out our video interview with the director embedded at the top of this post.]

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