Oscar winning Mexican director on Sandra Bullock, Harry Potter and space
Alfonso Cuarón, the film director behind the year’s biggest box office hit Gravity, talks to David Fear.
That cosmic disaster film Gravity is both an incredibly visceral experience and an attempt to fashion an existential narrative on Big-Picture topics – life, the universe and everything – can be attributed to Alfonso Cuarón. The 51-year-old Mexican director has been wowing movie lovers since the mid-’90s with intriguing literary adaptations (Great Expectations, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and vibrant, visionary works (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men). None of which will prepare you, however, for what feels like one seriously sweaty palm-inducing trip through the stratosphere. Time Out talked to Cuarón as he was getting ready to showcase his new film, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, in Los Angeles.
This movie all started with a project your son Jonas Cuarón was working on, right? Something he still is working on, actually. A project called Desierto. Basically, Jonas gave me his screenplay and asked me to give him notes. I read it and I said to him I had no notes – but asked him if he would help me write something just like it.
Is it fairly similar to Gravity, then? It’s similar in that it’s two characters and they’re dealing with a hostile environment. Both films feature people going through a difficult emotional journey. But Jonas’s film is set in the desert.
So how did that go from two people trapped in the desert to being trapped in space? I had always wanted to do a space film, so I told Jonas, let’s move things up. You know, very high up. We started with one single image. An astronaut, untethered from a ship. The idea was that this character is trapped in a bubble, and it takes something extreme to get her out of it. This was all happening while I was going through a lot of adversity, so the idea of a person being lost and having to go through a rebirth was a very attractive notion.
I imagine it was, though I’d wonder how attractive the notion of having to recreate the cosmos from scratch was. What kind of technical challenges did you face making the film? It was a naïve process. When we were writing, we could do whatever we wanted. It wasn’t until we’d finished that I put on my producer and director’s hats and went, ‘Oh’. But I immediately sent the script to Emmanuel Lubezki – I call him ‘Chivo’ – and I said to him: ‘Chivo, take a look at this, it’s this small movie with two characters. We can do it very quickly.’
A small movie? Really? Yeah, I figured there would be a fair amount of CGI, but it would be pretty straightforward. [Sighs loudly] The first thing we did was four or five days of tests with the current technology – this would have been 2008, I think – and we quickly realised that by day two, nothing was going to work. We essentially had to build our own technologies to get the realistic look we were going for. That’s why it took four and a half years to make the film.
You’ve said that your goal was to make something that looked like a Discovery Channel documentary that had gone horribly wrong. We wanted it to be as photorealistic as possible. When you’re operating under a comic-book aesthetic, you can do whatever you want. The problem is when you’re trying to deal with the reality that we all know, which is the version of space that’s recognisable from those hi-resolution photographs taken from above the Earth. Chivo and I had a similar situation with Children of Men, when we were mixing effects with a realistic attempt to do a ruined future and make it look like the London we knew.
Chivo was also obsessed with how the light from space would look... it’s a completely unfiltered sunlight, totally foreign to how we see light that comes through Earth’s atmosphere. Light also bounces off of the planet’s surface and is projected back, and the light from that bounce is different depending on whether you’re orbiting over the Sahara or the Pacific... sometimes it’s reddish, sometimes blue-ish or green-ish. It had to be perfect. All the time. He was like God, saying: ‘Move the Sun two million miles to the left!’ [Laughs]. He loved saying that! Somehow, we did it.
Sandra Bullock’s performance really feels unlike anything else she’s ever done. She has to carry most of the film. I don’t think people realise what a disciplined actor she is. She worked out and prepped five months before we started shooting. She trained like an astronaut, basically; it was insane.
You’d planned on shooting this in 3D from the beginning, right? Normally, the technique feels like a plaster – but here it’s a key element in regards to what we’re talking about. Do you know why you hate 3D? Because it’s usually done horribly! There are only a handful of films – Pina, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Life of Pi, Avatar – that have used it in an integral way, and that’s really it; 3D is an afterthought for most movies, something you do to try and up the commercial value with a movie shot in two dimensions. Look, I’m not going to defend the medium, but when you see a movie conceived with 3D, it can blow your mind.
What do you feel Gravity has in common with your other films? They are all road movies. Seriously, Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, even the Harry Potter film... they’re all essentially road movies. This one just happens to be a road movie in space. Gravity is in cinemas across Dubai from October 17.