New filmmaking tools had to be developed to get Gravity to the big screen, and the results are out of this world. Not only has Alfonso Cuaron’s space drama earned more than $630 million at the worldwide box office, it is successfully maintaining the awards momentum that began after its global premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August. Cuaron, who co-wrote the movie with his son Jonas, also says he always planned for the story about a doctor’s terrifying mission into space to be shot in 3D (“The original title was Gravity in 3D!” he reveals.)
AwardsLine: Did you have a vision of what you wanted Gravity to look like when you were at the script stage?
Alfonso Cuaron: We always thought it had to look like one of those NASA documentaries. We didn’t want it to look like science fiction; we didn’t want it to look like a comic book — we wanted it to look like a documentary.
AwardsLine: Did you have an idea of how you would get there?
Cuaron: When we were writing the script, we were concerned about the feel at every moment. But we were not looking for solutions at that point. We were just trying to create.
AwardsLine: It’s such an interesting idea to think about collaborating with a parent on a project. Jonas said it was a great experience.
Cuaron: It sounds yucky, I know. I have to say, though, when we’re collaborating, it’s about two writers. I rely a lot on him. All the time, he was saying, “Let’s deal with the subject matter and the themes as the action’s moving. Trust in the moment. Trust in the metaphorical aspect of space.”
Related: ‘Gravity’ Featurette
AwardsLine: Why did it take almost five years to make the film?
Cuaron: There was not technology that existed that we could use to achieve what we wanted to do. So we had to develop our own set of tools. (Originally), I thought about building bigger sets because I was going to do it in a more conventional way, just moving the camera upside down. And once we started, it was clear that that technology was not going to make it.
AwardsLine: Were you casting the film while you were working out the technological elements?
Cuaron: Well, no. The thing is, we didn’t do that until the technology was already developed. And that was the amazing thing—the studio stood behind us all the way as we were developing the technology. We had conversations with a bunch of people. Probably one of the most serious ones was with Robert Downey Jr. (But) it was clear that the technology and Robert are incompatible. Part of the magic of Robert is that he changes everything all the time. You cannot take Robert Downey and say, “This is your frame of work, and you have 25 seconds to deliver your line and while you’re doing it, you have to be pushing that button to the left.” Actually, I think we both understood it. But once we were ready, I was the luckiest man with my cast. I worked with George (Clooney) to tailor (the role) for him. And I went to Austin, (to meet Sandra Bullock) early one afternoon and we kept on chatting until early evening. We didn’t talk about space or technology for a second, and it was so clear: She really digs what this character is about. (But) she was taking a hiatus. So after our meeting I had to call (producer) David Heyman and say, “David, she’s amazing, but I don’t think she wants to work.” I think through her own process she saw possibilities in the character and she felt challenged. The thing of the film is adversity, and the possibility of rebirth as an outcome.
AwardsLine: How much did you rehearse in terms of performance?
Cuaron: A lot of it was technical. We went through the script line by line—Sandra was so meticulous about that. But in the end, we wanted to keep the performance for when we were actually shooting. Sandra would go through all these rehearsals of cues, almost like a dancer. Sometimes (it was) several minutes of very precise cues, combined with timing and positions, aided by puppeteers and stunts. But then when we would arrive to the set, everything was about performance, emotion.
AwardsLine: The way you convey space in the film is disorienting for the viewer.
Cuaron: The idea is that what you’re witnessing is a moment, but you’re partaking in the experience. In other words, you’re like a third astronaut floating with them. The camera is not that controlled. It’s floating with the same loss of physics as our characters.
AwardsLine: I was surprised by how fast the movie moved, particularly considering it’s just people floating in space.
Cuaron: I know, we got a lot of that. That’s also Jonas saying that (the story) has to go in and out very quickly. We were discussing films that we love like that, and one of them is (Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film) Duel. How long can you have a guy being chased by a truck? The great thing about Spielberg is, there has to be a bigger resonance. The truck is almost like a physical allegory of the whole thing. In many ways, I think he redid that with Jaws (1975). Jaws is not only a shark; he represents primal fear. Floating and drifting toward the void is not only the physical fear of getting lost; it’s the psychological fear of losing ground and touching the void.