In Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, space is a big costar
TORONTO—Like Sandra Bullock spinning and hurtling through space in Gravity, the film’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, is a hard guy to tie down. Y Tu Mamá También (2001), his first calling card in North America, was an erotic, politicized coming-of-age film that became an art-house classic, as well as the highest-grossing film in Mexican history. Nominated for a best-original-screenplay Oscar, it served to cement Cuarón’s reputation in Hollywood as an artist who delivers interesting, and bankable, product. He then helmed 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before moving on to the high-concept, star-studded sci-fi experiment Children of Men in 2006.
Gravity is another original. It’s a peek into Cuarón’s view of the human condition, much as Y Tu Mamá También was, and, as with Children of Men, he demonstrates his knack for using A-list talent to uncommon ends. Sandra Bullock’s raw, memorable performance in Gravity is Miss Congeniality like we’ve never seen her.
But the real star of Gravity is space itself. Cuarón, an avowed space nerd, said he was committed to replicating the physical qualities of zero Gravity more faithfully on screen than ever before. The limitations and particularities of this challenge make Gravity simultaneously the most complex and most pared-down of his films to date.
At the Toronto International Film Festival last month, the director enumerated some of the challenges he faced while bringing Gravity down to earth.
“It wasn’t a structured process, [but rather] a process of trying to figure things out,” he said. “That’s how I began. It was clear from the get-go that the actors were going to be floating in zero Gravity, but we also tried from the beginning to honour not only zero G but also zero resistance, which meant that they were not only going to be floating but also spinning and stuff.
“The other thing, to complicate matters, is that we wanted long, fluid shots, so we figured out how to do that by developing our own technologies and not knowing if they were going to work or not—and keeping in mind there was going to be an actor who had to be performing the whole thing.”
Cuarón noted that despite his film’s technical innovations (his crew emulated zero Gravity using custom-developed CGI technologies, as well as complex wire puppetry from the team that brought War Horse to life on Broadway), he is most proud of Bullock’s performance, under conditions he described as “gruesome”.
“People may notice the CGI because it’s more spectacular,” he mused. “But probably the longest shot in my whole film is one where she’s floating through space, and it’s notable for Sandra’s performance more than anything.
“It begins inside the capsule, with the moment where she loses faith, and it’s all just one long, detailed shot,” he continued. “There’s no trickery in her performance. It was not only a tour de force of emotion, but she was doing that all the while performing zero Gravity with her body. I have to say, for me, that’s probably one of the most [remarkable] achievements of the movie.”
Though Cuarón said Gravity is “about adversities” on the human scale, all those space oddities added a raft of unforeseen technical challenges, as well. With all the options available to him as a filmmaker, why bother making the effort to go where no one has gone before?
“I have to say every single day I ask that question,” admitted the director. He seems happy to have accepted the mission, nevertheless.