The Camera’s Cusp: Alfonso Cuarón Takes Filmmaking to a New Extreme With Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón, photographed by Platon Photo: Platon

Against a black screen, these words appear first.

“At 600 km above planet Earth, the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible.”

The screen disappears.

The planet—this planet, in three dimensions—appears.

Its arc engulfs you, outstretching in front, beside, and, somehow, below you. It is massive. Silently, majestically, cloud-covered and multicolored, it spins. There is the immediate sensation of everything—Earth, you—floating.

A spot appears along an orbital plane of the planet, off to the right, very far away, tiny, slowly moving closer. It is impossible to make out what it is. Telecommunication sparks: muffled, hollow, as if inside your ears, bits of a conversation between here and Houston. There are so many stars all around you. The planet continues spinning, the spot moves closer, drifting on its orbit until finally it arrives—the American space shuttle and a team of astronauts floating outside—and begins orbiting in the same space with you.

One of the astronauts, George Clooney, is untethered, attached to a personal space vehicle, rocketing around and behind you. Another, Sandra Bullock, floats in, uncomfortable in her space suit, working on some repairs. She loses a screw, which spins outward. With his giant gloved hand, Clooney reaches toward you, retrieving it. You look down, toward the open cargo bay, where another astronaut flips acrobatically in a loose tether, ecstatic. For twelve minutes, without interruption, it goes on like this, disorienting, jarring, beautiful, all of you orbiting together, at 17,500 miles per hour, above the swirling planet. A call comes from Houston to immediately abort.

What’s been an experience of serene magnificence becomes, in an instant, something else: a scene of horror in an empty, ethereal vacuum antithetical to human life. The astronauts begin racing to get back inside the shuttle and down into the Earth’s atmosphere before an expanding cloud of debris reaches them. They cannot. There is no sound as the millions of pieces, sunlight gleaming off of them, penetrate the helmet of one astronaut, infiltrate the skin of the shuttle, tearing it open, instantaneously rendering it a ghostly shipwreck, and tearing, too, Bullock’s tether, sending her—and you—off, tumbling out toward the star-pocked black universe …

“If the fox has been chased by hounds and gets away with it,” Alfonso Cuarón, 51, said a few weeks ago, sitting across from me at a tiny table at a restaurant called Ducksoup, overlooking Dean Street in London, not far from his apartment, “is the fox happy?”

I’d asked him how he’s feeling, now that Gravity, his seventh film, was finally finished and would be shown for the first time publicly in a few days, when it would open the Venice Film Festival. It was a beautiful sunlit afternoon, and a few minutes earlier, his girlfriend, Sheherazade Goldsmith, had dropped him off in a small, boxy blue BMW. Cuarón is exceedingly friendly, smiling, attractive, with salt-and-pepper hair and matching stubble. He is a vegetarian, and had filled our table with every vegetarian dish on the menu. He wanted to know if we should order more. He was hungry.

“No, I think it is relief,” he continued in his thick Mexican accent. “The fox is happy when he’s frolicking in the river and fucking other girl foxes”—his “fucking” sounds like “focking”—“and playing with the cubs in the meadow.” Gravity has been, he reminded me, four and a half years in the making. He’d spent more than a year in postproduction inside a dark room just up the street, staring at computer screens as animators arrived in waves, day after day, behind him, so that eventually he stopped turning around to look at them and just continued pointing with his laser, directing the merging and layering of all the disparate elements that had to come together. “It’s a long time to be happy, disappointed,” he said. “But no, I’m very pleased. We got away with it. That’s the thing. It’s a very unlikely film, first of all, to put together. It’s basically one character floating in space.”

As a child in Mexico City, he’d watched the Apollo moon landings on TV, dreaming of one day becoming either an astronaut or a filmmaker. “And then I learned that in order to be an astronaut, you had to be part of the Army, and I said, ‘Okay, I want to be a director and do films in space.’ ” He co-wrote the film with his son Jonas, 30. They were attracted to the idea of finding a hook so compelling that it freed them from thinking much about narrative. “It’s not a film that is a lot about plot,” he said. “I was very clear it was someone stranded in space. And immediately, when we talked about that, it was very obvious in a metaphorical aspect: someone who’s drifting in the void, with a whole view of planet Earth, where there is life, and the other side, where there is the blackness of the infinite universe.” This would become the central story line of the film. They knew, too, the character had to be a woman, in order “to strip it from heroists.” Mostly, they wanted to immerse the audience in the film—to take advantage of the conditions they set up in the movie’s first, extraordinary scene to dwell in the beautiful and terrifying ­vacuum of space.

No one has attempted to make an entire movie in simulated microgravity before; the issue has vexed every filmmaker who’s chosen space as a setting. But Cuarón believed that if they could solve the technical demands of the movie’s location, he would be able to refine, more clearly than in any of his earlier films, what he refers to as his cinematic language.

So many technical troubles and issues could have been alleviated by setting the film in the future. “It would have been so easy to set it 100 years from now, with super-cool astronaut suits and spaceships and stuff,” he told me. But this was contrary to Cuarón’s intent. “We wanted to surrender to the reality of the technologies that exist. We went further: We wanted it to be a journey in which people recognize the world that we’re talking about. We wanted it to almost have the experience of an Imax documentary gone wrong.” Even the use of the space shuttle, which is no longer in commission, was purposeful—they wanted viewers to recognize “the iconography that they know.”

All that difficulty notwithstanding, when Cuarón first dreamed up Gravity, he thought that he’d essentially hacked the Hollywood system: Here was a potentially audience-friendly adventure movie, and as long as they landed an A-list actor, production would fall into place. He and Jonas wrote the screenplay at lightning speed. They attracted immediate interest from studios, and, crucially, Angelina Jolie. They began preparing for a shoot. “And then very soon we find out that the film was not going to be achievable with the existing technology,” Cuarón said.

So, I wondered, what did he do next?

He laughed, smiled broadly. “Waste four years of my life.”

Cuarón on set with Bullock and Clooney. Photo: Murdo Macleod/??2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - All Rights Reserved

Carlos Cuarón, Alfonso’s younger brother, remembers when Alfonso was around 12 and had returned home to Mexico City from an exchange program with a Minolta camera. “He was a huge pain in the ass, shooting everything. My sister and I became his prop, his stunt, whatever. It was unbearable. He would repeat that he was going to be a film director again and again.”

The Cuaróns grew up “middle-middle class,” in Alfonso’s words, with a mother who loved the arts and changed her career from chemist to academic philosopher to shaman. “We were all moviegoers,” Carlos says, “my mother, father, our nanny, everyone. Back then, you would go to the movies for two pesos and watch three different films.” They consumed the whole Planet of the Apes saga; their grandmother brought the kids to see Blacula. As a teenager, Alfonso set a goal for himself to visit every cinema in Mexico City, riding the bus and subway to distant neighborhoods and developing what he calls “very eclectic tastes.”

He enrolled in film school in Mexico City, where he began collaborating with several of his classmates, including Emmanuel Lubezki, who was a few years younger than Cuarón. They had been acquaintances since their teenage years, having met outside the same art-house cinema, and Lubezki, who still goes by his childhood nickname “Chivo,” started working as a cinematographer on the projects Cuarón directed. (They’ve worked together ever since, and Lubezki has gone on to receive five Oscar nominations, for his work with Cuarón, Tim Burton, and Terrence Malick.) Both of them—along with a number of other Mexicans who would go on to achieve success in Hollywood—were expelled before graduation. “In Mexico, there are a lot of conspiracy theories” about why, Cuarón told me, “and I’m sure that a lot of them are true. The truth of the matter is that I think we were pains in the asses. We disagreed with the ways of the school.” He laughed. “Even if they had their reasons, we were right.”

Cuarón was 20 when his girlfriend at the time became pregnant with Jonas. He began taking low-level jobs for local films, carrying microphones and eventually becoming an assistant director. “It was a very blue-collar approach to film,” he says. “Film became my means of survival.” He became increasingly impatient, and likely insufferable, as he answered to mediocre directors and helped make terrible movies. After a demoralizing stint on a television series called La Hora Marcada, a kind of Mexican ripoff of The Twilight Zone, he decided he couldn’t take it any longer, and he and Carlos co-wrote a black comedy about a sex addict tricked by a scorned lover into believing he is HIV-positive. Lubezki signed on as cinematographer. The government—­traditionally the primary financier of films in Mexico—agreed to produce it, and the movie, Soló con Tu Pareja, landed at the 1991 Toronto Film Festival, where the critics gave it a standing ovation; then it opened to the public, Carlos remembers, “and half of the cinema walked out.” Activists lambasted the film for making light of AIDS. (Though viewed today, it is remarkably contemporary.) “What we discovered is what Woody Allen says in one of his films: Comedy is tragedy plus time,” Carlos says. “We released a comedy in the time of tragedy.” While the movie attracted a cult following in Mexico, the government essentially refused to work with Cuarón anymore. The feeling was mutual: “I treated them as partners,” he admits, “and minority partners at that.”

In Toronto, the brothers were stealing sandwiches and carrots from hospitality suites, broke and unsure of their next move. A couple of agents took them to lunch and invited them to Los Angeles, and Carlos and Alfonso decided to make a go of it. Life in California was tough. “L.A. alienates you a lot, because you need a car and a credit card and status, and we didn’t have any of that,” Carlos recalls. They couch-surfed. When they finally bought a car, a 1973 Toyota Celica, it became a magnet for police and immigration inspections. Then Soló con Tu Pareja somehow made its way into the hands of Sydney Pollack, who began throwing some projects Alfonso’s way. One, a short-lived 1993 program on Showtime called Fallen Angels, featured various famous Hollywood directors and actors each shooting an individual episode of a forties L.A. noir. Cuarón was the only unknown of the group. His episode, filmed by Lubezki, won the show’s only industry award.

Cuarón was at Lubezki’s house in Los Angeles one day around that time when Lubezki handed him a script he’d been given. It was for a children’s film in development, adapted from a 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, about a girl relegated to servitude at an elite New York City all-girls boarding school when her widowed father goes missing during World War I. “I was like on page 30,” Cuarón remembers, “and I said, ‘I want to do this film.’ ” He called his agent and told him. His agent reminded him that the movie was being developed by Warner Bros. and Cuarón was tentatively developing another movie with another studio. “Then tell them I quit,” Cuarón told him.

While it was dwarfed by Disney’s Pocahontas and earned back only $10 million of its $17 million cost, critics swooned over A Little Princess. Variety called it “an astonishing work of studio artifice,” while Janet Maslin in the Times noticed Cuarón’s preoccupations: “Less an actors’ film than a series of elaborate tableaux,” she wrote, “it has a visual eloquence that extends well beyond the limits of its story.” Almost two decades later, Cuarón retains a bit of nostalgia: “My friends talk about their films as their babies. My films are not like my babies. My films are like ex-wives: I loved them so much, they gave me so much, I gave them so much, but now it’s over, and I don’t want to see them. But the memory I have of Little Princess, I like.” He never watches his movies after the fact, save one time, with a real theater audience, but if he were forced to pick a favorite, it would be A Little Princess.

His next movie was a loose modern-day adaptation of Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow; reviewers appreciated the aesthetics but criticized the story, an appraisal Cuarón shared. Frustrated, he called Carlos, who’d moved back to Mexico City, and they picked back up an idea they’d been tossing around for more than a decade, an erotically charged coming-of-age story that set two young boys on a spiritual road trip across Mexico. Carlos flew to New York, where Alfonso was living, and over the course of ten days, sitting in his garden listening to Frank Zappa’s “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on an endless loop, they finished the script. They shot the film on a tiny budget, casting a largely unknown Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as the two leads and Maribel Verdú as an older woman the boys invite along for the ride. “We thought that movie was going to flop,” Carlos says. Alfonso was worried about the extent to which Mexico itself was the subject; the dialogue was all Mexican Spanish. To avoid an NC-17 rating in the U.S., it went unrated. Funny, vulgar, sensual, and ultimately devastating, Y Tu Mamá También opened in 2001 as the highest grossing of any film in Mexico’s history, swept the film-festival circuit as well as virtually every international critic’s year-end list, and won the Cuaróns an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

To many, what happened next seemed impossible to square—a Mexican auteur who’d just made a tiny foreign erotic ­comedy-drama being handed the biggest, most fantastical franchise in movie history. But for Warner Bros., which owned the Harry Potter film franchise, Cuarón was a director who had cut his teeth on a children’s film and might add depth to the historically banal serial-blockbuster genre. The result, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, released in 2004, would prove the darkest and least commercially successful of the series (while still earning an absurd $800 million)—and, according to virtually every critic, the best.

Cuarón saw it, then and now, simply as an opportunity. “I don’t have this view that if it’s Hollywood, or it’s big, it’s not like cinema,” he says. As a kid touring Mexico City’s theaters, he obsessed over the techniques of not only Visconti and Pasolini but also Hitchcock and Spielberg. “It’s just different canvases,” he says. He was coming at Hollywood with the mentality of an outsider, having grown up watching foreign cinema in a country largely devoid of its own. And he must have enjoyed, too, some measure of poetic justice—the Mexican kid kicked out of Mexican film school and then Mexican film at the reins of a decidedly Hollywood blockbuster.

Bullock, cut loose.

After Great Expectations, Cuarón was, ­Carlos recalls, chafing against the “formal ways of directing, the graphic grammar. I remember when we were outlining Y Tu Mamá También, it was when he got this idea that he wanted to do these very long takes—this thing basically inspired by the French New Wave.” García Bernal, who has gone on to become a de facto member of the Cuarón family, starring years later in Carlos’s feature debut and, last month, signing on to star in Jonas’s, recalls the shooting of a climactic scene near the end of the movie when his character and Luna’s and Verdú’s are engaged in a passionate conversation outside a restaurant (“right before they all get inside of each other,” he jokes). He remembers it as being at least eight straight pages of unbroken dialogue in the script. Cuarón was nervous about whether it could work, and even if it did, how it might fit within the rhythm of the rest of the film. They rehearsed the scene for six hours, then did about twenty takes, all night long.

Looking back, García Bernal is still amazed. “There were no close-ups—nobody dares to do that, especially in an emotional scene,” he says. “I remember this moment when [Verdú’s character] turns into the camera, and she starts basically dancing into the camera, and it’s like she breaks the fourth wall!” It’s a haunting, beautiful sequence that, he says, “goes into the books of cinema.”

One of Cuarón’s best friends is the filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, a former D.J. from Mexico City who met Cuarón after soliciting his help on an early draft of what would become the Oscar-nominated Amores Perros. He says Cuarón’s commitment to the sustained shot is about philosophy more than virtuosity. “Our life is lived in a constant uncut point of view, only interrupted when we close our eyes to dream,” Iñárritu says. “We are not editing our life. It’s only when we remember our life that we edit it. Alfonso is interested in this point of view where the audience’s point of view integrates with the characters’ point of view in a way that there are no interpretations. It’s more pure.”

Even before Hitchcock, filmmakers have been exploring this technique, but Cuarón’s dedication to it is unusually intense. It’s an approach to filmmaking that recognizes the medium’s most basic quality, its ability to create a scene, primarily visually, and nourish it completely, even at the expense of plot development and characterization. And while Gravity is, by far, Cuarón’s most extreme experimentation in this regard, he could not have made it without making Children of Men, the paranoid thriller about an infertile human race in 2027. The movie is full of atmospherics and includes an excruciating four-minute single-take scene where a car ride into the woods turns catastrophic; to shoot it, the car had to be retrofitted so that its seats could rise and move the five characters out of the way of the camera, situated in the middle, which was effectively the sixth passenger, reacting as any person might. But the movie’s character development was thin, and when Clive Owen read the script, he was inclined to pass. “I couldn’t find my way into the part,” he remembers. It took sitting down with Cuarón and hearing him talk about his vision for the film to change his mind.

The idea was to steep a potentially farcical film in extreme reality, through the use of photojournalism as a design reference and through the single-take shot. “Alfonso was crazy about using ambient light so everything looked as natural as possible,” Owen says, and they would sit around waiting until exactly the right conditions, fielding increasingly frantic calls from the studio. The climactic scene was a seven-minute continuous shot that moved inside and outside, across space, through an explosion. Each time they filmed it, the set took half a day to reset. On the third take, “we just knew we fucking nailed it,” Owen remembers. “And Alfonso came by and said, ‘Oh, no, oh, no—there’s blood on the lens of the camera!’ And Chivo says, ‘¡Cabrón! That’s not a bad thing! It’s fantastic!’ ” The first time he saw the scene, Owen says, he knew immediately that it “would be one of the films that I’d be most proud of at the end of a career.”

Children of Men received strong reviews when it opened in 2006, but it moved relatively quietly from cineplexes. For Cuarón, the response stung. Around that time, his marriage fell apart and his wife moved their two children to Italy. Then one of them became ill. Expenses, including medical bills, mounted. He threw himself into a small foreign-­language film he and Jonas wrote, arranging financing and securing Charlotte Gainsbourg and Daniel Auteuil as the leads. Then the economy collapsed and the financiers pulled out. “Alfonso felt very humiliated,” Lubezki recalls.

“It was one of those times in life,” Cuarón told me at Ducksoup, “that, what’s the expression? When it …”

“Rains it pours?” I offered.

“I was coming from a moment in life that was like that,” he said, ordering more food.

He felt he had no choice but to make another film. He called Chivo. “He said, ‘Fuck these guys!’ ” Lubezki recalls. “ ‘Forget about independent movies! Let’s do something big! Let’s do a studio movie!’ ” The only condition, Cuarón told his friend, was it had to be “simple.”

Jonas had shown him another script for a stripped-down story about two Mexican men being chased through the desert by an American vigilante, fighting against existential conditions to survive. Alfonso was taken by it: simple. They talked about making a film in the same vein, ping-ponging ideas for a movie exploding with so much tension it didn’t really need plot. They kept coming back to an image: “of an astronaut,” Jonas recalls, “spinning, drifting, in space.”

This was 2009, and the mechanism for financing anything but the most commercial superhero movies appeared broken. So in pitches, Cuarón all but pretended it was one. “We kept saying that instead of doing one of their franchises, we could present something that is wrapped like it, like a wolf in a sheep’s skin.”

He called Lubezki to bring him onboard. Lubezki agreed, but was worried about a movie “with no guys in ties, no spandex, nobody has capes, there are no guns, and it’s in space.” According to Lubezki, Cuarón replied, “I wrote it for Angelina! And Angelina immediately said yes!”

Much has been made in industry circles about the drama around the casting of Gravity’s lead. In 2010, reported that Jolie had moved on from the role despite “a full-court press” and “big money.” Reported replacements included Naomi Watts, Marion Cotillard, Carey Mulligan, Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, Abbie Cornish, Rebecca Hall, Olivia Wilde, Blake Lively, and Natalie Portman, who was said to have been offered the part without a screen test. Alfonso and Jonas insist the reports were exaggerated (Jonas says some of the negotiations constituted nothing more than “a cup of coffee”) and that the reality of the situation was actually far more dire: It was not clear whether the movie could ever be made, literally, regardless of who was attached to it.

Alfonso describes the challenge as a confluence of “the worst possible scenario of animation and the worst possible scenario of a live-action shoot.” Between the issues around replicating microgravity and Cuarón’s insistence on sustained shots and limited editing, everything had to be preordained—every shot, every angle, every lighting scenario, virtually every second—before the camera could begin recording. It was a circular, maddening scenario. From the storyboards they created a digitally animated version of the film, complete with digital versions of the characters. “It looks like a crude Pixar film,” Lubezki says, “and it was so beautiful that when I showed it to my daughter probably after a year of work, she thought that was the movie. Many times, I would say, ‘Alfonso, why don’t we just use it like this, why do we have to go into production?’ ”

They tried the conventional methods. With wires and harnesses, “you feel the gravity in the face, you feel the strain,” Cuarón says. (In a few shots they would prove unavoidable, so the filmmakers designed a complex twelve-wire puppeteering system.) They tried the infamous “vomit comet”—a specially fitted airplane that flies in steep parabolic arcs to induce brief spans of weightlessness inside the open fuselage, which was used to great effect in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Cuarón found it impractical: “You’ve got a window of twenty seconds if you’re lucky, and you’re limited by the space of a 727.” They flew to San Francisco to view robots as stand-ins for the actors. They tried motion capture. They considered creating a “CG Sandra,” but “the fluid in the eyes, the mouth, the soul—there’s something that doesn’t work yet,” Lubezki says. Cuarón consulted the director James Cameron and Lubezki the director David Fincher. Both had the same advice: Wait for the technology. The leadership at Warner Bros. changed. Actors took other jobs and dropped out. There was the constant concern of money—the studio had only budgeted the film at a reported $80 million, a relatively modest amount given that, as they were slowly realizing, they’d have no choice but to largely invent the technology that would allow the film to be made.

So what did they do?

“How do you eat an elephant?” Cuarón asked me. “One spoonful a day.”

Deceptively dark and empty, space is an outrageously difficult location to replicate in film. What the script called for was unprecedented: a real-life actor flying through simulated space, tumbling, careening, moving through the microgravity of the insides of flaming spacecraft; projectiles orbiting in three dimensions; the Earth always below her, a sun always beyond her, a vacuum around her; stars. Moving the actors at any considerable speed was impossible, so the filmmakers decided it was the camera and the lights that would have to move. Still, there was no way to do so fast enough. A partial solution dawned on Lubezki while he was at a Peter Gabriel concert at the Hollywood Bowl, where “they were using all these beautiful LEDs to make a really nice lighting show. It was almost better than the concert. And I thought, Man, we have to do this!

Executing the idea—using giant screens to replicate atmospheric lighting conditions—fell to Tim Webber, a visual-effects wizard who’d studied physics at Oxford and works in London at the postproduction shop Framestore. Cuarón went to meet with Webber when the film was still just a concept. “We sat in a room, and he described it over 45 minutes, and I remember coming out of that completely spellbound,” Webber recalls, “and at the same time thinking, Gosh, that’s going to be a tricky movie.” The long shots were of particular concern, because they meant that all the usual solutions to simulate microgravity, predicated on editing—or Stanley Kubrick’s more straight­forward solution, in 2001: Velcro shoes—were out of the question. “You can’t make that work for a twelve-minute shot that goes from close-up to wide shot with dialogue to a beauty shot to an action shot. You’ve got to come up with some very clever solutions.”

At the core of their plan was a lot of computer animation. “Often it was just their faces that we filmed,” Webber says. That meant pushing CG capabilities beyond the fantasy genre of Avatar or Transformers, where imperfect representations can be forgiven more easily. Cuarón was constantly warning about the so-called uncanny valley, when humans react with revulsion to manufactured constructions, like animatronics, that appear almost but not exactly real. Lubezki singles out several shots when Bullock’s character is floating inside a spacecraft, crossing from module to module, which are “on the verge” of falling into the valley. The more realistic the situation, the more dangerous it became. “People notice the Earth is not right, the sun is not bouncing,” he says. Consequently, they used very little traditional movie lighting; they retrofitted robots typically used on car-assembly lines as cameras, which could move in any direction, because, as Webber says, in space “there is no up, no down.” It was all done through backward-engineering, starting by recording the actors’ faces, then creating a world around them. “You manipulate it on film to make it look like the actor is spinning around in space, or that George is floating upside down and Sandra’s character is the right way up.”

In 2010, Cuarón picked up the search for his lead. The burden was high—like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, she would have to carry the majority of the movie alone and largely without dialogue. Cuarón is circumspect on the subject of casting. “I meet with a lot of people, but when I met with Sandy …” he told me, trailing off. He’d flown to Austin, where Bullock was living—she’d recently won an Oscar for her performance in The Blind Side, only to be dragged through the tabloids days later regarding the numerous infidelities of her husband, the motorcycle manufacturer Jesse James. She was then in her mid-forties, not an obvious choice. But, Cuarón says, “because of the place I was in life, and the place she was in life, the theme of adversity and rebirth was very fresh and very clear for us. We had this amazing shorthand of communication.”

Two and a half years in, a shoot was finally scheduled. “I’ll tell you,” Cuarón says, “we started testing the technology, and it didn’t work until the very last day before we start shooting.” During filming, there could be no adjustments, no room for actors to interpret their roles; every scene had to be exactly the budgeted length of time. Webber and his team had designed what would become “Sandy’s Box”—a nine-foot cube in which Bullock would spend the majority of the shoot, on a soundstage in London, strapped to a rig. On its inside walls were 1.8 million individually controllable LED bulbs that essentially formed Jumbotron screens. Getting her in and out of the rig proved so time-consuming that Bullock chose to remain attached, alone, sometimes in full astronaut suit, between takes, where she listened to atmospheric, atonal music Cuarón had selected for her. She has referred to the experience as “lonely” and “isolating.” (Clooney provided some levity; arriving on set, he would replace her eerie music with gangster rap or ridiculous dance music.)

Lubezki says some days went like this: “Eight a.m., the camera doesn’t work. Ten a.m., the shot doesn’t exist. Eleven a.m., might not shoot anything today. It was really scary shit.” Lubezki started a diary “so that when we’re fired, I want to be able to go back and see what happened.” Recently he reread part of it. “For fifteen days it is really rough,” he says. “Like Shackleton.”

And when the shooting was finally over, there was a year and a half of postproduction work left. “Was I worried?” Cuarón says. “Yeah!” He and Lubezki would watch their footage, “and depending on the day, you’re just in a room laughing, like, What the heck are we doing? Chivo’s favorite phrase was, ‘This is a disaster.’ Some days you’d just have bits and pieces of Sandra Bullock in a box, floating around, surrounded by robots with cameras and lights on them, and you’d think, This is going to be a disaster.

Long after we had finished eating at Ducksoup, Cuarón received a phone call from his girlfriend. He’d thought she’d gone back to her flat to do some work; in fact, Goldsmith was nearby and had been waiting all this time so they could go together to Harrod’s to pick out outfits for his two young children who would be accompanying him in Venice. He was extremely apologetic (we’d been talking for over four hours). “Please don’t be mad at me,” he begged, smiling sweetly. He told her he would be on his way soon and said good-bye. Then he took a few sips of peppermint tea. He was feeling reflective. He had not yet allowed himself his sole viewing of Gravity with an audience, and he was debating whether it should be in Venice, alongside his peers, or elsewhere, where the audience is “real.” All he hoped is that people will like what he’s made.

It appears certain that they will. His friend Iñárritu cites Keats: “If you start thinking you will make a masterpiece, you will never get it,” he says. “A masterpiece is a consequence. It just happens. And I think Alfonso did something coming from the circumstances he was in and his shrewdness. The first 30 minutes of the film have a beauty and power, because it is not only about space physically, but it’s about the interior space, and that dance of the two.” James Cameron recently called Gravity “the best space film ever done, and the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.”

It is true: Gravity is unlike any movie ever made. Which isn’t to suggest it’s perfect, or beyond criticism: The plot, dialogue, and characterization are lean, even facile. But this might be part of Cuarón’s point. With Gravity, he has pushed, nearly to its end, an aesthetic that holds that stories are always artifice, that film can offer something else: a portal through which actors and audiences float into each other, through long, barely edited moments where the camera never cuts, and life in its randomness unfolds and comes at you with a start. In this, Cuarón’s closest contemporary might be the philosopher turned director Terrence Malick (with whom, of course, he shares the cinematographer Lubezki), whose more recent movies, such as The New World and The Tree of Life, feel, as one critic has described them, more like tone poems than films.

Cuarón told me he’s tired and would like to take a long break but probably won’t. “Film is my means of survival, and Gravity was a miscalculation of time. It’s not the best investment I’ve ever made.” He lives in a one-bedroom rented apartment and has never owned a house or a car, save the Celica he shared with his brother in Los Angeles. I asked him if he knew what he might make next. He said the most important criteria is that the characters have to walk on Earth. A supernatural television series he’s developing with J. J. Abrams will premiere on NBC this fall, and he’s mulling movie concepts. He recognizes that whatever he does, he’ll have to work within the studio system, and despite the exhaustion that this entails he has no interest in being expelled again. “I know there is not some Hollywood guy who wants to make bad movies,” he told me. “Most genuinely want to do good films, it’s just their jobs come first.” (Still, he called the recent comments by Spielberg and George Lucas about the problems with Hollywood “a little rich coming from the guys who created the system of franchises and opening weekends.”)

When Cuarón was growing up, Stanley Kubrick was one of his favorite directors, and Carlos suspects that, like Kubrick, his brother will continue to lurch from genre to genre. Alfonso and Jonas have been talking about collaborating again, this time on a horror film. “I don’t mean slasher,” Alfonso clarified to me. “Something more psychological, more emotional, something that festers.” He believes horror to be an underappreciated genre. (2001: A Space Odyssey arrived in Mexico City theaters when Cuarón was a little boy; The Shining when he was in film school.)

Now, though, he was on to Harrod’s and Venice and the awards-season rush. Cuarón took one last sip of his tea, shook my hand, and walked out the door, turning right down Dean Street, toward the building that houses Framestore, where he spent so many days in a dark room, playing with pixels, staring at the giant image of the spinning, stunning planet.

*This article originally appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Alfonso Cuarón on Making Gravity