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Alfonso Cuarón Answers All Your Questions About Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney with Alfonso Cuaron on the set of Gravity Photo: Murdo Macleod/Warner Bros.

Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Gravity, opened last weekend to nearly unanimously rapturous reviews (scoring a near-perfect 96 on Metacritic) and grossed an outstanding $55.6 million. Late last summer, Cuarón sat down near his London home with New York contributing editor Dan P. Lee. Over four-plus hours, they discussed everything from Cuarón’s childhood to his filmography to his take on the state of world affairs to the challenges he experienced during the four and a half years it took to make Gravity. The resulting feature is a must-read for those still marveling at the film, but space constraints didn’t allow for the inclusion of all their fascinating exchanges. Here, Lee presents outtakes from the conversation, touching on the real-life science behind the filmmaking, Cuarón’s head-butting with some of his advisers (until they saw the finished project), and why he has no interest in awards talk. (This conversation includes several spoilers about the film.)

Various actors “attached” and “detached” from the project as so much time went by before you were ready to start the actual shooting. Initial reports had Robert Downey Jr. attached to the role George Clooney ultimately played, as astronaut Matt Kowalski. How did Clooney come onboard, and what was it like to work with him?
We’ve been approaching each other to work together for years, and it was almost like something that completely made sense. And George is a terrific actor, an amazing writer, and a gifted director. So he gets it. He’s concerned about not just his scenes, but the film. We were struggling with rewrites, we’d stripped everything, a lot of the dialogue; we knew that anything that was going to be said, it was going to have a lot of weight. There was one scene we were doing over and over and over, and George overheard that we were dealing with that. And then one night I receive an e-mail from him, saying, I heard you were struggling with this. I took a shot with the scene, Read it. Throw it out. And we ended up using it. This was exactly what we needed.

Will you tell me what scene that was?
I probably shouldn’t, but it was when [Bullock’s character] was ready to go back [to Earth, near the end of the film]. When she has this dream and starts talking to Kowalski about her daughter. And that’s something that George wrote. You have an amazing partner when you work with him.

I hope this doesn’t come across as sort of vulgar, but watching the film, I couldn’t help wondering: Did you ever consider a different ending? Did you ever consider killing Bullock’s character?
[Laughs.] It’s always a temptation — and then you finish the movie and go with credits in silence. It’s the easy way out. Because, you know, it’s like when you are a film student; those are the endings that you make. I was more interested in another ending. For me, there was an ending and the ending was: She walks. It’s the first moment in the film that you see her walking. The film was a metaphor of rebirth; literally, at the end, she goes from a fetal position [earlier in the film, when she floats after undressing in the space station], then in the water [shot at Lake Powell, Arizona, with significant postproduction alterations to make it green and lush and butterfly-filled], to come out, crawl, go on her knees, and then stand on her two feet and walk again. You know, it was a bit polemic at some point with some people, with a kind of jaded, more mainstream thing, people saying, “But how do we know that she is going to be fine? How do we know that she is getting safely home? How do we know that she is not going to be kidnapped?” I said, “I don’t care, she is walking now!” I want to believe that if she survived what she survived … she’s equipped to deal with adversities. One film that I love that is in many ways a model — not all the time but many times, and by no means am I comparing the film to this film — but A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson. And that escape film becomes this film where the walls are the metaphysical walls. It’s amazing how the film, it starts to have that dimension, and at the end, once he goes to the other side of the fence, he just starts walking away, and that’s the end of the film. In a more studio, conventional way, maybe they’re going to be asking, How do we know that the Nazis are not going to get him? [Laughs.] It doesn’t matter! I think [the studios] have been jaded too much about the need [for audiences] to be reassured, and overexplained in things. Man, I give more credit for audiences.

It’s extraordinary that this movie looks so real, yet so much of it is actually computer-animated, with the actors’ faces inserted.
The technology involved basically is the worst possible scenario of animation and the worst possible scenario of a live-action shoot. There were different technologies that were involved that we created. What they all have in common is that they had to be pre-programmed. [Editor’s note: It was a maddening, circular scenario: They knew that at the end of the actors’ shoot, they’d have, basically, the voices of Bullock and Clooney as well as their faces — which would be lit appropriately for the scene — as the basic structural and timing elements around which they’d then animate. So they needed to conjure the finished product before the shoot in order to get the actors to do what would work.] So when we went to the shooting stage, everything was set in stone, meaning that we could not do adjustments, and meaning that the actors, there was very little room for actors to do changes, because the scene had to be exactly that length of time — the timing was written in stone. The positions were written in stone. It was like, At that exact moment, [Sandra], you reach out with your hand like that. Everything was so millimetric. It was a testament to Sandra and George how they went through with all these technical, psychological limitations around them, how they make it seem effortless. Everything was very uncomfortable for the actors.   

Particularly for Bullock.
For a long period of time — for many weeks of the shoot — Sandra was living in this cube. It was a nine-foot-by-nine-foot cube of LED lights that she was inside, strapped to a rig [in order to mimic whatever atmospheric lighting conditions she’d be floating within]. It was very time-consuming to get her in or out, and the closest crew member being maybe 30 feet away, and in which all her communication would be [through the earphones in her] space cap, and I would talk to her through the earphones. The camera was mounted in one of those robots that build cars — we called her Iris, very fondly. So the camera was mounted in Iris and I would communicate with Sandra through radio communication, not unlike an astronaut. And she was inside this box in which all of these LED lights would communicate [to her] her point of view. Earth would pass like this. So she would be virtually floating in space. And because of how time-consuming [it was to get in and out], in between takes she would choose to stay there. So she was insulated. The crew wrote on top, “Sandy’s Box.” And she would be insulated, not unlike the character.

How difficult was that eighteen-minute opening shot?
Everything was a pain in the sense that, Okay, shit how are we going to do this? And then you start figuring out the technology. Months and months and months developing technology. Then you realize it’s not working. Then always, in the last minute, you make it work. Then, once you make it work for the shoot, then you have to combine with CGs and you don’t know if it’s going to work. So you wait, another six, eight months.

Given how much of the film happened in postproduction, I imagine it must have been a shock for Bullock to see it realized.
It was months and months and months to work with the animators. And then I would do a pass of this, and then we would have a teleconference — like a Skype but secure system — with Sandra, going through every single animation. She would give her feedback, saying, I think it’s great, or, I would like to see it like this, do my hand like that, I remember in that moment the way I was breathing, I would be doing this. But it was like months and months.

I understand Bullock reached out to some real astronauts, who were in orbit, in the International Space Station. Can you tell me how that happened, how she reached them, and why she reached out to them?
Sandra called them in the space station. She wanted to know, If I’m upside down, like this, do I feel dizzy? After five days in microgravity, what do you feel? That was very helpful. And then we did a crew shot, we took the picture of the whole crew, and we sent the picture to the [International Space Station]. They printed it out and took a picture of [the picture] in the window in front of Earth. Everyone [in the film crew, seeing that image] thought it was CG! [Laughs.] It looked just like the other stuff!

How do you feel about the publicity tour you have to embark upon?
You stand there, you talk to the press, you promote your film. I mean, it’s exciting. It’s been four and a half years. It’s just a couple weeks — three weeks — pushing for a film. You just want to push as much as you can, knowing that that’s it. Especially in today’s market, in which the life of your film is dictated the opening weekend.

The release of the film is obviously timed toward awards season, and it seems like there’s already a lot of Oscar buzz around it, even though it’s yet to be shown.
This is the thing I have with awards: If awards would make your movie more pretty, I would really get super excited about it. But your movie’s done. You get awards, you don’t get awards … They don’t make your movie more ugly or pretty.

There’s been a lot made recently about that — about what’s ailing Hollywood: the noise of the blockbuster blotting everything else out; studios not willing to take risks on smaller films anymore. For lack of a better way of putting it, indie versus mainstream. Looking over the span of your career, do you think you’ve been able to carve out a niche in this sweet spot in between?
Nobody has a sweet spot  — unless your goal is just to do [blockbusters]. The studios now — when I started there was a range of budgets, there were indie possibilities with all these venues, you had venues to do independent films. Even now, if I would release Y Tu Mamá También, it would be a completely different story. There were venues showing those films and an audience watching those films. Now it’s gone. That bubble burst, and everybody was confronted with a really tough reality. It has to do with September 11, I think. Suddenly the world became this small; the threat is around the corner; and all this cultural fear, and also politicians using fear.

I’m curious, have you seen Zero Dark Thirty? Do you have any thoughts about it?
I had my issues with it. It’s brilliant filmmaking. I’m not so clear about what it’s trying to tell. What is the point, the position? I don’t enjoy movies about manhunts.

But chases — with Children of Men and especially with Gravity, it’s basically a chase, the tension is at the heart of the film.
No, chase is different than a manhunt. Nobody has any sympathy for Bin Laden or for Saddam, for that matter. But I don’t enjoy images of Saddam being killed; I don’t like that stuff. There’s something Confucius says, “If you go out for revenge, dig two graves.”

I read you were offered Life of Pi, for which Ang Lee ultimately won the Oscar last year for Best Director. Do you regret passing on that, and more generally, are there films that you turned down that you wish, in hindsight, you’d pursued?
[Life of Pi] was at the same time as Children of Men; I was prepping Children of Men. I love L.A. I always have such a great time in L.A. The way I kind of define me and L.A. is the noise of the factory doesn’t let me sleep well. For instance, the hotel that I always stay, they used to put the trades — The Hollywood Reporter and Variety — on the elevator wall. I never read that stuff, and I would go to L.A. and I’d get in the elevator and suddenly I’d be reading the daily trades —

What hotel was —
The Chateau Marmont.

Well, yeah, of course — stay at the Holiday Inn and you’re not going to see the trades in the elevator —
[Laughing.] I’m not going to stay at the Holiday Inn not to see the trades, man! I stayed there all my life! Jonas [his older son, with whom he wrote Gravity] grew up in the Chateau Marmont, with the staff and everything. So anyway, you see the trades there. And then you see this movie that you said no to, this great director is going to do it, or this film that I said no to is making all this money and has all this acclaim. Yeah, you read that and in five minutes you say, Shit. [But] it takes no more than five minutes to remember I passed on it because I didn’t want to do it. You don’t do films because they’re going to be successful, make a lot of money. You do films because you want to do it.

Are there any recent films you’re particularly fond of?
There’s this French film, Holy Motors, I really enjoyed it. I liked it a lot. It’s bold. It has a strong point of view. The Iranian film, A Separation. Beasts of the Southern Wild. There are many.

I’m curious about 3-D. Had you and Jonas always conceived of Gravity as being in 3-D?
Yes. The original screenplay title was Gravity: A Space Adventure in 3-D. It was almost five years ago, when 3-D was still cool. Now there’s a backlash. And I have my misgivings about 3-D. I don’t like the lack of blacks and whites, how it dulls the image, how the color gets corrupted. I don’t necessarily like the experience of having heavy glasses in front of me. But for me, it’s more what it does to the picture, because I’m very obsessed about the quality of the picture, and it degrades the whole thing. On the other hand, the plus side is amazing. I like the depth of it. We see with two eyes. Did you know, the first 3-D film was made — people think it was in the fifties. It was, I think, in 1896, two years after cinema was invented. Lumière invented cinema and he made films in 3-D. But commercially, it wasn’t feasible. But the technology, it was meant to be for two eyes. And Gravity was designed like that. I have to say, Gravity is better in 3-D, even though in 2-D the quality of the picture is better. But the 3-D is better.

But you have concerns?
I hope that the 3-D companies, they pull their shit together and create that great system. And they should, otherwise they will lose their business. Most of the 3-D films that are made, they should not be in 3-D. They are an afterthought.

I haven’t really seen that many.
You’re a lucky man. I’ve seen a lot for reference. Most are converted later on without any thought about it.

I know you don’t want to get into a complicated conversation about space science, because you want to leave that to the experts. But you’ve obviously done a lot of research about space. First of all, do you want to go to space, aboard one of the suborbital commercial flights that appear relatively imminent?
I would love to do it when the prices come down. But at the end, it’s very limiting. These are only flights to suborbit, and the flights only last a short time. I’m talking limiting in terms of the evolution of the space programs. Because even if you’re going to do it — even if it took you into orbit and stuff — it’s just to take a look over there; there’s not much purpose in that. One of the most important machines is the Hubble Telescope; the amount of information that we’ve gotten from that — in many ways, that machine is more relevant for space exploration than many of the [manned] stuff that’s been around. ISS [the International Space Station] is fantastic, I would love to be there and stuff, but I don’t know if it can serve more functions than it’s already served. The Kepler probe [currently floating through the Milky Way in pursuit of Earth-size planets around the billions of stars in our galaxy] — that’s really challenging and stretching the possibilities of stuff. I don’t even think that all of this stuff like the Orion [NASA’s next generation of manned spacecraft] and with those ideas of going to Mars — I don’t know if it’s just a lot of effort for something …

Like some said about the moon landings?
Yes, but in many ways going to the moon was one of the best investments that the U.S. has ever made in terms of image, in terms of economics, at the end.

Can you talk about some of the consultations you had with space experts — with former astronauts, former NASA-type people — in the making of Gravity? I know from my dealings with some of these folks in the past, it’s really incredible how one-dimensional they are in their complete and sole obsession in their personal area of scientific expertise. You can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, but I wonder if that’s also part of what’s ailing NASA.
You meet this person who knows everything about this tiny screw — everything, and every possibility this screw might have — but nothing else in life. They are not reflective minds; they are very pragmatic about the little things. And it’s so funny because you go to Houston, and these guys are celebrities in their neighborhoods: My God, there’s such-and-such! My concern is related to what you’re saying: I think that part of the limitations that we have is relying so much on rocket propulsion and not trying to think out of the box — that limits everything. For them just to go up and down is irrelevant. What NASA needs to do, they need to step up their act. What — with Orion? I’m a bit disappointed that Orion is nothing but a big Apollo. This is the silly thing and the crazy thing — the reason of that structure is the launch. So you’re limiting everything for launch. Why the heck can’t you build something up there [in orbit, thus bypassing the need for huge fuel and giant rockets] … you assemble it up there in [or around] the space station. I mean, maybe I’m talking bananas. But for me, it makes sense.

The astronauts [who served as consultants] saw bits and pieces of what we were doing. They were exasperated [for instance] about why [Bullock and Clooney’s characters] are not bringing their solar shields down! [I said,] “Well, you won’t see their faces then, so I’m not going to do it.” No, [the consultants said], they would go blind from the sun, they could not see, it is impossible. The funny thing is that you tell them something like, There’s a special polarizer on the shield, and they’re like, Oh my! In the [Russian spacecraft] Soyuz, I added one window. Why? Because I wanted to see the Earth in space! One of the toughest things in the film was the cause and effect of microgravity and no resistance, and you ask them, How does a tether react, you pull one, how does it go? — and they would be like, “Yes, but that window is not there.” I know; we talked about it. What do you think about the tether? “Fine, but that window, I’ve been in three missions, that window—” I know, I know, I’m very aware that window is not there, it was a conscious decision! [laughs] But they just On the other hand, we invited them to the set, and they were just so in awe of everything we’d re-created, and we were like, Well, we changed this, and they said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.” They were in awe. Those guys are amazing.

Did you reach out to NASA directly at any point? I’m assuming they won’t be particularly pleased with what you’ve made.
They are not going to like it. They will be very upset, because [as far as NASA is concerned] there’s no disasters in space. Actually, we approached them first, and it was very clear that they were not going to support anything that has any death in space. But I’m a big fan of NASA. They will hate me; I don’t care. But I don’t think they’re going to necessarily be happy.

The conceit of the movie — that a catastrophic chain of events commences when the Russians shoot down one of their own spy satellites — where did that come from?
This is something called the Kessler Syndrome, named after a scientist who put forward this theory: The area around the Earth is so dense right now [with satellites and various space junk], it will only take one satellite going off course, or a meteor to hit one satellite — everything is orbiting so fast, it could create a chain reaction in which a lot of satellites will be destroyed, turning into space debris. You know, they’re constantly moving [the International Space Station] because of space debris. So you will create a cloud of debris around the Earth that would make further space exploration impossible because you’d be crossing through a layer, basically, of bullets. Obviously our version of the Kessler Syndrome is so fictionalized it wouldn’t be like that at all. But those are the conventions that we needed to do for the film.

And the fire extinguisher, how did that idea come about?
Actually, one of [the astronaut consultants] mentioned using the fire extinguisher — not having read the script; we didn’t want to get into rhetorics of stuff — but one of them says, “You should use the fire extinguisher as a method of propulsion.” Okay, good.

The premiere is going to be in New York City, where you used to live. Do you miss it ever? Do you like London?
There’s more a sense of a fun intellectual community in New York. Here [in London] it is not. This is a city supported and made by the banks. And also, British upper classes are very philistine, while in the U.S. you can have an upper class that is cultivated, not necessarily good or bad, so that they support the arts. And because of that, with all the flaws of the U.S., something it keeps that is great is the sense of possibility. Look, I can be critical about a lot of stuff around U.S. politics and stuff, and something I hope it doesn’t lose, because it makes the country great, is the sense of possibility. Europe, in general, before you even throw the idea out, they are bored. It’s an old continent attitude of been there, done that, where in the U.S., there’s a sense of possibility, and maybe it’s part of this school of capitalism that nobody wants to suddenly say no to something that may be big later on, might make money. It creates an energy. New York is buzzing. I think it’s beautiful. You can go to dinner and there’s a master painter from the sixties or seventies, a philosopher, actor, and then that kid that is 18 and you say, What is that? “Oh, he’s an up-and-coming painter and he just arrived from New Orleans.” And because of that sense of possibility that maybe he’s going to make it, then there’s this blend of ideas but also social classes. In L.A., that doesn’t happen. But you never know if that black kid who just arrived from New Orleans is going to be an amazing artist — at least for two years, then you dispose of him. [Laughs.] But they give the benefit of fate, of the doubt, so that is great. This [in London] is so class-oriented — the frustrating thing is they are not so aware of it. They live by it. Some people are in a way oppressed by it. Everybody’s defined by their accent, because the accent conveys class. That’s the downside. But here, there’s a certain way in which people relate to other stuff that is great.

And how are you treated?
I’m an odd bird. Here it just goes against their whole thing. I’m Mexican, but I’m white. And then I have an accent that they cannot figure — it just sounds bad. But now I do film, so that is good. It’s just so … London’s been fantastic. The people and everything. But I’m critical. It’s a very cultivated taste. They have a lot of museums, but everything’s like Establishment. They don’t do alive things. It’s like saying they have zoos but they don’t have free animals.

Would you ever set another film in space?
No. I met [the director] Danny Boyle in an airport. He said, “I’ve been to space once [2007’s Sunshine]. I will never go back again.” I see why. I’m so proud of the film. I enjoyed every little bit of the process. And I will never go back to space. Now if anybody offers me to take me to space in real life, I’ll take it any second.

Well, you could buy a ticket.
Yes, for money. But if anybody wants to sponsor me, I’ll take it.

Alfonso Cuarón Answers Your Gravity Questions