Interview: Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón on the science of filmmaking
The scientific research and development of new filming tech behind the sci-fi drama
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is in the running for an Oscar with his jaw-dropping space adventure Gravity. He speaks to James Mottram about a groundbreaking movie which was almost five years in the making
Seven years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last film, Children of Men, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Mexican filmmaker had dropped off the face of the Earth. Which, in a way, he did. His latest film is Gravity, a mesmerising space drama that makes the technical challenges of Children of Men, with its sweeping takes through a futuristic London, look like child’s play.
‘I always take a little time between films,’ says the 51-year-old Cuarón, until now most famous for 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third (and arguably best) film adaptation of JK Rowling’s all-conquering series. ‘I thought that Gravity would be done in a year, year-and-a-half. But it took four-and-a-half years as we had to invent all the technology to do this film.’
Indeed, in a world where films are too often dubbed ‘groundbreaking’, Cuarón’s movie can genuinely lay claim to be. James Cameron, who knows a thing or two about sci-fi, has already dubbed it ‘the best space film ever’; just the 3D alone – converted in post-production – far outstrips what Cameron achieved on Avatar, immersing the viewer into its thermospheric depths.
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded 375 miles above the Earth’s surface and fighting for their lives, it’s Gravity’s efforts to replicate the physics of floating in space that are truly breathtaking. ‘No film has been done like this and definitely not a whole film,’ says Cuarón, who seems certain to add to his previous Oscar nominations (for Children of Men and 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También) with his work here.
Just take the opening salvo – an unbroken 13-minute take as the camera effortlessly glides around Bullock’s rookie Dr Ryan Stone and Clooney’s veteran Matt Kowalski, as they go about their business repairing the Hubble Telescope. But it’s only when debris from an exploded Russian satellite heads in their direction, destroying everything in its wake, that Gravity grips you, with Stone and Kowalski cut adrift and oxygen supplies dwindling.
Written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, the director sees a theme of adversity as crucial to its story. ‘Everybody has adversities in life. Every day, you have little adversities. And on many occasions, you have big periods of adversities. What defines us is “what is the after-effect of the adversities?” And that was the point of departure.’
With minimal dialogue, and just two principle characters, Gravity is as stripped-back as Hollywood gets. ‘We wanted to do a film where you rely on character,’ the director notes, ‘just to keep the tension.’ Curiously, while Bullock’s bullish turn recalls Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, Cuarón never really had the Alien franchise in mind. ‘The references we considered had nothing to do with space,’ he says, pointing to Spielberg’s Duel, and Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, two films that deal, primitively, with humans versus technology.
Cuarón, who is the son of a nuclear physicist, was obsessed with getting the details of space travel right. ‘We tried to be as accurate as possible, always honouring that it was a fiction and not pretending that this is a documentary.’ So much so, the visual-effects animation team attended seminars held by scientists to better understand how objects move in zero-gravity. ‘Sometimes it was like just jumping into the void,’ Cuarón smiles, seemingly grateful to be back on terra firma.
Gravity is on general release from Fri 8 Nov.