Everyone is buzzing about Gravity, the stunning new film from director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men). We sat down with Cuarón to talk about it. He told us why you can watch basically every mainstream movie with your eyes closed, but not Gravity.
Far too many films today rely on characters pointing at the sky and shouting, "Ack! A meteor is headed this way!" No kidding — we can see it. But Cuarón's Gravity gives the audience some long-overdue credit, allowing us to figure out what's going on by watching carefully. And the results are brilliant. Here's what Cuarón said about his decision to explain less and show more in his gorgeous creation.
The jargon in this film totally sells the realism. Like when they say "Houston in the blind," when they've lost contact. How did you go about learning the ways folks from NASA actually talk?
Alfonso Cuarón: We had advisors and experts and very intelligent people. Early on, in the first draft, we had a couple of scenes where [the advisors] explained how stupid we were. So we had to cut [those scenes] back or out. And then wrap that into a more plausible way. Always knowing that this was a feature not a documentary. So we tried to respect that currency in the frame of our feature. Actually there was a paragraph that was FILLED with jargon and filled with absolute technical accuracy but it was absolutely distracting because it was 300 pages of technical stuff. Frustrating for me because I love that technical stuff, but it was not helping the development of our characters.
Are the skills [and technical jargon] that you learned then taught to your actors George Clooney and Sandra Bullock? And then they can improvise with that new set of vocabulary skills, or do they stick to the script?
There was a balance. At some point I think when George got involved there was way more. For instance when they come into contact with each other the characters would have to say, "Kowalski [Clooney's character] Houston." And then the other one says,"Houston Kowalski Go." And then he starts talking, there's a whole protocol. But as George [got involved] we said let's keep it simple. We establish it [in the dialogue] so we have a sense that this is the reality for them, then let's simplify this. And we kept the jargon in some points, more when it was an identical conversation. But less when there was an exchange between characters.
Can we talk about balancing the drama versus the fact that astronauts are basically trained not to freak out under duress? How do you make a character freak out in space, without discrediting their training and who they are as a scientist?
First of all [Sandra Bullock] is a fish out of water. We tried to make that very specific. She's a medical engineer and she happened to have the opportunity to go to space. So she's not an expert. When we see her for the first time, you will see that she's not enjoying the experience. We wanted it to be a character who doesn't control that environment. That's the thing about adversity in life. Usually adversity brings us out of our comfort zone that's what makes it even more challenging. We wanted a character who was completely outside of her comfort zone.
There are a lot of moments in Gravity where the film is shows instead of telling—- for example, Sandra Bullock gets inside an airlock and it fills with oxygen, but she is still suffocating to death because she's in her spacesuit and she ran out of oxygen a few minutes earlier. The film never tells us "Oh, she has to get the helmet off or she'll die," it just shows that she's passing out. Was there concern from the studio that you needed to spell things out more? Did you experiment with different ways of conveying information like that, without using dialogue?
That was part of the challenge from the screenplay, how to do it. Jonás Cuarón (my co-writer) kept on saying, "We need to limit the backstory, we need to limit the dialogue, and the exposition and the explanations." Because the whole idea was that our characters would be there for audiences to invent their own experiences of adversity. Everybody has experiences of adversity. We all have experiences in our lives that are very challenging. The idea was for the characters to channel that experience of reality. We wanted to try and give as little information as possible.
I think much of mainstream cinema are films that you can watch with your eyes closed. You enter the cinema, buy your popcorn, sit down, close your eyes, start eating your popcorn the movie begins and the movie ends you didn't miss one thing because they told you everything. As opposed to you experiencing the film and seeing visual information.
That's a good point, I never thought of it that way.
I see a lot of films. In visual effects film there's at least some spectacle, but in terms of story it usually means one thing. Or in terms in character they tell you. They tell you they're sad, they tell you their plan of what they're going to do. Or sometimes the reiterate and re-explain what they already explained 20 minutes before. And I think that audiences are so sophisticated. They completely know how to read visuals.
There were a bunch of early reviews of a rough cut from a test screening in May 2012, some of which were pretty negative. It's hard to believe those people are describing the movie that I saw. What did you learn from those test screening reviews? Did the film change in response to that feedback?
The whole point of Gravity is the immersive quality of it. When you show a film that is just technology without the visual effect. Or in many cases the actors weren't even in the shot, it was just pre-visuals. We were testing previs basically and some shots of the actors. You didn't have that immersive experience, you were just watching bad animations. And that is a different experience because you can't connect with the characters you can't connect with the experience That's the problem with showing an incomplete film, and more so with a film like Gravity. You have to understand that 90% of what you see there is CG.
This is the first movie I've seen in ages where the 3D is important to the storytelling. You can actually FEEL the spatial distances and the vastness of space, and if Sandra Bullock lets go of her tools you KNOW it will float away from her and it will be lost forever. How you go about making 3D so intense and vital in this movie? Did you film in 3D? Was there some technique he used?
The original title when we finished the screenplay, it used to be called Gravity A Space Suspense in 3D. From the first moment when we were writing we wanted to make it in 3D. Basically we started working on this very early in the process. Look the film took four and a half years to make, and we were still working on the 3D three and a half years ago. As soon as we had an early animation, even if it was a very crude animation, we would start designing the 3D. I worked with an amazing guy who is a geek for 3D who was involved in the very, very, very days of the film designing. I didn't want it to be a gimmick it was just part of the experience.