In space no one can hear you scream. But this is exactly what the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón must have felt like doing during the epic journey to get his ground-breaking 3-D thriller, Gravity, from script to screen.
Speaking at last month’s Zurich Film Festival, he recalls that the story, about an astronaut who struggles to get back to Earth after becoming marooned in space during a scientific mission, seemed so simple when he and his son, Jonas, wrote it.
He rang his long-time collaborator, the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and said: “There is this script, it is a small movie, we can go in and out very quickly. It’s only two characters and we can do it mostly against a black background.” Cuarón laughs at the memory. “He reminded me of these words for the next four-and-a-half years, because as soon as we started doing tests, it was clear that the technology to make it didn’t exist.”
If he’d known sooner, “I wouldn’t have written it,” he admits. “But you don’t think about that. You’re just making the film.”
Actors, including Natalie Portman, Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr, came and went as the filmmakers tried to work out how to plausibly recreate the physics of weightlessness and microgravity, zero resistance and the behaviour of objects, using advanced CGI, puppetry, and custom-made rigs to suspend and manipulate the actors.
Whereas his previous film, the visceral near-future allegory Children of Men, had been made in such a physical environment that “blood” actually spattered a camera lens during one breathtaking set piece (a moment of serendipity that made the final cut), the setting for Gravity exists mostly inside a computer.
The lighting had to be digital, “because the light in space is not like any light on Earth”, says Cuarón. “There is no way you can replicate it because it is completely unfiltered.”
Lubezki therefore spent months poring over documentaries about space and experimenting with virtual lighting effects. Cuarón smiles. “When he was working on the computer, he got to say the words he always dreamt of saying: ‘Move the sun 20 million miles to the left.’”
According to astronauts who have seen the film, it accurately depicts the look, sensation, wonder and terror of being in space. But Gravity is more than just a technological marvel. It has a human dimension, too, thanks to Sandra Bullock. She is the film’s beating heart and Cuarón cannot praise the 49-year-old Oscar winner enough.
“Her discipline is astonishing,” he says. “She started training five months before the shoot, just to get fit. Not only because she wanted that for the character, but also because of the rigs she was going to use. Then when the rigs started to get ready, she started working with the stunts and special effects, her personal trainer, and puppeteers, to see which parts of her body she needed to train specifically.”
Because everything around her was preprogrammed, Bullock had to time her performance right down to the individual frame. Sometimes when she appears to be moving, it is in fact the virtual environment shifting around her. And when she reaches for a bar in one scene, she is in reality grasping at empty air. “It was like dance,” says Cuarón, explaining how they worked on timing cues together. “Like if you were doing a ballet.”
Luckily, he had an actress with an almost preternatural ability to work in such an abstract way. “She did all that with such precision that it was as if it was second nature and then everything else we did was just talking about performance and emotions,” says Cuarón.
The results are stunning. Gravity is one of the most immersive 3-D films ever made and should feature on Oscar night. Cuarón loved the journey of discovery that making it took him on; however, had he known how difficult it would be, he’d have probably had second thoughts.
“There was a point where it wasn’t filmmaking any more, it was endurance. You work so hard, so many hours a day, and the progress that you see is almost none. So that part becomes tedious. I enjoyed the process, but I will never do it again.”
• Gravity is out now in UAE cinemas