Gravity’s pull: the making of a rocket-fuelled space smash
Mexican film-maker Alfonso Cuarón is delighted about the warm reception for his gripping space yarn. And what about the criticism of its supposed scientific inaccuracies? ‘It’s not a documentary,’ he shrugs
Sandra Bullock in Gravity: ‘She is an amazing actress. She is precise and disciplined. To perform under these conditions is a miracle’
Alfonso Cuarón: ‘For years, the studio spent so much money and saw nothing’
Lord, we’re sick of sequels. Heavens, we’re tired of remakes. We’ve had enough adaptations of comic books. It would be nice if somebody could direct a mainstream hit that owed nothing to any previously familiar source material. It would be nicer still if the film genuinely deserved its success.
Alfonso Cuarón – Mexican director of Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También - appears to have achieved all this with the breathlessly exciting Gravity. The near-orbit shipwreck adventure opened to raves at the Venice Film Festival before going on to become an unexpected smash at the US box office. It’s been years since we encountered a word-of-mouth hit on this scale.
Cuarón doesn’t try to conceal his delight. A round, compact man in his early 50s, he admits the film never looked like an automatic smash.
“You never know,” he babbles. “It’s so weird. It’s just how it works. Seriously, I had zero expectations. There was so much fear around. It’s set in space. It has just one character. Who knew?”
Quite so. Gravity begins with two astronauts – first-timer Sandra Bullock and seasoned professional George Clooney – tinkering with the Hubble Space Telescope many miles above the home planet. Within minutes, following collision with debris from a satellite, Dr Bullock finds herself cast adrift and forced to improvise an unlikely escape. Aside from telling a thumping story, Gravity is a remarkable technical achievement. One wonders how he ever flogged it to the studio.
“The studio was very supportive,” he says. “They just flew blind for most of the time. We started developing this and promised we would make the technology work. Much of it wasn’t ready. We didn’t know if the visual effects were going to work. For years, the studio spent so much money and saw nothing.”
Warner Brothers does, indeed, seem to have been very patient with Cuarón and his team. The picture begins with a hugely long shot that takes us past a space shuttle and on towards the two labouring astronauts. When Cuarón saw the shot, he realised that something wasn’t quite right. The shuttle was the right way up. To emphasise the lack of orientation in space, it really needed to be upside down.
“That’s right. When it was finished I saw it and realised,” he says. “It took 3½ months to make that change. I did a mock-up for the studio and they saw it. They understood it. ‘Yes, that’s better.’”
Enormously chatty, endlessly good-humoured, Cuarón is not short on charm and enthusiasm. But he clearly possesses a spine of steel. It has been seven years since his last film, dystopian gem Children of Men, and a great deal of that time seems to have been spent making sense of Gravity. Not surprisingly, the project was identified as a “troubled production”. Everybody seems, at some stage, to have been pencilled in as part of the tiny cast: Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey jnr, Blake Lively, Marion Cotillard.