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

Thu, Nov 7, 2013, 17:53

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.”

Shuttle aesthetics
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.

“It’s the internet, man,” he laughs. “Everything on the internet is true. Right? I had conversations with so many people. It took us two years to develop the basic technology. I definitely discussed it with Angelina. But she eventually had to go and direct her own film. I can also say that Robert Downey jnr was attached. But we eventually decided that his style of acting was not compatible with the technology.”

What was George Clooney able to do that Robert Downey jnr couldn’t? “Everything had to be pre-programmed on this film. That was the nature of the technology. The scope for improvisation was limited. And if you take that away from Robert you take away his wings. It was unfortunate, but that was not going to work.”

After all the ins and outs, Sandra Bullock ended up playing the medic around whom the head-stretching action revolves. In the two decades since Speed, Bullock has found herself saddled with too many iffy romantic comedies and sentimental true-life dramas. She is not the first person you expect to meet wrestling with a crippled space station in zero gravity.

“Yes, that’s right,” he splutters. “That’s part of the reason I cast her. This character is shut-off. She is inaccessible. She lives in her own bubble. So, you need an actor who can be accessible when playing an inaccessible character. She has that. And she is an amazing actress. She is precise and disciplined. To perform under these conditions is a miracle.”

Born in Mexico City, Cuarón is the child of reasonably well-off parents: dad was a doctor who specialised in nuclear medicine; mum trained as a chemist and ended up becoming involved, if her son is to be believed, in “Shamanism”. His parents were reasonably relaxed about him drifting towards cinema, but wanted to make sure he had a back-up plan.

“So I also studied philosophy,” he says. “Because that’s where all the money was. Haha!”

As things worked out, he found himself a member of a golden generation of Mexican directors. Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñarritu and Guillermo Arriaga are all near-contemporaries. Mexico has a fine cinematic heritage, but rarely have so many directors from that country had such commercial success overseas.

“We came from a generation who encountered a lack of opportunities,” he says. “We rejected the whole system. It was very claustrophobic. Everyone then was supposed to remain in their bubble. It was a very different time to the 1930s with the surrealists and people like Diego Rivera. Mexico had become shut-in. We reacted against that. At this stage, it was thought arrogant to expect production standards like those elsewhere. We wanted all that.”

Small step for Potter

In the mid-1990s, after directing one feature in Mexico, Alfonso travelled to the US to make a critically claimed, but financially disappointing adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Then came his fitful updating of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Here’s where the career gets quirky. To succeed abroad, Cuarón had to go back home . The road movie Y Tu Mamá También became a breakthrough hit, made a star of Gael García Bernal and propelled the director towards the lucrative world of Harry Potter.

The Little Princess was an amazing experience and that is the film I would like to rescue,” he says. “Then I did a big mistake with Great Expectations. I realised I had lost all these years becoming part of the engine. But I learned a lot on that film. I realised I am not part of the machinery. I made Y Tu Mamá También to reconnect.”

Then, amusingly, he got sucked into the biggest cinematic machine of the era. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is many pundits’ pick for the best of the series. Bravely, Cuarón fought to make several deviations from the novel and fashion a more cinematic narrative (quite a few JK Rowling purists hate the thing). In the process, he changed the Potter universe. “It was very clear that I was faced with a big challenge. How can I make a film that is based on these beloved books and turn it into something that feels organic to me. At the same time, I don’t want to alienate people. Actually, we changed quite a lot. And the series ended up following what we had changed. I am proud of that.”

Successful trajectory
You need that sort of stubbornness to survive in Hollywood. Even a success like Gravity draws its share of criticism. Much of this has focused on supposed scientific inaccuracies. Apparently, the astronauts drift in directions they would never drift. The Hubble Space Telescope is shifted into the same orbital trajectory as the Russian Space Station. “We wanted it to be as accurate as we could within the frame of the fiction we are making,” he says. “The biggest changes are in those orbital trajectories. We did a whole draft to explain that, but it was as boring as hell. So, we just forgot about it. It’s not a documentary.”

He is chuckling at some of the online fury kicked up by the film. “There was one guy objected to all this stuff on Twitter. He lives in the basement of his mom’s house, I bet, and wants to show how smart he is. You know what? The guys who actually were in space really dig this film. So there.”

Take that anonymous, internet bore.

Gravity goes on general release today. For review see Ticket

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