Gravity is one of my most-anticipated films of the year, and it’s not surprising that it could fit into a film festival as easily as it could fit into Comic-Con. It’s got big action, intense drama, and it’s the kind of sci-fi thriller that looks like it’s getting its thrills by conveying a sense of reality. But it also draws excitement from Cuaron’s signature long takes, and I couldn’t wait to see what Warner Bros. would bring. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, they came away with what will be among the best footage screened in Hall H.
Hit the jump for my recap of the panel. Gravity opens October 4th.
Director Alfonso Cuaron comes to the stage. He says the story is about two astronauts stranded in space, and there’s only two faces in the entire movie. There’s no other cast. It’s only Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (“Pretty good, no?” he responds to the applause at the actors’ names). He says it’s a “non-stop” ride. It’s a tense, immersive experience, and they wanted people to feel like they were floating in space. That brings up different themes and issues, but never stops the action.
He notes that there is no sound in space so you won’t hear the explosion in the movie like we do in the teaser trailer. You also don’t get the sense that it’s composed of long takes. Now we’re going to see a continuous, extended takes from the footage.
Briefly, the scene begins with Bullock and Clooney working on a satellite and being very workmanlike and professional. You get a strong sense of a commitment to the reality of how astronauts work. But then a warning comes from mission control telling them to emergency abort. Russian satellites are falling out of the sky due to a missile attack. It’s then a mad scramble for Bullock and Clooney to detach from their project and scramble back from the shuttle. But then the debris starts crashing in and everything starts falling apart. The screen fills with debris and Bullock’s character is panicking while Clooney’s veteran astronaut remains calm and tries to take control of the desperate situation with everything crashing down. It’s worth noting we didn’t see this in 3D, but it could be absolutely nuts. But here’s what’s insane: this four or five minute clip was all in one take. It felt like we were floating out there with them, and I can’t stress enough how intense this scene was. When it ended, the audience remembered they had the power to breathe.
After the footage, producer David Heyman and star Sandra Bullock come on stage. Bullock says this is her first time at Comic-Con, and she’s greeted with a round of applause. Moving on to the film and talking about the performance, she says that while the huge reliance on the actors was challenging, the larger challenge was the tech guys trying to figure out how to make this movie happen. She didn’t want to let them down, and the physical aspect was so scary because you wanted to live up to their game.
Talking about the actors’ work day, Cuaron says her character, Ryan Stone, is stranded in space, and the technology was required to work around her like a robot to hold the light while she was in a small cube in order to simulate the zero-gravity. There were rows and rows and rows of computers “and a lot of wise geeks doing a lot of work.” But Bullock was isolated in the cube, and it took a while to get in the rig, and she would stay there in the rig in between takes. But their focus wasn’t on the technology, but on her performance and the character’s emotional journey.
Moderator Chris Hardwick asks Heyman how you sell a film of someone just stuck in space, and the producer continues talking about the technological aspects such as a camera that could race down a track and then stop on a dime just a few inches from her face. “Iris was the name of the robot,” says Cuaron. Bullock also says that she wasn’t static in the cube, and she had to move around and oscillate, and she also couldn’t get out of the robot’s way. They were all worried that by the time they hit the launch button, it would be too late.
Additionally, she was claustrophobic but when Cuaron brought her the project, he said they were going to use the “vomit comet” even though she’s also afraid of flying. But two weeks before filming, Clooney told her they weren’t doing the vomit comet anymore, so she could deal with anything else they had to throw at her. She also learned how to meditate and not focus on the discomfort. Cuaron gave her “boxes of sound and pieces of noise, and they made a catalog for her to respond to.” The communication with Bullock was all through headphones because she was isolated, but the sounds she was given and could hear over the headphones gave her an emotional tether like a soundtrack.
What was her daily workout regimen:
It sounded very “Cirque du Soleil and gymnastics” to her, so she wanted to get to a place where her core could handle. They started training six months before shooting and trained every day during shooting. She also wanted to make her character as androgynous as possible because the character wanted to forget the past tragedy in her life and detach as much as possible from that person.
Was there ever a point where the studio tried to make suggestions for Cuaron to do things differently:
“They want it the easy way, but it’s not fun,” says Cuaron. However, at the end of the day, the studio was behind the film. Also, one of the Warners exec pushed to develop the technology to make the movie, so this is one of those stories where they were really supportive. Heyman adds that one of the most rewarding things about working with Cuaron is that he knows no fear, and doesn’t settle. He’s always pushing the limits.
Hardwick asks where they drew inspiration. Cuaron says part of it was from the sic-fi thrillers of the 70s like Silent Running and Vanishing Point but there were also some more obscure pieces as well. Like he did in the Visionaries panel, Cuaron also credits Duel as an inspiration.
How difficult for him to execute and block the complicated long takes.
“It’s not difficult for me. It’s difficult for everyone around me,” says Cuaron. He says you depend on a lot of great people. You can do a lot of technical things and beautiful camera movies, but it doesn’t mean anything without the screenplay and just as important is the work with the actors. You can do a lot of stuff around the actors, but if it isn’t truthful, it’s not going to work. She says Bullock would go through every single beat asking what they were trying to convey. Cuaron says the emotional core is most important, and when you start making films, you’re going to learn you’re only good as your collaborators.
This movie could be something very special. I don’t want to build it up too much, but I wish they would show the footage we saw in movie theaters. It leaves such a better impression than the teaser trailer. This is a space thriller that has its influences, but it looks like it could be a major influence on future sci-fi space movies for decades to come. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m overselling it, but you didn’t see the clip. I hope you get to see it soon.