While at Comic-Con for a presentation in Hall H, actress Sandra Bullock and filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón talked to the press about their sci-fi thriller Gravity, due out in theaters and IMAX on October 4th. The film tells the story of Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). When disaster strikes a seemingly routine spacewalk, they only have each other.
During the interview, Alfonso Cuarón talked about the challenges of this film, why he chose not to shoot in 3D but to convert later, and how his dream is to really get to go to space, while Sandra Bullock talked about how this film was both magical and frightening, how she got to speak to real astronauts, her prank truce with George Clooney, and the reaction she hopes audiences have with the film. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
ALFONSO CUARON: The challenge was that we didn’t want to create a new world. The goal was for the film to feel like one of those IMAX documentaries, like a Discovery Channel documentary, that just went absolutely wrong, so we used current technology. We didn’t invent anything. Not only that, we went a bit retro. We have the space shuttle, and we decided to keep the NASA astronaut suits as the current one. There’s a new generation that’s going to come very soon, but if went to the next generation, it was going to look like fantasy science fiction because it’s stuff that is not in the consciousness of people yet. So, that’s why we decided to go a little retro there. And so, we went through pains to try to honor reality, as much as we could. Definitely with the concept of Zero G and No Resistance, that was something that we went through pains to try to make accurate. Now, in terms of the design, what you see is pretty much what’s up there. Obviously, it’s a film and a work of fiction, so we don’t pretend to say that everything is perfect. It’s a work of fiction, but in the frame of that fiction, we tried to be as accurate as possible to reality.
Sandra, did the fact that this was in a very realistic universe make it easier for you to tap into, with this being your first science fiction project?
SANDRA BULLOCK: Because I wasn’t at all in control, and I had no idea the extent of technology that was involved, to me, it was all sort of fantastical and futuristic, which made it exciting and magical and frightening, all in the same breath. But, I had to be very true to what someone was dealing with, who would be in the character’s position, which is factual today. And I wanted to be really accurate, so we had a lot of incredible specialists who did just that. There were always people on call. There were several times I was able to call up to space and ask them questions, and they’d answer.
BULLOCK: They were very helpful. So, just for what I had to do, it had to be very human, in this technologically advanced space that felt very futuristic to me because it had never been done before on film. So, I had the benefit of both.
You actually called real astronauts?
Who did you speak to?
BULLOCK: I will let the astronauts, if they ever want to reveal who I was chatting with, say it ‘cause I respect their privacy, but they were incredibly helpful. They email. You’re like, “My email reached here!,” but of course it did ‘cause all our emails go to space and then come back here. But, they were so excited about the vantage point that this film was taking, which is the same that they have. They have a great love for the program because of what they get to see and admire about our planet and the universe around them. It’s such an organic love that they have. It’s not just adventurers going up in pods, and they love the technology. They have a deep, deep love and appreciation for our planet and civilization and what we’re wasting. And so, those were nice conversations to have. That gave it a real emotional gravity.
BULLOCK: It’s the great unknown. You read the script, and you always read your experience in life into it. It was really profound, but it was still the great unknown. I was like, “How do you do this?” But, the fact that it came from Alfonso, who is someone that for many, many, many years, the joke always was that, no matter what film I was doing, I always said, “Let’s ask Alfonso Cuaron to direct,” even though I knew that was never going to happen. So, to admire someone so much, and then to have this project that you couldn’t explain and had never been done before, and had this possible outcome of this beautiful message intertwined with extreme thrills and action and the technology that’s never been done before, it was just like life. Sometimes I don’t know what this is, but the person who is helming is a person worthy of blindly stepping into this vortex with. That’s what it was. I had such faith in what he had already done, and then I met him and we had similar views and paths we were on in life. I thought, “Whatever we don’t know how to answer right now, as a team, we will be able to have a thoughtful conversation to figure it out.” I felt like we were trying to figure out so many things, in our own lives. There was always a conversation that was okay to have. So, what made me want to step in was the human being and the artist, combined in him.
Alfonso, why did you decide not to shoot with 3D cameras for this?
CUARON: It didn’t make any sense. Because of the technology that we used, it was practically impossible. We wanted to shoot native, as we call it, to shoot in 3D with the cameras. We did the test and it was impossible because of the technology. We used these robots that are used for car manufacturing and adopted some of those robots. Instead of having a motion control, the weight of the cameras was not possible in those robots. In one instance, Sandra was on a rig, inside a cube that is 9 by 9, and the camera had just a limited view of Sandra. It was enough to photograph Sandra. I had to go through holes in that cube, so if it’s a wide shot, it would start wide, and then go very close in. It was impossible because, with 3D cameras, you need two cameras, so you need more space. And then, the other set that we had is the Russian space pod, the Soyuz, which is pretty much the size of three chairs smashed up together. So, it was impossible. But beyond that, not only was it impossible because of the constraint of space, it didn’t make any sense because it is such a combination of real action and CG. The amount of real footage was so minimal that what we ended up doing a conversion. We started converting to 3D, three and a half years ago, to go through pains to make sure that it was the closest thing to native 3D.
CUARON: I did, yeah. I was actually with Jim last week, and he said, “This is a perfect example how a film can be converted.” Now, it’s not about the choice of going native or converting. It’s about choosing your moments.
George Clooney is known for his on set pranks. Were there any on set pranks, on this film?
BULLOCK: No. There was a truce. This film was so hard. Pranks had no place. There was never down time. How are you going to prank someone who’s hanging from a scaffolding with 12 wires, rigged up all day, and so we. So, we had a truce at the very get-go because that just wasn’t the appropriate place to prank someone.
CUARON: By the way, the truce was between them. They decided not to prank each other.
BULLOCK: We didn’t prank you. We just made fun of you.
CUARON: Exactly! They just made fun of me, all day long.
BULLOCK: Everyone know there’s a difference between that.
CUARON: That was how they entertained themselves.
BULLOCK: We’ve known each other long before either one of us had a career. We’re part of a close group of friends, so I’ve known George before the world knew “handsome George.” And the same person he was then, is the exact same person he is now. He’s a man who loves film, and a man who loves being part of a group and working and supporting. He’s the ultimate team worker. You never know that you’re dealing with someone who’s had the level of success that he has because all he cares about is being at the table, at the beginning of a film and reading the script. He says, “How can I help?” He’s just the same person I knew, all those years ago when our hair was dark and curly. He just is that same guy that I’ve known. You’re always grateful when you’re working with George because he wants everyone else to look better. He always wants everyone else to have their moment. It’s never the narcissistic actor/director/writer/producer who’s like, “I need to make myself look as good as possible.” He’s always looking out for everyone.
CUARON: That is true. There was a point in which there were so many scenes with Sandra alone, and he was so concerned. He could have just done his job and left, but George noticed that Sandy and I were struggle with a couple of scenes because we were discussing these scenes, all the time, and doing little rewrites, in terms of the dialogue and how to best convey the emotions that we wanted to convey. Suddenly, out of the blue, he offered to help. Actually, one of my favorite scenes, he rewrote, and it was just out of the blue. He said, “Hey, for what it’s worth, here’s this. Delete it, or use it.” And it was great.
Alfonso, how close to your dream of becoming an astronaut did this film bring you?
CUARON: The closest. For some reason, it was the internet that I wanted to be an astronaut. Yes, as a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. And my own passion was that I wanted to be a film director. I realized that being an astronaut was not going to be an option, so I said, “Well, I’m going to be a director and do films in space.” But, I completely forgot about that until it came up again, a couple of weeks ago. I met with Danny Boyle in the airport once. He said, “Hey, you’re doing Gravity.” I said, “Yes, it’s a space film.” He said, “I did my space film, and once you go to space, you don’t want to go back.” My dream is that I really want to go to space. So, if one of those guys that are sponsoring the new expedition to space wants to sponsor me, I’m very happy to take the trip. But, I would never do another film in space.
Sandra, your role in this is rare since it is a lead role for a female in the sci-fi genre. Do you think of it, in those terms, or do you just see it as a really good role?
BULLOCK: Yes, to both questions. Absolutely! The elephant in the room is that the roles for women haven’t been as vast and as many as the men have had. But, I do feel that a shift has happened. I never thought of myself as a woman in the business, until about six years ago, when I was involved in a project and I went, “Oh, my god, the walls I’m running into are because I’m female.” I wasn’t raised that way. I was appalled and depressed because I never felt like I wasn’t given the opportunities. But for lead roles in films, the roles haven’t been as many as we’d like. Making this character female was hugely brave, but also it gives you so many different levels of angst and worry. There are situations that you can build around it that I don’t think an audience has experienced just yet. It’s not like you’re going, “Oh, here’s a woman in space.” It’s just a person. But, I think the situations will feel fresh and in a way that you haven’t experienced them before. But, I do think that the times are changing, big time. In the end, it’s about making money. If a studio sees that a female can bring in audiences, then they’re going to make movies with that person. I’m just glad that I got to be a part of it. It’s nice. Hopefully, that will not be a trend, and that will just become the norm, and we won’t be wondering when we get the same meaty roles anymore.
CUARON: I agree that times are changing, but I have to say that, when I finished the script, there were voices saying, “Well, you should change it to a male lead.” Obviously, they were not powerful enough voices obviously because we got away with it, but the sad thing is that there is still that tendency.
BULLOCK: But also, I can be incredibly masculine, so often people forget that I’m female. I can play both sides.
Alfonso, how did you decide on doing things like using the long take, using time and space to create anxiety and fear, and everything else?
CUARON: Well, that came from conception, when we were writing the screenplay. I wrote it with Jonas Cuaron, who’s my son, and part of the concept, from the get-go, was this idea that it should feel like an IMAX or a Discovery Channel documentary that goes wrong. If you see the beautiful footage of IMAX, it is not that you’re cutting around characters, but you’re just flowing with the sense of real time. That’s part of why that footage is so beautiful. And that was very organic for me because I’ve had the tendency, for the last few films, of doing continuous takes. It was just something that married perfectly well. The original title, when we presented the film for the first time said, Gravity: A Space Suspense in 3D, so we wanted to get 3D. The thing is, we started this process four and a half years ago and, at that time, 3D was still cool. There has been so much backlash, ever since. I love 3D. I think it’s been over-produced. Sometimes you see films where you don’t understand why those films are in 3D. You see that it’s just a cynical thing to convert films because there’s a market. But, the films that are actually designed for 3D, I think are amazing. 3D was invented two years after film was invented. The first 3D film was in 1896. They didn’t keep on doing it just because it was complicated, but notion is that you’re going to watch something with your two eyes. And I love the sense of depth that 3D can give you. We used only wide angles, not that many cuts and continuous takes. We have our foreground involvement with our astronauts, and we have that beautiful background that is the earth. It just lent itself perfectly to something that is very immersing. The idea is that you see it in the theater, and you feel that you’re up there in space.
BULLOCK: You want so much for this. I haven’t even seen the completed film, but I hope people come out of this feeling like they have been taken completely out of their bodies, and by the time the end of the film happens, want to go out and do something amazing with their life, if they’re not already doing it. What have you wasted up to this point? What have you not experienced? What have you not savored? Stop holding your breath and worrying about everything. There are so many beautiful storylines in this film, but you come out of it feeling, hopefully, that you’re given one more chance to be born again, to do exactly what it is you’re supposed to do in this lifetime. And that’s at the end of it horrific, beautiful, frightening experience that Alfonso gives you, on the way there.
Gravity opens in theaters on October 4th.