Interview: Alfonso Cuarón
This is a transcript of “An Evening with Alfonso Cuarón,” which took place on February 13th and was moderated by Gavin Smith.
With the advent of CGI, people become used to the idea that anything is possible—if you can imagine it, you can make it happen. When I first saw Gravity, I assumed this was just another particularly spectacular use of digital effects and green screen. Later I discovered that I was completely wrong. There’s no use of green screen and the CGI was created before you filmed the actors—the inverse of how things are usually done. And you and your team had to invent a completely new way of making a film and new technology to realize it, putting you in the company of people like Spielberg, Cameron, and Kubrick. Can you take us through the process of how you went about this?
CG is like any other tool in cinema. What you do with those tools depends on the creative side. When I wrote the screenplay with Jonás Cuarón, who’s my son, I thought it was going to be a very small movie. When I sent the script to Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki, the director of photography], I told him that it was just an intimate story of a woman dealing with her grief, and that it would take a year or so with some visual effects. At that time, I was thinking more as a writer than a director. Once we started trying to ground what we were trying to do with conventional tools, it turned out that those tools were not going to work. We had to start figuring out how to make the movie work, but always from the standpoint of the source material, of the thematic and cinematic journey that we wanted to convey. So all the time it was thematics and the cinematic that dictated the technological process. I am not a technological person. I got my first computer five years ago, I barely know how to send e-mail, and I can Google to look for a movie theater, but that’s as far as I go in terms of technology. But you surround yourself with people who do know. I’m not a technological person, but I have movie common sense. I understand the principles of cinema, and so I worked with Chivo and Tim Webber, who’s the visual effects supervisor, to figure out the best way of doing this. We tried different routes and it was a process of trial and error. We started doing previsualizations, rough animations, which, in a conventional movie, are usually used as guides, a moving storyboard. It soon became clear that those previz animations were going to dictate and program what was going to happen on the set in terms of the camera positions and the lights. It became this search for how to make that possible. Chris DeFaria, the visual effects executive at Warner Bros., insisted he had done this before in an ambitious film called Cats & Dogs. In that film, he said he put one person in an office chair, and there was a dude running around with a light, and he said that we could achieve this that way. So we did a test and it sucked. But it was the right principle—to move the actor as little as possible, and move the universe around them. So that was the point of departure.
Now the problem was how to move the lights and cameras at that rate, and interfere as little as possible with the performances. But with conventional rigs and technologies, gravity was ever-present in the actors’ bodies. If you hang actors down, you can immediately see the strain in their faces and you could see the discomfort in the performance. So we wanted to keep the body relaxed. In microgravity, you can be upright or upside down and there’s no rush of blood to your head. Everything works normally in that respect, you’re actually more relaxed. So we keep our characters most of the time in a vertical position and move everything around them.
We started inquiring about new technologies, robotics for instance, and we adapted the robots used to build cars with a camera head. Chivo was at a Peter Gabriel concert and he saw the effects of LED lights on the audience. And that’s where he got this idea of combining the robots with the LED lights. So then it was about developing that technology, but it was always from the standpoint of the emotional, the thematic, and cinematic language.
What proportion of time was spent on the three phases—pre-production and the pre-visualization, then actual production, shooting with the actors, and finally post-production?
It was two-and-a-half years to develop the technology. Then it was another two years to shoot and complete the film. And because of the complication of the pipeline of this technology, we had to split the shoot into separate summers. So we shot 11 weeks or so one summer, then we went back the following summer to shoot another couple of weeks.
There’s been a great deal of emphasis on the special effects. But the film also has to have a visual style and an aesthetic. Could you talk about what you envisioned the visual style of the film to be?
I don’t really worry about style or aesthetics when I’m making a film. I’ve become very distrustful of style and aesthetics. I’m focused on cinematic language. With my collaborations, the conversations are always about theme and the cinematic language to convey that theme. Part of what I have been doing consistently with Chivo since Y tu mamá también is exploration of the environment, which is as important as the characters. One informs the other, or one clashes with the other. For us, it’s about registering that in real time. So a byproduct of that is the use of long, extended takes. The camera tends to be loose, going into close-up at very specific moments. If not, the camera keeps everything at a distance. Part of the goal was to create a film where the thematics were conveyed not through the cinematic rhetoric, but through more abstract means or metaphors. It’s about an astronaut who is a victim of her own inertia, getting farther away from human communication, drifting between the void and the possibility of life on the other side, which is the Earth. We were clear that this was a story about rebirth, about gaining new knowledge of yourself. So there’s a lot of imagery that’s around that idea of birth. So these thematics start informing what we were going to see, and how we were going to see it.
What I found particularly remarkable in the film’s prolonged first take is that, at a certain moment, the camera—although this is a cameraless film to a large extent—travels inside Sandra Bullock’s helmet, and then suddenly we’re Sandra Bullock’s point of view. We’re seeing from inside her helmet outward at what’s going on. And that’s a completely seamless shift from objective to subjective camera—and then back out of the helmet to an objective view again. To me that’s an aesthetic and stylistic choice.
It was something that was already described in the screenplay. In the screenplay, by the way, we don’t describe camera movement but we try to convey that sense. When the film starts, it’s as you’re saying “objective,” in the third person, and you’re observing this mission from the standpoint of a witness. When disaster strikes, and she starts spinning, the camera keeps on following her objectively until it locks into her and starts spinning with her. And then the camera gets closer and closer until, as you say, it goes into her POV and switches the film’s POV from third person to first person. But the goal of that is that once the camera comes back out of the helmet visor it doesn’t go back to being third-person objective, it becomes the POV of the audience, floating in space. From that point on, the camera starts following the same rules of physics as the characters in microgravity, and the idea is for the audience to be taken into the journey. That’s also the reason we tried to strip as much as possible from the backstory or exposition. We wanted to know just enough about the character that audiences coudld invest their own emotional experiences into the journey. The journey in the end is about adversities, and that’s something that’s a fundamental aspect of human experience.
Audience Member: Did you feel that the technology got in the way of working with the actors, and if it did, how did you overcome it?
I was absolutely blessed to be working with these two amazing actors. They embraced the challenge. Sandra prepared herself for five months physically. On one hand we talked a lot about the body language and how she wanted to be really trim and almost androgynous throughout the first part of the film. But she also had to prepare herself so that she would be able to handle the strain of those rigs and also give the appearance that everything is fluid and floating when in reality it was filled with tension. She went through physically working out, working with the stunt and special effects people, working with the animators and myself trying to figure out the best way, because in many cases we were blocking in the animation, so she had to be involved in the blocking of some of these scenes. And then she had to become really familiar with those rigs, and all through this process the luxury that we had was that it was such an extended process that it allowed us to just keep on digging further and further into the emotional core of each scene. Sandra had to be prepared to be performing in relation to camera and light positions and timings that were pre-programmed. So there was very little room for error or movement. On top of that, she had very specific cues and positions that she had to reach with very specific timings. I guess that her approach was more of one of a dancer who prepares a choreography so that when we were rolling cameras it was just like second-nature.
There were other technologies… She had to be locked inside this light box, a 10 x 10 cube with LED lights mounted on the walls. She actually started using that in her process because the scenes we were shooting when she was in that cube were the scenes when she was insulated and she chose to keep that insulation. In between setups she chose to stay inside. She was in the cube for four or five weeks. She had to have this amazing sense of abstraction because there were no sets. All of the sets are virtual. She worked closely with the art department, mapping in her head every single inch of that set, so that she would be clear on—if she were reaching something—where that thing would be specifically. With all this technology, the real miracle of this film is Sandra’s performance.
The scenes in the Soyuz capsule when she’s out of her space suit seemed like they could have been filmed as live action.
The Soyuz was one of the only real sets. We thought that going into a practical set was going to be easy. She’s alone and there’s one scene where she’s talking to someone on Earth but they don’t understand each other. Then it goes into this hallucination or dream of Clooney coming back, and then it goes back into the moment in which she gets her new resolve. That’s all one take, one shot. Everybody talks about the opening shot because it’s flashier, but that is one single shot where everything falls on the shoulders of Sandra’s performance, and it’s a big arc. It goes from despair to resignation to trying to kill herself to the moment of epiphany and a new resolve. Everything is in one single take because of the nature of shooting in a small space and the camera moving around, pieces of the set moving in and out of position all the time or moments where suddenly she had to duck because the camera was passing, or the whole ship would have to rotate to allow Clooney to come in and then rotate back to allow him to sit back down. With all of those cues and stuff she would never miss one single emotional beat.
Audience Member: When you started, what was the original concept and how did that evolve into the final project? And when you were working with your son to write it, how did you bounce ideas off each other?
The whole process was very fast. It was maybe one whole day where we were just bouncing ideas of each other. We were prepping a film that we had written together and it had just fallen apart. It was a small movie, a road movie, between the south of France and the north of Scotland. We had Charlotte Gainsbourg and Daniel Auteuil and our locations set. It was 2008 and it fell apart because of the financial crises of that year. What is called the indie market or the art-house market collapsed so it was clear we were not going to be able to do something like that at that point. So we were trying to figure out what to do and we talked about what could be more mainstream-friendly. Then we talked about how to do that in the way that we would have done the other film and we started talking about the theme. Because my life was filled with adversities at that point, we said, “Let’s just explore the theme of adversity.” Then we started talking about references and we had two: on one end of the spectrum was Duel by Spielberg, you could say a mainstream choice, and on the other end of the spectrum was A Man Escaped by Bresson. What both films have in common is that they have one single character going through a journey that starts to have existential overtones. So we started to discuss where to set that story. We had this image of one astronaut spinning into the void, and the metaphor was very obvious immediately, and we decided to follow that line. So pretty much, at the end of that day, we had a rough map of what we wanted to do, and we developed that map in the next five days or so, to get a blueprint. Then we parted ways: I went to Mexico, he went to Spain, and we would Skype everyday for the next two or three weeks until we completed a draft, a draft which is very close, actually, to the film.
Audience Member: How much science research did you have to do?
When we finished the first draft it was pretty much what you saw, but because we had been doing a lot of research on the Internet, we finished that draft feeling that we were space and science experts. We got the advice of a consultant, a scientist who works closely with NASA, and he proved that we’re just morons. It was inaccurate in every single way. So we started working very closely with several people and having conversations with astronauts to try to really make everything be as plausible and realistic as we could. We went to the length of writing a draft where every single scientific fact was addressed, but it was like a 300-page script filled with technicalities and stuff and it was really boring. So we decided that we’d just be as plausible as we could within the frame of our fiction. What we tried to be millimetric about the behavior of objects in microgravity and with no resistance. We did a lot of computer simulations because it’s very counterintuitive, it’s so difficult for our brains to understand the behavior of objects in that environment. We tried to be as accurate as possible but it’s full of holes—look, it’s a movie, not a documentary. For example, when she takes off her space suit and goes into the fetal position, she would have been wearing an adult diaper. And I don’t think it would have been very cool to have that!
GS: That’s what I was thinking for the rest of the movie—what about that diaper?
Audience Member: The music carries the story just as much as the technology and everything else. Obviously there’s no sound in space, but you can’t have a silent movie.
We worked with Steven Price for a long time, very closely. And actually we did an experiment. My movies tend to have very little music. Some, like Y tu mamá también don’t have any—it’s only source music coming from radios. In this one, I said, “What if we just go all the way?” So we did a version without music, using just the sound effects when astronauts are interacting with the environment—we learned in our research that if you’re on a spacewalk, you can hear things through vibration. So on the Blu-ray, we’re going to have that as an extra—the option for you to see the film without music. And it was interesting—and absolutely boring. So we started playing with the music, trying to respect the concept of the silence. In the beginning everything is sparse, and very textural. And it is not until later that the melodic elements start to spring. That stuff has to do with the emotional journey of the character. But as much as we wanted to convey the emotional and psychological state of character through the music, we also wanted to convey the immersive sense of the film, this idea that you are there with these characters. So since in space there is no up or down, the music was not going to have a center either. The music constantly moves around. And what Steven did beautifully is create these compositions for Surround Sound, in which some harmonies travel in one direction and some move in the opposite direction, and eventually they collide, and when they collide they create new harmonies or sometimes melody. That is something that Stockhausen used to do in some of his pieces. He would have instruments all around the concert hall, and as the pieces started, the musicians would start walking around, changing the dynamics. And Steven also worked very closely with the sound-effects people, because there was a point where everything blurred, sometimes the radio signals would transform, and start having a musical quality. The departments were very promiscuous [laughs] because all of them collaborated with each other, and every department had its hands in the others.
GS: At the very end, when the capsule was filling with water, whenever the camera went below the surface of the water, the music became muted and had a different kind of texture to it, as if the camera were a person hearing the music.
Yeah, we tried to use absolute silence, and what happened is that silence lost its value. After a while you lose awareness of the silence. Not only do you lose awareness of that silence but when you’re in a screening room you hear people shuffling around and eating popcorn. So there’s not a real sense of silence. We used the music to accentuate the moments in which there was complete silence. Like when she enters the airlock, or Clooney comes back. And at the end, to enhance this concept, now she’s in the atmosphere, now she’s are back on earth. And sound travels, but travels according to density. So when you are in the air or when you are underwater, you can hear but with a completely different texture because sound travels differently when we are underwater.
Audience Member: I understand you actually had to pursue Sandra Bullock to get her for the role. I know it takes a lot of trust for an actor to accept a role and be part of an ambitious project. How did you gain her trust in the moments that it became hardest for her?
I have this theory that she agreed to see me because she thought I was Alejandro González Iñárritu. And so I went to see her in Austin and she realized I was not him. Sandra warned me even before I went to see her that she was busy with her life and didn’t want to work. But I was very intrigued by her, so I said, “Can I come and talk to you?” And she said, “Well, if you want.” What was surprising was that she had read the script, and loved it. We started talking and we didn’t talk for one second about space or even the story. We talked about the theme of adversity. And we were so in sync, for three hours we just talked about adversities in life. We didn’t talk about anything else. So I left, and I called my producing partner David Hayman, and I said, “She’s Ryan, but she doesn’t want to work.” And we had a couple of phone calls and she said she was intrigued by our conversation. And so immediately I took a plane again and kept on talking. And so, you know, I guess that we conned her into the whole thing. Because next thing, she was involved in the process. She said, “I’m very clear about what I have done. And I’m clear, also, on what has worked in the past. But I don’t want to go there. I want to go out of my comfort zone. I want to going into places I’ve never gone before.” And so she was really fearless about it. And as with any relationship, the first few weeks it was a little tense. But when we were clear that we were working for the same goals, it just became this relentless collaboration, in which she was millimetric about the screenplay, trying to explore every single second of the emotional value, and understanding that it has to be sparse and we have to cut down dialogue. And she was there working with the animators. It was really an amazing collaboration. She was collaborating hand-in-hand with Lynn Weber, the special-effects supervisor. There was a core of people: the DP, the visual-effects supervisor, the writer, and myself, with the actors. That was a very intimate thing, and very collaborative. And the thing is, when you are clear about the theme, and you have a thematic agreement, and you know the emotional goal you are trying to reach, everything becomes very simple.
Audience Member: I saw Gravity with a friend who was enraged about it. She said it was supremely sexist, because Sandra Bullock couldn’t do a single thing without George Clooney.
Look, I’m not going to defend anything. I don’t agree, you know, I think that it’s about situations of adversity. We needed another character to demonstrate her incompetence in space. The whole point was that she’s a fish out of water. So your friend would have been less offended maybe if the George Clooney character had been a woman. Probably, but I mean, that seemed too much. At the end I think it is very clear that she is the one that completes the journey. It is her journey of rebirth. Maybe your friend was confused about the dream. It’s a dream. He was not a ghost who comes to save her. It was her own consciousness. In her consciousness, what appears in the form of George Clooney, telling her things that she already knows, is just buried in her own consciousness. But in the end it’s herself, coming to terms with all of that stuff.