SAN DIEGO – Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” seems like an odd fit with Comic-Con. Sure it’s set in outer space, but it’s not another “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” There’s no bad guys, no Joseph Campbell structure, no outrageous genre-bending twists. It’s a hard science survival story, something closer to “127 Hours” than “Star Wars.” Still, Warner Bros. couldn’t have made this thing cheaply, and if they’re going to turn this movie into a hit this year, they’ve got to sell it to everyone.
[Watch a portion of the footage Cuaron screened at Comic-Con in the embed at the top of this post.]
Cuaron hasn’t made a feature film since “Children Of Men,” and that seems absolutely cruel when you think about how strong his filmography was, how much life and raw talent was apparent in his work. “Gravity” has been a long time coming, a four year process for the filmmaker, and when he showed up at Comic-Con to share some footage, he seemed worn out but pleased.
The first clip they showed was just a quick sting, some footage of Sandra Bullock in peril, some quick cuts, and the tag line “Don’t Let Go.” This is a movie that really can’t convey the experience of the film in a thirty-second version, and when Cuaron walked out, he explained that “Gravity” focuses on just two people for the entire film. It’s Sandra Bullock and it’s George Clooney, and that’s it.
There were some screams from the crowd at the mention of their names, and Cuaron laughed. “Yeah, they’re pretty good, right? If you’re going to be stranded in space, they’d be okay to be with. The whole film is a ride. We want people to feel like they are floating in space. We play different themes and issues against that, but we never stop with that tension.”
Cuaron explained that the trailer is deceptive. “You guys are going to see something. In the trailer, they put explosions to make things exciting. In the film, there is no sound in space. And because a trailer tries to show different moments, you don’t have a sense of what the film is. Here, you’re going to see one continuous scene, and then after that, you’ll see a few quick moments.”
With that, he started the footage, and we saw a condensed version of the film’s opening scene. Because the film is set in space, Cuaron found a way to make it feel like he actually shot it there, in the same exact weightlessness as the actors. George Clooney is the old hand, the guy who has been to space several times, and now he’s getting ready to wrap up what he knows is his final mission. He’s trying for a space walk record, enjoying the mobility as he flies around the shuttle that is stationary in orbit, allowing the scientific officer played by Sandra Bullock to do her research. She’s new to space travel, and she’s handling it for the sake of her research, though she’s not really a fan at all.
Much of what Cuaron does is in service of making the experience very emotionally direct. You may not notice how long he goes between actual cuts in the film, but doing a long unbroken move, following Clooney around the shuttle with our perspective on the Earth constantly shifting, turning, makes it feel like we’re there, experiencing it.
Suddenly Ground Control comes on, ordering everyone back into the spaceship immediately. There’s been an explosion, and what used to be a handful of communications satellites are transformed into a razor sharp debris field racing around the planet, one full rotation every ninety minutes, shredding everything in its bath. And at this particular moment, the shuttle and everyone in it are all directly in that path.
Bullock tries to wrap up what she’s doing, as Clooney orders her into the ship. By the time she realizes how much danger they’re in, it’s too late. She heads for the entrance to the ship, but she can’t make it before the debris starts to slam into the ship. She’s still attached to a mechanical arm, and when it’s snapped off, she’s sent spinning end over end over end, freaking out. Clooney tells her she has to undo the connecting belt, and she tries to figure out how to do that. When she does, she’s sent racing out, away from the wreckage of the shuttle, into a vast emptiness.
It is haunting to see this kind of destruction with no sound accompanying it, and Steven Price’s score works in place of sound effects, augmenting the images. David Heyman and Sandra Bullock walked out as the footage ended, marking the first time Bullock has ever done Hall H for Comic-Con.
She kicked things off by talking about the technical challenge that she knew was going to be such a big part of the film, since Cuaron is essentially inventing some new visual language on this film. She said that she considered it intimidating working on something this cutting edge, because she felt pressure on her performance, not wanting to let them down when so much of the film depends on the execution. It is not often I say this, but if you asked me to explain how “Gravity” was made just based on a viewing of the film, I would be stumped. I don’t know what he shot. I don’t know what his sets looked like. I’m not even sure there were sets. I don’t know what’s real and physical and what is CGI. It is a magic trick of a movie, and I was excited to hear Cuaron talk about how he pulled it off.
“The film is about Ryan Stone being isolated in space,” he said. “The technology we created required her to be isolated. For a long time, she was in a cube, 9 by 9 feet, surrounded by LED lights. Outside, there was a robot arm with the camera, and then rows and rows and rows of computers and some very wise geeks doing their work. Sandra was totally isolated in that cube. And it took a while to get her into the rig, so she’d stay there between takes with her music. As she said, it was very mathematical, but the focus is her emotional journey.”
I hope they do a huge behind-the-scenes piece on this for the Blu-ray so we can see what Cuaron did to accomplish these amazing images. David Heyman said, “One of the things we’re talking about is this amazing robot, on the end of which was this camera. We never wanted to see any gravity since you’re in space. So the camera had to motor along this track at 20 or 25 miles per hour. You ask if she was scared? I would think this must have been terrifying to see this thing race at her and stop an inch from her nose.”
Sandra went on to elaborate. “It wasn’t just a cube. You were locked into this grid, and it would oscillate. So if the robot had decided to just punch through my face, I couldn’t have gone anywhere. There was a release button…”
Cuaron interrupted, laughing. “We never told her that by the time you decide to push that button, it would be too late.”
They scared her by initially thinking about shooting all of the zero gravity footage in the Vomit Comet, the same plane that Ron Howard used for “Apollo 13.” She’s already got a problem with flying, but she wanted the role and convinced herself that she could do it. Two weeks before production, they finally told her what they were going to be doing instead of the Vomit Comet, and she was thrilled. Basically, anything sounded better to her than that plane, so she was happy to do it. She said that sort of technically demanding isolation can lead you to some strange places. “If you’re in pain, use it. I had to learn how to meditate. I had a great relationship with the sound guy, and Alfonso put together a library of sounds to help me get to certain emotional places. Any time I needed it, he could play me a track to get me to the right place.”
When they went to the crowd for questions, Bullock seemed fascinated by the people coming up to the mic and the costumes they were all wearing. One guy asked about her working for the film, and she said she trained every day for six months. First, she wanted to get her core ready for the 12-wire system they put her on sometimes to simulate weightlessness. She also pushed to make Ryan, her character, even more androgynous, like she’s trying to escape anything that reminds her of whatever tragedy she’s had in the recent past.
When asked if the studio ever asked him to stop experimenting while making the film, Cuaron said, “There is always a suggestion to do things the easy way, but that’s no fun. At the end of the day, they were fully behind the film from every standpoint. Part of the reason we pushed the technology forward was because the studio was behind us on this.”
Heyman admitted that the experimentation is one of the things that makes him want to work with Cuaron over and over. “One of the most exciting things about working with him is that he’s a madman, and he knows no fear. He never settles, and he can be a pain in the ass, but it’s the best kind of pain in the ass. He is always pushing the limits.”
Cuaron talked about a wide range of influences on the film, from French films in the ’40s to Spielberg’s “Duel” to “Vanishing Point” and “Runaway Train,” and then added, “together with that, we wanted to do an emotional journey for this character.” Hugely ambitious, even if I hear the film’s running time is a lean 88 minutes. The next audience question addressed the long unbroken takes in “Children of Men,” with a younger Comic-Con attendee asking how hard it is to accomplish them. “It’s not difficult for me,” Cuaron said, smiling, “but is IS difficult for everyone around me. You have to depend on a lot of great people. You can do a lot of technical things and beautiful camera moves, but unless it has meaning, it doesn’t do anything. When you do those takes, all the weight is on the actors, and if what’s happening is not truthful, nothing else matters. Sandra would go through every single beat with us to have full clarity on what we’re trying to say. Spectacle is not as important as thee emotional core. If you’re making films, you’re only as good as your collaborators.”
If that’s true, then Cuaron is in great shape, because he’s working with some great collaborators this time out, and based on what we saw in Hall H, I suspect this is going to be one of the highlights of the Toronto Film Festival in September.
“Gravity” arrives in theaters October 4, 2013.