Alfonso Cuaron dropped into the recent Zurich Film Festival to talk up his stunning new space thriller, Gravity
How did you come up with the idea for Gravity?
"Everything came about, not unlike in the film, through adversity. Jonas Cuaron, my son, and I had written a script that we were prepping and then the financial crisis happened and the film fell apart. At the same time he showed me a script that he had written and he wanted notes. It was a story with only two characters, in a very hostile environment, and a journey that dealt with a lot of themes. This is when we decided that the theme was something very present in our lives, which was adversity. So we took that theme and we used the debris as a metaphor for adversities."
And once you'd written the screenplay, you discovered that the technology wasn't there to make the film?
"Yes, I thought it was going to be a fairly straightforward film with a fair amount of visual effects but conventional technologies. However, when I started doing tests with Emmanuel Lubezki, the director of photography, it was clear that the technology didn't exist to do that. So it was the whole journey of trying to figure out how to do it."
So up until that point, you thought everything was fine?
"We had a screenplay we were very happy with and we were very excited about the cinematic possibility of it. But it was enjoyable in the sense that it was a journey of discovery. The process mirrored the process of the characters in that their story was a journey full of adversities, and the journey of doing this film was filled with adversities."
You took four-and-a-half years to make Gravity. Would you work on a film for that long again?
"I would never do that. I enjoyed every single bit but there was a point where it wasn't film-making any more, it was endurance. You work so hard, so many hours a day, and the progress that you see is almost none. So that becomes tedious, because you miss going out in the field with a camera and walking around. I like to improvise a lot, to change things, and here it was a completely different journey."
How difficult was it to convince Sandra Bullock and George Clooney to be a part of this?
"It was not difficult because we didn't tell them the whole truth. And then it was too late once we were speaking because they'd fallen in love with the characters. Basically, you just keep talking creatively and slowly you start presenting techniques that we're going to use."
So much of the film rests on Sandra's shoulders. What was she like to work with?
"Her discipline is astonishing. She started rehearsing and training five months before the shoot just to get fit. Not only because she wanted that for the character but also because of the rigs she was going to use. Then, two months before, when the rigs started to get ready, she started working with the stunt and special effects people, her personal trainer, and puppeteers, to see which parts of her body she needed to train specifically for the rigs. And we started working together on cues and timing cues, because everything was pre-programmed and her performance had to be timed to the frame."
Did she and George take revenge for not being told more at the beginning?
"Yeah, they'd imitate my accent. And they sucked at it because they'd play me as Tony Montana, and he's Cuban. I'm Mexican! It got so bad that there was a point when they were performing that they could not get rid of my accent."
Going back to the fact of this being set in space, when I interviewed you about Children of Men in Venice, in 2006, you seemed angry about the way the world was going.
"I am still angry."
So does Gravity at all reflect a desire to leave the world for a while?
"[Laughing] Wow! Yes, I guess that Sandra's character, when she goes into space, it's because she wants to get out of everything. But my understanding is that then you're screwed, because what happens with these characters is a metaphorical journey; you start living in your own bubble and then you start drifting into the void, getting further and further away from human communication, and then you become a victim of your own inertia."
Have you experienced anything like that? Did your anger put you in that position?
"Oh yeah. My journey of adversities started precisely over there [in Venice]. In a way that was the beginning of all sorts of adversities. And yeah, I haven't changed what I think about what's going on. I'm not necessarily angry, I am concerned, because I am very pessimistic about the present. I am very optimistic about the future, though. And I'm only optimistic because of the next generation. They're the first generation that has been born with a very specific set of tools that are unthinkable for us, and I think it is a generation unlike any generation in recent history. So with that new set of tools they come with a new set of solutions but also of ethics. So let's see how it goes."
Finally, will you work in 3D again?
"I might, I love 3D. I always have my issues with it because of the blacks, the whites and colour. But saying that, Gravity in 2D is only 30% of the total experience. [When used properly], I think it's an amazing tool."
Gravity opens 7 November