Alfonso Cuaron Talks Putting Science Back In SciFi With GRAVITY

The man behind this year's most ambitious big budget movie on the challenges of making a realistic space movie, and which other films have gotten it right. 

Alfonso Cuaron has already given us one of the great science fiction movies of our time, Children of Men. His latest film, Gravity, ups the science aspect, using realistic physics to tell the story of an astronaut stranded in space after a terrible orbital accident. Gravity is the kind of movie that will have audiences white-knuckling theater seats, but it will also turn younger viewers onto the majesty and excitement of space exploration. Don’t be surprised when the first human on Mars namechecks Gravity as a favorite film.

Gravity presented its own unique challenges. Not only did Cuaron and his crew have to invent new technology in order to shoot microgravity as realistically as possible, as a storyteller he was limited to just two actors onscreen. It helps when those actors are George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, of course - even if they are strapped into bulky, accurate space suits.

In this interview Alfonso Cuaron talks about the realities and challenges of space travel, as well as the reality of how we’ve watered down the term ‘science fiction.’ Gravity aims to reclaim the science part of that phrase.

Q: Can you talk about your approach to space in this movie?

A: First of all everything was surrounding the main problem that this is a journey of our character. Space offers two great things: one, it’s a metaphorical environment, but at the same time we wanted to take it very seriously. We wanted to portray on film something similar to watching a Discovery Channel documentary where something goes wrong. We didn’t want to create any technology, we wanted to create a reality that is up there right now. Not only did we not want to create any technology, we wanted to portray technology that is ingrained in people’s consciousness. That’s the reason we used the space suits, knowing that the next generation of space suits is going to come very soon. But that next generation, for our audience, is going to look science fiction-y. That’s why we brought back the space shuttle, knowing the space shuttle is out of order but that it’s part of the collective consciousness of what space exploration is about.

We took a very detailed approach to space. This is an amazing environment. On one side of you there’s the totality of Earth, and on the other end there’s nothing. Already there you have a metaphor. You’re between life and nothing. We were detailed with the space ships and the space suits, but also with the rendering and the lighting of the whole thing. Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, who has done most of my films, and Chivo - that’s what we call him - was adamant about honoring the light that exists in space. It’s one single source, without any diffusion. The one single source is the sun, and there’s nothing to suck in that light. Then you have the bounce from planet Earth, and we thought about how those colors would affect everything. We wanted audiences to feel like they were in space.

Q: One of the other realistic things about this movie is that Sandra Bullock’s character isn’t a heroic pilot or astronaut; she’s a technician who gets caught in a terrible situation.

A: We needed her to be a little bit of a fish out of water. Metaphorically and literally she’s a character who lives in her own bubble, and here her own bubble is her space suit. The film is a journey towards her rebirth. Part of her rebirth is to come out of that bubble, so shed her own skin. It was very important to have her as a normal person. For audiences they’re watching a film that is in space, but emotionally we wanted audiences to bring their own emotional experiences into the film. In other words the debris is nothing but adversity - it’s a woman going through adversity the same as everybody else does. We have adversity every day, and we wanted that journey through adversity to be something in which audiences could invest their own emotions. We didn’t want to create a superhero who is going to solve things. We wanted to create a normal person.

Q: Speaking of adversity, it must have been very tough making a movie that is essentially one actor on what I’m assuming is a green screen, stuck in a space suit the whole time. How did you work with Sandra Bullock to get her in the place she needed to be while also keeping her feeling supported and safe?

A: The biggest challenge of this film was precisely that. We had to invent technology to make this movie, and unfortunately that technology was not performance-friendly. We pretty much had to animate the whole film using as a guide the voices of George and Sandra. But once we finished the animation, everything had to be programmed based on those animations. Once we programmed there was very little room for adjustment. What that means is that Sandra had to be perform based on very strict boundaries, especially in length. She could change things in her dialogue and performance, but it had to be the same length. That was written in stone. It was very challenging. Everything was very, very uncomfortable for Sandra. She would have to be in all these contraptions.

It wasn’t even green screen. There is very, very little green screen. The technology we created was based on LED light. Most of the filming she was in a box filled with LED light, isolated from the rest of the crew. The nearest crew member was 20 feet away. All of her communication was through radio; she had her space cap with the earphones in it, and we would communicate through the mic. It took so long to get in and out of the device that, in between takes, Sandra chose to just stay there. It was pretty handy when making a journey of isolation - she went through the same things as the character.

Q: One of the things that surprises me most about space travel is how relatively safe it is. There have been some tragedies, but no one has actually died in space.

A: With all the realism we’re talking about, we’ve been trying to be as accurate as possible while keeping in mind that this is a movie. This is a fiction. So we have to contrive certain elements and certain procedures. In reality what is amazing is that if you talk to these people and research how well-designed these missions are. They cover every single angle. They have a back up for every single thing. They have a procedure for every single thing. It’s impressive. There are a lot of people involved in each one of these missions, and a lot of those people know only about one thing - but they are experts in that one little thing. In other words, if a guy knows about that screw he knows EVERY SINGLE THING with that screw. It’s really impressive.

The reason there haven’t been many catastrophes is because of the immense preparation that goes into these things. It’s such a hostile environment.

Q: You have obviously immersed yourself in a ton of research for this movie. What do you think is the future of the space program?

A: I leave that to the experts. I leave the answers about technology to the experts. But being a huge aficionado, I know that the next stage from the shuttle is the Orion. The other big thing that’s happening around the world is private enterprise getting into space exploration. Some of it is for more frivolous things, like space tourism… but I’m all for it. Even if I call it frivolous that would be my dream. I would love to do that. Entrepreneurs are getting into space exploration for the exploitation of minerals and stuff.

One of the most amazing pieces of space exploration, and one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever is the Hubble Telescope. It has proven to be an amazing resource for knowledge. Literally it’s a time machine, you can use it to look into the past of our universe and where we come from. For me, not being an expert what makes sense is that the future would be a combination of Hubble-like machines, either stationary around Earth orbit like the Hubble, or like the Keppler that was going to travel to other systems, together with what is considered close range missions. All of these entrepreneurial projects for exploration but also exploitation. A lot of private enterprises are taking this very, very seriously. Obviously something is happening there.

NASA, I hope it keeps receiving resources. I hope NASA keeps being healthy and alive, because it’s one of the best things America has to offer to the world. It’s an amazing symbol; beyond its pragmatic uses I would keep NASA alive because it presents an amazing view of what America can do.

Q: When we think about movies with realistic space travel 2001 is the first film that comes to mind. What are some movies that are touchstones for you?

A: We knew that what we were going to do had never been done. This is a whole film that takes place in zero gravity… well, actually microgravity. None of the technology that existed before applied to what we were trying to do. We were trying to honor not only microgravity but also zero resistance, which means a very weird way of moving that we’re not used to on planet Earth. And also we used very long takes. That presented yet another set of challenges.

But 2001 is… I’m not going to say it’s the best film about space because it’s just one of the best films ever. It wasn’t such a point of reference because it’s such a philosophical piece, and we were approaching this in a very different way. What I’m saying is that 2001 is incomparable. 2001 is one of the only films that actually takes space and technology seriously.

There are a lot of films set in space that I am a fan of. It goes from silent films - the Fritz Lang film Woman in the Moon that is amazing. It’s the 20s and he has a movie where space travel is for exploitation - there’s gold in the Moon. And they’re traveling in a rocket ship that goes through stages, not unlike what the Apollo used later on. And you can see that he was very meticulous in trying to convey the technology, and that was in the 20s.

Then in the 50s there was Destination Moon, which was very serious in how they tried to convey space travel. In the 60s there was a film I loved as a kid called Marooned, and it stars Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman. A year after that film was released came the reality of Apollo 13. It was predicting what would happen. And obviously Apollo 13 is a movie that takes space seriously, and besides 2001 is the movie that is most meticulous and accurate about everything. Another one is The Right Stuff. Although it’s minimal the amount of space compared to, say Apollo 13. But they take the technology and the physics of space seriously.

There are other films about space, like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, that are philosophical works. The whole thing about technology of space and the physics of it are in the background because in the foreground is this amazing story of humanity.

Q: Do you consider Gravity to be science fiction?

A: That’s a strange thing because now I don’t know what science fiction is about. Science fiction has been so confused with fantasy. What I used to consider to be fantasy is now known as science fiction in many instances.

Gravity is science fiction in that it’s a fiction and we tried to include as much of a scientific element into everything surrounding the fiction. Some might say it’s not science fiction because it takes place in the present, not the future. It’s not inventing technology. From that perspective I don’t know if it fits into the modern idea of science fiction.

Science fiction lost its meaning. Everything that takes place in space gets called science fiction, but a lot of films that take place in space are actually fantasy. Or horror - I love Alien, but it’s a horror film that happens to be set in space. The Cameron one, Aliens, is an action movie in space. I quite like Event Horizon - it’s not unlike Tarkovsky. But I don’t think that’s science fiction - it’s a haunted house, but they use a space ship.

Would I consider Marooned science fiction? Yes, it’s a film that’s a fiction that incorporates science as well.

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