Sandra Bullock and Director Alfonso Cuaron Discuss ‘Gravity’ and Science Fiction

Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuaron Interview
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in 'Gravity' (Photo © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures)

Oscar winner Sandra Bullock and Oscar winner George Clooney teamed up with three-time Oscar nominee Alfonso Cuaron (two for Children of Men, one for Y Tu Mama Tambien) for what’s become one of the most buzzed-about sci-fi films of the year: Gravity. Set in space, the film finds Bullock and Clooney alone and adrift in space after their shuttle is destroyed.

Together with director Cuaron at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con where footage screened wowed attendees fortunate enough to get into the Q&A session, Bullock discussed her first major sci-fi film, talking to real astronauts, and working with George Clooney.

Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuaron Gravity Press Conference

Alfonso, are the challenges of hard sci-fi easier than maybe fantastical science fiction. And Sandra, did the fact that it was supposed to be in a very realistic universe make it easier for you to tap into dealing with your first science fiction project?

Alfonso Cuaron: “Well, the challenge was that we didn’t want to create a new world. The goal was for the film to feel like one of the those IMAX documentaries, like a Discovery Channel documentary that just went absolutely wrong. So, we used current technology. We didn’t invent anything. If anything, the only thing that we…we didn’t invent it…but we were ahead of time and we have the Chinese space station. […] Not only that, we want to be current. We had the space shuttle and we decided to keep the NASA astronaut suits, the current one because now there’s a new generation that’s going to come very soon. But the thing is that if we go 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 here. 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 it accurate. Now, in terms of the design of what you see is pretty much what’s up there. We have to take – obviously, it’s a film. It is a work of fiction, so we don’t pretend to say that everything is perfect. It’s a work of fiction, and so in the frame of that fiction, we try to be as accurate as possible to reality.”

Sandra Bullock: “That’s very well said. I agree. Because I wasn’t at all in control or had no idea the extent of technology that was involved, to me it was all sort of fantastical, futuristic which made it exciting and magical and frightening all at the same breath. But I had to be very true to what someone was dealing with who would be in my position, or 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 was always people on call. There were several times I was able to call up to space and ask them questions, and they’d answer.”

Alfonso Cuaron: “She got on the phone with the space station. That was very weird.”

Sandra Bullock: “They were very helpful. So just for what I had to do, I had to be very human in this technologically advanced space that felt very futuristic to me because, A, it had never been done before on film. So I had the benefit of both.”

George Clooney is known for his pranks. Were there any on set pranks?

Sandra Bullock: “No. There was a truce…”

Alfonso Cuaron: “…between the two of them.”

Sandra Bullock: “There was a truce. But 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, are rigged up all day? And so we had a truce at the very get-go because that just wasn’t the appropriate place to prank someone.”

You were actually calling astronauts?

Sandra Bullock: “Yeah.”

Alfonso Cuaron: “And by the way, they decided not to prank each other.”

Sandra Bullock: “We didn’t prank you. We just made fun of you.”

Alfonso Cuaron: “Exactly, they just made fun of me all day long.”

Sandra Bullock: “There’s a difference between that.”

Alfonso Cuaron: “So that was how they would entertain themselves.

You have a great history of making science fiction kind of very realistic, very gritty. Did you shoot with 3D cameras?

Alfonso Cuaron: “No, we didn’t. It didn’t make any sense because of the technology that we used, it was practically impossible. We wanted to shoot in 3D with the cameras, and we did the test. And first of all, it was impossible because of the technology. We used these robots, the robots that are used for car manufacturing, we adopted some of those robots for instance. Instead of like having a motion control, the weight of the cameras was not possible in those robots, first of all. And secondly, because of the second part of the technology where in one instance Sandra was on a rig inside a cube that is 9 by 9, that the camera had just a limited view of Sandra. 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, as you know, with 3D cameras, you need two cameras, so you need more space.

And then the other set that we had is the Soyuz. The Soyuz is the Russian space pod, and is pretty much the size of these three chairs smashed up together. So, it was impossible.

But beyond that, not only was it impossible because of the constraint of space, what didn’t make any sense was because it is such a combination of real action and CG that the amount of real footage was so minimal that what we end up doing is doing a conversion. Pretty much we start converting to 3D, I can tell you three and a half years ago, to go through pains to make sure that it was the closest thing to 3D.”

Did you consult with James Cameron on that?

Alfonso Cuaron: “I did. Yeah, and actually, I was with Jim this week, and he said, ‘Look, this is a perfect example how a film can be converted.’ And now he’s talking about the way that technology goes, it’s not about taking your choice if I’m going native or I’m going to convert. But it’s like any other tool, you choose your moments.”

Sandra, which astronauts did you speak to?

Sandra Bullock: “I will let the astronauts, if they ever want to reveal who I was chatting with, say it because I respect their privacy. But they were incredibly helpful. I mean, literally, you could call and they were like, ‘I’m going to call you back.’ They email. And you’re like, ‘My email reached here,’ and they’re like, ‘Of course it did because 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 was the same that they have which is 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 adventure, it’s 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 the nice conversations to have, so that gave it a real emotional gravity.”

What kind of reaction are you hoping for from audiences?

Sandra Bullock: “You want so much for this. I mean, I haven’t even seen the completed film, but I hope people come out of this feeling having been taken completely out of their bodies. And by the time the end of the film happens, wanting 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’s so many beautiful storylines in this film, but you come out of it feeling hopefully that you’re given one more chance to sort of be born again to do exactly what it is you’re supposed to do in this lifetime. And that having been at the end of it horrific, beautiful, frightening experience that Alfonso gives you on the way there.”

What was George Clooney like for you professionally to work off of?

Sandra Bullock: “I’ve known George for…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, a man who loves film, a man who loves being part of a group and working and supporting. He’s the ultimate team worker. You just never know if 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, reading the script. What lines are great? How can I help? He’s just the same person I knew all those years ago when our hair was dark and curly, and it’s just more of the same. 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.”

Alfonso Cuaron: “That is true. And part of his concern here is there was a point in which there were so many scenes with Sandra alone, he was so concerned making sure that – I mean, he could have just gone, done his job and leave, and George noticed that Sandy and I were struggling with a couple of scenes because we were all the time discussing these scenes and doing 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 and actually, one of the scenes, one of my favorite scenes, he rewrote. And it was just out of the blue. He said, ‘Hey. I heard that you were working on that. For what it’s worth, here’s this. Delete it or use it.’ And it was great.”

What was your first impression of the script and why did you decide to get involved?

Sandra Bullock: “It’s the great unknown. You read this script and you always read into it your experience in life. And it was really profound, but it was still the great unknown. 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 with me 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. But to admire someone so much and then have this sort of project which you couldn’t explain, had never been done before, had this possible outcome of this beautiful message intertwined with extreme thrills and action and the technology that’s never been done before, it’s just like life.

Sometimes I don’t know what this is, but the person who is helming is a person just worthy of blindly stepping into this vortex with, and that’s what it was. I had such faith in what he had already done, and then meeting him as a person, and us having sort of similar views and paths we were on in life, and going, you know, whatever we don’t know how to answer right now, I felt like, as a team, we would be able to have a thoughtful conversation to figure it out because I felt like we were trying to figure out so many things in our own lives. And it just worked out that way. There’s always a conversation that was okay to have. So that’s what made me want to step in was that the human being and the artist combined in him.”

How close to your dream of becoming an astronaut did your film bring you?

Alfonso Cuaron: “It was the closest. It’s so weird because it was not until recently that the whole thing – because for some reason it was the internet that [said] I wanted to be an astronaut. Yes, as a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut – you’re old enough like me. I remember my own passion was I wanted to be a film director and I realized that being an astronaut was not going to be an option. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be a director and do films of space.’ I thought about films in space. But I completely forgot about that until recently, and I’m talking a couple of weeks ago. Then, yeah, I met with Danny Boyle in the airport once. He said, ‘Hey, you’re going Gravity?’ ‘Yes, yes. It’s a space film.’ He said, ‘Yes, I did my space film and once you go to space, you don’t go back. You don’t want to go back.’ And my dream is I really want to go to space. I really, really want to go to space, so if over there one of those guys that are sponsoring in the new kind of expedition in space, they want to sponsor me, I’m very happy to take the trip. I would never do another film in space.”

It’s rare to have a female lead in a sci-fi film. Do you think this may help open up doors and do you think of it in those terms at all?

Sandra 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.’ And I wasn’t raised that way. I was appalled and I was depressed because I never felt like I wasn’t given the opportunities because I would find them. But for lead roles in films, the roles haven’t been as many as we like, but making this character female, I think, was hugely brave. But also it gives you so many different levels of angst and worry. There’s situations that you can build around that, 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 the situations, I think, will feel fresh and in a way that you haven’t experienced them before.

I do think that the times are changing, big time because, in the end, it’s about making money. And if a studio sees that a female can bring in audiences, they’re going to make movies with that person, and 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 become the norm and we won’t be wondering when we get the same meaty roles any more.”

Alfonso Cuaron: “I agree in terms of times are changing, but I have to say, there were voices. When I finished the script, there were voices. They were saying, ‘Well, you should change it to a male lead.’ And obviously, they were not powerful enough voices obviously because we got away with it. But the sad thing is there is still that tendency that have to do with the walls that you’re talking about that you faced.”

Sandra Bullock: “But also, I can be incredibly masculine, so often people forget I’m female. So I kind of can play both sides.”

Alfonso, talk about the visual design incorporating the long take and using time and space to create anxiety and fear?

Alfonso Cuaron: “Well, that came from conception when we were writing the screenplay. I wrote it with Jonas Cuaron, who’s my son. […]Part of the concept from the get-go was this idea of that he should feel like an IMAX documentary or a Discovery Channel documentary that goes wrong. And in those, you see the beautiful footage of IMAX. Well, it is not that pure cutting around characters. You’re just flowing with the sense of real time, and that’s part of why those footages are so beautiful. And that was very organic for me because I did have the tendency for the last few films of doing continuous takes. So, it was just something that married perfectly well.

The script from the get-go, the original title when we presented for the first time it said Gravity: A Space Suspense in 3D so we wanted to get 3D, but the thing is, that we started this process four and a half years ago. And at that time, 3D was still [popular], and there have been so much backlash ever since. I love 3D. I think it’s not necessarily – that’s the conversation I was having with Cameron a week ago – it’s been over-produced. Sometimes you see films you don’t understand why this films are in 3D. You see that it’s just a cynical thing to just convert films just because there’s a market. But the films that are actually designed for 3D, I think it’s amazing.

3D was invented two years after film was invented. The first 3D film was in 1896. So it’s in many ways, when film was invented – and they just didn’t keep on doing it because it was complicated – the idea, the notion is that you were going to watch something with your two eyes. I love the sense of depth that 3D can give you. And this thing that we use, wide angles, not that many cuts, continuous takes, that we have our involvement with our astronaut and we have that beautiful background that is the Earth, it just lended perfectly to do 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.”

By Rebecca Murray

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