"Gravity" has the strange but wonderful distinction of having both a panel at this year's edition of Comic-Con and kicking off the prestigious Venice Film Festival in late August. Then again, we are taking about the latest feature from Alfonso Cuaron, who directed two movies that couldn't be more different: 2006's "Children of Men" and a movie that you've probably never heard of called "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
"Gravity" is still a bit of a mystery. What we do know is this: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts who have to rely on their instincts a nd training to survive after an explosion sends Bullock's character tumbling through space. That's pretty much the entire movie. Even at a scant 88 minutes, that's a lot of constant intensity -- something enhanced by Cuaron's affection for long takes. Ahead, Alfonso Cuaron -- who is joined by his son, Jonas, who co-wrote "Gravity" with his father -- discusses the four-and-a-half year process of bringing "Gravity" to the screen, why Robert Downey Jr. isn't the film's star, the positive reassessment on "Children of Men" and his status as the guy who directed the least commercially successful Harry Potter movie ever.
Why have you not directed a movie since 2006's "Children of Men"?
Why so many years? One was life. Life just fell in-between, and life is life. And the other is this film took out four and a half years. So, it's been awhile doing this film.
You don't see too many movies come to Comic-Con and premiere at Venice.
Yeah. Well, actually, "Children of Men" went to both. But it was different, "Children of Men" was in competition and "Gravity" is not in competition, it's opening the festival.
"Gravity" has the chance to appeal to a wide spectrum of people.
It seems like it's proven to be like that. When we were writing it, we had something that we thought was going to be cool. You don't think of terms of the demographics. The genesis is that Jonas was prepping a film. And the script that he was prepping, he wrote his very first draft of four and a half years ago ... and we were talking about the themes of the films. The themes are like adversity and the possibility of rebirth. Like space and the whole debris situation in space is the product of adversities. And then the film deals with the possibility of rebirth, but that's from a very grounded way. The thing is, people can see it as just a cool, really kick-ass action movie that is very immersive -- that you feel that you are in space.
I know of people who said that it emulates the feeling of being in space so well they felt sick.
[Laughs] My movies have that effect. It's not the first time they say that about my movies.
Oh, come on. People love "Children of Men."
When it came out, it was lukewarm. And then, after -- a year or two years after...
Why do you think that happened?
It's just normal. I mean, that happens. I'm proud of the film and I remember when it came out it was like, "OK, nobody is really caring much for it." And it just happens sometimes. Happily, it happened. It could have been just forgotten like some of these movies that aren't remembered until several years later. Sometimes it doesn't connect for the particular moment.
Do you feel that also happened with "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"? A lot of people now feel that's the best installment.
I remember when we opened "Harry Potter" and some people being so depressed because it didn't reach $1 billion. Of all of the "Harry Potters," mine was the one that got the least box office.
But no one thinks about that now.
But, the funny thing about not getting to $1 billion is that the movie made $800 million! "Harry Potter" is such a beloved franchise that the least successful entry, my movie, made $800 million in theatrical box office, without considering the other stuff. But, it's like, "Children of Men," it came out with a lukewarm reception. Later on, people reconsidered the film and liked the film a lot. And, you know what? The film is the same. The good reception or bad reception didn't change the movie. It didn't make it more pretty.
It reminds me of the reception toward a movie like "Blade Runner."
Well, think about -- and this is by no means a comparison because it's an amazing masterpiece -- but think of "2001."
It's funny. I can't not think of "2001" when I think of your movie. I'm not trying to compare the two, but they are both realistic space movies.
The two things they have in common: The approach is to do something that is realistic. Very realistic. I mean, we thought it should feel as if you're watching a Discovery Channel documentary on what went wrong. And Kubrick was -- even if he was dealing with the future where technology doesn't exist right now, he was so meticulous about it. But I think that's where the similarities end because Kubrick's film is an almost philosophical piece.
The last act is not trying to go for realism.
Not only not trying to be realistic, in many ways it is about humanity and technology and evolution -- it's about amazing questions. "Gravity" is more like an experience. And Jonas was so stubborn about it. If I tried to add some rhetoric, he would say, "No, no. Let's convey that through action."
Jonas Cuaron: I guess the idea was to create a roller coaster ride. That through the roller coaster ride the emotion that came out and you spoke about those things. Like in the way that you experience things that the characters were experiencing and therefor you went through the journey they have until the movie ends. And I mean, the early drafts of the movie had the title "Space Adventure in 3D." The idea was to make a non-stop roller coaster which I'm really blessed the way he translated onto the screen. And it does feel like that when you see the movie.
We were also very stubborn about limiting the backstory in present tense. Because, for me, space is metaphoric. I mean, you can see it just as an action thing, but, emotionally, it's more metaphoric. So, people kind of bring their own experiences and their own emotions into what is going on there. So, you're partaking with this character on this journey and recognizing those moments when you're under big stress and adversities and how you come to the other side.
Robert Downey Jr. and Natalie Portman were once attached, among a host of other people. In the end, you wound up with two of the most famous people in the world. Why was it so difficult to cast this film?
It took four and a half years.
So it was only a time situation?
We were blessed because a lot of people wanted to do this thing. And people that we talked about and we had conversations -- and with all of this now you have a 15 minute conversation to catch up and say hello to someone about one project and suddenly, it's announced. Everything is announced as things are happening.
But Downey was attached.
Downey was attached. But we just kept on extending the process. And also it was very clear that the technology we were going to use -- it was not the most compatible thing for what Robert is the best at. That is, he takes one scene and he just starts riffing. And because of the technology that we use, it's pretty much limited. We have to preprogram the film before shooting.
So if George Clooney wants to ad-lib a scene, he can't.
Well, as long as we could feed it in the context of timing and physical positioning of everything, OK. But if not? Sorry, dude. But that's the thing, both George and Sandra, we had endless conversations before. We animated the whole film before. We could have released an animated version with the voices of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. We watched it and we gave suggestions and if they had notes or ideas, then it was just about programming the whole thing. it was amazing because, yes, they changed quite a lot, relatively speaking. But it was always in the context of what was there already.
Jonas Cuaron: In a way it was like the roller coaster was set and it was just inside of that.
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Well, now y'all know what he thinks of "Prisoner of Azkaban". Still, his adaptation clearly influenced the look and tone of the later films in the HP franchise, so there. And do you think Robert Downey Jr. would have made a better screen partner for Sandra Bullock than George Clooney for "Gravity", ONTD?