Producer David Heyman, who collaborated with Cuarón on 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, admits that Warner Bros. took a leap of faith when they green-lighted the $80 million project.
“To give them credit, they’ve always been a filmmakers’ studio,” Heyman says. “Relationships with directors are key to them, which is why they’ve worked so often with Clint Eastwood or Christopher Nolan or now Ben Affleck. Alfonso is not a good director: He’s a great director, and I think they embraced his vision, which was very clear. There was a thriller aspect, an adventure aspect and then on top of everything this emotionally rich story about a woman who’s given up on life and must decided whether to float off into the void or fight her way back down to Earth.”
Gravity’s development process was so lengthy that several actors circled the project, including Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr., but then had scheduling conflicts. When the filmmakers finally had a concrete starting date, Bullock and Clooney landed the roles, and the parts were slightly rewritten for them.
“After my first conversation with Sandra, it was clear to me that she was the only one who could star in this film,” Cuarón says. “She had read the script and after three hours of talking, she had never once mentioned space or technology. She was only interested in the emotional journey of her character.”
Laws of science
Once Bullock signed on, she began to research the technical aspects of her role. Unlike most sci-fi films set in outer space, Gravity tries to adhere to the laws of science whenever possible.
Dr. Catherine “Cady” Coleman, a NASA astronaut who has logged more than 4,000 hours in space, had just watched The Blind Side aboard the International Space Station when she received a call from Bullock, who wanted to pick her brain.
“She asked a lot about how you move around up in space,” Coleman says. “How much you would use your hands and feet; the difference between being inside and outside a station; whether you float or fly. We also talked about the feeling of being one of just a few people living in a space station, doing work that is really important and can’t be done from the ground, being alone up there.”
Advancements in computer-generated imagery have made it possible for filmmakers to be able to put on screen whatever they can imagine. But Gravity is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the way it raises the bar on visual effects, using new and existing technology in ways you’ve never seen before in movies. No matter how hard you look, you can’t find the seams.
Combined with the film’s superb 3D effects, the illusion of being in space is so realistic that you come out of the theater not wanting to know how it was done.
“I’m really glad you’re saying that,” Cuarón says. “I would love for audiences to go see the film and experience it for themselves. Later on, after people have seen it, I’ll be happy to talk about how we did it. But in principle, it’s like going to see David Copperfield perform. You don’t want to know the behind-the-scenes stuff in advance. You want to enjoy the spectacle and the conceptual poetry of the act. And part of the spectacle is not knowing how he did it.”