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Sandra Bullock and 'Gravity' filmmakers share secrets of filming 'lost in space'

In “Gravity” (directed, produced and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón), Oscar winner Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer on her first NASA shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (played by Oscar winner George Clooney) in command of his last flight before retiring. But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone — tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock, David Heyman and Jonás Cuarón at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival press conference for "Gravity"
Getty Images
Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock, David Heyman and Jonás Cuarón at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival press conference for "Gravity"
Getty Images

Gravity” was originally released in October 2013, but Warner Bros. Pictures re-released the movie in cinemas on Jan. 17, 2014, the same week that it was announced that “Gravity” received 10 nominations for the 86th Annual Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Visual Effects. "Gravity" had its Canadian premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Here is what Bullock, Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón (Alfonso’s son, who co-wrote the “Gravity” screenplay) and “Gravity” producer David Heyman said at the TIFF press conference for the movie.

“Gravity” opens with a very impressive shot that last about 17 minutes in the movie. What went into putting that together?

Alfonso Cuarón: When we started choreographing the show thing, we realized that the biggest obstacle was the lack of gravity. The thing is, when you are staging stuff, not unlike draft men or people that paint, you’re used to working with horizons and weight. And here, you didn’t have either. There’s no up and there’s no down. Also, everything is in constant motion … The space shuttle is constantly traveling at actually a very high speed.

So the problem was that you start staking something. You want the actor to be looking straight up so you recognize the face. You keep on moving, going with the other actors, but when you come to the other actor, suddenly, what you get is the feet. Or suddenly, the camera is about to hit them and the actor is here and not there. So there was a lot of careful planning and calculating around that.

First, there was the choreography. And once we found the way around the choreography, it was like, “How are we going to shoot it?” That was the biggest nightmare, because there was no technology that existed to do the shot. So we had to invent a new set of tools to that.

And the biggest challenge later on was that once we had the set of tools, how the actors were going to perform on those set of tools, not only knowing it was going to be very long, long, long takes, but it was going to be in really uncomfortable positions. So the credit goes to Sandra [Bullock] and George [Clooney], because they gave the reality to the whole shot.

Sandra, can you speak to the challenges of shooting in this unorthodox way?

Bullock: It was just something completely new. It was more like being a part of Cirque du Soleil than what we’d been used to as actors. There was the lightbox, a 9 x 14 LED elevated box in a sea of blackness, with an arm that made the cars for Detroit that had a camera on it, which was on a track, which would rush toward you and create the weightlessness while you’re clamped from the waist down.

Then there was the 12-wire system, where you’re basically floating and being manipulated by the puppeteers and your own body weight and the effects people to simulate the flying around space. There was I think we called it the “bicycle seat,” where there was literally a pole with a bicycle seat, where you’re balanced on it. And one leg is strapped down, so your body could be free to simulate the weightlessness … so it’s all balanced on a bicycle seat.

So it was the most bizarre series of contraptions. There was an office chair on a hydraulic, where you’re leaning forward. It was genius what they were able to come up with.

Alfonso Cuarón: And we had some advisers from Guantanamo …

Bullock: [She says jokingly] There was a little waterboarding. It was necessary. It was great. It was frustrating and lonely and bizarre and you had to sort of dig deep into your imagination and pray that something came up. I loved it. I loved that I got to do it, and no one else had done it before. I was really grateful for that.

Alfonso Cuarón: And what I have to say is what’s amazing is Sandra and George’s capability of abstraction. We’re talking about all of those rigs, but the whole goal is that for you to feel that it’s just astronauts just floating there and relating and having this chemistry and stuff — and that’s just pure performance.

The important thing about the performance, I have to say, is that we wanted it to feel like you’re watching those space documentaries, in which the camera is just floating around the astronauts, and get to the moment when it’s almost banal, the thing, before disaster strikes.

Sandra, what was it like for you to see “Gravity” premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival with an audience? And do you go to the movies as a regular moviegoer?

Bullock: Well, yes, I go to the movies often. Yeah, oh absolutely. It’s what I do for a living, but I’m also a huge lover of going to the theater and having that experience of people in the room. Any time you go to an experience like this, you hear it in a different way because sound systems are different. Hearing it with this sound system, I had no idea the sound was that amazing. Everything was amazing to begin with, but the sound was so different.

Watching an audience have different reactions. We’re lucky we can have nice TVs in our house, and experience sort of Surround Sound and not leaving your bed, but I think going to the movie theater with people, and having that shared experience, we’re losing that a little bit, and we need to get it back, because when you have it, it’s just such a nice thing to sit next to some who’s experiencing it and you sort of have that shared experience.

And that theater was gorgeous! And just to have that regal theater too. You look up, and it’s not a sterile movie theater with reclining seats and places for your drinks. It had a history to it. Things like that remind you of the old feeling of what Hollywood used to be like and gives it that sparkle.

Sandra, you weren’t the first choice for “Gravity,” but you were the best choice. Alfonso and Sandra, how did your collaboration come about for this movie?

Alfonso Cuarón: It’s one of those things where the process took so many years. I think I part of what you’re talking about is holy Internet. Any casual conversation becomes, “They are going to make a movie together.”

There were people we talked to seriously throughout the process, but we were not ready to make this film. This film, it took four-and-a-half years to make, and we were ready to start having real serious conversations roughly two years ago, when Sandra and I met. Before that, [rumors] just happened because of relationships that you have with people; you have immediate conversations. I didn’t know Sandy at the time.

And a couple of years ago, David [Heyman] said, “What about Sandra?” when we were serious about making the movie. So I flew to San Antonio to meet Sandra.

Bullock: Austin.

Alfonso Cuarón: Austin! My connection was via San Antonio. That’s all I know. There’s no direct flight to Austin, by the way.

Bullock: There are many.

Alfonso Cuarón: No, not from London.

Bullock: Oh, that’s a fact. Sorry.

Alfonso Cuarón: So we met in Austin. We sat. Sandra had read the screenplay, and the beautiful thing for me was all through that afternoon and evening, we didn’t talk about space, we didn’t talk about techniques, we didn’t talk about action films or anything. We just talked about the themes.

And for me, it was very clear how Sandra was so in tune with the theme of the film, which was adversities — adversities and the possible outcome as a rebirth. For me, it was one of those moments where I said, “Wow, I have a collaborator.” I just wanted to hear more of her wisdom, because then we shape, between Jonás and I having conversations with Sandra, we shaped the whole thing into Sandra’s voice, and I feel blessed for that.

Bullock: I don’t think I’ve ever done a film, unless I produced it and had it written from scratch, that didn’t have all kinds of amazing handprints along the way, because it does take a long time to make a film. I’ve passed on things that I wasn’t ready to do that the right person ended up making. I always feel like the right person ends up making the film.

But again, it was so collaborative. Timing was everything. I had spent years and years and years watching Alfonso’s films. And the joke in our office was, “You have a film. Do you think Alfonso will direct it?” And the answer, we knew, was no.

So when [“Gravity”] came, it was just timing. I didn’t realize I would be ready to work and give to that level, but Jonás and Alfonso came to San Antonio …

Jonás Cuarón: Austin!

Bullock: Thank you. And hearing about David and his work, you want all the people who are making the film to be real filmmakers, and not just say, “Oh, I produce, and I’m going to do this,” and not be there, because I knew it was going to be hard. So once I realized I knew that everyone knew it was going to be hard, I just said, “Yeah.”

It was a very easy decision to make. We’re always going to have scripts that someone said no to. You’re grateful when someone says no, and you’re grateful when they you didn’t do it, and someone did a great job that you couldn’t have done. It’s just the nature of the business.

Alfonso Cuarón: I also have to say … if you knew what it required to make each one of these shots, I don’t think there are very many people who can achieve that, because it was really challenging. You had to be so detailed, but also so precise. I’m talking about milli-metric precision and making it feel as if everything s just flowing. I have to say that the discipline of Sandra is scary. It’s seriously scary. Maybe that’s her German side.

Bullock: It is. It’s not the Birmingham, Alabama side, that’s for sure! [She laughs.]

David, can you talk about making “Gravity” from a producer’s perspective?

Heyman: This is the second film I have produced with Alfonso. Producing for Alfonso is scary from beginning to end, because he pushes boundaries. He doesn’t settle. He is always pushing everybody to do more than they thought was possible and always pushing the limit and always pushing to make the film as good as it can be.

With the technology that was created, the day before we started shooting, it didn’t work. When Sandra talks about this lightbox and this two-ton robot coming on the track, often at a really fast speed, and stopping on a dime, it has to stop on a dime, because if it doesn’t, it goes straight through her face. It’s true.

Bullock: I love my job!

Heyman: So when it didn’t work the day before we started shooting … we were nervous, but it was really, really exciting. We knew we were part of something special. And as a producer to follow Alfonso is a gift because you know you’re going to be a part of something very, very special.

And then, the other part is when we see it, there’s a period that we were talking about a few minutes ago, Warners had committed a huge amount of resources and financing to us. And they hadn’t seen a thing! Alfonso talked about it yesterday, we really didn’t know …

Alfonso Cuarón: We didn’t know if it was going to work. So as a producer, that’s a little bit scary. But it’s exciting. And with him, you know you’re going to be part of something special. And again, having the gift of Sandy.

Working with this technology, it’s so alien and inhuman. And to find someone who can work with that and yet bring a truth to every moment for the final film, you’ve got to realize, that she’s performing behind a visor for huge portions of this. The performance is generated through her eyes. And yet holds the film completely; you’re in her thrall. It’s amazing. We’re very lucky. And when you’re working with people like this, you’re a little less scared.

Alfonso Cuarón: And just like Sandy, there’s not many people who can do what David does, and that’s where I feel very lucky. People who can hold a production this big, in which a big chunk is technological, but there’s that human side of the film. And not losing track of both things and not being daunted by both things.

But more importantly, in the context of the craziness like this, keeping the spirit of everybody up. He was very careful. He knew the actors were going to be insulated, so Sandra had, outside of the stage where she was going to be training, her camper where she was going to be training, David put a playground …

Bullock: They planted grass in England in the middle of winter. And I walked up, and the most important thing I realized was the lower half of all the trailers were bumper-guarded for a toddler just learning how to walk, grass and a playground. It was just amazing.

Alfonso Cuarón: And for George, what he did was a tiki bar. Literally, he had a tiki bar.

Bullock: So both my children got exactly what they wanted.

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