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Sandra Bullock and the 'Gravity' team talk about their space-age thriller

Sandra Bullock
Sandra Bullock
Warner Bros. Pictures

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.

Sandra Bullock at the New York City premiere of "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. Here is what Bullock, Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón (Alfonso’s son, who co-wrote the “Gravity” screenplay) said at the Los Angeles press conference for the movie.

Alfonso, in most depictions of space we have a sense of up, down, left and right, and your movie effectively does away with that. What kind of changes did you have to make in your way of thinking to convey the physics of space properly?

Alfonso Cuarón: That was the biggest challenge since early on. Even before getting into the technique of solutions when we were conceiving the choreography, our brain thinks from the standpoint of gravity, of horizon and weight. It was a whole learning curve because it’s completely counter-intuitive, and we started choreographing with pre-vis, meaning animations. The problem is that graph people, people that draw or animators, they learn how to draw based upon horizon and weight. It was a big, big learning curve with experts coming to explain the physics of synergy and what would happen, and you would tell who was the new animator in the room because it was a guy who was completely stressed out and wanted to quit. Eventually it starts to get like a second nature, but it was tough for them.

Sandra, can you talk more about what you had to do training wise? It must’ve been a different type of training with the spinning. We’re also assuming that you acted opposite a green screen for the most part.

Bullock: Well, if there had been a green screen it would’ve been nice. There was just blackness or bright white lights or metallic objects. Basically what Alfonso said was you had to retrain your body from the neck down to react and move as though it’s in zero g without the benefit of zero g moving your body, because everything that your body reacts to with a push or a pull on the ground is completely different than it is in zero g. So to make that second nature just took training and then weeks of repetition and then syncing it with Alfonso’s camera and the mechanics and mathematics of it all and then separating that from your head where you had to connect with the emotion and tell the emotional story. There were various contraptions that existed on the soundstage which that, when I first saw them, you just made them your friend as quickly and as physically as you could because if you didn’t, they were so confusing and complex. It was such a collaborative experience.

Alfonso Cuarón: Yeah but you were very involved from early on not only in the animations but with blocking and restaging because everything was going to be pre-programmed. We had conversations with those on the rigs and those doing the stunts and said, “Okay what is it exactly that you have to reinforce in your body to hold this thing?” It was very specific, the workout that you were doing.

Bullock: It’s just core strength. From a dancer’s perspective, it’s just making sure you weren’t going to hurt your body and you can be very agile and flexible to maintain your body in a rig that’s load bearing. The load is your weight for long hours at a time. There was going to be tweaks and things like that.

What was your reaction to “Gravity” when you first saw it?

Bullock: The first time I saw it all put together was in Venice. I always say that an actor, when they see themselves for the first time, they spend all that time watching and hating themselves and picking apart their performance and wanting to quit. There was no time to pick apart one’s performance here though because you were inundated with the extreme beauty and emotion that he [Alfonso] created visually. It was turned into such an emotional and such a visceral, physical experience in this movie.

I don’t how they did it with sound and coming here behind your head, and all of a sudden you found yourself affected in ways that you were not planning on being affected, so we had that same reaction. I think George and I both went, “Wow!” You can’t really speak after the film is over, so I think I was lucky enough in my career to finally be able to view a movie I was in as it was supposed to be viewed, as a newcomer.

Alfonso, can you talk about some of the challenges you faced when striking the right balance between the sound, visual design, the atmosphere and the storytelling?

Alfonso Cuarón: Well all of those are the tools for the same thing, to convey the emotional journey. I think that each one of those tools on their own, they are meaningless. They can be cool, but they don’t convey the emotions you want. The script was in many ways solid in terms of the structure. From the moment that we finished the first draft, pretty much nothing changed in terms of each one of the moments and the set pieces. What changed quite a lot was with the involvement of Sandra and George because suddenly it was the clarity of this emotional journey and how we were going to convey those emotions.

In many ways, that was the big hanger on which all these other elements start to hang from. It was very strange because as technological as this film sounds, it was a big collaboration between artists in the end. Everyone was trying to make life easier for the other part, knowing that the essence of this was the emotional core that happened with the collaboration between the actors.

[“Gravity” composer] Steve Price was collaborating with the sound designers, and they are usually always fighting in the mixing room because the composer wants the music to be heard and the sound designers want the sounds to be heard, but here they were working together on all of this stuff. But that started early on with the selections of moods and music that Sandra had in each one of the scenes when she was performing. It was a very holistic process in many ways.

Sandra, “Gravity” had to be a very emotionally grueling movie role for you. Is there something that you learned about yourself that you have taken with you from this experience?

Bullock: Well, I’m sure. I mean, you never quite know what the change is until one day you wake up and go, “Wow! I’m reacting to things differently. I feel differently.” I have always said that the experience of meeting an artist that you are in awe of and hope to create with one day is usually disappointing because you put them up on a pedestal and then you’re like, “Wow, that’s not a nice person!”

But the exact opposite was true in the meeting with Alfonso in that I got to meet a human being whose evolution as a human being is so bright. There was just the level of kindness and collaboration and I think the general sense of the unknown bonded everyone together on such a human level. If you have an experience that spoils you, it ruins it for a lot of other people and I can honestly say that that happened.

What was it like to be the only actor on screen for most this movie?

Bullock: I never thought about that. I never thought about being the only person onscreen. You had this story, the elements that Jonás and Alfonso wrote. That technology was a constant character around you. I always went back to what was in their heads that I need to honor and help execute, so I never once thought that I’m the only person because there’s George who is a vital part of this film and who represents life and this outlook on living that, if you don’t have that, this film could not exist.

So I never thought of it until I started doing press and now everybody’s freaking me out going, “How does it feel that this rests on your shoulders?” But I still don’t think about it because I feel like I’m third or fourth on the list of characters before the story, the emotional visuals, the sound and the experience of what they created.

What kind of research did you do for this role and did you ever talk to anyone at NASA?

Bullock: We had a lot of technicians around us that helped me literally with knowing where buttons were in the ships and what I would do. I was more concerned about body work and how it worked in zero g and there’s no one to ask because you have people explaining what happens and it just wasn’t registering. My brother-in-law was hanging out with a friend of his at this wine packaging place and the guy said his sister was an astronaut, and my brother-in-law said that my sister-in-law is getting ready to be an astronaut. So he got my number to Katie [Coleman] who was at the ISS [International Space Station] at the time, and she called and I was able to literally ask someone who was experiencing the things that I was trying to physically learn about how the body works and what do you do.

What do I need to re-teach my body physically to do that cannot happen on earth that we need to get the puppeteers and everyone together on the same page so that we think this way on earth? It’s just the oddest thing to reprogram your reactions. It was just a really coincidental, fortuitous thing that happened over wine that got me the final piece of information that I needed.

In your conversations with Katie Coleman, what fascinated you most about her job and the psychology of being an astronaut?

Bullock: We had only one phone conversation. Apparently they are not allowed to just accept calls whenever you feel like calling the ISS, and our work schedule was crazy so our connection was just like ships passing in the night. My character wasn’t an astronaut. My character wasn’t someone who wanted and aspired to be an astronaut. All those questions were for George and that was the research he had to do.

My character was just someone who happened to be in a position where it was easier to train her to just execute this one mission and then go home. But I think what I did learn from them which was so beautiful, and which again applies to George, is just their emotional point of view on life; why they go up there to see how things operate in space so we all benefit from it when they get back.

Alfonso, what was your experience with the NASA astronauts like and how did it inform the way you wrote the script?

Alfonso Cuarón: Well it’s very humbling because you can write a whole fiction and you’re talking with people that have done that thing in real life. Obviously there were certain things that informed the script. In an early draft we had scenes that, after talking with one astronaut, we realized they were absolutely moronic. They were like “that stuff would never happen.”

Even though this film is not a documentary, it’s just fiction, we wanted in the frame of that fiction to make everything as possible and as accurate as we could. Definitely with the physics of space we tried to be super accurate, but there are so many technical aspects and physics that are involved in traveling into space that we had to take some outward leaps in terms of fiction.

The truth of the matter is that when you’re talking with those people, you don’t care about your movie anymore. You just want to hear about what they’ve come to do. You want all the details, and it’s amazing.

Another thing that I have to say is that in real life, they have hundreds of alternative procedures for each thing that happens in space. In 40 years of space exploration, there have been only a handful of incidents. That’s because these people are so well-trained in what they are supposed to do, and they have to have alternative thinking about many procedures. These people are really remarkable, and the space program is full of people that are so qualified that you just feel so stupid. You feel like a movie director.

Jonás, what was it like working with your father on “Gravity”?

Jonás Cuarón: Working with him was a great experience because we had this conversation about doing a movie in this style. It is a big challenge to on the one hand have a nonstop action element and be able to juggle themes. I guess the biggest challenge was to engage the audience on an emotional level, and I think that never really came to happen until we started working with George and Sandra.

I learned a lot from my dad and also a lot from George and Sandra. I really figured out how a character can come to life. It’s a movie that was a huge gamble, and I’m glad that she didn’t know that it was a big gamble because the whole movie was on this character’s shoulders. She really manages to engage the audience for 90 minutes.

Sandra, you had to go some dark places as a mom for this role. Was that difficult for you to do?

Bullock: Oh yeah. No one wants to think about that. But if I personally can’t feel it, I can’t do it. I kept having to say at the beginning what would I do, and I realized I would be far worse off than she is. You just have to go there and know at the end of the day that you can unplug and you can go home.

Sandra, “Gravity” is an unusual movie for you. What was your reaction when you were offered the movie?

Bullock: I was longing to do emotionally and physically what my male counterparts always got to do. I just felt envious every time I saw a movie I was in awe of and it was usually a male lead, and those kinds of roles were not available. They were not being written. So in the last couple of years, whether it was by us searching for something and turning it into a female character or developing it yourself, things have shifted.

Alfonso and Jonás wrote this [character] specifically as a woman. It wasn’t an after-thought, it was I think the integral part of the story. It’s revolutionary, and the fact that a studio on blind faith would fund something as unknown as this is revolutionary. So to be able to be the person to do it is beyond humbling, and it made me realize that I had to step up and be the best version of myself so whatever is asked of me I can produce. So yeah, every day I was so grateful.

For more info: "Gravity" website