The film’s storyline, co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón, follows Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), who is a brilliant engineer on her first shuttle mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney), and as they embark on a routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. As their shuttle is destroyed by debris, the astronauts are left adrift, tethered to nothing but each other as they spiral into the darkness of space. To properly convey the film’s physics of space, Cuarón knew everything had to look as perfect as space itself. “That was the biggest challenge early on, even before getting into the technical solutions,” recalls Cuarón. “Our brain thinks from the standpoint of gravity … [and] animators learn how to draw based on horizon and weight. It was a big learning curve with experts coming in to explain the physics of synergy and what would happen. You [could] tell who was the new animator in the room because [they were] completely stressed out [and] wanted to quit. Eventually, to us it became second nature, but it was a tough [challenge].”
When Bullock joined the project, she was prepared to grasp as much information on space travel as she could. She knew she would have to understand the film’s technology and live in a world created on a soundstage, but she really wanted to see space from an astronaut’s point of view and understand their emotional views on life and what drives them to space travel. “[That] a studio on blind faith would fund something as unknown as this is revolutionary,” says Bullock. “So to be able to be the person to do it is beyond humbling. It made [me] realize I have to step up and be the best version of myself so that whatever’s asked of me I can produce.” Bullock’s physical training involved retooling her body from the neck down to react and move as if she were in zero gravity without actually being in zero gravity. “Everything your body reacts to with a push or a pull on the ground is completely different than [when] it is in zero G,” says the actress. “To make that second nature took training and then weeks of just repetition and syncing it with Alfonso’s camera, [with] the mechanics and mathematics of it all, and then separating that with your head where you had to connect with the emotion and tell the emotional story. So there were various contraptions that existed on the soundstages.”
Bullock saw the finished film for the first time at the Venice Film Festival, and she viewed it as something very special. “When [actors] see themselves for the first time, you spend all your time just watching yourself and hating yourself and picking your performance apart and saying, ‘I look horrible, I should quit,’” says Bullock. “[With Gravity] there was no time to pick apart one’s performance because you were inundated with the extreme beauty and emotion that [Cuarón] created visually.”
From the beginning Cuarón knew that it would be a challenge to have the film strike the right balance in sound design, visual design, atmosphere and storytelling, but he feels that each component is required to convey the screenplay’s emotional journey. “The script in many ways was very solid in terms of the structure,” says Cuarón. “From the moment we finished the first draft, nothing changed in terms of each one of the moments, each one of the set pieces. What changed quite a lot was the involvement of Sandra and George. It was the clarity about the 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 that core. It was very strange because, as technological as this film sounds, it was a big collaboration between the artists at the end…. Everyone was trying to make life easy for the other [artist].”
The collaboration between Bullock and Cuarón needed to be especially strong because the story relies heavily on Bullock’s performance. “I never thought about how I was the only person on screen,” says the actress. “You had the story, the elements that hone us that Alfonso wrote, [while] the technology was a constant character around you. I always went back to what was in [the writers’] heads that I need to honor and help execute. So I never once thought ‘I’m the only person’ because there’s George, who is a vital part of this film who represents life.” Bullock was excited to work with Cuarón whose vision inspired the actors and crew to create a project unlike anything ever filmed. “I’ve always said the experience of meeting an artist that you’re 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 nice person,’ says Bullock, “But the exact opposite was true in [my] meeting with Alfonso. I got to meet a human being whose evolution as a human being was so bright. I knew we were on similar paths in life and how we looked at things and events and the unknown. All of our priories were the same in that we were all stepping into a completely unknown world. They had been in it far longer than I was, [so] I had to play catch up.”
As Gravity was being developed, Cuarón had fortunate experience of meeting with real astronauts. “It was very humbling because you can write a whole fiction and you are talking with people who have done it in real life,” says the filmmaker. “There are missions all the time and [they] are going to the most hostile place that any human has been ever. These people are really remarkable and that’s something I admire in the space program. It’s a bunch of people that are so qualified…. This film is not a documentary, it’s fiction, [but] we wanted … to make everything as plausible and accurate as we could.” Gravity is currently playing in theaters worldwide in 3D, 2D and IMAX.