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    “Every day we thought: this won’t work”: inside the hellish process of creating “Gravity”

    Gravity: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    After the first test screening of Alfonso Cuaron's sci-fi film Gravity in the summer of 2012, her studio Warner Bros was indeed very, very nervous. The film, which had begun production two years earlier, represented a significant financial investment in a non-franchise picture costing over $100 million and generated negative press coverage for what was described as a tumultuous shoot after the two leads. proved surprisingly difficult to cast.

    Although Cuarón was a very distinguished and acclaimed director, his only financially successful film to date, the 2004 adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was a franchise film that would have made a lot of money no matter who directed it. His previous film, the excellent Children of Men, was a flop; he was an untested bet for this risky project.

    As the film began showing, it became apparent that its complex special effects were far from complete and that audiences were being shown, at best, a rough sketch of what the film would eventually become. Cuarón resisted test screenings, knowing it would be an unfair representation of the film he and his son Jonas had been working on for years, and after reviewing the audience feedback cards, disaster seemed imminent.

    The director later described the reaction simply as “horror.” One comment read: “Why are there no aliens here?” and another said regretfully: “I wish there was a monster here.” Concerned Warner Bros, which had previously suggested the film needed more characters and more settings, has now proposed changes. As Cuarón later said, their comments included remarks such as “Are you sure we don't need to push the value of actions like having an enemy or a missile strike?”

    Many directors would have simply acquiesced to the studio's demands, and if Cuarón had done that, we'd be discussing an imperfect but fascinating picture right now, and the big question we'd be asking would be, “What if he had stuck to his original cut? » the idea of ​​a cold, almost Beckettian film set almost entirely in space and featuring only two characters? Fortunately, with the help of his powerful producer David Heyman, Cuaron was able to politely veto corporate requests that would have ruined his film, and ended up making a film that won seven Oscars, was extremely profitable, and is considered the pinnacle achievement in 3D cinema. . , and is both a thrilling adventure and an intellectually challenging exploration of isolation.

    Ten years after its original release, it is rightfully considered a classic. Not bad for a film that film industry Variety calls “the most expensive avant-garde film ever made.” However, even as its production and execution set new boundaries in special effects cinema, it could easily have turned into one of Hollywood's most disastrous follies, a cautionary tale that can be ranked alongside several other flops.

    After the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Children of Men, Cuarón and Jonás planned to make an intimate drama, A Boy and His Shoe, about the friendship of a young French woman and two Scottish gypsy boys. While it might have recaptured some of the charged magnetism of Cuarón's breakthrough film, the 2001 erotic comedy Y Tu Mamá También, the couple was unable to find financing for it, and so Cuarón, who had a lifelong obsession with space exploration and watched the moon landing as a child, instead developed a new idea for the film.

    Sandra Bullock in the film “Gravity” Credits: Courtesy: Warner Bros.

    He wanted to make a clinical thriller with a theme of adversity and cited Spielberg's The Duel and Robert Bresson's prison film A Man Escaped as analogues to what he wanted to come up with. As he told The Guardian, his idea was very simple: “Okay, let's take this to an extreme place where there is nothing.” I had an image of an astronaut flying into space far from human interaction. The metaphor was already obvious.”

    Although Cuarón was, by his own admission, “not a technology person,” he did a lot of special effects work on Harry Potter, and during that time he managed to make the fantastical beasts look more dirty and realistic, rather than squeaky clean. visions of the previous film. Thus, his vision of space would be both completely realistic (there would be no explosions and the spaceships would be convincingly battered and battered) and technically innovative.

    One of his favorite films of all time was Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the director refused to watch it while working on the script, joking that “it would be like taking a shower next to Dirk Diggler,” a reference to well-endowed porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. And yet, perhaps not since Kubrick's film has there been a serious, sweeping sci-fi film of this kind, eschewing monsters and aliens in favor of something more primal, exciting and even frightening. Because, after all, what's scarier than the thought of being stuck in the eternal vastness of space?

    George Clooney on the set of the film “Gravity” Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

    Perhaps because of this, and his lack of commercial track record, Cuarón initially had difficulty finding financing for the film. It was initially picked up by Children of Men-owned Universal, then sent to development hell before being rescued by Warner's Jeff Robinov: the executive responsible for launching the directing careers of Christopher Nolan and Ben Affleck, among others.

    Since the project became viable, Cuaron wanted to cast Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. in the lead (and on-screen only) roles of two astronauts who find themselves adrift in space after their spaceship is destroyed, but after Jolie dropped out, practically every actress in Hollywood was considered. The options ranged from the understandable (Marion Cotillard, Natalie Portman) to the obscure (Abbie Cornish). But in the end, the role was offered to Sandra Bullock; A recent Oscar winner for The Blind Side, she is also significantly older than most of the other actresses considered for the role.

    With George Clooney also replacing Downey Jr., the film lacked an obvious youth appeal: a sly advertisement for an important young audience. Bullock had just stepped away from filmmaking for two years due to a traumatic divorce and described herself as feeling “sad and scared.” The picture she was about to take was hardly reassuring.

    After the stress and drama of the casting, Cuaron now had a much bigger task ahead of him; making a film. He said: “Every day we thought, 'This isn't going to work.' It was a process of trial and error, little, little hints of hope, but also a lot of mistakes.” It was shot entirely at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, with the exception of the climax, which was filmed in Arizona – the same location, sci-fi fans should note, that the opening of Planet of the Apes was filmed – and presented an extremely complex technological challenge. . Bullock and Clooney (during the three weeks he filmed in the supporting role) were harnessed into harnesses and spun around in a 9-foot lighted cube, with their movements precisely calibrated to match the pre-rendered computer animatics that had been developed.

    There was no room for even the slightest hint of improvisation or deviation, as Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki planned camera movements down to the millimeter. Both actors found the filming process painful and unpleasant; Clooney due to a back injury he suffered in 2005 while filming the thriller Syriana and Bullock because she was suspended silently inside a lightbox for up to ten hours a day, receiving only instructions through an earpiece. This led her into what she later described as a “moody headspace.”

    However, as she said: “My situation was somewhat similar to the character’s situation. There’s no one around, you’re upset, nothing’s working, you’re hurt, you’re lonely, you want someone to fix everything for you.” but they can’t – everything that I felt.”

    George Clooney and Sandra Bullock with Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

    Even though Clooney and Bullock suffered for their art, Cuaron tried to break new ground in cinema. James Cameron's Avatar won praise for its innovative combination of live-action filmmaking and computer animation, but it featured a 60-40 ratio of CGI to traditional filmmaking. However, Gravity will be split 80/20, and its visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, who also worked on Avatar and The Dark Knight, will help create a world where the only thing traditionally filmed is the actors' faces. Everything else will be computer generated, right down to the spacesuits.

    Cuarón also conceived a bold, one-take, 13-minute opening scene based on similar footage from Children of Men. As Lubezki said of the challenges the director faced, “It's going to be incredibly difficult, and he won't have the answer.”

    Cuarón initially thought the film would take a year to make, but it ended up taking four and a half due to the astonishing complexity (and expense) of the visual effects, which were created almost entirely by SoHo-based Framestore, as well as Webber. However, even after the first installation was completed, the problems did not end. Robinov, the project's great champion, left Warner Bros., and after disastrous test screenings, Heyman candidly admitted: “We knew we were doing something extraordinary, but the big concern was how it would hook audiences.”

    There was no conventional action movie, antagonist or love interest, and unconventional science fiction bombed the box office: Disney's John Carter became one of the biggest flops of all time upon its release in early 2012.

    However, when the film's completed opening sequence was shown at Comic-Con in July 2013, audiences reacted with rapturous amazement at the next-level incarnation of space, and Cuarón began to relax for the first time, thinking, “Well, maybe there's something to it.” It was the beginning of a remarkable period for the film, where it was lauded as the first film since Avatar to fully exploit the potential of 3D filmmaking, and grossed a staggering $723 million at the box office, as well as winning an Academy Award. for Cuarón, Lubezki and the visual effects team, among others.

    Bullock, who wisely negotiated a profit-sharing deal, received about $70 million; a worthy reward for those miserable long hours she spent in silent limbo in the illuminated cube. And even Jonas Cuaron managed to get into the spotlight with the short film Aningaaq, in which an Inuit man receives a distress call from Bullock's character in the icy wastes of Greenland and exchanges existential confessions with him. her as he discusses the imminent demise of his beloved dog.

    Like Avatar, Gravity is a film that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, ideally in 3D. When watched at home, it still stands as a testament to Cuarón's immense skill as a director, but it lacks the awe-inspiring grandeur that its cinematic presentation deserves. If the Imax format had been more widely available, it's likely that Gravity would have been filmed in it, but Cuarón would likely have killed himself making the film in the process. Instead, he won another Oscar for the black-and-white family drama Roma: the polar opposite of that film in every way.

    At the end of a long, grueling, but ultimately victorious process, Cuarón was asked what he would do next. His answer was brief and to the point. “Any movie where characters walk on the floor.”

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