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Sandra Bullock, Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman & Jonás Cuarón – Defying and Defining Gravity

Sandra Bullock stars in “Gravity.”

Sandra Bullock, Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman & Jonás Cuarón – Defying and Defining Gravity

by Jay S. Jacobs

Even before she won the Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side in 2010, Sandra Bullock was happy to take chances when taking on a role. However, never in her long and varied career has she gotten a role that is such a challenge as she has found in Gravity.

In the film, Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a scientist and a mother who is tapped to work on a space exploration. When a Russian satellite explodes and the debris heads towards their ship, Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) must fight for survival. Then when Stone is unmoored and launched out into space and zero gravity, she must use all her bravery and cunning to get back down to Earth.

Bullock recently got together with director Alfonso Cuarón, co-writer Jonás Cuarón and producer David Heyman to have a press conference discussing the film.

What kind of changes did you have to make in your way of thinking to convey the physics of space properly?

Alfonso Cuarón: Yeah, that was the biggest challenge since early on. Even before getting into the technical solutions, when we were conceiving the choreographies, I would bring things from the standpoint of gravity. Of horizon and weight.  It was so weird to try to. Actually it was a whole learning curve because it’s completely counterintuitive. The way you saw the choreography is pretty much with previz [previsualizations], meaning animations. The problem is that draft people, people that draw, animators, they learn how to draw based upon horizon and weight. It was a big, big, big learning curve with experts coming to explain the physics of Zero G [Gravity] and what would happen. You would tell who was the new animator in the room, because he was the guy who was completely stressed out and wanted to quit. Eventually, it starts to become like second nature, but it was a tough one.

Sandra, can you talk a little bit about what you had to do training-wise? Was it a different type of training for the spinning? Did you do this with green screen?

Sandra Bullock: Well, if there had been a green screen, it would have been nice. There was just blackness or bright white lights or metallic objects. Basically, what Alfonso said, 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. Everything 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 just repetition. Then syncing it with Alfonso’s camera and the mechanics and the mathematics of it all. Then separating that from your head where you had to connect to the emotion and tell the emotional story.

There were various contraptions that existed on the sound stages. When I first saw them, you just made them your friend as quickly and as physically as I could. If you didn’t, they were so confusing and complex. You had to figure out how to communicate in a language that you’re not understanding coming at you. It didn’t make sense with my rhythms. Then going back and going, “That doesn’t make sense. Can we musically do this? Then rhythmically I will know.” It was such a collaborative experience.

Alfonso Cuarón: But you were very involved from early on, not only in the animations. We were blocking and we were staging and making sure because everything was going to be preprogrammed. What was amazing is that you would go with your training people and have conversations with the rigs and the stunts, and say, “Okay, what is it exactly that you have to reinforce in your body in order to hold this thing?” But also, with the previz, with the animations, you’d say, “Okay, also with this motion, if I’m going to keep my arm holding like this and floating, how much strength am I going to need?” It was very specific the workout that you were doing.

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

What did you think when you saw the finished film for the first time?

Sandra Bullock: The first time I saw it all put together was in Venice. I always say, an actor, when you see yourself for the first time, you spend all your time just watching yourself. Hating yourself and picking your performance apart and saying, “I look horrible. I should quit.” There was no time to pick apart one’s performance because you were inundated with the extreme beauty and emotion that he [Alfonso] created visually.

I hate using the word technologically because it sounds like it’s an inanimate object. We always go to things like this. Technology is something that’s heady. It was turned into such an emotion and such a visceral, physical experience in this movie. I don’t know if you saw it, but you just went I don’t how they did it with sound. Coming here behind your head, 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 did. We went, “Wow!” You can’t really speak after the film is over. I was lucky enough in my work, 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 in terms of striking the right balance between the sound and visual design, the atmosphere, and the storytelling?

Alfonso Cuarón: All of those are tools for the same thing. Tools to convey the emotional journey. It’s one of those things, on their own, they are meaningless. They can be cool, but they don’t convey the emotions you want to do. Everything is working and functional. The script in many ways was very solid in terms of the structure. From the moment we finished the first draft, pretty much nothing changed in terms of each one of the moments. Each one of the set pieces. What changed quite a lot was with the involvement of Sandra and George. Suddenly there was this clarity about this emotional journey. How we were going to do it. How we were going to convey those emotions. In many ways, that was the big hanger, if you might, in 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 artists at the end. Tim Webber, the visual effects supervisor, I think is an artist in his own right. Emmanuel Lubezki, the chief cinematographer, is an artist in his own right. Everybody was trying to make life easy to the other part, knowing that the essence of this was that emotional core that happened with the collaboration of the actors. So, all of those other elements were falling into that. That’s the reason why some people… music, composer Steve Price was collaborating with the sound designers. Usually, historically, there’s a fight between sound designers and composers. They are always fighting. You’ll see them in the mixing room, and they’re always fighting. The composer wants the music to be heard and the sound designer wants the sounds to be heard. Here, they were working together on all of this stuff. 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, this had to be an emotionally grueling role for you. Was there anything you learned about yourself that you took away from this experience?

Sandra Bullock: Well, I’m sure. You never quite know what the change is until one day you wake up and you go, “Wow, I’m reacting to things differently. I feel differently.” I’ve always said that the experience of meeting an artist that you are in awe of and you hope to create with one day is usually disappointing. You put them up on a pedestal, and you’re like, “Wow, that’s not a nice person.” But the exact opposite was true in the meeting with Alfonso. I got to meet a human being whose evolution as a human being, it was just so bright.

Alfonso Cuarón: You mean “bean” like beans?

Sandra Bullock: (laughs) Beans? What did I say? Oh, beans. Being. If you can’t understand Alfonso, I’m more than happy to translate. I know it’s difficult. He is speaking English when he’s answering your questions. (laughs) That’s from last night, isn’t it? I knew that we were on similar evolutions, similar paths in life. How we looked at  things and events and the unknown. We didn’t really know why we were there. You’re just going, “Okay. How do you deal with that?” Then, we went into the technological side and we went, “Wow. I don’t know how I’m going to pull this off.” And then, I met Jonás and went, “Wow, his son and his co-writer is exactly the same.” There’s a sense of calm and understanding. It always went back to the emotion of the story. Then you meet the producer and you’re like, oh, here comes the person you’re going to hate. There were times when he would come over to the trailer at the end of the day, and I knew why he was coming, where I did not like him at all.

But, all of our priorities were the same in that we were all stepping into a completely unknown world. They had been in it far longer than I was. I had to play catch-up. The important thing for me was I can’t selfishly take journeys anymore because I have to take a little boy along with me. I said, “If you make it an amazing experience for him. Make it so I’m not somewhere not paying attention because I’m so worried about where is he and is he having fun. Is this a good life experience?” David turned a backlot of a soundstage in rainy London into a wonderland for a one-and-a-half-year-old. Everything was bumper-guarded. People would go, “What is that?” I’d go, “That is to protect a child’s head, all of it.” We can go through the technical aspects of working and how you change, but there was just a level of kindness and collaboration. I think the general sense of the unknown bonded everyone together on such a human level. It was just… if you have an experience that spoils you, it ruins it for a lot of other people. I can say that that honestly happened.

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