[masterclass] GRAVITY with Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón

Last September 24 was held the first exceptional GRAVITY (read our review here) at the cinema Pathé Wepler, place de Clichy in Paris, more precisely in one of the first rooms of France equipped with the “Dolby Atmos” (an aptly chosen name for this movie), a process that adds to the surround as you all know, a concept of verticality of the sound with ceiling speakers, for a total of 55 (yes, 55) in the room. The screening was followed by a Q&A (questions & answers; in French: a masterclass) by director Alfonso Cuarón, along with his co-writer Jonas Cuarón, who bears the same name, because he is his son, bravo. They turned out to not be stingy anecdotes and, especially, tongue-in-cheek. As there is greatly a question of scenes from the movie and especially the end, follow this advice :

[[ NOT to be READ BEFORE seeing THE FILM ]]

Tell us about the genesis of the film.

Jonas Cuarón : We wanted to write a script in the form of a large eight, something that is really immersive for the audience.

Alfonso Cuarón : It was in the process of preparing a film here in France, with Daniel Auteuil and Charlotte Gainsbourg, had already done the location scouting and then it all collapsed. We tried to go back but it was impossible so we wanted to do something different.

Your co-writer here, this is also your son. How is going your collaboration ?

Jonas Cuarón : from the moment one sits down, it is just to work. And for him, it is work that is low-cost (laughter).

Alfonso Cuarón : It’s just 2 writers working together with a closeness that makes the work more convenient.

Can we see this film as a metaphor for the evolution of life, which comes from space (in particular the scene where Sandra Bullock comes out of the ocean and stands) ?

Alfonso Cuarón : But the life comes from space ! Unless you’re a creationist. I’m glad you talked about it. We wrote the film with narration simple, and Jonas was pushing for things to be explained by visual metaphors, rather than the rhetoric. We wanted to talk about a story of rebirth through adversity and the ability to stay alive. It is for this reason that in the end it comes out of the ocean, which is like a primordial soup, as she swims out, gets on 4 legs then on 2 and finally is standing, as on the chart of Darwin.

In the text intro of the film, we can read ” In space, there is only silence “. Why have you chosen to make music that is both omnipresent and noisy ?

Alfonso Cuarón : well, in space, there is no sound, but in movies, there is music (laughs). And in case you haven’t noticed, this is not a documentary, even if it looks like. What has been respected, that is that there is no sound. There are in the ISS and Soyuz but not the space. Only in case of contact, because this is what happens. To be honest with you, we tried a version without sound… and you would not have loved. Maybe you don’t like this one but the other was worse. It was boring and anyway, you can’t really reproduce the silence, especially in a room where people eat popcorn so we decided to put the contrast to highlight the moments of silence.

The sound is almost a full-fledged character in the film. How have you managed to return it as well, in particular the vibration ?

Alfonso Cuarón : On the sound, we wanted to be realistic about the fact that there is or not. After we added the music for contrast. We worked with the composer on the surround effect. There is a composer, Stockhausen which places the audience in the middle and the musicians were scattered throughout the room, creating a dynamic in the music. This is what we wanted to do, with sounds that can come from anywhere. For example, when it spin, its spin also. It is particularly well rendered in this room Atmos, with speakers on the ceiling which give the feeling of immersion.

Your is the first film to justify the 3D, I think. You are also the first authors to destroy the space, it was more usual to see the Earth destroyed. Why ? And how have you done to make the effect of weightlessness, which is always a challenge to the cinema ?

Jonas Cuarón : When we asked what could be the adversity for this film, we thought of this scenario of NASA scientists called ” syndrome de Kessler “. There are a lot of satellites and debris orbiting the Earth at an incredible speed : they circle the Earth in 90 minutes. This theory says that if two objects come into contact, they will create debris, which in turn will hit other satellites and cause a chain reaction. What we liked in this adversity is that it is cyclical : you pass a wave and you think it is finished but another one comes out.

Alfonso Cuarón : It is becoming a real problem up there. At the beginning the scenario was called : “GRAVITY : a space suspense in 3D” so it was planned from the very beginning to do it in 3D but it took 3 and a half years to complete. As to the ” zero gravity “, it is this which explains that the film has taken 4 and a half years to do so. There has been an under-estimate. Once the script is finished, he was sent to Emmanuel Lubezki, the chief operator, telling him : “this is a film that is easy, you can do that with a limited budget and there are only 2 characters “. The following 4 years, it reminded me of this phrase… It soon became clear that there was a need for a new technology.

Apparently you’ve done some research on the conquest of space, as the film is well-documented. Is it that it changed your vision of the space research ?

Jonas Cuarón : When we started the script, it was thought to know things about the area but after the first draft we realised that this was not the case. It is believed that the weightlessness is just a flutter but a lot of physical forces come into play. We had advice from astronauts and physicists who have told us that such or such a thing could not happen. If you check out already the astronauts, after having researched your admiration grows exponentially.

Alfonso Cuarón : it changes when we talk to these people, it is that one realizes to what point one is stupid. In this film we destroyed everything, but in reality this is very unlikely because there is an alternative to absolutely everything. For years of space conquest, there has been only a handful of incidents.

In fact you say that what we see in the movie may not happen ?

Alfonso Cuarón : No, but the probability of losing communication is very low. If the syndrome of Kessler is done, this would be less rapid. All communications are triangular (Houston – satellite – astronauts), and there are alternative frequencies so there is little chance that any contact is cut off. But this would be another film… (laughs)

The film opens on a shot of a couple of minutes. Why ?

Alfonso Cuarón : It was suggested from the start, the idea being to make like a documentary on the Discovery Channel that goes wrong. It is a theory that I’m experimenting with Lubezki for the past few films : the characters and the background go together, you can’t favor one or the other. Also, we wanted to turn in real-time. We wanted to be very objective initially, then when it comes to debris, they were closer to the astronauts and ends up in their helmet. One passes from the objective to the subjective, and when one comes out of the headphones, the audience becomes a character in the film, drifting with the astronauts. The camera seems to suffer the laws of microgravity. What would happen if the camera was held by someone who really lives this situation ?

James Cameron has said that Hollywood needed to understand the importance of your film and that the filmmakers were going to have to treat the SF differently now. What do you think ?

Alfonso Cuarón : I do not recommend anyone to make a movie of how we did it (laughs). But what annoys me, is that soon someone will find the way to do this kind of movie in just 3 months. This is always what happens. I don’t really know what the SF because it is often mixed with the ” fantasy “, it’s become rather a blur. The visual effects are a tool, to do this kind of film or what Gaspar Noé did with ENTER THE VOID (NOTE : Gaspar Noé was present in the room). Like any tool, it should be used as a means, not an end in itself.

Jonas Cuarón : to return to the science-fiction, it is true that the lines have become blurred. I prefer the term “speculative fiction” : and if… ? and if… 2 satellites came into contact ? Generally, when one thinks of the SF, one thinks of “a galaxy far, far away” and we tried to get back to something close to reality.

Alfonso Cuarón : “All the technology that you see really exists. It is current, or even exceeded, as the space shuttle, which is no longer in circulation but we wanted to put, because it represents our idea of space exploration. The only thing added is the station the chinese who for the moment has only 2 modules and must be finished in 2016.

How have you managed the performance of the actors so that you have added all of the visual effects after filming ? How have you created this atmosphere around them ?

Alfonso Cuarón : There all the credit goes to the actors, because as Lubezki said, ” we have two players currently playing in an ipod “. My biggest job with the players was before the shooting : the rewrite with Jonah and the physical preparation of the Sandra 5 months before. And 2 months before she started to repeat her choreography because it was an abstract exercise. In reality, most of the time, it does not move, these are the things that are moving around them and everything was pre-programmed so she had to follow a sequence of very precise, a bit like a dancer’s choreography following the music… except there was no music, just a series of replicas to be very accurate. She trained very hard and during the filming, everything seemed natural for her. But she has a lot of merit because it was weird and painful.

Why you have not killed at the end ?

Jonas Cuarón : Surely because this is a story of rebirth. With his past, his desire to live has disappeared, she cares about die, but what I find interesting is that in the event of danger, there is a kind of animal instinct that takes over and pushes it to survive. It would have been weird to kill her.

Alfonso Cuarón : It is incomparable because it is a masterpiece and it is a space movie but it is a bit like the film of Bresson, ONE sentenced to DEATH HAS ESCAPED, where it follows the journey of a character who seeks to escape from between four walls. There, her walls are metaphysical. At the end he escapes, he is free and that is all that counts, you don’t want to know if it is catch up then. It would have been like to kill him before he escapes. But there was an alternate ending where she comes out of the water, stands up, walk over, and suddenly this thing falls out of the space, the crushes, and has George Clooney on it, and the two die here ! (laughter)

This travel in space is amazing but the amazing thing is they have given the main role to a woman. You say that it is a story of rebirth, is this the reason of your choice ?

Jonas Cuarón : Since the first version of the script, just before the character is called Ryan, it was a woman, of course, because it is a story of rebirth, therefore, this female presence was important.

Alfonso Cuarón : It is also a story of fertility, not a sexual way but in the sense of perpetuating life. There is also the mother planet in the background. All of these metaphors are that it has not asked questions, it had to be a woman. Then she had a boy’s name, Ryan.

The issue is also on the set of Sandra Bullock who is amazing, his performance is mind blowing. Why have they chosen ?

Alfonso Cuarón : It was very long to develop this film, two and a half years just to work on the technology before the shoot and during this time we talked to lots of people. I have discussed it with AGI and it was clear that it had to be a stranger, someone who do we not give the impression of watching a movie. Then came the idea of taking a player against the job and the name of Sandra Bullock has arrived. It turns out that the way she saw the character was the same as ours. We talked for 3 hours without ever say the words “space” or ” technology “, it was just about the renaissance. I told myself that she had a good vision of the character. His involvement surprised me, few people would have been able to do the same.

I read that as a child you wanted to be an astronaut. Why have you made your dream so scary ?

Alfonso Cuarón : Mmmhh… I was part of the 97% of kids who want to be astronauts. Not you ? You want to be an accountant when you were 3 years old ? It, it is scary ! (laughter) I’m old enough to have seen Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon so of course, I was dreaming of and when you are a kid, you don’t find that dangerous, it just looks cool. Then I realized that this was not the astronauts that I liked but the films in the space. I believe that it is my brother who told me that to be an astronaut, I had to become a soldier. I said, ” OK, I’m going to make movies “. (laughter)

Have you been influenced by video games ? There are plans in subjective camera, where we see only the hands of Sandra Bullock and it makes me think of video games.

Alfonso Cuarón : My influences are Pong, Pacman and Space Invaders (laughter)and I kept myself in video games. What is interesting is that our present consciousness associates the plans in a subjective camera to the video games then that is the way we see life every day ! It is symptomatic of our relationship to machines and virtual reality. No, seriously, Space Invaders is the latest which I played. And you ?

Jonas Cuarón : Mario ! We wanted to create an immersive experience where the camera becomes an avatar of the public who becomes the 3rd astronaut, that is what that refers to video games, I think.

Alfonso Cuarón : The only difference is that you do not control.

When you get out of a shoot like this, is what you said “it’s ok, I’ve made my movie SF” or do you want to return ? Otherwise, what kind you tent ?

Alfonso Cuarón : If the French State sponsors me to go into space, I’d go straight. But for nothing in the world I would do a movie in space. Right now, I would do any movie with people walking ! (laughter) They can walk in a park, in a bedroom, anywhere, even in a wheelchair. It, I would.

Would you be able to make a movie with a single plan-sequence ? As The ARK RUSSIAN, I don’t know if you know ?

Alfonso Cuarón : Yes, I love it. I don’t know if I should say but there is a movie that you have to see the next year that was done in a single plane. I saw it in the editing room of a friend to me, and it is really a slaughter. (Editor’s NOTE : we don’t know more…), I often speak with Lubezki and said that it should not become the competition’s olympic plan is the longest. It should last the time that the story justifies it. I do not agree that the cinema derives from the literature or the theatre, I think it comes from the music, with the same sense of movement. The ARK RUSSIAN is really good, and if it is justified as in this case, why not. About the foreground, I wanted to cut to go elsewhere. But the guys of the special effects were so much in the thing that they said, “no, no, we must continue to go there and there…” and I proposed solutions to make it last the plan. The next day, Lubezki came in and said, ” it’s no use, the scene stops there “. At one point, it must be justified by the narrative, otherwise it becomes what I call a plan ” look, Mom, no hands ! “(laughs)

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