‘Every day, we thought: This is not going to work’: inside the hellish making of Gravity

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

After the first test screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi picture Gravity in the summer of 2012, its studio Warner Bros were very, very nervous indeed. The film, which had begun production two years before, represented a significant financial investment for a non-franchise picture, costing more than $100 million, and had attracted negative press coverage for what was being described as a tumultuous shoot, after the two lead roles had proved surprisingly difficult to cast.

Although Cuarón was a very significant and acclaimed filmmaker, his only financially successful film to date, the 2004 adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was a franchise picture that would have made a lot of money regardless of who directed it. His previous film, the excellent Children of Men, had flopped; he was an untested bet for this risky a project.

As the film began to screen, it was obvious that its complex special effects were nowhere near completed, and that the audience were being shown, at best, a rough sketch for what the picture would eventually become. Cuarón had resisted test screenings, knowing that it would was not a fair representation of the film that he and his son Jonás had been working on for years, and as he flicked through the audience’s feedback cards, disaster seemed imminent.

The director described the reaction subsequently simply as “a horror”. One comment read: “Why aren’t there any aliens in this?” and another said, miserably, “I wish there was a monster in this.” A worried Warner Bros, which had previously suggested that the film needed more characters and more settings, now suggested changes. As Cuarón later said, their comments included observations like “Are you sure we don’t need to pump up the action value, like having an enemy, like a missile strike?”

Many directors would have simply acceded to studio demands, and, had Cuarón done so, we would now be discussing a flawed but fascinating picture, where the major question that we’d be asking would be “what if he’d stuck to his original idea of a chilly, near-Beckettian picture, set almost wholly in space and only featuring two characters?”  Thankfully – aided by his powerful producer David Heyman – Cuarón was able to politely veto corporate requests that would have ruined his film, and went on to finish a picture that won seven Oscars, was hugely profitable and is regarded as a high point in 3D cinema, as well as being both a pulse-pounding adventure and an intellectually challenging exploration of isolation.

A decade after its initial release, it is justly regarded as a classic. Not bad for something described by film industry title Variety as “the most expensive avant-garde film ever made.” Yet 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 to rank with several other flops.

After the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Children of Men, Cuarón and Jonás had planned to make an intimate drama, The Boy and His Shoe, revolving around the friendship between a young French girl and two Scottish gypsy boys. Although this might have recaptured some of the charged magnetism of Cuarón’s breakthrough film, the erotic 2001 comedy Y Tu Mamá También, the pair were unable to find funding for it, and so Cuarón, who had had a lifetime obsession with space exploration and had watched the moon landings as a child, developed a new idea for a film instead.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Sandra Bullock in Gravity - Courtesy of Warner Bros

He wanted to make a spare, clinical thriller around the theme of adversity, and cited Spielberg’s Duel and Robert Bresson’s prison film A Man Escaped as analogous to what he would like to come up with. As he told The Guardian, his idea was simplicity itself: “OK, let’s take it to an extreme place where there’s nothing.’ I had this image of an astronaut spinning into space away from human communication. The metaphor was already so obvious.”

Although Cuarón was, by his own admission, “not a technological person”, he had worked extensively with special effects on Harry Potter, during which time he had successfully pushed to make the fantastical beasts look muddier and more realistic, rather than the immaculately clean visions of the earlier film. Thus his vision of space would be both wholly realistic – there would be no explosions heard in it, and spacecraft would be convincingly battered and beaten-up – and technically groundbreaking.

One of his favourite films of all time was Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the director refused to watch it while developing the screenplay, joking that “it would be like taking a shower next to Dirk Diggler”, an allusion to the well-endowed porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Yet perhaps not since Kubrick’s picture had there been a serious, large-scale sci-fi film of this nature, eschewing monsters and aliens in favour of something more primal, thrilling, and even terrifying. Because, after all, what is more frightening than the idea of being stranded in the eternal vastness of space?

George Clooney on the set of Gravity
George Clooney on the set of Gravity - Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Perhaps because of this, as well as his lack of a commercial track record, Cuarón initially found it difficult to secure funding for the picture. It was initially picked up by Children of Men’s studio Universal, then put into development hell, before being rescued by Jeff Robinov at Warner: the executive responsible for launching the directorial careers of Christopher Nolan and Ben Affleck, amongst others.

With the project now viable, Cuarón wished to cast Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr in the lead (and only on-screen) roles of the two astronauts who find themselves adrift in space after their spacecraft is destroyed, but after Jolie dropped out, virtually every single actress in Hollywood was considered. The options ranged from the comprehensible (Marion Cotillard, Natalie Portman) to the baffling (Abbie Cornish). But eventually the part was offered to Sandra Bullock; a recent Oscar winner for The Blind Side, but also considerably older than most of the other actresses considered for the part.

With George Clooney also replacing Downey Jr, the film lacked obvious youth appeal: a tricky commercial sell to the all-important younger audience. Bullock had just taken two years away from filmmaking, due to a traumatic divorce, and described herself as feeling “sad and scared”. The picture she was about to make would hardly reassure her.

After the stress and drama of casting, a far greater challenge now awaited Cuarón; making the film. As he said, “Every day, we thought: ‘This is not going to work,’. It was a process of trial and error, and little, little hints of hope, and also a lot of mistakes.” It was filmed entirely at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, save for the climax which was shot in Arizona – at the same location, sci-fi fans should note, where the opening of Planet of the Apes was filmed – and was a vastly complex technological undertaking. Bullock and – for the three weeks his supporting role took to film – Clooney were both placed in harnesses and spun around in a 9ft illuminated cube, with their movements calibrated precisely in order to fit the pre-visualised computer animatics that had been devised.

There was no room for even the slightest hint of improvisation or deviation, as Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had planned their camera moves to the millimetre. Both actors found the process of filming painful and unpleasant; Clooney because of a back injury that he had sustained in 2005 while filming the thriller Syriana and Bullock because she was suspended in silence inside the lightbox for up to ten hours a day, with the only direction she received via an earpiece. This led her to enter what she would later describe as a “morose headspace”.

Yet as she said: “My situation was somewhat like the situation the character was in. There’s no one around, you’re frustrated, nothing works, you’re in pain, you’re lonely, you want someone to fix everything for you but they can’t – all those things I was feeling.”

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock with Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón
George Clooney and Sandra Bullock with Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón - Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Even as Clooney and Bullock suffered for their art, Cuarón was attempting to break new ground in cinema. James Cameron’s Avatar had attracted praise for its innovative melding of live-action filmmaking and computer animation, but it was a 60-40 split between CGI and traditional film. Gravity, however, would be an 80-20 split, with its visual effects supervisor Tim Webber – who had also worked on Avatar and The Dark Knight – helping to create a world in which the only conventionally filmed thing would be the actors’ faces. Everything else would be computer-generated, right down to the space suits.

Cuarón had an audacious 13-minute, one-take opening scene in mind, too, building on from similar shots in Children of Men. As Lubezki said of the challenges the director faced: “It was going to be incredibly complicated, and he didn’t have an answer.”

Cuarón initially thought that the film would take a year to make, but it ended up taking four and a half, due to the remarkable complexity (and expense) of the visual effects, which were almost entirely produced by the Soho-based company Framestore along with Webber. Yet even after its first cut was completed, the trouble was not over. Robinov, the project’s great champion, left Warner Bros, and after the disastrous test screenings, Heyman candidly admitted that “We knew we were making something extraordinary, but the big concern was how much would it connect with an audience.”

There was no conventional action, antagonist or love interest, and unconventional sci-fi was bombing at the box office: Disney’s John Carter had been one of the biggest flops of all time upon its release in early 2012.

However, when the film’s completed opening sequence screened at Comic-Con in July 2013, audiences responded with rapt amazement at the next-level evocation of space, and Cuarón began to relax for the first time, believing “well, maybe there’s something there.” It was the beginning of a remarkable period for the picture that saw it praised for being the first film since Avatar to fully capitalise on the potential for 3D film-making, and made a staggering $723 million at the box office, as well as winning Oscars for Cuarón, Lubezki and the visual effects team, amongst others.

Bullock, who had sensibly negotiated a profit-sharing deal, received around $70 million; a worthy reward for the miserable long hours that she spent silently suspended in an illuminated cube. And even Jonas Cuarón was able to have his own moment in the spotlight, as he directed a short film, Aningaaq, depicting an Inuit man picking up a distress signal from Bullock’s character in the icy wastes of Greenland, and exchanging his own existential confessions with her as he discusses the imminent end of his much-loved dog.

Like the inferior Avatar, Gravity is a film that demands to be seen on the largest screen possible, ideally in 3D. When seen at home, it is still testament to Cuarón’s enormous skill as a filmmaker, but lacks the awe-inspiring majesty that its cinematic presentation deserves. Had the Imax format been more widely available, it is likely that Gravity would have been filmed in it, but Cuarón would probably have killed himself making the picture in the process. Instead he went on to win another Oscar for his black and white family drama Roma: the polar opposite of this film in all regards.

At the end of a long, gruelling but ultimately triumphant process, Cuarón was asked what he would be doing next. His answer was succinct and apposite. “Any movie in which the characters walk on the floor.”