by Phil Brown
Heavily praised even before release, Gravity is sure to be one of the most widely discussed films of 2013. Audiences will feel woozy from the groundbreaking visuals and yet the film is not merely a work of pure spectacle. Though the story might be deliberately simple, Gravity was conceived around unique writing challenges. The film is about two astronauts (played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock), who are sent hurtling into space in the first few minutes and spend the remaining 90 struggling to return to earth in real time. The film’s tech might be incredibly elaborate but the script is deliberately minimalistic, routed less in conventional dramatic structures than moment to moment thrills and elemental themes of overcoming adversity and rebirth. Pulling the script together required both a strict adherence to the most base themes in drama and a willful abandon towards the typical paths used to get there.
The concept came from Jonas Cuaron, son of Alphonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children Of Men, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban) who co-wrote and directed film. Jonas grew up around his father’s various filmmaking endeavors and eventually joined the industry himself by writing/directing the Spanish language feature Year Of The Nail. The origin of Gravity began in a smaller, yet equally minimalist film about two immigrants sneaking across the US/Mexican border that Jonas will direct next year. When speaking about his interest in stripping down film narrative with his father, a new project emerged that would maintain that writing purity within a production as ambitious as Hollywood has ever produced. Creative Screenwriting recently got a chance to chat with Jonas Cuaron about Gravity, deviling the origins, themes, production, and challenges behind the utterly unique blockbuster about to stun audiences in theaters nationwide.
PHIL BROWN: I gather the idea for Gravity came from you, so I was wondering if you could discuss the initial impetus behind the project?
JONAS CUARON: Well, it started after I showed my father another script that I’m about to direct. The stories are very different, but that script ignited a conversation between us about the possibility of doing a type of cinema where you have the audience stuck on the edge of their seat for 90 minutes with a thrilling rollercoaster ride, while also engaging them on an emotional and philosophical level. Our conversation was about whether or not it even was possible to make a film that felt like a rollercoaster without excluding the other stuff. It makes it more challenging to write because you have to be very precise about where you transmit those themes.
BROWN: Was it such a minimalistic drama from the beginning?
CUARON: Yes, part of that concept was to strip down to the bare minimum with only two characters. The theory was that if we could make a very archetypical experience, the ride aspect could engage the audience in a more emotional way. We wanted the rollercoaster not just to be about thrills, but also emotions in a way that makes watching it almost cathartic.
BROWN: Did you have any other concepts for how to create that experience outside of this “lost in space” setting or was that central to the idea from the start?
CUARON: Well, first it was that concept. Then we started talking about what themes and emotions we wanted to explore. We were in London at the time because I had written another script for my Dad that he had cast, scouted locations for, and was about to start shooting. But that project collapsed. Then for many reasons and more for my Dad than I, it was a moment of many types of personal adversity. So we started talking about exploring the idea of talking thematically about adversity. How adversities are part of life and how by overcoming adversity, one can have some sort of rebirth. Not literal rebirth, but more the sense of acquiring new knowledge and growing. So, obviously everyone in life has adversities and that’s relatable, but we thought it would be interesting to explore that theme through augmented adversity. Then the audience could connect and project their own more down to earth adversity onto that. So, we started talking about scenarios that would work and quickly the image of an astronaut spinning and drifting into the black emptiness of space came to us.
BROWN: It strikes me as being very difficult to construct and structure a narrative that unfolds almost entirely in real time. How did you approach that?
CUARON: From the first draft the title was Gravity: A Space Adventure In 3D. We knew from the first moment we wanted it to be in 3D to be as immersive as possible. That was the reason for the real time as well. We wanted the audience to feel like a third astronaut in the scenario. The camera was an avatar for a third astronaut accompanying Ryan. So writing that was very challenging. We had to make it a very specific action-by-action script for many reasons. One was technical because the production would require such crazy technology that the script had to be very specific. There was no room for improvising on set. But also because we knew there would be very little dialogue, so all of the action and imagery had to transmit the dramatic progression of the story. So we had to be line-by-line specific about every moment of action in the film. The script also had to be a very clear map of how the emotional journey progresses. So that set down the harmony. Then I was very blessed with George and Sandra’s involvement. We very specifically mapped all the harmonies and then the actors came in and joined the screenwriting collaboration. They helped us map out the melody and I think they did an incredible job. It’s an emotional ride told entirely through one character and that’s a little bit terrifying because it could have easily not worked. I think George and Sandra brought so much both in terms of the writing and also what they brought to the screen. If the audience doesn’t emotionally invest in those characters then the whole thing doesn’t work and they made it work.
BROWN: What was the collaboration like between you and Alfonso while working out the screenplay?
CUARON: It was a very fast process. We had been working on that other movie that fell apart and then we talked about the possibility of doing this in one long all-nighter of ping-ponging and throwing out ideas and looking things up on the internet. In that first night we got a very clear map of what the whole story would be. Then after that I was traveling and we were apart. So it became a skype relationship where we would discuss each scene. I could watch out my window as it went from night till morning and then watch on the sky go from morning to night behind my father on the screen (Laughs). It was a very close collaboration and a very good one. On the one hand, we’re family so we understand each other very well and don’t spend much time arguing. We already know what both like and don’t like. But on the other hand, the relationship was very much one of two writers and we worked very well together. The first draft was written in a month. I always say it was a very peculiar thing because we both understood each other enough that we never wasted time and got to the heart of things very easily.
BROWN: So he never pulled the Dad card?
CUARON: (Laughs) No, no, not at all. The only reason to collaborate is to be challenged. The best moments in Gravity are the moments that we disagreed on, because that disagreement always led to a discussion where we discovered a third, better option that neither of us could have come up with on our own. That’s the only reason to collaborate, otherwise you might as well write alone. If he had pulled the patriarchal card, that would have killed the project.
BROWN: How much research did you do into the science of the film? It seemed very realistic to me, but I can’t pretend to be an expert on the subject.
CUARON: When we came up with the idea of doing the story in space, we knew we wanted it to be very, very realistic. It was supposed to almost feel like an IMAX documentary gone wrong. (Laughs) So during the first draft we did a lot of research to try and understand the principles of space exploration as much as we could. Then after we wrote that draft, we met with some astronauts and had to change a couple of sequences because they said, “Are you out of your mind? That would never happen.” Talking to astronauts and physicists was great because the hardest part as a writer was to grasp the concept of zero gravity because it’s completely non-intuitive. If you throw a ball, it can travel forward for an infinite amount of time because there’s no resistance to stop it, but also the force of throwing that ball can push you backwards. Little things like that took a while to nail down.
BROWN: Did you get to spend much time on set or did things have to be so locked down for the production that there was no room to ever make script adjustments?
CUARON: It was very locked down. There was no room to change the choreography. But since the emotional ride was so important, I would come by occasionally to work with Sandra and George to find the best way to communicate the emotions. We always had a specific map of the journey, but through working with Sandra we really nailed down the particular moments. The problem with a movie like Gravity as a writer is that there are very few moments where you get to describe the characters and find ways to make the audience connect with them emotionally. It’s very hard because you have to be concise with your words and fine tune constantly. So I was always pissing Sandra off by showing up after a long day of work to make her sit down and try out a new monologue. (Laughs)
BROWN: Could you tell me a little bit about the film you wrote that inspired this project and that you plan to direct this year? I gather it’s about two immigrants struggling to illegally cross a border or something like that?
CUARON: Yeah, that’s not the most precise synopsis. That’s the one that came out. I don’t like to talk about synopsis until later. But what that movie does have that inspired Gravity is that it only has two characters in the desert in the situation where it’s a non-stop nail-biter, but in that journey there’s also an emotional ride and many themes being juggled. For me Gravity was a great experience because early next year I’ll start shooting that film with Gael Garcia Bernal. But when I started writing that film, it was sort of a hypothesis to see if you could make a film that could be all those things. So Gravity was like my guinea pig.
BROWN: That’s a big guinea pig.
CUARON: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. But it’s nice to finally go into the project now having made Gravity and knowing that idea works. I’m very pleased by the audience response so far because they really engage with it not just as a ride viscerally, but also with the deeper emotions and the themes. We did all these things while writing like describing how she floats into the airlock and assumes a fetal position to experience a rebirth. And it’s really nice to see that the audience is picking up on all those subtle things as we intended. As a writer sometimes you think you’ll put it on paper, but the audience will never get it.
BROWN: I have to ask, even though they are very different movies, was 2001: A Space Odyssey something that you and Alfonso discussed while writing? Even just in terms of the representation of space or that terrifying moment where the astronaut tumbles into space?
CUARON: Well, I love 2001. But ironically whenever we talked about movies, none of them took place in space. Everything we talked about in terms of influence were movies that were stripped down experiences. So it was more movies like Spielberg’s Duel or A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson, or Runaway Train. All of them happened on earth, but what they all have in common is a very simple narrative where all the elements become very expressive. Like A Man Escaped is almost a silent experience, but suddenly the walls of the prison become a metaphor for something bigger. In Duel, the truck isn’t just a truck, it becomes a metaphor for everything that oppresses the main character. As a kid, that movie meant a lot to me because that truck became a metaphor for bullies to me. So that’s more the type of film that we talked about while writing.