RT Interview: Alfonso Cuarón Talks Gravity

The Oscar-nominated director chatted with us just after his film screened in Toronto and told us what it was like to work on his passion project for four years.

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Director Alfonso Cuarón is no stranger to critical acclaim; he achieved international recognition with 2001's Y Tu Mamá También and helmed what many consider one of the best Harry Potter adaptations in The Prisoner of Azkaban. Most recently, Cuarón leapt back into the spotlight with Gravity, an outer space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Cuarón spent more than four years to bring Gravity to the big screen, and by most accounts, it was well worth the wait. Certified Fresh at 97% on the Tomatometer, the film not only took home the Golden Tomato Award for best reviewed Wide Release and Action/Adventure film of 2013, but it's also racked up a number of awards season accolades, including BAFTA and Golden Globe wins for Best Director and a whopping ten Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography, among others.

With Gravity arriving on DVD and Blu-ray on February 25, we decided to look back at an interview we did with Cuarón back in September, right after the film screened at the Toronto Film Festival. The director talked about what it was like to work on a film for so long, what it's like working with his son Jonás, and how his next film will be different.

You have to be pretty happy about the reception at Toronto.

Alfonso Cuarón: Yeah, of course I am. It's better than the alternative, you know? The whole thing has been a sweet surprise after four and a half years, in which, you know, you're inside a dark cave, and you're not sure that what you're doing is going to connect or not. You're just hoping for the best. And to start having that kind of reception is always very sweet.

We've read that you don't particularly like to revisit your films after you've made them. When something is as rapturously received as this has been so far, is it difficult for you to go back and talk about all the details that went into its making, and then say, "Oh yeah, I totally remember that?"

[laughs] Well, the only thing about people who are particularly curious to know about how we did one thing or the other, is that I would much prefer audiences first to just experience the film very fresh, from the standpoint almost of ignorance, of not knowing anything about it, and then later on, on Blu-rays and DVDs and stuff, I'm very happy to disclose all the tricks. I mean, I don't mind talking about principles, but not about the details of things.

You've also said that, though this has the feel of a sci-fi movie, you didn't do anything with technology that isn't already with us. Would it have been any easier to set this in the future and invent some things along the way?

I guess then you'll get a new set of difficulties. Here, the thing that we wanted to do was a journey that is happening today. I've always been a fan of space exploration, and I didn't see the reason to invent something when what is up there is absolutely awesome. Also, I wanted it to be a journey of reality, not necessarily a journey that takes place in a fantasy land.

You've previously talked about Dolby Atmos; do you have any recommendations as to how best to experience your film?

In an awesome, awesome screening room. You know, like some theater that is awesome. It could be either one of two systems: One is IMAX, obviously, because IMAX is just the huge screen; it offers you this really immersive experience. You're inside the helmet of the character, the helmet of the astronaut. And the other possibility is a great, ideally big screen with Dolby Atmos. Dolby Atmos is this new sound system that has speakers everywhere, including the ceiling, and man, that's really an immersive experience.

You manage to do an interesting thing in this film, where you're very up close and claustrophobic, especially with Sandra bullock, and then at times there are these periods that are agoraphobic where you pull back and show the isolation of space. You seem to communicate both the fear of too small a space and too wide a space at the same time.

The whole point of the film was that -- it's almost like a metaphorical journey -- is that outer space is the same as inner space. That was pretty much the feel that we wanted to convey, because in the end, everything is about the primal fear of getting lost in the void. And getting lost in the void is a physical fear that is almost, as you call it, agoraphobic. But at the same time, it is a primal fear that comes from an internal getting lost in the void, a more psychological one.

What is it about space films like 2001 and Solaris that employ the idea that you have to go into space to get lost in the mind?

I guess it's that sense of separation from everything else. At the end, it's this acknowledgement that we're alone in this universe, and when you're alone in this universe, you're trying to make sense of things.

You've been working on this film for four years. Was there a sense of relief when it finally hit theaters?

Oh, you bet. You know, actually, thank you so much. Finally, somebody used the right word: relief. Because they ask me if I'm happy about it, and the example I always use is, okay, if the hounds had been chasing the fox for four and a half years, and the fox finally gets away, is the fox happy? No, the fox is relieved. Happy is the fox when he's frolicking and mating and playing with the cubs, but if you escape from the hounds, you're relieved.

And that's a lot longer than you typically spend on a movie. Normally you're with a movie for a year and a half, tops, right?

Yeah, or less. A year and a half -- Harry Potter was two -- but never as long as this.

There must have been times when, a couple years into it, you thought, "Oh god, I'm so tired of working on this."

That's another thing; it's so time intensive and so time consuming. You know, it's not like it takes all that long and you work one hour every day. It's that you have to be there ten, twelve hours every day. And the progress is so slow. You know, sometimes you don't even see any progress. There's a point that it's more than just filmmaking, it becomes endurance. But at the same time, I have to say, because we were inventing all the technology, it was a constant journey of discovery, so there was always that to keep you going.

And this is a movie that's about 90 minutes, basically.

Under 90 minutes. I think the credits were longer than the film.

Imagine if you were working on something that was a full two and a half or three hours.

I'm too lazy for that.

You mentioned "frolicking with cubs;" this was a collaboration with your son. Are you working together on other things now?

Well, we started writing something. But then he's Mr. Importante, so he went to prepping his movie, so he's not giving time to his old dad, you know, his old man. That's what happens.

Does it help keep you sane, working on it over the course of four years, if it's a family affair?

What helps is that it's fun for me. I don't know for him, maybe not. [laughs] But for me it's a lot of fun because, you know, he's a grown-up, he has his own life, his kids and stuff, so something like working is just a great excuse to hang. When we're working and writing, it's just straight writer-to-writer communication and relationship, but then after, we get to hang, and that's cool.

Can you give us any hints as to what's coming up for you, or are you going to take a big break after four years of working on the same movie?

Well, definitely, I'm just looking forward to a hammock on a beach and stuff like that. But what I can give you a hint about, for my next movie, I would say is a certainty, is that it's going to have people walking.

Rather than people floating. I would imagine that would be a lot easier to shoot.

Yeah, I hope so. But I'll find a way to make it unbearable for everyone.

Gravity comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on February 25.