Alfonso Cuarón Credits Everyone Else: The Director of Gravity on Influences and Coconspirators

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“Chivo is spectacular! He’s so technically prolific he’s transcended everything; now he’s just looking for truthfulness.” This is what director Alfonso Cuarón says about his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, a director of photography he’s worked with since his first short in 1983 (Vengeance Is Mine), but whose name came to the fore only after working on Terrence Malick’s swirling epic The New World. “His nickname means goat. He’s had the nickname since he was a child and I suspect it has something to do with the droppings we saw around the set.” You wonder how many ways he's joked about the nickname: the two go back so far they might have known each other as amoeba.

Cuarón is playful and familiar. He’s in San Francisco campaigning for his Oscar frontrunner Gravity, a thriller about a lone woman hurling through space in a pod—it’s a CG spectacle and an intimate survival saga at once, and it’s as technologically advanced as it is emotionally primitive. With all those pieces at play, I rather expected someone a bit higher strung, but this is the man who boasts a familial friendship with the famously warm/fuzzy monstermaker Guillermo del Toro and the perennial scarf-wearer Alejandro González Iñárritu. His relaxed demeanor, no doubt, conceals multitudes.

The director doesn’t boast, instead he has something big to say about everyone involved, even some people who technically weren’t contributors. (Those friends I mentioned above also appear in Gravity’s “Thanks” credits.) He name-checks James Cameron mysteriously: his inspiration has been ill defined since the famously tech-savvy director never lent a hand with the picture. “Jim (Cameron) told me I’d make it happen,” Cuarón said. “My co-producers said I should go CG and I really didn’t want to but then I saw Avatar and realized how much could be done. And that Jim just fearlessly goes forward. He told me “you may have to invent your own tools but you’ll make it happen,” and because of that I tried. At the end he saw the trailer and said, “I told you you’d do it—what I didn’t tell you is it’d give you grey hair.” It wasn't faith,” Cuarón leans in like it's a secret, “you have to be a little irresponsible.”

That said Cuarón didn’t skip out on homework. He wrote the script with his son Jonás and to prepare for Gravity they watched films with confined heroes—not one of them in space. Cuarón explains: “Bresson’s A Man Escaped was important, also Vanishing Point. You think it’s over and he just keeps driving. And Duel! I saw Duel repeatedly in theaters when I was 13 or 14. Steven can create these cinematic moments. The things that really stand out and usually aren’t in the script.”

Cuarón mentioned his FX Supervisor Tim Webber often. The system the filmmakers devised to put the actors in space was layered and precise; yet Cuarón’s bigger goal was to create an energy. “It used to be that you’d use schematics like a guide, but we couldn’t do that. Sandra (star Sandra Bullock) and George (Clooney) are the real heroes here. They had to perform within the boundaries of the [lit] schematic, and we were doing long takes. So if Sandra did a great job but her arm was in the wrong place, she’d have to do it over because the light has to bounce off her CG arm and onto her real face at the right angle. She was like a dancer.”

Casually, Cuarón describes that the practice of transforming all this technology into an energetic, moving cinematic spectacle involved a grateful perspective. “Chivo calls them miracles—the stuff on set that was scripted and imagined, and visualized, but was shot and came out looking like something that was just there—something that existed without us having inventing it.” Cuarón refers, with hand gestures, to the much-described scene of Bullock floating asleep in the ship. Just escaped from a hailstorm of shrapnel, she sheds her suit and floats in clockwise in the fetal position—a visual metaphor and the kind of image that, once imagined, inspires a person to write a screenplay. “It’s easy to overlook those things, but Chivo calls them miracles because we shouldn’t stop seeing them as miraculous.”

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