Alfonso Cuaron on How Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. Almost Starred in 'Gravity' (Video)
The director, kicking off a new interview series hosted by THR's Stephen Galloway, explains why Downey's improv-heavy style didn't mesh with the film's technological demands.
Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. almost starred in Gravity, but Jolie had to drop out of the project because of scheduling conflicts and Downey departed because the cramped physical choreography required to shoot the movie would not allow him to improvise, director Alfonso Cuaron told students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles Feb. 12. Cuaron explained how the movie ultimately came to star Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and consumed almost five years of his life. Cuaron spoke as the first guest in a new interview series, The Hollywood Masters, moderated by THR's executive features editor, Stephen Galloway. The series of 90-minute interviews, to be televised later in 2014, will also feature Judd Apatow, David O. Russell, William Friedkin, Gary Ross, John Singleton and Disney Studios' Alan Horn.
"I thought I had written a small movie ... just one character floating in space," Cuaron said about the Warner Bros. best picture nominee, which has grossed $700 million internationally. "We started developing stuff [trying] to figure out the technology. And the luxury [was] that we could try many things. And part of that was conversations with actors. I had conversations with Angelina, but then she went to do one film, and then she was going to direct [Unbroken]. Something happens, you part ways."
As for Downey, "It became very clear that, as we started to nail the technology, or narrow the technology, that was going to be a big obstacle for his performance. I think Robert is fantastic if you give him the freedom to completely breathe and improvise and change stuff. [But] we tried one of these technologies and it was not compatible. And, after that, we [had a] week that we pretended as if nothing was happening and then we talked and said, 'This is not going to work. This is tough.'"
But Cuaron noted that when he talked with Downey, Gravity still had no start date. "It was not until some elements came into place that we could responsibly go to the studio and say, 'We can set a start date,'" said Cuaron. "Then you can do offers, and that is when we went after Sandra [Bullock] and George [Clooney].”
Cuaron said that eight years after his art house hit A Little Princess and right after the flop Great Expectations and the gritty indie masterpiece Y Tu Mama Tambien, he was "unemployed and without money" when Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling "really pushed for me" to direct 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. "It was amazing," he said of his first meeting with Rowling at her home in Scotland. "She served tea and cookies and stuff that they do over there. She was very respectful about the choices and the decisions. She'd go, 'You know, I know that you want to try to cut this out. Please don't do it. This is going to make sense in the fifth one.' And what was amazing was how well she would know her universe. She says, 'You cannot put the graveyard there because the graveyard is on the other side.' "
Cuaron said he wasn't surprised when Rowling recently said it was a mistake to have Hermione marry Ron, not Harry. "Actually, that was an interesting choice," Cuaron said. "I remember early on, when I was reading, I thought there was going to be some kind of stuff between Harry and Hermione, but it was wrong. And I said, 'OK, that’s interesting.' But now, she's regretting that, maybe. There's a twist. Maybe now we can do a movie: They're in their 30's, they have a crisis!”
In a candid, wide-ranging, 90-minute talk that spanned Cuaron's life and career, the director said he had little connection with his father, but grew up under the influence of a criminologist uncle. "He was the one who sorted out the real personality of [exiled Soviet leader Leon] Trotsky's killer, [Ramon] Mercader. And funnily enough, he became very good friends with Mercader." Cuaron said his uncle also caught Erico San Pietro, who he said inspired Dustin Hoffman's character in Papillon.
Cuaron gave the LMU School of Film and Television students a revealing account of how he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki got kicked out of film school. "It was polemical: When I was at film school, the school was very ideologized and it was taken [over] by a couple of communist groups. It was the base for them to create their propaganda material. They were using the resources of the university for that. We were a younger generation that came in, that loved cinema. We wanted to do film. There was always a clash."
Though Cuaron said the old communists made "really bad documentaries," he also admitted, "The truth of the matter, the reason we were kicked out, is that we were these arrogant brats. I mean, no question about it."
Cuaron said that in one sense, film schools matter less than than they once did. "Sorry to say, these are not relevant nowadays," he said, recalling that in his day, "You needed to learn so much. It was so complicated, the technology and stuff. The newer generations, they know better than any director what happens behind the scenes. They have home systems to shoot, edit, even do visual effects." But Cuaron said film school does provide connections that can launch a career. "Understanding film language in the historical context of cinema, how the language in cinema evolved from Lumière until today, that's the most important thing of film school," said Cuaron.
Cuaron, who refused to do a second Harry Potter film because "I didn't know if I was going to be able to offer anything new," said, "Once I finish a film, I never see them again." He has said he will never do another film with the massive technological constraints of Gravity and told the LMU audience he hasn't even begun to think of what will follow Gravity. "I have to finish all of this and go back to life and allow whatever happens next to spring out of life, not to spring out capitalizing on this film, the inertia of this film."
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