Nervous Studios, Bad Testing, Unproven Effects: The Making of 'Gravity'

 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The first screening, in summer 2012, was an unmitigated disaster.

Alfonso Cuaron had just shown his movie, a space-set survival tale titled Gravity, to its first test audience and was reading the comment cards. "Why aren't there any aliens in this?" read one, while another said, "I wish there was a monster in this."

Card after card it went, with Cuaron shaking his head. The audience didn't get it. The studio was nervous and Cuaron felt just like his film's own astronaut, spinning with no ground beneath his feet.

"It was a horror," says Cuaron.

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Gravity has a simple hook: an astronaut fighting to survive in space. It stars two Oscar winners, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and they're the only faces ever seen. In hindsight, Gravity seems like a no-brainer and for audiences, it was: The dazzling, immersive film became a cinematic event, earning a whopping $642 million worldwide since its Oct. 4 opening. Critical acclaim already has resulted in four Golden Globe nominations, including picture, director, actress and score.

But it's a movie that bounced from one studio to another, started with a pair of completely different actors in the lead roles, went through two studio regime changes and had to invent new production techniques along the way.

"It breaks all the rules," says producer David Heyman, who reunited with Cuaron after they worked together on 2007's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. "It's a female-driven space movie, with two actors in their late 40s and early 50s hidden by visors so you can't see their faces clearly. And the technology was always a question mark."

It began life in the ashes of another project that Cuaron was trying to do with his son Jonas. In 2008, the two were in preproduction on a road movie titled A Boy and His Shoe when the money dried up during the financial crisis.

They regrouped in the elder Cuaron's London home one afternoon and began talking about the theme of adversity, about knowing when to fight and when to give up, and the theme of rebirth. And two images drove them: an astronaut spinning into the void and someone getting up and walking away. "Gravity was a metaphor, the force that keeps pulling us back to life," says Jonas Cuaron.

A first draft was written in three weeks. Cuaron set up the project at Universal, which released his well-regarded 2006 sci-fi film Children of Men, with Angelina Jolie loosely attached to star.

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Then came the first free fall: Universal chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde were ousted in 2009. Cuaron recalls Universal co-chair Donna Langley saying she didn't know where Gravity would fit into the new slate.

In early 2010, Cuaron took it to Warner Bros., the studio for which he made Prisoner of Azkaban. Greg Silverman, then executive vice president of creative development and production, and executive vp production Lynn Harris championed it and persuaded Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group president Jeff Robinov to grab it, even though budget was on everyone's mind given that, historically, female-driven action films have been a hard sell. But with Jolie playing space rookie Dr. Ryan Stone (with Robert Downey Jr., hot off of Iron Man, as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski), studio fears were assuaged.

Then Jolie dropped out. Such names as Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Olga Kurylenko, Abbie Cornish, Marion Cotillard, Leslie Bibb, Margarita Levieva and Blake Lively were floated. Finally, Bullock signed on in October 2010.

(In the interim, Downey departed to shoot the Sherlock Holmes sequel and The Avengers, forcing Warners to go after such A-listers as Will Smith, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks before hitting up Clooney.)

"The whole process was very cyclical," says Jonas of the casting roller coaster. "It would be like, 'Finally!' Then, 'Oh, no!' "

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At the same time, Cuaron knew Gravity's success would be dependent on how convincingly they could immerse audiences in a weightless world. "It was going to be incredibly complicated, and he didn't have an answer," admits Cuaron's longtime friend and cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, who -- with VFX supervisor Tim Webber and production designer Andy Nicholson -- helped Cuaron work out the production challenges. In the end, about 80 percent of the film is photo-realistic CG: For the scenes set in space, only the actors' faces come from live-action photography. Everything else -- the environment, the space suits, even the visors -- was CG.

Photography on Gravity, which ultimately cost in the $100 million to $115 million range, took place at London's Shepperton Studios (with some location work in Arizona for the final scene) from May 2011 through July 2011, followed by another two weeks in summer 2012.

And that's when the test screenings started. And the movie wasn't done. Not by a long shot. Most of the scenes that would stun moviegoers in the finished, fully rendered film were crude, blocky animatics. Cuaron was resistant -- not because he's against test screenings, since pacing and clarity are things that can crystallize during that process -- but rather because it was in such a raw state.

"We knew we were making something extraordinary, but the big concern was how much would it connect with an audience," says Heyman. That audience wanted aliens or monsters, but Cuaron flatly refused to give them any and the studio backed his play.

And then, another free fall: In June, Robinov -- one of the movie's champions -- was let go. "I was concerned," admits Cuaron. "I know all the stories. A new administration comes in, and your movie isn't important anymore."

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Luckily, the new administration included Silverman, now president of creative development and worldwide production, and Sue Kroll, head of worldwide marketing and distribution, who had supported the film since the beginning. Says Cuaron, "It was scary, but we fell into amazing hands."

It was as late as July's San Diego Comic-Con International that things began to turn around. When the film's bravura opening debris-strike sequence was shown during the movie's panel, the 6,500 people in attendance were silent in rapt attention. And then they went wild.

"Comic-Con changed everything," recalls Cuaron. "I could see Sue Kroll getting excited, and we thought, 'Well, maybe there's something there.' "

The story of a woman reconnecting with life reconnected Cuaron with his desire to make movies. He recalls how, in the beginning, Jonas said to him, "Your films are all right, but they are filled too much with rhetoric." That forced Cuaron to reevaluate himself and his art. He realized that he had begun to take himself too seriously. "You become suspicious that entertaining is not profound," he says. "Through this, I was able to reconnect to why I loved movies as a kid."

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