How Alfonso Cuarón pulled Sandra Bullock into his field of 'Gravity'
By By Glenn Whipp
Feb 13, 2014 | 8:00 AM
Sandra Bullock has been teasing Alfonso Cuarón for the last four months about his penchant for enjoying a cup of warm green tea while she was crammed uncomfortably for hours in a 9-by-9-foot black box during the making of "Gravity." Now, two hours before the recent Directors Guild of America Awards — an honor Cuarón would win — the Oscar-nominated actress offers a variation of the routine when he good-naturedly complains about having to change into a tuxedo for the event.
"Yeah, you guys have it so hard," she tells him. "For women, you're cattle. It's three hours of hair and makeup and fluffing. And tonight it's all for you."
Bullock was there to present Cuarón his DGA medallion. And, it should be noted, she said the last sentence with a great deal of warmth and affection, a vibe that marked the hour spent with them before Cuarón's big night. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Cuarón: I remember taking a bike ride the next day, calling [producer] David Heyman. "How was it?" "It was great! We talked for three hours."
Bullock: And hardly at all about the movie!
Cuarón: It was mostly life, based on the theme of the movie. Then I told David, "The last thing I heard is she doesn't want to work."
Bullock: I had no desire to step in the work world. But then you meet the man and you think, "Wow, maybe for once there is something being made that will mean something greater than just the act of making a movie that's in space and using technology."
Cuarón: Then why did you keep us waiting three days before you said yes? Were you cultivating a sense of mystery? Is it like the rules of dating?
Bullock: That's exactly what was happening. I was cultivating dating mystery in film. And I think I was successful.
Was there a hesitation beyond the "rules of dating"?
Bullock: You learn enough times of going into things and people saying, "Trust me. Trust me." And then you come out going, "What happened? I didn't get to break boundaries or stereotypes, all the things we said we were going to do." I just wanted to be sure he wanted to go where I wanted to go ... which I didn't know yet [laughs], but …
Cuarón: I remember. You told me you needed one single element that you could glue everything to. Because we had scrubbed all the back story from the screenplay. You didn't want a long scene or, worse, a flashback. Keep everything in the present tense …
Bullock: Just make the theme clearer. The character had a daughter that she lost. And, yes, usually, there would be a flashback scene: "Sunlight speckled through the curtain and the laughter of a child running past and a mother's hand gently pulling out a lost shoe."
Cuarón: Stop! Please stop! Keeping everything in the present tense makes the audience share the experience with her and partake emotionally.
Cuarón: If you think about life, we often live in the past, but we express and experience those memories where we are today. I loved the idea of not having to say a lot but having to feel it at all times.
And often in close-up. Bruce Dern told his daughter, Laura, that the "close-up lens is an actor's best friend." But, he added, most actors panic, fearing they won't be able to convey what's needed. Was that a fear here?
Bullock: "Does it really need to be that close?" But, after a while, with these intricately designed shots, I stopped being so self-conscious. It became a gift. The camera told me where the story was going to be. As Kenny Rogers says, you know when to hold it, know when to fold it.
Cuarón: Without words, Sandy was expressing so much emotion. It's in the best tradition of silent cinema. There's something always going on behind those eyes.
Bullock: As an actor, I was just so grateful to use your imagination that way. You don't think you have one anymore because imagination is beaten out of us in adulthood. This movie brought it back.I started grabbing things out of the ether, lessons I learned from teachers, things my parents taught me.
Cuarón: Going back to that first conversation with you, I remember feeling clear that you were at a moment in your life when there was a sense of fearlessness. Even her saying, "I don't want to work." She was not haunted by her own career. She was just enjoying life.
Bullock: And then you came in this spirit of collaboration. Everyone looks at careers and asks, "Why do you make career choices like you do?" Do you honestly think I had a choice for most of my career? No! You don't! You only get offered what you get offered. There's not the idea you can go out and take everything and it's going to be collaborative. The opposite is actually true often. I was blown away there was such openness on your part.
Cuarón: I felt, eventually, there was a point where I needed to create challenges for you. Otherwise, you would get bored.
Bullock: So that's what you were doing? [Laughs]
Cuarón: The danger came with getting too confident in your limits. You would just keep pushing. The end of the movie, where she's underwater. We just started timing. How long physically is it possible for a human …
Bullock: Not to breathe? We did it one time where one option was for me to slowly float to the surface. The audience wouldn't be sure if she's dying. And I felt so comfortable down there and felt my lungs expanding and I thought, "OK. OK. Slow it down." And it was forever. I've never held my breath that long in my life. And I hear Alfonso say, "OK. Cut. Enough." I was in euphoria and here he was cutting …
Cuarón: Because we thought you were clinically dead! And we still had a couple of more scenes to do!