Don’t be boring

Last night, I saw Alfonso Cuarón speak at the Science Museum about Gravity. It was a great insight into a film I found incredibly powerful.

I remember seeing Gravity at the cinema in 2013. Soon after handing in my master’s dissertation, I was hyper and happy and buzzing with joy. Two hours later when I walked out of the cinema, I was quiet, reflective, and hugely impacted. It’s an immersive and, at points, overwhelming film. The movie industry often tells us that the cinema experience provides so much more than watching something on DVD at home six months later and, in Gravity‘s case, I completely agree with them.

From the opening shots of space that fill your peripheral vision to the radio dialogue of the characters that buzzes around you in glorious surround sound, you cannot help but feel you’re there with them, in orbit. As beautiful long tracking shots follow Sandra Bullock through space stations and into capsules and away from fires, you’re right there with her. And so, when she’s thrown into a spin or plummets to earth, you feel it too. Or, at least, I did.

So, as host Samira Ahmed asked Cuarón about his background, his inspiration and his choices, I was fascinated to understand more about the movie. “It’s about rebirth”, the director said, confirming the not-too-subtle yet wonderful imagery. From the foetal position of astronauts in a womb-like capsule, to the umbilical cords connecting their suits to their shuttle. As Bullock’s character stands up to walk off at the end, it’s about more than one human’s birth, but about humanity. “Not in an intellectual way. I mean the species,” explains Cuarón. That’s all well and good, sure. But I don’t love the film for a metaphor. I love it because it look and sounds and feels so…much.

Cuarón’s creative choices made it so. He resisted studios trying to add in scenes of Mission Control in Houston, to show the ‘other side’. In fact, even George Clooney’s character was a later addition, it was originally about just the single woman in space. But, it had to work, and it had to be interesting.

As a filmmaker, Cuarón is unapologetic about compromises made to make the film more interesting. Though technically accurate down to the sort of wire cutters used on a space walk, there are some elements that deviate from documentary reality. But why not? “I’m not stupid!”, Cuaron exclaimed, acknowledging that, yes, Bullock’s character would have been wearing a nappy beneath her space suit, and Clooney’s veteran astronaut would not be chattering away in space without a focus on the mission. But a film’s got to be interesting. “That would be boring,” Cuarón kept saying, of dimissed alternatives to the finished product. For example, Bullock’s final scene in space, where she undocks the Chinese capsule and addresses Houston that her descent to earth ‘could go one of two ways’, was initially attempted without a score, but that version was abandoned. Though music was used minimally on the film, and always without percussion – a Hollywood rarity – it had to be there in this case. Without it, the scene was too boring. End of.

It’s also relevant to why the film ends abruptly – Cuarón hates the trend, that grew in the1980s, of prolonging an ending to assure audiences that everything’s alright. Films like Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, which he loves except the ending, should finish when the story finishes and the lead character makes it to safety – not add on a postscript about the life after the climax. I think this is good advice too. Finish telling the story you’re telling, and leave something to the imagination. I’m a fan of a short-and-sweet film, and at 91 minutes Gravity doesn’t outstay its welcome for a second.

So, full credit to Cuarón. And to his visual effects teams. And to Bullock, who underwent gruelling training for four months to get into the shape needed to act within the demanding rigs used on set. They’re necessary for the long tracking shots I love, but exhausting. Still, Bullock thought it was preferable to riding in a ‘vomet comet‘ to film in actual microgravity (Cuarón, on the other hand, loved having that opportunity – cashing in on the fact his many advisers on the film worked in an industry he’d admired since a child. Why wouldn’t you take up Nasa’s offer?).

It was amusing to hear in the Q & A after the main interview that a number of audience members asked Cuarón if key creative aspects of the film were done ‘on purpose’. I wonder how irritating this question might be to a director, or any artist. You might as well as a chef if his use of ingredients were deliberate. Still, Cuarón took the opportunity to explain how he came to his decisions. Like the choice, despite the movie featuring all current and accurate technology, to put the characters in older space suits, as the latest real ones looked too futuristic. The details like that matter – so the audience is not distracted or disconnected. Gravity is not a fantasy, like Star Wars, nor is it a science fiction about future or hypothetical technology and its consequences, like Interstellar. It’s a drama, about a person, in space.

Cuarón’s message of ‘don’t be boring’ was the notable takeaway from the night. You can be as arty, moving, accurate as you like, but if you bore audiences you’ve lost them. It’s food for thought, from beginning to end. Watching Bullock’s final escape scene brought it all back to me – how Gravity was a film you couldn’t turn away from, and I was emotionally impacted even just watching a two-minute clip out of context of the rest of the film. That’s Gravity‘s power.

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Thanks so much to the Science Museum for hosting the night. There’s still a few weeks left of their Cosmonauts exhibition, to which the event was linked, and if our journey into space at all interests you, I’d definitely recommend a visit.