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Gravity digs for the truth 

Starring Sandra Bullock, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity gives audiences a peek at miraculous staging and intense acting.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity, having a space ball.
  • Sandra Bullock in Gravity, having a space ball.

The opening shot of Gravity, the real-time space disaster drama directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a 17-minute single-take marvel. Cuarón does this better than anyone, if anyone else even tries. (Go back and watch the multiple incredibly detailed one-take setpieces that comprise his 2006 stunner Children of Men.) The difference with Gravity is that he had to invent the technology to do it.

"The thing is that when we started choreographing the whole thing we realized the biggest obstacle was the lack of gravity," says Cuarón, pulling a laugh from the journalists assembled at the Bell Lightbox during the Toronto International Film Festival last month. "When you are staging stuff---not unlike draftsmen and people that paint---you're used to working with horizons and weight, and here you didn't have either. And also everything is in constant motion. How we were going to shoot it, that was the biggest problem---because there was no technology that existed to do the shot. So we had to invent our new set of tools to do that."

"It was more like being part of Cirque du Soleil," chimes in Sandra Bullock, who plays astronaut Ryan Stone, a grieving mother on her first mission. (George Clooney is her co-worker.) "There was the lightbox: a nine-by-fourteen LED elevated box in a sea of blackness with the arm that made the cars for Detroit that had camera on it, which was on a track, would rush towards you and create the weightlessness while you were clamped from the waist down. Then there was the 12-wire system where you're basically floating and being manipulated by either puppeteers or your own body weight and the effects people sort of simulate flying around space. There was the bicycle seat: literally a pole and a bicycle seat where you're balanced on it and one leg is strapped down so your body could be free to simulate the weightlessness."

Bullock spends much of the film---in which the astronauts encounter a series of mishaps after a wave of debris hits their shuttle---alone. To call it "Cast Away in space" is reductive but fair, and she says the loneliness she felt as a performer was essential to the character she was playing.

"Every day you had to go back and say, 'Are we being truthful?'" she says. "And that's just what it was---her background, the kind of person she is physically and emotionally, all the things you normally do but then put it in that technology---in a way was helpful, because you were so frustrated or in pain or so lonely or panicked about the long time you're attached to something and you can't use your body the way you're used to. You can only use your body 30 percent at all times. It always came back to: Is this truthful?"

Bullock also trained intensely, with dancers, to achieve her lithe, deliberately androgynous Gravity physique. When the camera lingers on and scans her body---at one point she's in a tank top and boxer briefs---it's not in a salacious way. "As much as I could in a healthy way, I wanted to remove what she looked like as a woman," she says. "What reminded her of bring feminine and motherly. So that the body was a machine."

"If you knew what it required to make each one of these shots---I don't think there are many people that can achieve that," says Cuarón. "You had to be so detailed, and so precise---I'm talking metric precision. The discipline of Sandra is scary."

For Bullock, all the emotional and physical pain was worth it for this beauty of a movie, graceful and thoughtful, intense and inventive.

"To be out of your comfort zone, as I learned on this, just unlocks things that scare you, frustrate you, make you so insecure," she says. "But it also forces you to dig very deep."

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Vol 25, No 25
November 16, 2017

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