Clooney, Bullock: Loneliness and laughs filming Gravity
With two acting heavyweights floating effortlessly in space, and near-perfect reviews, is Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity reaching for the stars this award season?
The film, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts adrift in space after a terrifying accident was, Clooney says, " an excuse for Sandy and me to finally work together".
"She won't let me say exactly how long we have known each other for, but it's definitely for more than 20 years.
"We are like brother and sister. We never found the right vehicle before but in the hands of Alfonso Cuaron, we knew we had found a masterpiece. However, this is Sandy's film, not mine. It's her on screen most of the time."
Co-written by Cuaron, who was behind 2005's Children of Men, as well as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it took more than $80m (£49.7m) and four years to make, because, the director confesses "we miscalculated it".
"The technology to create all these special effects didn't exist, so we had to invent it. That's why we took so long."
Oscar-winner Bullock, 49, plays Dr Ryan Stone, a woman who has lost her only child, a four-year-old daughter.
Gravity is the story of whether Stone can make it back to earth or not, but Bullock claims that it's insignificant as to whether the hero of the film is male or female.
"Having gone through this, I can tell you that it would be hard enough to make this film with either a man or a woman in the lead character, that the things they struggle against would flatten any human being.
"Yes, it's different to other action movies in that she happens to be female, but not by a lot. I discussed this with Alfonso, that I wanted her, in her grief, to have removed everything she possibly could that would remind her of being feminine. Her outward appearance is just perfunctory."Female energy
Cuaron though, adds that he resisted executive pressure to change the gender of the story and make the hero into a man, saying that "I always wanted a woman in the lead. It was always going to be a survival story, but I didn't want a tale of macho heroism.
"I wanted this woman's life force as a mother, a woman who had adversities in her life, but with the possibility of rebirth. Ultimately, I wanted a film with female energy."
With a three-year-old adopted son, Louis, Bullock says it was "horrible" to play the character of Stone, "just because my whole world revolves around my own little boy, so to go to work and imagine for three months that my child no longer existed wasn't the best place to put myself.
"I don't think there is a greater loss than that of a child and yet men and women lose them every day and somehow find the strength to go on living - or not, as the case may be.
"But this is what really spoke to me about this film, more than any of the action set-pieces. It's all about death and rebirth. It made me ask the question of myself: What gives us the reason to get up and live? Because if you have lived any kind of life, you will have been hit with things that are incredibly painful, as I have.
"You ask yourself why, but sometimes there is no why, no reason, no answer. And so everyone has to ask themselves the question: What gives you the reason to stand up and prevail in life? And if you don't have one, as my character doesn't, can you get up and find a reason?"'Awe-inspiring'
After premiering at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, Gravity has received a 97% approval rating on review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes - one of its highest scores ever for a film.
Time Out calls it "one of the most awe-inspiring achievements in the history of special effects cinema", but according to Bullock, "most of it was just acting in front of nothing".
Rather than put the actress in a "vomit comet" (a plane that follows a parabolic flight path to simulate zero gravity), Cuaron employed a huge "light box" to create the effect of floating in space.
Standing 20ft tall and 10ft across, the box was covered in more than 800,000 LED bulbs, allowing the director to project lights, colours and backdrops around his star, who was often harnessed into a custom 12-wire rig, operated by the puppeteers who created the title character in the National Theatre's production of War Horse.
"It was so lonely most of the time, as it was just me, with no human contact apart from Alfonso's voice in my earpiece," recalls Bullock.
"But I channelled that loneliness and all that frustration from making the apparatus I was trying to float on work. I really struggled with that and learning how to contort my body into the right positions."
Clooney adds that, "physically even just wearing the astronaut suit is exhausting and uncomfortable, so it helped that Sandy and I could laugh a lot during the hour or so while they would re-set the shot.
"We had to use a lot of wires, but the main thing required of us was to stand still while a [camera] the size of a truck would fly through mid-air at us, stop just short of our faces, and we had to pretend that we didn't see it coming. That was the most difficult thing about this kind of shoot."
Gravity is expected to lead in both technical and creative categories in the upcoming award season, but Bullock says it was the experience of filming it that has been more valuable to Cuaron and his two actors.
"It was such a difficult shoot, but the end result was worth it, and we haven't done it to get awards. I'm not sure why I put myself through it, apart from to hear George's jokes in between takes.
"To me, I'll remember hanging on wires, in the middle of nothing, in a really awkward position. That's when I think to myself, 'oh my God - my job is so weird.'"
Gravity is released in the UK on November 8, 2013