The stars of the Venice Film Festival's high profile opening film discuss the challenges of inherent in playing astronauts caught adrift.
Helen Barlow in Venice

29 Aug 2013 - 9:15 AM  UPDATED 29 Aug 2013 - 9:15 AM

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts? The idea seemed unlikely yet once you see Alfonso Cuarón's new movie Gravity, you realise that the film is an allegory for the human condition. And it's probably not a bad thing that the Mexican director has cast actors with such a strong sense of themselves—not to mention a sense of humour—before he puts them through the wringer.

I think there’s no more terrifying an environment than being lost in space.

With Gravity, Cuarón, who brought us Y tu mamá también and the darkest and perhaps most interesting Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, makes his first film since 2006's dark and moody post-apocalyptic drama, Children of Men starring Clive Owen. The idea for the new film took seed when his son, Jonás, had come asking him for advice regarding a film he wanted to direct.

“His script was about two characters in a very hostile environment and through their journey a lot of themes are dealt with as they start exploring the adversities in their lives,” Cuarón explains. He eventually wrote Gravity with his son and it's as philosophical as it is adventurous.

Harking back to the moodiness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity begins slow. It's like an artwork as the two astronauts glide through space stranded in the vast universe 600 kilometres above the earth. The drama soon ups the ante and revolves around their quest to stay alive—or not.

“Our aim was to keep you on the edge of your seat but while juggling bigger themes,” says Jonás. “I think there's no more terrifying an environment than being lost in space. In our research we came up with the Kessler syndrome where because of the density of stuff in space—spacecraft, satellites etc—there's a high chance that if two of them collide they would create a chain reaction and create more debris. The characters have to navigate through that.”

The debris becomes a metaphor for the characters' adversities notes Cuarón. “You have a character who is drifting and with the acceptance of death comes the possibility of rebirth and having a new knowledge of yourself, an evolution.”

Such heady concerns seem at odds with a Warner Brothers film, which sees the director reunite with Harry Potter producer David Heyman, who commends Cuarón for being “unafraid to pushing the envelope”. The film, which had to be re-envisioned following its falling apart at the time of the GFC, as well as the departure of a number of actresses, including Natalie Portman, was finally made for $70 million, a small budget for a film of this magnitude.

Bullock, who recently visited Australia to promote her cop comedy, The Heat, is less in her element here and clearly was grateful to have the chance to show she had what it took, both dramatically and physically.

“We really didn't know how to do this because it had never been done before,” she says of acting for almost a whole movie in recreated zero gravity and simulating having all these things thrown at you. “So before we shot I felt might as well get core strength because internally I didn't want to fall apart. I also wanted to look a certain way. I don't want to say androgynous,” she hesitates, possibly keen not to make any comparisons with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, “but I wanted to lose everything that was feminine and motherly about her. I wanted her body to be a machine. I wanted to execute what she had to execute so there was a lot of training. But it was worth it.”

Bullock's early background helped her a great deal, she says. “My parents were opera singers so I am very musically motivated. Alfonso gave me boxes of musical scores and we'd create a soundtrack for each scene. I would not talk to anyone; I'd just hear sounds. It helped that I trained as a dancer because we were operating at a very slow speed—and I'm fast,” she chuckles.

Clooney had to adjust as well. “We would move much more slowly than we would normally move but at the same time you have to speak fast so it's the trickiest thing and you still have to hit all these marks you have to hit. I got to this shoot late, after a few weeks, and when I walked in I was like, 'I can't do this! You guys are nuts!' I'd be sitting there watching Sandy and she'd be blasting it. It took me a couple of rehearsals to evolve from moving normally into this speaking-fast, moving-slow rhythm.”