Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Big Miscalculation’ ‘Gravity’ Wows Telluride

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Cuaron says his drama with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space was a four-and-a-half year nightmare to make

Director Alfonso Cuaron‘s new film has been teased enough to intrigue most movie-lovers – but a week ago, before its festival premieres, the question was: Does “Gravity” have enough, well, gravity to be an awards contender?

After Saturday night’s North American unveiling at the Telluride Film Festival, there was little  doubt that the adventure story has enough weight to earn a Best Picture nomination, even if it’s still questionable whether the Academy will vote a space drama to the top prize.

But the response inside Telluride’s new Werner Herzog Theatre was marked by such near-universal exhilaration that even hardened awards bloggers could be heard putting aside questions about early 2014 to simply bask in the afterglow of the best ride the movies will likely offer in late 2013.

Getty ImagesThe film is a 3D drama about a pair of astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, who are stranded in the outer reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere after an accident. At a post-premiere Q&A moderated by Leonard Maltin, the director and his co-writer son Jonas Cuaron talked about the difficulty of getting performances out of a actors who spent most of the shooting schedule harnessed and suspended inside a 9′-by-9′ cube filled with LED screens and cameras.

“This film was a big act of miscalculation. That’s why it took four-and-a-half years to make,” said the elder Cuaron (left), whose last feature were the acclaimed “Children of Men” in 2006 and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” two years before that.

“When I finish a screenplay, the first thing I do is send it to Chivo, which is what we call Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer. I said, ‘Chivo, this is a small movie, with two characters — we’re done in a year.’ For the next four and a half years, he kept reminding me of that…

“The problem was, it very soon became clear that the technology to do the film didn’t exist. So we had to invent new technology.”

Hence, gleaming the aforementioned cube, which had all those LED screens with pre-programmed animations so Bullock and Clooney could experience all the dizziness the marooned characters are supposed to be feeling as they spin adrift in space. And “outside the cube, there were just rows and rows and rows of geeks with computers,” Cuaron pointed out.

Tech awards are a no-brainer, but the father-and-son Cuarons packed the script with enough back story and existential epiphanies that it shouldn’t just go over with the green-screen set. “We wanted to do a film about the possible outcomes of rebirth,” said Jonas Cuaron, with a particular emphasis on the struggles of Bullock’s character, who figuratively as well as “literally lives in her own bubble.”

Sandra BullockAlfonso Cuaron pointed to some lengthy, emotional monologues that Bullock has to deliver while dealing with complicated external mechanics, saying, “What Sandra did was more like a ballerina, rehearsing cues for such a long time that when we were shooting, she could forget about all the cues and just perform.”

Another unanswered question for prognosticators, though: Will voters embrace two minimalistic survival stories in the coming season? While “Gravity” has just two actors on screen, Telluride passholders had just seen the North American premiere of the sea-set “All is Lost,” in which Robert Redford‘s is the only face on screen from start to finish.

Given the love for both films, maybe it won’t have to come down to a choice between Redford’s silent solo act and the Clooney/Bullock duet.