Alfonso Cuaron didn’t really know what he was getting himself in for when his film “Gravity” debuted at the Venice Film Festival almost six months ago. The Mexican director had other films that had figured in the Oscar race – “A Little Princess” received two nominations, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” one, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” two and “Children of Men” three – but he’d been working during awards season those years, and didn’t experience the madness first-hand.
But with “Gravity,” things are different. Cuaron’s film is battling “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” in the tightest Best Picture race in a decade, and Cuaron himself has won best-director honors at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, the Directors Guild of America Award and, on Sunday, BAFTA’s awards. He’s been hitting the circuit full time, including a sit-down with TheWrap as Oscar voting began.
Did you realize back in August that you were going to need to clear your schedule for the next six months?
Far from it. Actually, I started writing a screenplay with Jonas [Cuaron, his son and “Gravity” co-writer]. Then he had to start prepping the movie that he is shooting now and I said, “OK, this is a very good time for me to give the screenplay a pass – and then when you finish, you can revise it.”
And I started giving it a pass, and then all of this started happening. At first I said, “I’ll work on the script in planes.” But no, you can’t. You just get absorbed in the whole lengthy awards process.
[laughs] What I’m saying is it took me by surprise, this whole thing.
What have been the biggest surprises in the process?
The first surprise was that the movie was not a disaster. Putting it together, there was such a long time in which we didn’t know if it was going to work. We had a preview that was terrible, when it was in a very rough, animatic state. So you have that ghost hovering around.
And then we put everything together and finished only two weeks before Venice, which was unsettling. And the surprise had to be the reaction of the audiences. I mean, obviously that’s what we were aiming for, but we were lost in the forest. So it was a great surprise to see audiences embrace the film because of the all the technology and stuff, but also emotionally engage in the film. That’s what the journey is for, and that was the coolest thing.
I also remember at Venice, the studio people showed me the reviews. And I said, “OK, look, I’m a grownup. Show me the bad ones, too.” And they said, “No, these are it.” That was great – but selfishly, the moment when you start receiving the emails from your peers, that’s what feels very good. People that you admire, some of them that are some of the reason why you make films in the first place. When you start getting those emails, it’s really really really really sweet.
You talk about getting the approval of your peers – the DGA Award must have been special.
I was nervous, because I get starstruck, still, with directors. I try to erase the word competition from my vocabulary because I think celebration should be the word instead. It’s a great year, but it’s not only a great year for the films that were nominated. There were so many other films that were not nominated that are as good or better than the films that are nominated.
And by the way, all these recognitions, they don’t make your movie a better movie or a prettier movie. And not being recognized doesn’t make your movie uglier or not as good as it was before.
That idea is a crucial thing to remember this time of year, but it’s difficult when week after week you go to awards shows where they essentially say, “and the winner is … “
Yes, but also you know that there are many winners that nobody remembers 30 years later. And there are many films that they were not even nominated, and now we consider them classics and masterpieces. All of this is a great celebration of the moment, but only time will tell how films remain in the human consciousness.
What are your earliest memories of watching the Oscars?
My earliest ones would be from the ’70s. I definitely remember watching when “The Godfather” won. I clearly remember seeing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” winning, because I’d seen it the week before at a film festival in Mexico, and I remember saying, “That’s the best film I’ve seen.”
No, wait, I remember back to the ’60s. I remember the year that [the 1969 outer space drama] “Marooned” was nominated for visual effects or something, because it was a film that I loved.
And now you’ve brought the storyline of “Marooned” back to the Oscars.
There you go! Yeah, “Gravity” is similar to that. As a kid, I loved “Marooned.” And I also remember the Oscars the year of “Planet of the Apes,” and the year of “The Poseidon Adventure.”
Obviously, as you see, the farther back I go are more, my memory has to do with the movies that I enjoyed as a kid, “Planet of the Apes” and “Marooned” and “Poseidon Adventure” and stuff like that. And then later it was the more serious movies.