The weighty experience of ‘Gravity’

A little-known fact about “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman is that his Jewish grandfather, Heinz Heyman, was a prominent journalist who had to bicycle out of Nazi Germany eventually finding safety in London. From there, he eventually launched a new career covering economics for The Economist and Financial Times.  

The younger Heyman also reinvented himself, after a string of so-so films in Hollywood, when he moved back to London, slept in his sister’s garret and founded a fledgling production company above a music store in the 1990s. White-hot success came unexpectedly, five years later, after he chanced to read J.K. Rowling’s first “Potter” book and convinced her that he could bring her vision to the screen.

“People who fight adversity and struggle to overcome difficult situations fascinate me,” Heyman, 52, said in a 2008 interview with the Journal.

And so his films have spotlighted not only the bedeviled boy wizard of Hogwarts, but also an 8-year-old struggling to make sense of the Holocaust, in 2008’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”  

Calamity of a stratospheric kind looms in Heyman’s latest effort, Alfonso Cuaron’s breathtaking, chilling space epic, “Gravity,” the saga of a marooned astronaut that is up for 10 Academy Awards, including a best picture nod for Heyman. (It is his first Oscar nomination. He pointed out in a recent interview from New York that the “Harry Potter” films haven’t won a single Oscar.)

The astronomical stakes are evident from the very first shot in “Gravity” — an uninterrupted, 15-minute take that slowly moves in from the vastness of space to reveal the Hubble Space Telescope and tiny specks floating around it that materialize into the astronauts Matt Kowalski and Ryan Stone (played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock).

Disaster soon strikes when debris from a faraway explosion hurtles shards of shrapnel at the spaceship and its occupants, slashing through the tether that links Ryan to safety and hurtling her, head over heels, into the void. The film spotlights her ensuing adventures as she strives to reach nearby space stations, as well as her internal struggle over whether to simply give up or continue her battle to return to earth. Life has lost its meaning for Ryan, we learn, since the death of her young daughter some years earlier.

“What interested me in ‘Gravity’ was character,” the soft-spoken Heyman said. “Ryan is a person who is a bit numb and has given up on life, so the film is about embracing life’s possibilities, and rebirth through adversity.” Along the way, “Gravity becomes a metaphor for that force that can ground us and bring us back to life,” he said.

The making of the technically complex film, Heyman said, also included its fair share of adversity. He signed on four years ago when he received a call from his good friend, the Mexican director Cuaron, who is also the godfather of Heyman’s 5-year-old son; “Gravity,” Cuaron said, had been picked up but then dismissed by Universal Pictures. 

“The movie was filled with horrible ideas by Hollywood standards,” Heyman said. “Let’s pretend you’re a financier, and let me pitch it to you: The two lead characters are in their late 40s and early 50s, respectively — bad idea. It’s an action film with a woman in the lead — bad idea. The woman is going to be in a space suit for more than half the film, so all you’re going to be able to see is her eyes and occasionally her mouth — another bad idea. A huge percentage of her voice will be distorted because she’s speaking through a microphone, and she will be alone on screen for more than 45 minutes of the film. 

“None of these are recipes for success. So there are many reasons why previous backers chose to avoid this, but, to give Warner Bros. credit, they [eventually] backed it and us.”

Of course, Warner Bros. had already received more than $7.7 billion worldwide from Heyman’s eight “Potter” films — the highest-earning film franchise of all time: “I’m not one to say they did ‘Gravity’ because of me, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt,” he said. “But we had no idea how difficult this movie was going to be to make.”

Producer David Heyman

The primary challenge, even with a budget estimated at $100 million to $115 million, was how to give audiences the disorienting sense of zero gravity without endangering the performers. “If an actor is spinning around wildly, that’s a hard thing to achieve, and Sandy the actress probably wouldn’t have survived some of the moves that her character would have to make,” Heyman said.

To create a sense of zero gravity, Cuaron and his team experimented with techniques including greenscreen, wire rigging and even the so-called Vomit Comet, the high-altitude plane that provides brief moments of weightlessness to train astronauts, which had worked in making the film “Apollo 13.” “But Alfonso wasn’t satisfied with the results,” Heyman said. 

The solution was to create the majority of the film using computer graphics imagery — in fact, most everything you see in the film is computer generated, except for the actors’ faces. To shoot those, they strapped the performers into a 9-by-9-foot contraption they dubbed “the light box.” Inside it, computer-controlled lights and images shone on the actors’ faces, giving the impression of changing scenery swirling around them, while two lightweight cameras whipped around on huge robotic arms to capture their facial movements.  

“Those things would race over Sandy and stop a couple of inches from her face, but she never blanched,” Heyman marveled. “She was alone in this box for 45 days of our 60-day shoot, 40 feet from everybody and with no personal connection,” he added. “She was so often isolated, and she channeled all of that into her performance.

“Also, her movements had to be precise to the second; they were defined even before we started shooting. And you have to realize that for huge portions of the film, the only way she has to convey emotion is through her eyes, because she’s all covered up in an oversized space suit. She couldn’t shrug her shoulders to show that she’s tired or sad.”

The film is a vertiginous, immersive experience of what it might feel like to be trapped miles above the earth, where, as the film’s menacing opening title informs us, life is impossible.

But Heyman sees a spiritual side to the movie as well. “When you’re a small person in the vast expanse of space, it’s very humbling,” he said. “Also, as Alfonso has pointed out, you’re looking at the earth from space a lot when you’re making this film, and you realize that there are no borders and that we are all one humanity. So that’s rather beautiful, and I think it really shines through in the film.”