By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Watching an astronaut tumbling into the void of deep space might make a mere mortal's own adversities seem rather small.
But "Gravity," a drama starring Sandra Bullock and showing in U.S. theaters on Friday, was born out of the setbacks suffered by one man in the midst of the last recession: its director and co-writer, Alfonso Cuaron.
The Mexican filmmaker had already achieved international success with films like "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" in 2004 and "Children of Men" in 2006. But in 2009, financing on a new film fell apart, leaving him in the lurch.
"That was just one element of a period of adversities that was striking my life," Cuaron told Reuters. "And sometimes adversities are like that. They come in big waves."
The 51-year-old filmmaker and son Jonas Cuaron, 30, decided they would not sit around licking their wounds, and quickly got to work on a script about adversity, weaving the theme through tense and gripping action. They soon settled on space, a fascination for the Cuarons.
"We said 'let's take a character in a very adverse situation' and we starting ping-ponging and this image came up of this astronaut just spinning into black emptiness," said Jonas Cuaron.
And that is pretty much how "Gravity" begins, with Bullock playing novice astronaut and engineer Dr. Ryan Stone alongside George Clooney as mission commander Matt Kowalski. Their space station is hit by debris from the demolition of an obsolete satellite, sending the two reeling into deep space with depleting oxygen and remote chances of returning to Earth.
Ryan Stone soon finds herself alone, drifting into the void, with a tragic backstory that diminishes her desire to get home. For Alfonso Cuaron, Stone is a "victim of her own inertia, living in her own bubble."
"She has to learn to come out of the bubble, shed her skin to begin a journey of rebirth," Cuaron said.
The filmmakers and Warner Bros. Pictures ended up spending some $80 million to make the 3D film, with technological innovations that reproduce space and zero gravity in ways never seen on screen.
The trade publication Variety calls "Gravity" a "white-knuckle space odyssey, a work of great narrative simplicity and visual complexity."
The film opens this weekend in U.S. theaters after showing at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals to critical acclaim.
BULLOCK'S 'AMAZING PRECISION'
Bullock, as it happens, knows adversity and is known for having weathered it rather stoically. Right after reaching what might have been the pinnacle of her career by winning her best actress Oscar for "The Blind Side" in 2010, she learned that her then-husband, Jesse James, was having an affair and she dropped out of the public eye to raise her adopted son.
Cuaron went to Bullock's hometown of Austin, Texas, to meet for the first time and talk about the "Gravity" role, and agreed adversity was very present in both their lives.
She had, in Cuaron's words, "an amazing insight about that and an amazing maturity and clarity about that experience." He knew after that he wanted her to do the film.
Bullock, 49, said the physical demands of the role were less daunting that the emotional ones, especially because she had to make the emotions sync up with the elaborate technology and the tight shots.
"Ryan Stone is not just isolated, she's cut off. So many parts of her are not living anymore," Bullock told Reuters.
"You have to put yourself in that head every day of 'What would I do? What would I feel at this moment?'" she said, adding: "It is not a nice place to be."
Bullock's performance has won praise from critics, who predict she will be a contender for another best actress Oscar. Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey said Cuaron asked Bullock to do a free-fall with major implications and she "pulls off a breathtaking landing."
Bullock says she would work again for Cuaron any time, no matter the circumstances, nor the long hours. He, in turn, said he admired her "amazing precision" and ability to perform "under very, very extreme conditions."
"You will want to kill him ... he demands so much of you," Bullock said. "But at the end of the day, you have so much love and gratitude for him."
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Jim Loney)