Darwin, philosophy, ‘Lost in Space’: The DGA-winning filmmaker talks about early influences, many of which resurface in the emotional core of “Gravity” in a Q&A with Variety’s Tim Gray.
Growing up, did you watch much TV?
All day long, television and movies. I loved “Lost in Space,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Mr. Ed” — remember “Mr. Ed”? — “Bewitched,” all those. And in Mexico at that time, these were blended with Japanese anime and monster shows.
My mom and grandmother were cinephiles. We loved to go to the movies. The first great film I was exposed to was “The Bicycle Thief.” I was probably 8. I was at a sleepover with my cousin, and they announced on TV that they were about to show a film only for adults. I thought I was going to see boobs or something. I didn’t see any boobs, but by the end, I was weeping. I thought, “This is so different from the other stuff I’ve seen.” But I was intrigued.
What did you want to be when you were 10 years old?
I wanted to be an astronaut. But soon, I knew I wanted to make movies, though I didn’t know what that meant. Then I saw two documentaries: one of Sergio Leone making a Spaghetti Western, and the other about George Roy Hill making “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” And I got it! There was this person making all these decisions, and all the trickery behind the scenes, the balsa wood and the explosions that wouldn’t hurt anybody. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” My mom was very supportive. She found it cute, I guess. But she said I had to have a career, so I studied philosophy at (the) university. As if that would solve my career problems! But (mom) was happy. I entered film school at 16 or 17. Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki), the cinematographer, started two years later, and we started collaborating. At that time the big directors were Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa. Then I was in love with Coppola, Spielberg and Scorsese, and films from the 1950s, plus Billy Wilder, Lubitsch and John Ford. That’s been a curse in my filmmaking. Some of my peers and friends have a consistent trait in their films, but mine go from one to the other. Maybe I’m a movie director and not an auteur.
Did you read a lot of books?
When I was a teenager, I read a lot. Now I can hardly find time to see a movie. I listened to a lot of rock, but more classical music. Then added contemporary and electronic, everything from Brian Eno to Stockhausen. But when we were filming “Gravity,” I listened to music that was more sparse, like Ben Frost. For reading, I liked everything, from political literature to the classics, like Thomas Mann and Alexandre Dumas.
You were a philosophy major. What is your philosophy?
I think spirituality and science can coexist. It’s Darwinian, our urge of life, our urge for survival. As humans, we think adversity consists of exceptional moments in our lives. But that is our lives. We live in a world where not everything goes our way. All of those moments define who we are. Jonas and I talked about this when we were doing the screenplay. The debris in space: Adversity tends to be cyclical, and we have to break that inertia so we can change things. Adversity will still be there, but I think people can be reborn. Not in the religious sense of “born again,” but change in life, where we have new meanings and new knowledge of ourselves. I believe in change. The moment we settle, that’s when adversity comes.
I don’t give advice. All advice is good only based on your own life existence. But there is one piece of advice that applies to everyone, and it is a very good piece of advice: Always wash your hands before eating (laughs).