‘Gravity’s’ Alfonso Cuaron Talks Moving on From Oscars

After the celebrated landing of his groundbreaking movie, director Alfonso Cuaron can finally soar to the next step in his career

Alfonso Cuaron Oscar
Ture Lillegraven

For the many who followed the Oscar race closely this year, there was never any doubt that Alfonso Cuaron, the creative brains behind “Gravity,” would win the Oscar for best director. But who knew that he might not hold onto that statue and the one he had landed for best editing.

After Sunday’s award show and Governors Ball, he swung by a small gathering hosted by Warner Bros. and made his way to the door for yet another soiree — empty handed.

“People were taking pictures of the Oscars,” Cuaron recalls in an exclusive morning-after interview with Variety at the historic Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Blvd. “I started leaving, and someone started running after me, saying, ‘Hey, your Oscars!’ Oh shit, I forgot about them.”

Cuaron isn’t likely to leave behind any memories from this year’s awards season, which earned him so many trophies, it’s hard to keep track (among them, the BAFTA, the Golden Globe and the Director’s Guild of America). While “12 Years a Slave” took the evening’s biggest honor for best picture, “Gravity” is in many ways the success story of the year, winning the most Oscars, with seven, and amassing a monumental worldwide box office tally of more than $700 million to date.

Cuaron, 52, spent Sunday night celebrating with his family. His oldest son, Jonas, who co-wrote “Gravity” with him, was in Mexico, directing a feature, but Alfonso brought along his own younger kids — Tess, 11, and Olmo, 9 (who rewatched “Gravity” on the plane ride to Los Angeles) — his 77-year-old mother, his sister and his girlfriend, author Sheherazade Goldsmith.

Even though his night ended at 5:30 a.m. at Guy Oseary’s post-Oscars bash, rubbing shoulders with his pals Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Michael Fassbender, he woke up three hours later to pack for his trip home to Italy where he lives part of the year to share custody of his children with his ex-wife. He resides in London, too, and prefers to spend summers in Mexico, where he was born and raised.

At the Chateau Marmont on Monday, dressed in his Oscar tuxedo with the tie loosened and wearing scuffed-up black combat boots, there was a spring in Cuaron’s step. He walked out onto the hotel’s pool deck with his arm linked to his powerful publicist, Kelly Bush, the founder and CEO of ID PR, whom he hired shortly after “Gravity” opened. For his Variety cover shoot, he gamely took off his shoes, rolled up his black pants and waded in the shallow end of the pool. “Do they get green with water?” he asked about his statuettes, threatening to dip them in. One of the members of his team advised against finding out.

Though Cuaron was the clear favorite for the director prize, he says he was still unsure his name would be called. “It caught me by surprise,” he says. “The scary thing is you don’t want to forget someone fundamental.”

Earlier in the night, he had taken the stage with Mark Sanger to accept the Oscar for editing, but when he tried to take the microphone, the orchestra played him off the stage. “I didn’t like the editors speech,” Cuaron says, “because this movie was about Sandy (Bullock) and she was not mentioned. All the work we did as editors was to try to honor that amazing performance.”

His director’s award went much smoother. The prize was handed to him by Angelina Jolie and Sidney Poitier, and Cuaron loved the symmetry that he saw in one of his presenters. He first offered the starring astronaut role in “Gravity” to Jolie, who had to turn it down because of other commitments.

“The fact that Angelina was there presenting, when she was one of the early persons who read the screenplay, it was like full circle,” he says. “I told Angie, ‘You know how beautiful this is?’ She said, ‘I get it. I understand.’ Everything closed in a beautiful way.”

When he went back to his seat, his mother, who sat two rows behind him, started to cry. Bullock gave him a big hug, and his daughter carried his Oscars around for part of the night. Cuaron says he wasn’t at all disappointed that “Gravity” didn’t win for best picture. “You don’t think about that,” he says. “You just go there and enjoy the ride. And you have fun. If you don’t get it, I’m still going to party. It’s a celebration, and what a beautiful way to finish your film.” He says that because he never played sports as a kid, he’s not naturally competitive.

Cuaron’s Oscar journey began six months ago, at the end of August, when “Gravity” screened publicly for the first time, opening the Venice Film Festival. Cuaron recalls how the film had been struggling with low audience test scores, and then all the doubt began to fade as journalists and critics started raving about it. Still, he had trouble concentrating at that first screening.

Cuaron spent most of the time in that Venice theater studying the audience. “They were really glued to the screen, bracing themselves — or you could see them almost hyperventilating.” Even after a rapturous standing ovation, Cuaron wasn’t sure if the movie would be well received in multiplexes. “You never know, because it’s opening night,” Cuaron says. “You don’t know if it’s politeness.” The next morning, Warner Bros. sent him all the reviews. “I was like, ‘OK, these are the good ones, give me the bad ones,’ ” Cuaron recalls. He was told they didn’t exist.

“Gravity” received a similarly glowing reception at the Telluride Film Festival three days later, and shortly after at the Toronto Film Festival, where it came head to head with “12 Years a Slave,” one of the many matchups in the Oscar season  ahead. Cuaron started to realize that “Gravity” was becoming a pop cultural sensation when friends would send him links to homemade videos on YouTube parodying key scenes in the film.

The international success of “Gravity” saw Cuaron taking many trips around the globe, to premieres of the film in San Sebastian, Spain; Paris; Zurich; London; Mexico City; Beijing; and Tokyo. “It was so interesting,” he says of how the film captivated audiences in nearly all regions of the world. “They connect with that human experience. The thing that we all have — a sense of existential loneliness even when you’re surrounded by a lot of people.”

On the morning of the Oscar nominations, Cuaron was on a flight from Germany to Los Angeles. He didn’t learn of his nods until eight hours after the rest of the world. “I tried to open the Internet flying over Nevada,” he says, “and I couldn’t make it work.” (Which is quite ironic, considering he made the most technologically advanced film since “Avatar.”) Once he landed, his phone started to light up. “Gravity” had grabbed 10 Oscar nominations, including picture, actress and director. He was floored.

Between logging all the frequent flier miles, Cuaron made numerous trips to the United States to campaign throughout awards season. In November, he attended small industry gatherings in New York and Los Angeles. At the time, he told this reporter a story about visiting “Gravity” co-star George Clooney in Lake Como after shooting was complete.

“One night, in his kitchen, we opened this bottle of tequila,” Cuaron says. “After a couple tequilas, I said to him, my concern is now this movie took a long time, they don’t pay me by the hour, I may be forced to take any job now. I don’t have anything ready.” Clooney advised him, “Don’t do it. Do a commercial. Protect your film career.”

Cuaron’s own filmography has been eclectic. On the Oscar press circuit, he met fans of “Y tu mama tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Children of Men.” But his personal favorite is his first English-language film, 1995’s “A Little Princess,” based on the popular children’s novel. “Once I finish a movie, I never see it again,” Cuaron says. “And the memory of that movie and how it was — I was proud.”

Even after hundreds of interviews, he never gave up on promoting “Gravity.” “Sometimes it was exhausting, I have to say, and that’s why I’m so happy; I want my life back. Life of not thinking about ‘Gravity,’ ” says Cuaron wistfully. “I don’t even remember that.” He says he looks forward to resuming a schedule that includes taking care of his kids, dropping them off at school and accompanying them on doctor’s appointments.

He’s not sure what he’ll do next, although he’s already begun promoting his upcoming NBC fantasy series “Believe,” which he co-created with J.J. Abrams (see review, p.72). “I don’t want to make any choices now based on the success of ‘Gravity,’ ” Cuaron says. “I prefer to close it, talk to life and see what happens out of it.”

As the day turns to afternoon, Cuaron admits he still hasn’t checked his email since winning his Oscars, pointing to all the unread messages on his BlackBerry. The filmmaker explains that as blissful as his Oscar journey has been, he’s ready for it to end.

“You have no idea how grateful I am of ‘Gravity,’ ” he says. “It was really transformative for a lot of us involved. But also I want to close it and move on.”

So does that mean there won’t be a sequel? “No, I don’t think so,” Cuaron says. “There’s not going to be a ‘Gravity: Part 2.’ What would it be?” He takes a moment to consider the possibility. “I know,” he says, “everything was a dream. She wakes up, and she’s still in the ship.”