One of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2013 was born in a London hotel room five years ago when Jonás Cuarón ’05 listened to his father, writer and director Alfonso Cuarón, lament the state of the industry. The Cuaróns were planning to make a small, independent film, but their financing fell through as they were starting to assemble a cast.
“This was right after the recession hit, and funding for a lot of projects dried up,” Jonás recalls. “That’s when Dad said, ‘The heck with it, let’s make a big film.’”
The rambling, all-night discussion that followed soon morphed into a plan to make a movie about two astronauts marooned in space hundreds of miles above the earth. Since its release last fall, Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, has been universally lauded by critics and has grossed more than a quarter of a billion dollars. The film went on to sweep the 2014 Academy Awards, winning in seven out of the ten categories in which it was nominated. Jonás’s father even scored an Oscar for Best Director.
Jonás attributes some of the movie’s success to the way he and his father collaborated on the script. They wrote most of it when he was living in Madrid and his father was at home in Mexico City, 5,600 miles and seven time zones away. Every evening at about seven o’clock Madrid time, Jonás would contact his father via Skype, and they’d trade ideas for the plot and dialogue.
“My father is this big-picture, thematic-discourse guy, and I’m from the ADD generation,” he quips. “There were times when I had to say, ‘Dad, we’ve got to get the story moving.’ What
I liked about our collaboration was we often brought two different points of view to the table, and after some arguing, you arrive at the best conclusion.”
Jonás didn’t get much sleep during the six weeks when they wrote the bulk of the script. “After about 12 hours, I’d have to tell Dad the sun was coming up in Madrid and I had to stop for a while,” he says.
The writing and rewriting continued during the shooting of the movie. “Both George and Sandra shared our vision for the film—we were all on the same page—so we listened to their suggestions for changes in the script,” Jonás says.
During the shooting of one scene, Bullock offered numerous suggestions, and it was rewritten more than a dozen times. “Sandra wanted to get the wording her character [a brilliant research scientist battling a troubled past] would use just right, and I really respected that,” Jonás says. “I’m a big fan of rewriting.”
Jonás says he began writing scripts in high school—“I wrote two plays, both cheesy teen romances,” he says—but really began to perfect his craft in college. He chose Vassar partly because of its strong drama program, but he decided to double major in English and studio art. “I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and Vassar offered a flexibility in its curriculum that enabled me to explore various ways to communicate,” he says.
He was particularly inspired by English professor Michael Joyce. “I took some media studies courses from him where we learned about the interaction of various forms of expression. That was one of the best things about Vassar for me—it enabled me to learn many different ways to tell a story.”
One of Jonás’s favorite authors while he was a student was Jack London, and as he and his father discussed how the characters in Gravity were fighting to overcome adversity, he recalled the plot of a London short story, “To Build a Fire,” about a man trapped in the Yukon wilderness. “I used some of London’s narrative devices,” he admits.
Jonás enjoyed the literature he read as an English major but began to gravitate toward filmmaking after he met his future wife, Eireann Harper ’05, who was an art history major at Vassar.
He convinced his advisers in the English and art departments to let him do his senior project using still photographs to tell a story. “Part of my motivation was I wanted to impress my girlfriend,” he says.
After he graduated from Vassar, Jonás expanded his senior project into his first film, the critically acclaimed Year of the Nail (2007). Shortly after that film was released, Jonás began to write Desierto, which tells the story of a Mexican family on the run from the U.S. Border Patrol. He placed that project on hold to complete Gravity but plans to start filming later this year.
Jonás says he’s enjoying the buzz leading up to the Oscars, but he’s sorry his publicity tours are taking him away from Eireann and their two sons, Camilo, who is five, and Elias, who was born last May. “Being away is hard sometimes,” he says. “I can Skype with Camilo, but Elias is too young for that, and when you’re away from a child that age for even a couple of weeks, he’s a whole new kid when you see him again.”
Once the time commitments for Gravity are over and he finishes making Desierto, Jonás says he would like to visit the Vassar campus and talk to students interested in filmmaking. “It would be very exciting to go back there and talk about screenwriting, but in the movie business, you don’t know how long things are going to take. I don’t know when Desierto will be done. When my dad and I finished writing Gravity, he said, ‘Oh, we’ll have the movie done in a year.’ It took us four and a half.”
It was worth the wait, Jonás says. “When you’re writing something, you never really know how it will connect with an audience,” he says. “There was a lot of action in the movie that didn’t have a lot of dialogue and you hope the audience will understand what you’re saying. The people who saw Gravity made those connections, and that has been really gratifying.”