In Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist who finds herself in the wrong orbit at the wrong time. After a nearby satellite is blown up by a Russian missile, Bullock and George Clooney – who plays veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski – attempt to salvage their vessel and lives through a series of space walks. Throughout the movie, Bullock wrestles with a wide swath of emotions, and accentuating every scene is composer Steven Price's excellent score. Each moment is soundtracked with a keen sense of direction, as Bullock's emotions soar in front of your eyes and ears. Rolling Stone spoke with Price about composing the Gravity score, why he avoided revisiting classic space films and how the Beatles fit into the master plan. Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
In the opening scene, it states there's no sound in space. How daunting was it to be in charge of what we did hear?
It was incredibly daunting, but only after I saw it, I realized how daunting it was. At the time, it was just this enormous challenge – there were so many experiments to do and so many things to try, it just felt like a really exciting way of trying to do a film score. One of the first things Alfonso was really clear about was the fact that we were operating in a vacuum. The stuff we're gonna be dealing with – vibrations and those sorts of sounds and low frequency kind of rumbles you might hear within a space suit – all of a sudden, this world opened up, and what could music be in that environment?
What were the basic steps you took in scoring a scene?
Really it was all very much led by the character of Ryan. I tried to be with her all the time. The idea was that the music was up there in space and we made it very immersive and used a lot of elements and a lot of layering so that things would move around you all the time. The writing of those elements and what they were, were always influenced by what Ryan was feeling and where she was emotionally in the whole thing. And also where the camera was, where things were moving and what point of view the camera was facing, whether it was looking at them or kind of looking through their eyes. Some of it was melodic and some of it was intended to underscore a kind of emotional journey, and then there were a lot of sounds that were there to express real terror. It was those two extremes, really, expressing the beautiful nature of where they were but also absolutely a massively terrifying situation.
One of the emotions that overruns the film is fear. What's the best way to capture that feeling?
Fear is one of those really primal emotions which you don't want to have incredibly exciting modulations and complex harmonies and all that kind of stuff. The approach we took with it was that it was terror, and she was utterly overwhelmed by the situation and tried to use all the devices at disposal whether they're instrumental or sonic things we were working on. And the actual theater itself, the surround nature of the cinema, would really go with that absolutely overwhelming terror. A lot of what we did was working out where those moments were, almost where the tempo of Ryan's heartbeat was.
Which scene worked best for you?
There's a track called "Don't Let Go" which takes you from an intimate moment when Ryan and Matt are talking to then Ryan reveals why she's up there and what made her not want to be on Earth anymore. It goes all the way through the period where they try and get to the ISS and they have all sorts of problems. The tempo fluctuates according to their emotions and the style of writing changes considerably through that 11-minute process.
When you were writing the music, were you working with the script? Or visuals?
With this one, because their process had been so long, they'd been going for over three years by the time I got involved. So there was a very advanced cut of the film – although a lot of the graphics in it, because there's so much CGI, were incomplete. I'd go from a shot that was very developed and it'd cut to a shot that was a few polygons and a face sort of floating by. But even from that stage, you really got a sense of what the film was becoming, and the way that it was choreographed and the feeling of floating in space. That was huge influence for how I wrote the music. You didn't want to do anything too abrupt because it clashed with the mood, and even though there were eventually violent things happening, they still happened with a kind of grace, and that was really influential to the instruments chosen and the style of writing that I used.
The action stuff was always the most challenging, because when you're usually doing an action score, you're competing with all these other sounds. With this, because there was no other sound in space, it kind of meant we could rethink what an action cue could be in this complex, so I kind of have to find ways to do it without doing the normal action cue tricks.
How long did it take you to write Ryan's re-entry music?
The theme of it was quite quick, but then as the cut of the film developed, new ideas came out and it kept being tweaked. I was probably working on it on and off for six months. I'd leave it for a couple of weeks and have another look at it and there'd be a little change to the picture or I'd see something differently in that would influence the way it ran. We tried also different experiments with the arrangement as well and I did a lot of different versions of it over time. But of all the cues in it, that was one that kind of was there in its bare bones really early.
In terms of the plot, that seems like a really critical piece to get down.
It was crucial in lots of ways because the scene had been planted a lot earlier in the film. I needed to know how it was going to end before I could start it properly. The melodies in that cue, in that re-entry sequence, are really here melodically in the score; they're kind of stretched out and ambient. It only becomes itself as she gets closer to Earth, really.
Compared to other space films, what stands out to you about this score?
I purposely didn't listen to any other space scores, because there's been some classics and you only had a vague memory of them if you've actually seen them growing up. But this one, because of the way it was shot and the fact it was designed as this experience that you're in, for me, the immersive quality was the crucial factor we kept coming back to.
If you were floating away in space, what would be the last song you hummed to yourself?
Probably "A Day in the Life." That wouldn't be a bad way to go. We actually tracked some of the score through the same recording console that McCartney used for Band on the Run. It's now residing at British Grove Studios in London, and I recorded a load of the melodies for solo cello through it. The rest of the score was mostly recorded in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, which is most famous as the Beatles' room. We recorded a string octet in there, which was me secretly trying to capture the string sound of "Eleanor Rigby," though you'd never know it from the score. I manipulated a lot of the recordings in the mix to get the kind of floating, pulsating atmosphere we were after.
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