Jon Spaihts wrote five drafts of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, before handing it off to Damon Lindelof. He's also become known in Hollywood as the go-to writer for hard science fiction and space adventure, after his space romance Passengers landed on the Black List of the best unproduced scripts. And he's written two other space adventures, Children of Mars and Shadow 19. Plus the space-faring comic book adaptation World War Robot. And now he's writing the reboot of The Mummy.
We talked to Spaihts about why it's so hard to get a new space epic on the screen, and why he thinks he can make it happen. Plus the secret to convincing Hollywood to include real science in your science-fiction epics.
People have the perception that Prometheus was more of an Alien prequel when you were writing it, and then became less explicitly tied to Alien when Damon Lindelof took over. (There was even that fake "Alien Harvest" script.) Without giving anything away, is this a misconception?
There's some truth to this, although the story remains very much the story I began with. It's very hard to talk about this without saying too much.
It sounds like Ridley Scott was firing ideas at you nonstop. Was there anything Scott wanted you to include in one of the script drafts that you just couldn't make fit?
Ridley is a creative volcano and it was a major part of my job just trying to keep up with him. He's a marvel.
I wouldn't say there were any ideas I couldn't make fit, but certainly in our collaboration we explored a number of ideas that were ultimately left behind in favor of better ideas. Inevitable.
When creating an android character like David, how much concern was there about making him different from Bishop and the Replicants in Blade Runner?
The Alien universe has its own rules, and they extend to character archetypes. The android is one of these. It's always a challenge to honor the archetype and still find something new to do.
Ridley wasn't interested in repeating his own work or others'. He was always reaching for the new idea.
How much of the "searching for the origins of humanity in space" stuff was already in the story before Damon Lindelof came in? Was that always the reason for our heroes to go into space?
Why is it so hard to get Hollywood to greenlight space adventures like your Shadow 19 script? Video games like Mass Effect make insane amounts of money, so why is it so hard for Hollywood to commit to similar movies?
There are some technical reasons why. In game engines, hard shiny surfaces are easy to render, while pliable or complex surfaces are hard. So in a game, spaceships, tanks and armored figures are very approachable subjects. It's a lot harder to render, say, a long-haired girl in a flowing dress chasing a shaggy dog through a garden. That's brutal geometry for a game engine. In games, scifi's easier to achieve than mundane reality.
With film, the opposite is true. Anything available in the real world you can just point a camera at. Fantastic things have to be built, physically or digitally, and that's expensive. Sci fi costs more in film.
All that said: scifi blockbusters have made mountains of money, and are over-represented in the top fifty box office hits of all time. The mighty Avatar first among them, with the Star Wars films and others trailing behind. Clearly the audience will turn out if you execute well. I think there's a ready market for grand space adventures.
But it's got to be a good story on every level: good characters, emotional arcs, sharp dialogue, comprehensible world, clear stakes… it's a lot to get right. There aren't that many people around who can do it well.
Have video games changed the way people think about this kind of storytelling?
Yes and no. Storytelling in games has matured tremendously in the past decade. Some really great work has been done. But the design requirements are totally different, almost the opposite of filmic storytelling.
The central character of a game is most often a cipher – an avatar into which the player projects himself or herself. The story has to have a looseness to accommodate the player's choices. This choose-your-own adventure quality is a challenge for storytellers and, I fear, militates against art.
A filmmaker is trying to make you look at something a certain way – almost to force an experience on you. Think of the legendary directors, whose perspective is the soul of their art. It's the opposite of a sandbox world. It's a mind-meld with a particular visionary.
Do you think films like Prometheus and Gravity could spark a new interest in big space epics that aren't based on an existing franchise?
I want to say yes, but I think those aren't the films for the job. Prometheus "shares DNA" with a pre-existing franchise, and what I know of Gravity suggests it's a fairly grounded predicament movie, without the larger-than-life characters or fanciful story-world that would naturally give birth to a franchise.
To launch a new franchise you need both a strikingly imagined world with a conflict built into its bones, and vivid characters with heroic traits that allow them to the be the backbone of a series of stories. See "Star Wars."
On a related note, do you think either Passengers, Children of Mars or Shadow 19 will ever get made?
I think two of them are virtually certain to get made. But I won't say which two.
How do you create relatable characters in the midst of a story with power suits and cryogenic ships and alien worlds, and vast unimaginable distances?
You keep your stories rooted in the world we know. The more you re-invent, the harder your audience has to work to connect. If your fantastic world has recognizable families, or realistic workplace politics, or a spacefaring army that still dresses, walks, and talks like the army we know… then we have a starting place for that connection. Familiarity is an essential tool – and a great frame for your big re-inventions.
Above all, invest in the universal human experiences: love and heartbreak, ambition and frustration, rivalry and enmity. Loneliness, yearning, wonder.
In particular, how do you keep your protaganists likable when they make unlikable choices? I know Passengers revolves around a guy who is the only person awake on a ship full of people in cryogenic suspension, and he makes a pretty selfish choice to wake a woman from cryosleep so he won't be lonely any longer. How do you make him someone the audience will root for?
If your character does something indefensible and feels shame about that… well, who can't connect to that? We've all done that. I think it's easier to relate to that guy than to a paragon of virtue.
If your character sins and engages in denial or rationalization or other evasive behaviors… that's human too.
What's hard is relating to characters who seem to be fundamentally bad people: heartless, cruel, sadistic. Nobody likes a narcissist or a sociopath. But if your character's a good person who's done bad things… that's a different matter. Many good stories start there.
How do you check the science in your stories? Like, say, the notion in the Shadow 19 script that a planet with a higher level of background radiation has a faster pace of mutation and thus faster evolution, creating worse monsters for your protagonist to fight. Do you have science advisors that you run stuff like that past?
I'm a science junkie myself, so I usually go into a story with a pretty grounded scientific framework for my premise.
I also work with an organization called the Science & Entertainment Exchange, whose entire reason for being is to connect filmmakers with scientists to improve storytelling and better represent science in fiction. I've had invaluable conversations with scientists – real luminaries in their fields – through that organization.
When you're dealing with a project like Ashley Wood's World War Robot that's very impressionistic and almost like an art book, how hard is it to flesh out the mythology and backstory of why we're fighting robots on the Moon and on Mars?
That's not hard. That's awesome. I lean away from adaptations because I want to create the world myself; I want to invent the characters. That's where I get my fix. So source material like World War Robot, with its stunning images and evocative scraps of story, is perfect for me. A great palette to paint with, but lots of blank canvas left for me.
The stereotype that a lot of science fans have about science fiction movies is that the science is the first thing to go out the window in favor of cool ideas or whatever. How do you find ways to keep the science at least plausible?
For too many filmmakers, "sci fi" means "anything goes." Which leads in turn to arbitrary chains of events, or story rules that feel inconsistent or muddy.
Story flourishes under constraint. The more scientific limits you keep in place, forcing yourself to work within real rules, the more authentic your story will feel. I always fight for scientific rigor. Not just because I'm a huge geek, which I quite definitely am, but because I believe it makes for better stories.
How weird is it moving from hard science fiction to something like The Mummy, and do you think you have some room to expand the mythos of why there are mummies coming to life and chasing people around?
In Arthur C. Clarke's words, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So a world where black magic is at work is not that different from high science fiction. You still need rules, powers, a world whose history and sweep of events extends beyond the borders of the frame.
I'd never have taken the job if I didn't think I had something new to bring to it. I'm incubating a mythology I really dig – once more balancing the imperatives to honor the canon and the archetypes of the story universe, and to give birth to something new.