Interview with Jon Spaihts, Writer of ‘Passengers’
JON SPAIHTS (Written by / Executive Producer) is a graduate of Princeton University whose prior lives have included stints as a documentary film and multimedia producer, photographer, and dot-com executive in New York City. He has been a working screenwriter since 2006, with produced titles including The Darkest Hour and director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. He has established a reputation as a writer and producer of smart, elevated science fiction. Spaihts most recently shared writing credit on Marvel’s critical hit and box office smash Doctor Strange, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton and is directed by Scott Derrickson.
Spaihts’ ucoming films include Universal’s The Mummy, an adaption of the seminal science-fiction novel ForeverWar for Warner Bros. with Channing Tatum attached to star, and a reboot of Van Helsing, which he is co-writing with friend and collegue Eric Heisserer.
Q: Where did you first get the idea for the movie?
I was really fascinated by the notion of a man stranded alone in space – I was thinking a lot about interstellar travel. I wanted to drive science fiction in the face of the aspirational, to sway a little bit away from the post apocalyptic that has perhaps been overplayed. I was looking for positive, inspiring stories, and then I thought about the journey to a world… the adventure of colonizing other planets, and there’s no way to get into that and start doing the research without being stunned by the vast distances between stars and the distances in times involved with getting from one world to another. The isolation of that really moved me as a romantic narrative – and the notion of one person stranded in the midst of all that vast space just caught my imagination. Once I had that image in my head, the story seemed to unfold itself almost inevitably in terms of the things that happened next and where it would all lead.
Q: Passengers required a lot of world building. You have this other planet that they are traveling to with all this new technology. Did you first begin writing while imagining the characters or the world?
It was a combination of both. [Pratt] was to some extent called into being by his own dilemma. I wanted someone who had enough technical knowhow to attempt to tinker his way out of his predicament. But he couldn’t be a rocket scientist, he needed to be a person of much more modest skills tackling a problem that was way over his head. And then he meets [Lawrence] who is his opposite number. There’s a way in which he stumbles upon a sort of metropolitan like way of falling for this woman. The world also takes shape around them. If you want these two characters to fall in love and live together and live the rest of their lives on a ship, what must that ship be like? It can’t just be crates and cargo, there must be a possibility of a beautiful life on that ship. The Avalon took shape around them as a luxury starship.
Q: So you have worked on a lot of films that borrow source material, i.e. Prometheus, Doctor Strange, the upcoming Mummy. Seeing that this is an original feature, was there a different approach this time around?
It’s always kind of the same work. I’ve done a lot of stuff based on source material because that’s usually the job that is available. If it were up to me, I’d write originals virtually all the time. Even when you’re adapting or rewriting an existing property, you still have to internalize that story and make it your own. My favorite type of storytelling is the world-building kind, nothing is yet cast in stone, and I can decide what’s best for me in all ways, just start from scratch and build a whole world. It still feels surprisingly similar to work on an adaptation simply because you’re prone to feel as if that world is your own and you make it your own.
Q: What was your favorite scene to write?
That’s a tough call. Every scene with [Michael Sheen] in it was pure joy to write. Arthur, the bartender, was just fun. Every scene with Arthur is one I love.
Q: Is it safe to say that sci-fi is your go-to genre?
It’s what comes to me. I love it and I think that there’s no end to the stories that could be told in that space. Anything that takes our world and adds one fantastical element is considered science fiction – even if it can be considered very close to home. A movie sitting on a world where someone has invented an amazing machine is a sci-fi, or a movie that takes place a thousand years from now where everybody speaks a foreign language. I love science fiction, and it’s what I am known for, so it’s what people come to me with.
Q: How much scientific research did you have to conduct prior to writing your script?
Not a ton of specific research because I’m a big space geek already, so I was pretty well up to speed on a lot of things. I did dig around a little bit in near-earth space to look at possible destinations for the starship and courses it might follow. I was trying to figure out what path would the ship pass that would contain the most interesting things to look at. So I did do a little bit of interstellar prospecting – I read up on theories of long-term hibernation explorers, looked at ion drives, fusion plants, magnetic and electric particle deflection systems for spaceship plows. Dug around for all kinds of stuff like that. But happily, it’s not a deeply crunchy science fiction movie that is very interested in the nuts and bolts, it’s ultimately a film about human beings having emotional experiences and making hard choices, so the starship and the apparatuses are more backdrop.
Q: This script has been floating around for years. Do Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence embody what your original vision was for these characters?
Absolutely. They couldn’t be better. They so deeply understand the characters they’re playing and become them completely. They committed emotionally so deeply. Chris Pratt is going to be a revelation to people in this movie – and it’s funny to say that since going in he was one of the most sought after male stars in the world – but almost all the big work he’s done has been being a funny guy apart of an ensemble. He’s never held the screen alone as a leading man as he does in this movie, nor has he done the dramatic acting you see him do in this movie. [Passengers] will profoundly change the way people see him – I think he will emerge from it an even bigger star. With [Jennifer Lawrence], everyone already knew she could do the extraordinary things she accomplishes on screen – this is my favorite work I’ve ever seen her do – which I think will also make a splash. They really gave life to these two characters.
Q: There’s one scene about halfway through when the momentum abruptly shifts. How hard was that to write?
I think the scene you’re referring to is the most powerful scene in the film, where their relationship suddenly and abruptly shifts in a dramatic manner. When I sit in screenings watching the film with big audiences, I hear the realization, the impact, wash over the audience in waves – it’s electric and incredible to witness. Writing it was thrilling, but also a challenge. I have a pretty sweet nature. If I have one challenge as a writer, it is that I am sometimes simply too nice to my characters, and it’s hard for me to give them a hard time. I have to constantly remind myself not to be too nice. That scene was a prime moment of forcing myself to be ruthless.
Q: When the film was in production, how often were you on set?
All day, every day, fifteen hours a day [laughs]. It was brutal and amazing.
Q: What did you do on set?
I did everything, consulted with design groups with what should be in the background, how parts of the ship should be designed, the physics of moving around in spacesuits, the specifics of moving from one section of the ship to another, what the indicator lights should look like. I also voiced the auto dock artificial intelligence in the movie.
Q: So you have had a busy year, were you working on Doctor Strange and Passengers at the same time, and if so, did any ideas overlap with each other?
I worked on some prep for Passengers when I wrote Doctor Strange, and then Scott Derrickson took over Doctor Strange because there was suddenly a longer timeline on that project. I went down to Atlanta and ended up on set for Passengers for four months and went straight to the editing room. I ended up back on Doctor Strange when they were finishing up that movie. I am sure that ideas and moods from one story infected the other. They was no clear way in which I passed an idea or a notion from one film to the other, but an artist only has one heart and one mind to make things with. I’m sure that some of the things that I was feeling/experiencing on one project affected the other.
Q: There are a lot of different themes to the film: loneliness, deception, redemption, love and forgiveness. What is the main theme or idea you want audiences to takeaway from the movie?
The ultimate message of Passengers is that we have to live the life that fate gives us – and not dwell on the past, or blissfulness for the life we had hoped for. For Jim and Aurora, that philosophical message is written in very bold letters in their predicament. I think it is a challenge that every one of us faces as we grow older and life takes an unexpected test. Living where we are is one of the hardest challenges we face.