Life: Director Daniel Espinosa On The Outer Space Thriller

– by Edward Douglas

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa might have been another foreign filmmaker working in obscurity until his film Snabba Cash (Easy Money) caught the attention of Hollywood, and he was hired to helm Safe House, an action-thriller starring Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington that became a huge hit over here. (Espinosa’s next movie, the psychological thriller Child 44, failed to find much of an audience, more due to poor marketing than anything else.)

Now, Espinosa is back with Life, an outer space thriller starring Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and more, which looks at what it might be like if life was discovered on Mars, and what might happen if that life turns out to be hostile. For the astronauts of the ISS (International Space Station), it becomes a life or death situation as a single cell organism starts growing and becoming stronger and smarter, as they have to figure out how to destroy it so it can’t reach earth.

RELATED: Our Review of Life

LRM got on the phone with the director from the Austin junket hours before the film was premiering at the SXSW Film Festival, and while talking about building the space station he mentioned how he got to film his first sci-fi movie on the very same stage that Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey!

LRM: I assume you got involved with “Life” in the usual way directors normally do? I assume someone sent you a script, so what interested you in the movie or genre to make this?

Daniel Espinosa: I got the script, and they sent it to me a bit like half-half, because it was really intended to be a smaller movie in the beginning that cost maybe $10 million. (I had no idea how they were supposed to do it for $10 million dollars, but that was their idea.) I put my daughter to sleep and I was reading it, and I just couldn’t put it down, but what kind of hit me--except the obvious of the ferocious energy, the great dynamics, and the potential of good characters and all those things--what hit me was that it took place in a realistic world, you know? It was like our world. That it could take place tomorrow. That with the evidence we have from Mars and the water found from the Pilgrim sent to Mars. If we found an earth sample, which had proof of life, we would send it to the ISS and then this movie started from that point of view. I thought that was something that--if I may be completely honest with you--more truthful in science fiction than many of the pictures in the past, because our perspective of science fiction has changed. If you look back into the ‘70s, the easiest comparison to make is of course Alien, but Alien took place in the Atomic Age and there, when you looked into the future, you could imagine what would happen in 200 years, or you at least had a thought about it. It would be like this post-atomic era where corporations ran everything, and it was like a dystopian neo-punk future. Then, it was science fiction but science fiction is supposed to be this keyhole into the future, and today where everything is happening so fast, this keyhole can’t really look that far, so in many ways, the modern science fiction has to take place tomorrow.

LRM: When I spoke to Paul and Rhett (the screenwriters), they had a good point because most of those movies have people in space without the Zero G effect, and we see these movies where they’re walking around the spaceship and that’s something that hasn’t been invented yet, so that already puts the movie closer to reality.

Daniel Espinosa: Yeah, exactly, and the other thing I liked about the script was that I think it had these great turns, the one towards the end and one in the middle. Instead of pushing it into the Alien territory, it pushed more into an old American tradition of the film noir, you know? I found that quite inspiring to do an American movie that upholds a strong American tradition that normally movies don’t do anymore. The one genre that has upheld that tradition from the ‘50s noir, weirdly enough, is the zombie movie. I thought the combination of those two turns and the realism, that’s what I found so attractive with the script.

LRM: Had Ryan Reynolds already signed on or did he come on later after you were on board?

Daniel Espinosa: I don’t do movies where anybody’s signed on. For me, it’s like if anybody has a party, as a director, you want at least to be the host, not some type of side-character who is allowed to maybe put some candles on the cake. Other directors enjoy that, but I don’t. Ryan was actually my idea, because I know him, and I’d done a movie with him in the past. I think that with the years that have gone by, it’s always interesting to revisit those old relationships that you have, just to see how they’ve changed.

LRM: You mentioned before that they were pitching this to you as a $10 million movie. It is a smaller movie than you might expect since it all takes place in the space station, but you still have to build that set, so how did you go about designing the ISS where the movie takes place?

Daniel Espinosa: I mean, first of all, it’s like any child’s dream, no? To get to go to work and design your own space station; building it was really absurd. What we did was we contacted NASA, actually, and asked them what the future ideas were for the International Space Station, and we could draw out architectural drawings from them. I then put those drawings together with my team of researchers, and we would estimate, just look at the development curve of the ISS. You can estimate at what point they would have gotten by the time this movie was supposed to happen. Then I put that together with the brilliant production designer Nigel Phelps, who did World War Z. It was interesting from a design perspective, because it was very realistic, but at the same time had elements of something happening after this catastrophe.

LRM: I also was curious about the exteriors of the space station, so did you build a lot of that?

Daniel Espinosa: Yeah, we built I think it was like thirty feet each direction on every shot, and they did set extensions, but it was quite impressive. It was quite weird walking up there, because you’re walking up there and you feel like a young kid in this industry. You make a movie in Sweden, and then suddenly you’re walking up to the studio...and by the way, the studio where we shot the movie was the same studio where 2001 was shot. 

LRM: I was going to ask about that, because I knew you filmed in London, but wasn’t sure if you were at the same studio or not.

Daniel Espinosa: It was the same room, and there was this old janitor there who was like 85 years old, and he was out having a cigarette, and he said to me, “I remember when Stanley was building his spaceship,” and he chuckled. I thought, “Who the f*ck is Stanley?” Incredible.

LRM: I wonder if Stanley Kubrick had any idea when he made that movie that it would still be having a huge influence on filmmakers 50 years later, because it’s still so influential. 

Daniel Espinosa: Oh, exactly, and I wonder if they, while they were doing it, knew that they were constructing an alphabet that all of us others would follow.

LRM: How did you prepare the actors to deal with the Zero G? Did they have to do the usual astronaut training? Because you want to get these actors to seem like real scientists and astronauts, so what was involved with that?

Daniel Espinosa: What normally happens is that you get your stunt team coordinating how they move, but what I felt was didn’t work in many of these Zero G movies--and I’m not talking about Gravity here, I’m talking about other movies--is that all actors look a bit the same. You look a bit like these sleeping swans that are kind of waving back and forth. When I looked at the footage from the ISS, the physicals expressions of the astronauts were more personal. Some are a bit clumsier, some are faster in their movement, so what I did was that I took this choreographer that got to work with the three astronauts that have been up on the ISS to kind of determine what kind of movement would come from that. Through her choreography, we created the Zero G. The level of capabilities were differentiated between the actors, but Hiroyuki Sanada, the Japanese actor, he’s done wire work since he’s been sixteen years old. His first ninja movie was when he was fifteen. 

LRM: You mentioned “Alien” and there are influences are there even though it’s more authentic, but how important was it to avoid those comparisons and make this movie it’s own thing while also keeping what worked with those movies? 

Daniel Espinosa: I think it’s always a bad idea to try to avoid things. I thought it was more inspirational to get closer to as realistic perspective of the ISS as possible. When we constructed Calvin, we let the scientists lead our way through how Calvin would actually look. What we took from the scientific community would be how Calvin would look from the idea of those cells, exactly how they make estimates of how the creature looks on earth without being able to see that. All the actors got to work together with an astronaut that has the same kind of scientific background as themselves. To make a movie that would give you the feeling that this could happen tomorrow. 

LRM: Do you have any thoughts on what you might want to do next? Have you been approached to direct any franchises and do you have any interest in that at all?

Daniel Espinosa: I’ve been getting a lot of scripts and the impulse from the business is very strong and good, so that’s fun, but right now I just want to go back home and make a small movie back in Sweden. I think that would be nice. Come out with like a crew of ten, cast some amateurs, and shoot something in my old neighborhood.

LRM: The industry in Scandinavia has exploded over the last few decades, but whenever a director does really well there, Hollywood takes them away and uses them on those movies. It’s hard to keep an industry alive that way. 

Daniel Espinosa: Oh, definitely, definitely. To go back home would be great.

LRM: Do you have anything you want to do in that sense or are you writing something?

Daniel Espinosa: No, no, I have something that I’m writing myself that I think could be interesting, but who knows what the future holds? That’s what’s on my mind right now.

LRM: At one point, you were attached to do a movie with Leonardo Dicaprio. Is that still something in development or something that’s moved on?

Daniel Espinosa: Yeah, maybe, maybe, but one thing that’s constant in our business is that there are a lot of talks, you know? Because you have to come to the point where a script is undeniable and until that point, I don’t have any interest in making a movie where I have to fix it while I shoot it.

LRM: Someone once told me, I think it was Avi Arad, that Hollywood really loves making announcements.

Daniel Espinosa: They love announcing things. You can have a coffee with somebody and there’s an announcement, it’s incredible.

LRM: Having done this science fiction movie, is that a genre you might want to explore more in the future or do you want to make this your sci-fi movie and do something else later?

Daniel Espinosa: I think I have a little bit of ADD, or maybe severe ADD. That’s why all of my movies are a bit different. Once I walk down a path I want to completely be at a new place, but science fiction is a more and more dominating genre in our industry, so I think will I go back, but if I do go back I probably will find a new way in. 

LRM: This movie does leave things open for a sequel so would you have interest in that, or not really?

Daniel Espinosa: It’s a bit like Snabba Cash. I have no interest in sequels. You’ve done a movie. I don’t see it as any kind of potential for a franchise. I see this like a noir ending, and the same thing with Safe House. They’re still trying to make a sequel to Safe House, but I’m not interested. I don’t want to do that.

Life opens nationwide on Friday, March 24. Look for interviews with the writers of the film and producer David Ellison soon.

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Film, Featured, Interviews, LRM Exclusives Daniel Espinosa, Life, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, LRM Exclusive