Hollywood writing duos are a long-standing tradition that’s continued through the years and there have been even more recently, but Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have created a particularly creative knack for tackling genre and franchise.
I personally met the duo on the set of their 2009 movie Zombieland many years ago, and watched them taking on other big genre movies including G.I. Joe: Retaliation, before working with Ryan Reynolds to develop a Deadpool movie that was hugely popular with superhero fans.
Their new movie Life is an outer space thriller also starring their Deadpool collaborator Ryan Reynolds, along with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson as half the crew of the International Space Station, who have recovered a sample of life from the surface of Mars. It’s a single cell organism that’s been frozen, but when they try to revive it, it starts growing, becoming stronger and more violent towards its would-be captors.
LRM got on the phone with Reese and Wernick this past weekend for the following interview:
LRM: First of all, congrats on the success of “Deadpool". It must be really nice after spending years and years working on something and trying to get it made to have it be a huge hit like that. It must have been very gratifying.
Rhett Reese: Thank you so much. It’s been a crazy ride beyond every expectation we had, so we’ve been thrilled with it.
LRM: Before I saw “Life,” I remember talking to you guys earlier and you had written a script for “Venom” some time ago. While I was watching the trailer I thought, “This could theoretically be a Venom origin,” so was anything for this movie pulled from what you were going to do with Venom?
Paul Wernick: No, again, somebody picked that idea up. Someone had that theory, not having even seen the movie, and yes, you’re absolutely right. This movie could essentially be…that could be the symbiote, and Eddie Brock could be on earth waiting for that thing to attach to him. It’s a creative idea, and one we had never thought of, but yes, it definitely brings a smile to our face knowing our history with the Venom project.
LRM: It didn’t help at all that Sony announced a “Venom” movie literally the day after I saw “Life” and that theory started circulating. It’s not going to help dissuading that rumor, but maybe people will go see “Life” thinking it’s a “Venom” movie and that will help the movie. You guys also had written a sci-fi spec script for Sony, called “Epsilon,” and that’s still a different thing, right?
Rhett Reese: Yes, that’s still a different thing, Epsilon, and we’re very proud of that and hope it gets made. It’s working its way through the system over there, which sometimes takes years, and it is taking years, unfortunately, but hopefully we’ll get there.
LRM: How did this come about? Was this an idea that producer David Ellison came up with originally? How did you guys get involved?
Rhett Reese: Yeah, it was David Ellison, and David came up with the idea. It was an idea that essentially was -- what if the Mars Rover brought a sample of life back from Mars to the International Space Station for study and then when it was exposed to the atmosphere, it started to grow and attack the crew. We took that and we ran with it, we pitched it to him, and we went off and wrote the screenplay. When we turned in the screenplay, we sent with it a package of Hanes tighty-whitey underwear, and said, “Here, you’ll need a change of underwear when you read this script.” They enjoyed it and next thing you know, about a year or so later, we had a movie. It’s crazy how quickly it has come together.
Paul Wernick: David’s still wearing that underwear.
LRM: You’re saying you knew the size underwear he wore in advance?
Rhett Reese: Yeah, we did, we did. I was surreptitiously measuring his waist when he wasn’t looking.
Paul Wernick: We’re tailors, in addition to being screenwriters.
LRM: Wow, that’s a good side-job to have, in case sometime down the road you need another job...
Paul Wernick: (laughs) Yeah, we can transition nicely into that job after our screenwriting career ends.
LRM: For a movie like this, how much research do you guys have to do about either space travel or protocol on finding life on other planets? How do you research it or can just use science fiction for anything that doesn’t exist?
Rhett Reese: Well, most of our research we did on the internet, sadly, as people do these days, but also, we read a couple of books about space and astronauts. It’s amazing how much you can learn on the internet, and once we finished the screenplay, we did expose it to actual experts, so they could weigh in and then help make it that much more realistic. We wanted to give this a very grounded “it could happen today” feel. We didn’t want it to be set in a far-flung galaxy in the distant future. We wanted to make it feel like it could happen now. Part of that was trying to figure out how to pass the Neal deGrasse Tyson test. Of course, he will beat us up, and I’m cringing, waiting for that to happen, but we did our best to try to make it feel real.
LRM: Was there any reaching out to NASA to get their input on it? They’ve been involved with some recent movies including “The Martian,” “Hidden Figures”…
Rhett Reese: They weren’t particular involved but we did have an ex-NASA employee involved who helped us. Yeah, I think that they generally really love people making movies that celebrate space. Unfortunately, ours is maybe less a celebration of space and a little bit more of a cautionary tale, but space itself is a killer. I mean, space is trying to kill you from the moment you get up there. There’s a vacuum, it’s cold, there’s space radiation bombarding you. You’re essentially completely reliant on life support and then you throw in this alien, and it’s a very inhospitable environment and that’s really what drew us to it.
LRM: It almost seems like the latest wave of science fiction movies seem to be warning us about going into space and exploring more. In “The Martian,” he gets stranded on Mars. There are so many warnings even though everyone still wants to go into space and find out what’s out there. It’s still on the forefront of many minds. It’s sort of two sides of the same coin, inspiring people to want to go into space, but then warning them not to.
Rhett Reese: Yeah, be careful when you buy that ticket from Richard Branson, who knows?
LRM: How did that research influence the characters you created for the movie? There are only about eight characters in the whole movie, but they all have very specific roles on the space station. How did you decide those roles?
Paul Wernick: We wanted to give each character a distinguishing characteristic and a job up on the space station, and give them all distinctive backstories about how they feel about life beyond earth and life on earth itself as in the case of David Jordan who sees the ISS in space as an escape from all the evils on earth. Again, we wanted to try stay as true to what actually happens should we have brought a life sample aboard the space station, and create characters who act rationally and intelligently. That was our main drive.
Rhett Reese: We were very careful not to have that antagonist among them who was more interested in bringing the life form back down to the planet, to help the planet in some nefarious way. We really didn’t want to “Hollywood” it out. We kept asking ourselves, “What would really happen?” and we did feel that once this thing had broken out of containment, when it was pressed, the decision had to come very quickly that, “No, we’re not trying to preserve this creature. We’re trying to kill it now, because if we don’t, it really could risk our lives and then, by extension, the planet.” Very soon, we wanted to have this team working together to solve the problem, as I think they actually would in real life.
LRM: It’s interesting you talk about that because there are other movies that this being compare to--“Alien” being one, and “The Thing” another--but most of those have that bad human who is going against the others, but what else was important to try to differentiate this to make sure it was its own thing?
Rhett Reese: One, I think was the realism of the setting, and the fact that it was set now. We did want to make it feel like it could happen, and that meant we do things, as much science as we could...
Paul Wernick: Weightless at Zero G is another example. We didn’t want to create this anti-grav spin that’s floating around the station putting feet on the ground. There’s no such thing as that, not yet at least. So again, that was another thing is that gravity is established early on, and we tried to enhance that you can’t even run from the evil alien creature, that you have to float and swim your way through space.
Rhett Reese: The other thing to remember is Alien and The Thing are very, very old movies. Alien is almost a 40-year-old movie, if you can believe that. The Thing is also very, very old, so they’re not even one generation ago, they’re now two generations ago, and it’s important, I think, to keep that in mind as you approach this, which is that, yeah, The Thing got rebooted and Alien has existed as a franchise beyond the original, but that original kind of monster movie where it’s set in a very confined space hasn’t been done, really, in this way for a long time. We felt like in a way introducing that concept to a new generation.
LRM: You were also writers on this movie but not producers as you were with “Deadpool” and “Zombieland,” so is it very different working in that capacity? You did that with “G.I. Joe” as well, so it’s more the old school way where you turn in a script and hope they do the best with it?
Rhett Reese: Well, yes and no. We were not on set for this one. That was the biggest difference. We were not out there every day. We visited the set twice, and in pre-production we were there, but we were by nature of the 21st Century and the ability to communicate easily. We did see things, and were able to kind of rewrite scenes in ADR, in post, so we did have at least some input in post, but largely, we were not functioning in that same capacity on this one. We were more screenwriters and...
Paul Wernick: That had to do with our bandwidth and time. We have spent much of the last many years very intimately involved in Deadpool and now the sequel, so this allowed us to flex our creative muscles and do something very different than what we’re used to doing, and yet, still keep our feet in the Deadpool universe.
You can also read what the writers had to say about overcoming “sequelitis” with Deadpool 2 in the link below.
Life opens nationwide this Friday, March 24. Look for our interview with producer David Ellison soon.