The LRM Interview with Passengers Director Morten Tyldum

– by Edward Douglas

The new Star Wars movie isn’t the only space odyssey looking to bring you into movie theaters over the holidays, as the long-in-development Passengers will finally be released, partially thanks to Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), who came on board to make the difficult project, convincing two of the world’s biggest stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, to come along for the journey.

Pratt plays Jim Preston, a man on the 120-year journey to the faraway planet, “Homestead II,” whose hibernation pod malfunctions thirty years into the journey, leaving him alone on the massive Starship Avalon with his only company for the remaining 90-year journey being the ship’s android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). He eventually decides to do something that might be questionable in waking up another passenger, this one a beautiful woman named Aurora (Lawrence) and the two soon connect being the only

It’s classic science fiction with Tyldum having created an enormous landscape for the two actors to play out all the emotions that go along with knowing you’re the only two people awake on a starship that may be headed towards disaster.

LRM got on the phone with Tyldum from the L.A. press junket last week. 

LRM: When we spoke for “The imitation Game” a couple years ago, had you already been looking into this project back then?

Morten Tyldum: Passengers came right in the middle of the Oscars campaign, so to me, it’s been non-stop. I literally just finished up the Oscar campaign for The Imitation Game and then went straight into Passengers.

LRM: I’ve been following this project for a while, and I spoke to Jon Spaihts maybe four or five years ago, and I’ve spoken to Keanu over the years, too. I know it’s been a long road to get this made, so what tempted you to come on board and get it made, since obviously, you succeeded where others have failed?

Tyldum:
To me, I started fresh with the whole project. I was not aware of the history of the project at all when it was presented to me. It was given to me by Mike de Luca, who was then at Colombia. He’s been a buddy, so I read it and I loved the script. At some point, I was surprised that this was around for so long, because on my end, it went incredibly fast. I read it, I liked it, I attached my belt to it and then Chris came on board and then Jen came on board, and the whole thing took a month or two, then the whole movie was greenlit and going with the two biggest stars in the world.

LRM: Just following the story, someone should write a book about the history of this project. Just to go from years and years of development to having these two big stars and an Oscar nominated director on board. Were you a fan of science fiction and had you been looking for something in that vein to direct?

Tyldum:
Oh yeah. I’ve always had very big expectations and wanted to do something big, but a lot of the scripts I was reading were about fighting aliens or saving the planet. What was unique about this is that it’s a very character-driven movie, and a lot of it is very intimate and very epic at the same time, which is very challenging, which is like a lot of movies that you can’t put in a box in terms of genre. This movie… is it an action movie? No, but there’s action in it. There’s a romance, but it’s not just a romance only. There’s drama but it’s not just a pure drama. There’s humor but it’s not a comedy. It has all of these things, and at the same time, there’s a complexity to the story. It’s about big moral choices, and it’s an unusual original movie to get made in these days and that was hugely attractive. A lot of the sci-fi element also is so…  One of the great things that sci-fi can do is that it can take human interaction, human relationships, or you can look at society, where you can look at aspects of our own lives and you can look at it from a distance or look at it through a different glass. It’s like it’s taking it out of its normal setting and you put it in something extreme and then you study it. That’s something very interesting with sci-fi. In reality, this is a story about marriage and take it out from domestic situation and put it into extreme circumstances. It has everything. It has the lie, the redemption, it has forgiveness, love, the selfishness of love, then it has the element of true love, which is all about the other. It has all these elements, which you can create an intimate movie that takes place in an apartment. Instead, it takes all that drama and puts it into an extreme setting, and that makes it very, very interesting. 

LRM: As you were first reading it, did you envision it to be as big and epic as it turned out to be? Like you say, this could theoretically could take place in one chamber with two hibernation pods, but you create this environment and world within the starship.

Tyldum:
You could, but I think there’s a playfulness by making a spectacle out of it, as well. I wanted it to be something that we haven’t seen it before. Like you never have seen someone drowning in mid-air. I wanted it to feel unique that way, and also, I felt that the spaceship needed scope. It needed to feel big, so to really understand that you could actually live your life up in this ship, it needed to feel like you’re constantly turning the corner and you saw something new that is high quality and in different flavors. That it had everything from the industrial era to something that was fun, so it changed throughout the movie, this ship also. Because the ship is such an important character in this film. I like that it’s so huge, that it’s so big, and also it helps create the feeling of loneliness and isolation when you’re in something that has that scope. That was also something I think shocked everybody, that we were allowed to actually build all of this, because this is a performance-driven, and I didn’t want the actors to be put in front of green screens, because you know, acting is reacting. You have to respond to your surroundings. You have to respond to what happens around you, and the performance between Chris and Jen and Michael, I needed that to happen there. They needed to be in the moment, so we built everything. We were at Pinewood, where all the Marvel movies are being shot now in Atlanta. Our biggest build couldn’t fit the biggest space and they had to tear down one of the walls and build it into the next stage. You were able to build this huge set in this big space, and I think it helped tremendously when we shot it, to really understand where they are and not just look at a green wall.

LRM: There’s a world-building aspect to the movie and figuring out the look of the spaceship and its aesthetic, there have been other different types of spaceships in science fiction, so what was the aesthetic you were looking for? Were you trying to get away from other spaceships we’ve seen in movies?

Tyldum:
It’s every filmmaker’s dream, I think, to build a spaceship. There are so many iconic spaceships—the Nostromo from Alien, the Millennium Falcon—there’s all these iconic spaceships design—The Enterprise—so we wanted to do something that both felt original and that people could remember. We started basing it on science. Every part of the ships moves 51 meters a second. Every shot is the actual speed of how everything moves, so it creates one G of centrifuge, which creates gravity, so that’s why every part is moving. Then we came up with this idea of these blades, which are like the ships, the old cruise liners, that took immigrants from Europe into the New World, into America and Canada. So we wanted to have these blades that remind you about ocean ships. A ship like that needed a shield. We didn’t want to have the magical shield like Star Wars, so we had to create sort of like a plasma shield in front that can burn up and remove particles and smaller asteroids. That comes from the engine and also the propulsion unit. The first part was the science and then build on the ship and then go to the aesthetic.  The actual exterior design came from a visit to Alcatraz. We were looking at the spaces there and the production designer took a picture of the antenna of the boat that goes to Alcatraz, and then he showed me that picture and said, “Wouldn’t that be a cool design for the spaceship?” So the first inspiration was the antenna of the boat that goes to Alcatraz. That was what the exterior was, and then the interior we wanted to split it up, so there were parts of it that felt it was for the crew that has this very classic sci-fi look. Like the space station in 2001 was a big inspiration for us, and then we have other parts of the ship that were for passengers, that were very inspired by art nouveau, art deco. We looked back in our history and back in time as much as we looked forward, while looking for inspiration.

LRM: You mentioned the comedy and drama and the mix of genres, so was the humor already in it when Chris signed on board. He brings a certain type of humor into things, but was that in the original script?

Tyldum:
Yes, yes. I always like to have humor in all of my movies. Even The Imitation Game, which was about World War II and the tragedy around Alan Turing, but I wanted people to laugh. And the same with this film. There’s a dark humor to it, and it’s always been there. There are definitely scenes where Chris added some of his own, that was ad-libbed, but it’s always been the intention that there’s a dark humor despite the tragedy of his situation.  He’s out there with this ship that is not really aware… because the ship is built to wake up and respond when it feels that a human is there, but it’s not smart enough to understand that it’s only one (person) and it’s too early. So you have this ship that is so smart in servicing you, but not really understanding the predicament that you’re in, that you’re waking up too early and you’re alone. There’s something absurdly funny about that. I think it’s important that you can have this mix of emotions, because you can laugh at something and then you can have a big emotional scene and then be dramatic. It can all go hand in hand.

LRM: Arthur the bartender also adds a nice touch of humor but his bar seems to offer a reference to “The Shining,“ which I’m not sure was referenced in Jon’s script or you created that environment as an homage.

Tyldum:
That’s my little tribute to Kubrick. I mean, I love how Kubrick always has the sets, the locations, the surroundings almost like a character in his movies, and to me, the ship was a character in the movie, so it is a tribute to Kubrick. The carpet in the bar is identical to The Shining—I just inverted the colors. Michael’s jacket was inspired by The Shining and the bar, and that’s my tribute to a filmmaker who means a lot to me. Yeah, and Michael did such a phenomenal job with Arthur. In many ways, he’s able to make the android feel like a machine, but still, there’s a struggle to find some humanity or to understand humanity. It’s such a fine line, and he does it so superbly. None of the shots with Arthur are visual FX. They’re all in-camera FX. We moved him on machines back and forth, and he was able to mix drinks without looking, while being swooshed back and forth on this device, and at the same time, perform Arthur so effortlessly. In many ways, he’s like a child that tries to understand his surroundings and later on, it becomes sort of like a divorce between Chris and Jen, and Arthur becomes sort of the child they have to split custody of.

LRM: He has a little element of HAL-9000, too, because the computer in “2001” also had a childlike innocence, similar to Arthur, although it seemed to have more malevolent intentions than Arthur has.

Tyldum:
He is HAL but HAL is something that goes wrong.  He’s the opposite sort of like the mission has become compromised, and he reaches out to you and becomes a companion. It’s something that was interesting and something interested me also when I did the movie about Alan Turing in that he was asking what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human? The imitation Game that he wrote is all about that. If I can believe that a machine is human, is it human? That’s a very interesting when you think about Arthur. Is it they care about him, and it’s almost as if he’s human?  Is he then less or more human? It’s a very interesting dilemma.

LRM: You’re next movie “The Last Days of Night,” brings you down to earth again, as it’s a movie about Thomas Edison. Do you know if that’s going to be next for you?

Tyldum:
It’s definitely intriguing. I’m not 100% sure what’s going to be next now. It’s a beautiful script by Graham Moore that we’re now developing and casting. Again, it’s a very intriguing story. It’s a true story about the industrial revolution of America and how electricity changed all our lives, and again, it’s about technology and these geniuses that clash against each other. It’s a really fascinating story that I hope to make one day.

Passengers opens nationwide on Wednesday, December 23. Look for our interview with screenwriter Jon Spaihts soon.

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