The LRM Interview with Passengers’ Writer Jon Spaihts

– by Edward Douglas

There are movies that take a lot longer than normal to get made, which is certainly the case with the sci-fi drama Passengers, which screenwriter Jon Spaihts got a lot of attention for when the screenplay appeared in the annual Black List of notable screenplays. He then spent years developing the project with Keanu Reeves to make the movie with different directors and actresses.

Just when some thought the movie would never get made, along came Oscar nominated director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), who managed to get actors Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to commit to making the outer space drama that deals with some difficult subjects like loneliness and what you might do for companionship.

Pratt plays Jim Prescott, a man on a 120-year journey to colonize a new planet on the starship Avalon along with 5,000 other sleeping passengers when his hibernation pod opens up 90 years to early. Rather than being alone, he decides to release a woman passenger (Lawrence), pretty much damning her to the same fate. Passengers  goes deep into the politics of relationships and how they’re affected by such extreme circumstances.

LRM got on the phone with Spaihts last week for the following interview where we also asked him about a potential sequel to Doctor Strange and the planned sequel to Prometheus, which seems to have been backburnered for next year’s Alien: Covenant. 

LRM: First of all, congratulations. I’m not sure the last time we spoke four years ago, “Passengers” was even close to getting made and now it’s done, finally, after all that time.

Jon Spaihts:  
Absolutely. It’s been a road.

LRM: It’s been quite a year. A lot of projects like “Silence” and “Deadpool” and “Arrival,” that they’ve been trying to get made for so long, are all coming out now.
Yeah, it’s not an uncommon story in Hollywood that a movie should take years to make, and I’ve certainly heard of a number that too longer than Passengers, but Passengers has taken—going on a decade.

LRM: What was the turn around that got the movie made finally? Did someone came on board that made things start happening?
I think it’s a scary movie for a studio to approach, because it’s sort of a genre-bender and expensive to make. It’s not really like any other movie, so you have to make a leap of faith with it, and I think the thing that pushed us over the top was being endorsed by artists like Morten Tyldum, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It cemented the studio’s will to make the movie, and happily, everybody saw it for what it was, and we made the movie very faithfully. We ran the gauntlet without having anyone deciding they need to reinvent the story to make it more Hollywood. We made it very truthfully to its original intent, which was a huge stroke of good fortune for me.

LRM: I know a lot of people who have read the script over the years, but I never read it. When you first described it and told me about it, it seemed like this could be a much smaller movie, like in one room with the two pods. This ended up being a huge, massive movie and Morten really built the spaceship Avalon. Was it envisioned to be that big the whole time or did he kind of just get that out of reading it? 

Spaihts: Oh, yes. Always. The grandeur and size of the starship was always a core element of the movie, and the starship was always nearly a character in the film, which I think is one of the obstacles to making this thing because the entire story is set on a luxury star-ship and that's a frightening proposition. You've got to build that ship either digitally or physically, and I'm delighted to say that we built it physically--huge sets in great number that allowed Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to live on that starship in an Atlanta soundstage. It was nuts.

LRM: Was Neal Moritz involved fairly early on with the project? When did he come onboard? I was somewhat surprised by his involvement.

Spaihts: His attachment came in the last couple of years in association with this final, successful push to get the movie made. The energy he brought to the project was also an incredible contribution to getting the movie over the top and getting it made and protecting us from that part. He really got it and is the champion of the movie from go.

LRM: That's great to hear. Obviously, you had a lot of different actors over the years, so did a lot change in terms of the dialogue or the humor with Chris and Jennifer or was that in the script from the very beginning?

Spaihts: Very little was ever adjusted for actors. Obviously, there are a few places on set where Chris and Jennifer found their own words for certain notions, but for the most part, the core character dialogues in the movie are very much intact from the first draft all those years ago. Most of the development of the script over the years has been about streamlining the science fiction story and, above all, tuning the ending, which is the thing that has evolved most from that script that a lot of people have read.

LRM: How many versions have they done over the years? Obviously it must be a lot. The script was pretty solid, and I think it was because you had time to develop it, which isn't the case with a lot of movies. Do you feel like there was 20, 30 different versions of it or was it very minor changes? 

Spaihts: Far more than 30. It's hard to count the versions because there have been major and minor changes. The spine of the script is very much intact in the first draft, but there have been many, many, many interim drafts in which the script was polished or tweaked or we attempted this or that creative experiment. I've been working on the thing basically for free for the entire decade.

LRM: I'm not going to ask how many hours you spent working on it because if you do the math you end up having made minimum wage and I don't want to depress you. We won't get into that. What was it like working with Morten now? He's a really amazing filmmaker. I've known some of his Scandinavian films as well, besides Imitation Game, but what was it like working with him? When I talk to him, he was obviously very passionate about making this-

Spaihts: Yeah, very passionate. Deeply understands the dramatic heart of the movie. We saw eye to eye in the approach to it. I think he was very respectful of the script and I'm lucky to have found this filmmaker who has literally an ego sturdy enough to honor the script and not need to mark it with his own creative changes. What he did was to realize it in a rich and beautiful way, and he was a wonderful collaborator. He kept me very close. I was on set every day, and in some ways, he did inventive leaps forward that surprised and delighted me and in other ways ended up producing moments that were precisely as I'd imagined them as I was writing the script. It was a very successful partnership.

LRM: One thing I really liked is the fact how he made the bar a tribute to "The Shining" in a way because the first time I saw that, I was like, "Oh, it's kind of like The Shining," but it was actually a fun nod to that. 

Spaihts: Homage.

LRM: An homage, yeah, especially because of the similarities of a man all alone in this big place. What's he going to get up to to entertain himself, and he really got the bartender perfect. 

Spaihts: Yeah. Undeniable commonalities and it helps, of course, that it's also a nod to Kubrick, who is the father of the high art space movie.

LRM: Of course. Yeah, it's great. You said you were there every day, so what did the actors bring to the characters that you hadn't seen when you wrote it? I think Chris Pratt brings humor obviously, but were the characters very different once the actors started performing? 

Spaihts: I think the characters as performed were very true to the characters in the scripts, but of course, it's always a colossal difference when performers step in and give those characters complete human dimension. There's always far more there than a writer can put on the page. I think Chris Pratt, in particular, is going to blow people away because he does things people have never seen him do. It's funny to say I think the movie will make him bigger because he's already arguably the biggest movie star in the world, but he has largely been seen to date as the leading man in big ensemble casts. This is the first time people are going to see him in a dramatic role, holding the screen by himself or in small company for long periods of time, and really showing an extraordinary dramatic range. I think he's a revelation in this movie. Jennifer brings what everybody knows she has, an incredible ability to access primal emotion and to play old souls and deep characters with extremely strong spirits. She's a known dramatic quantity and I think she's in the full flight of her superpowers on this picture. Watching the two of them play together with the natural chemistry they brought was absolutely inspiring. You saw the movie come to life right in front of you. They elevated the film.

LRM: Also, Michael Sheen, I want to make sure he gets credit, because obviously Arthur plays a huge part in the whole plot, and he's more than just a bartender, I guess.

Spaihts: Yes. There are ways in which Arthur is the most magical character in the story, and the most unusual. He goes through a kind of evolution over the course of the tale that is unique to him in this film. This is a robot designed for hospitality and small talk who ordinarily entertains a group of 5,000 passengers over the course of a four month pleasure cruise at the end of their voyage. In this instance, he actually has the opportunity to get to know someone well over the course of not weeks but years. It actually lights a spark of humanity in him and we see him beginning to grow and beginning to love and become more human. I think Michael understood that about the character and brought it forward. I think his performance is not just hilarious, which it definitely is, but deeply moving and human. I am in awe of what he did on set.

LRM: Morten described him is sort of like their baby in some ways. There's the father, mother, and he's the baby of the group, which I thought was kind of a nice way to put it. 

Spaihts: I think that's very wise, and I think when things are not well between Jim and Aurora, we see the emotional impact of that on Arthur. I think it is divorce-like in its dynamic. I think it's heartbreaking.

LRM: Obviously, you've been keeping busy over the last couple years since we last spoke, including “Doctor Strange,” which turned out great. I'm kind of surprised Marvel hasn't announced a sequel yet. How did you get involved with "Doctor Strange"? Were you the first person on that before Scott Derickson came on as director or were you involved the whole way through? 

Spaihts: Scott Derrickson was the first person attached to direct. At that time, the timeline was too tight for him to do the writing and direct the picture, so they were going to start looking for writers, but I'd gotten wind of the project and I called them. I said, "Guys, you gotta get me in the room. Doctor Strange is my favorite character," and was insistent enough that they did meet with me before they met with other writers. We had a very long meeting in which we all hit it off very well. In collaboration with Scott Derrickson and Robert Cargill and our Executive Producer Stephen Broussard at Marvel, we broke story and I outlined the movie for months and then wrote the first draft.

Then the whole schedule got pushed back 5 months, because we were waiting for Benedict Cumberbatch to finish Hamlet in London. Certainly there was time for Scott Derrickson to do some writing so he and his partner, Cargill, picked up work and I went off and made Passengers in Atlanta. Then at the very end they brought me back, and I did another 5 or 6 weeks at the end of the movie helping to bring it home and refine the picture and do some additional writing. It was great to be on at the beginning and the end, but I felt very close to the process.

LRM:  It turned out great. I'm a Doctor Strange fan, too, and I think it was very faithful and probably one of the most faithful Marvel movies I've seen so far. Do you know if they're going to start work on a sequel? It's kind of surprising they haven't made any kind of announcement or anything. I assume you'd be involved.

Spaihts: Marvel is always playing a very big game. They've got their multi-phase universe roll-out plan and each movie interacts with others in a complex way. At the same time, they're scheduling massive movie stars to make movies work. They're careful about their announcements, but it's plain from the great success of Doctor Strange, from the role Doctor Strange plays in certain giant arc ensemble stories in the Marvel universe that are likely to come to theaters, and the popularity of Cumberbatch, I'm certain we'll see more of him and I would be delighted to contribute should that day come.

LRM: When we spoke a few years back for “Prometheus,” it seemed to have been envisioned as a trilogy or at least two movies. I just saw footage from “Alien: Covenant” and it seems like they’re doing another Alien story that isn’t a continuation of “Prometheus.” Do you think they’ll still continue what you had planned for after “Prometheus”?

 Spaihts: That's a good question. I didn't work at all on Covenant, and I'm not sure precisely how it connects to the movies. I do think the long-term effect will be to draw Prometheus more closely into the fold of the Alien universe in general and to tie it in with the previous movies even more tightly. I think you'll still see Prometheus storylines carried forward.

LRM: Speaking of universes, you’re involved with the planned Universal Monsters one. From the work you’ve done so far, does it feel like everything’s going to be connected? We just saw the trailer for the first movie, “The Mummy,” but are you going to be involved a lot with this as it rolls out?

Spaihts: I have been so far. I worked a lot on The Mummy with the director, Alex Kurtzman. I wrote all the first drafts and then Alex and I co-wrote a number of other drafts. Then he moved on as it became a Tom Cruise film with other writers. Certainly, there's a lot in the movie that I helped to shape. Behind that, Eric Heisserer, the writer of Arrival, and I co-wrote Van Helsing, which we're very happy with and I think is very likely to be the next Universal monster movie. We'll see how that carries forward. Behind that we have very grand plans and I expect that I will continue to be involved as one of the contributing writers that shapes the monsters universe 

LRM: Great to hear. I’ve spoken with Eric a couple times this year and the first time I mentioned that “Passengers” was getting made and he mentioned you were working together. I’m very excited to see what you guys come up with.

Spaihts: He's a good friend and it's been delighted to have our two high concept space movies landing at the same time. It's a very good season for science fiction.

Passengers opens nationwide on Wednesday, December 21. Check out our interview with director Morten Tyldum in the link below:

The LRM Interview with Passengers Director Morten Tyldum

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