Explore the long journey of Passengers with screenwriter Jon Spaihts
2016 has been a huge year for screenwriter Jon Spaihts, whose latest, Sony Pictures‘ Passengers, hits theaters next week. Spaihts has made a name for himself working on properties like Prometheus and Doctor Strange (which collectively grossed more than $100 million worldwide). Passengers, however, is a wholly original science fiction concept and, sitting down with ComingSoon.net, Spaihts explains the story’s long journey to the big screen.
Set in a future where humanity has started to colonize other worlds, Spaihts’ Passengers is directed by The Imitation Game‘s Morten Tyldum and follows Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a humble mechanic who decides to take the 120-year journey to the newly-settled colony Homestead II. Unfortunately for Jim, something goes wrong with his suspended animation chamber and he finds himself awake 90 years too early. With no way of going back to sleep, Jim is forced to face spending the rest of his life alone. That is, until another passenger wakes up – Jennifer Lawrence‘s Aurora Lane.
We previously chatted with Jon Spaihts about Doctor Strange when the Marvel Studios film was released last month. Click here to check out that interview and catch Passengers in theaters starting next Wednesday, December 21.
CS: Take me back to the origins of “Passengers.”
Jon Spaihts: It was born nearly a decade ago. I was coming off a script called “Shadow 19,” which was the first script I ever wrote. It was the first thing I sold. It was something I tried to get done at Warner Bros., but it never got made. Through that film, I got set up with an outfit called Company Films. When “Shadow 19” didn’t go, they said, “Well, let’s get you going with something else.” I pitched a big noir sci-fi story. It prominently featured, at the end of the story, a man stranded alone in space. We chewed it over for about six weeks and they finally said, “You know, this story isn’t for us, but we love the guy stranded alone in space. Could there be a story that starts there?” I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting!” Over the course of that same phone call, I started riffing. There was colony ships and these grand but isolating vessels, stranded between stars for centuries and the notion of someone being trapped on one of these ships. The notion of someone being on one of these ships and surrounded by every conceivable form of life support with every need met except that there’s no other people. The darkness of that grabbed me instantly and it seemed to lead from a series of necessary steps to a story. What would that person do? What ordeals would he go through? Where would that bring him? How does his struggle for sanity relate to the question of why he woke up in the first place? In one half-hour conversation, the entire spine of the story jumped out my brain. Although there has been a lot of writing, outlining, rewriting and development, the core of the story really hasn’t changed since that original 30-minute talk. Sometimes that happens.
CS: There’s a lot of questions in the story about how loneliness affects someone. What goes into the balancing act of keeping him relatable and not just pitiable?
Jon Spaihts: Well, that’s the animating force of this story. There are moral quandaries knit into its fabric. The premise of it encapsulates a number of very hard questions. Ideally, people see the movie and they’ll walk away asking, “What would I have done? What am I capable of doing? What am I capable of enduring? What am I capable of forgiving? What are the limits of love for me? What would I give up for love? What would I give up for my dreams?” I think that the thing that makes the film powerful is that, while we will probably never face those dilemmas — hibernation and interspace travel — all of those ethical questions we probably will face. What does love mean for us? Those are real questions that we all have experienced. So I think that the movie really resonates even though the character’s experiences are fantastic.
CS: Having a well-thought out sci-fi world is one thing, but it’s another to get the necessary exposition into the story. What is your trick for balancing that exposition?
Jon Spaihts: I always play what I call “Exposition Jenga” with a script. When you’re writing, the first time you write an explanatory scene, you tend to write way too much. Way more than the audience actually needs to know in that scene. But then you write past that scene and you find other moments later in the story where other characters could dispense that information. Then your realize that you can turn around and take some stuff out of that first big scene because that load is being carried elsewhere. An important thing to learn as you write screenplays is that you don’t need the audience to understand everything in the first act. You want them to understand everything by the time they walk out. You can take your time doling out information. If some of it doesn’t land until the last five minutes of the movie, it doesn’t matter as long as the audience gets it and takes it home. When they look back on it, they have the complete picture in their mind. Invariably, a big part of my editorial process is just cutting as much exposition as I think I can survive losing and making sure that the information dispensed is as lean and as essential as it can possibly be.
CS: If you’re looking for a certain tone, do you immerse yourself in films that you think you think accomplish that tone?
Jon Spaihts: I want to say that I do and that I sit down in my screening room and watch 30 important influences and soak up their wisdom, but the fact is that, in my life, there’s rarely that time. There’s usually a time pressure from my work and the job behind the job I’m doing. In practice, no. I remember the films I love and they’re powerful influences on me, but I rarely have the opportunity to just sit down and make a study of a body of films. I wish I did, but I tend not to.
CS: Very early on in the film, we hear Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which clearly has some lyrics that fit nicely with this story. Was that something actually written into the script?
Jon Spaihts: No, that was a decision made very late after trying so many notions. It’s very tricky to drop a piece of music into a futuristic world. If it’s present day, it instantly feels dated. If it’s old-timey, it immediately raises the question of whether or not we’d still be listening to it. If it’s supposed to be the music of the future, you have to go task a composer with writing the future’s music, which is nobody’s idea of a good time. The Nobel Prize committee did us a service by awarding Bob Dylan a prize. That made him a timeless classic. It made it that much more believable that people would still be listening centuries from now.
CS: Do projects ever interact for you? I was thinking about how Doctor Strange is a man who is arrogant but who comes to do great things, while Jim is a man who is rather humble who finds himself capable of great wrongdoing. Do characters like that ever play off one another in your head?
Jon Spaihts: They rarely interact in a conscious way, but I think it would be silly to think that they don’t interact in the unspoken ocean of thought inside a writer’s head. Writing is a strange process. To be a screenwriter as a livelihood is to depend on a process that you don’t completely understand. I don’t know where ideas come from. When I think of a solution to a story problem, I don’t know how I did it. I just have a solution and I write it. There’s something very mystical about the project in the first place. Of course, if you’re incubating two stories at the same time or in close proximity to one another, they are probably exchanging DNA down under the surface. They probably do affect one another.
CS: What was your first conversation with Morten Tyldum like?
Jon Spaihts: It was great. He was an ardent fan of the script. We spoke briefly to some filmmakers along the road and some of them immediately wanted to reinvent the story. To remake it in their own image. Some of their knee-jerk reactions would have, in my opinion, unmade “Passengers” as what it was. They were not right for us. Morten understood what was important about the screenplay. He didn’t get distracted by the glittery science fiction. He didn’t fall into the trap of broad comedy and playing everything for laughs. He got the moral dilemma and the love story as the heart of the film and the reason for making the film. We always saw eye to eye. It was a very rewarding and convivial creative partnership.
CS: There are so many ways that “Passengers” could end. Was the ending something that you always knew and that you were building to or did you try some different possible outcomes?
Jon Spaihts: I always felt like there was a right answer. A right ending. There are ways in which we tuned that ending to make sure that everyone understood what we wanted them to understand about the relationship between these two characters. There were a couple of scenes at the end that were written during production to adjust the trajectory of their love story. But I always knew that it needed to end like it ends. That never really changed. There were adjustments along the way as to how we came in for a landing. But the landing site is now what it was from the beginning.
CS: You’ve had a very successful year coming out of Doctor Strange as a massive hit and now “Passengers” is hitting just a few months later. Has that kind of success changed the way you work?
Jon Spaihts: I’m delighted by what’s happening. I’d be a fool not to be. Anytime a movie gets made for a screenwriter, even if it’s bad or you don’t like it, that’s a victory and an accomplishment. This year I’ve had the incredible good fortune of seeing two movies get made and get made really well. In both cases, they absolutely represent my vision and I’m intensely proud of them. That is an embarrassment of riches. I got to drive around for a few weeks with the town covered in posters for both movies. That was a surreal and thrilling experience. It’s been a phenomenal time. I hope that the success of “Passengers” as an original movie will pave the road for me to tell more original stories and get them made. To see more originals hit the screen. I have ideas. I have the scripts in some cases. That’s what I’m going to be driving for moving forward. I think that at this point in the creative process, I’m getting close to directing. So that may be happening soon. I hope it will put a little courage into the spines of filmmakers in this town about embracing original stories and embracing original films.
CS: There is also a novel adaptation, though, you have in the works. What’s going on with “The Forever War”?
Jon Spaihts: I’m working on it every day right now. It was delayed a little bit, unfortunately, by the incredible time commitment that “Passengers” became. That’s the way in which I was bitten by the depth of my involvement in the production and post-production of “Passengers,” but “The Forever War” is easily in my top five favorite sci-fi novels of all time. I’m really excited for this movie. I think that it, too, has one of the great science fiction love stories of all time. I think it’s the rare successful war story that is also a successful love story. It’s cosmic in scope. It’s a parable for our time and it’s timely all over again. It was written by a guy who was a mathematician, a physicist and a Vietnam vet. He wrote from a very personal journey and it’s a semi-autobiographical tale, despite being set in the far future. I think that story resonates today as much as it ever has, maybe more than ever. I’m thrilled by it. I think that the solution we found that updates the story is respectful, faithful and smart. I think it’s going to land well. I’m just over the moon about it. It’s an incredible honor to be able to work on something that flows from a piece of literature that i love so much. I’m not sure there has been many more seminal works of science fiction than that book.