Interview: Life Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

Interview: Life screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

Columbia Pictures and Skydance gave the opportunity to interview Life screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland) before the film opens this weekend. Check out the interview, in which we discuss pop culture references, the look of the creature, and the debt the sci-fi thriller owes to Ridley Scott’s Alien, below.

Life is a terrifying sci-fi thriller about a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal (NightcrawlerDemolition), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationThe Girl on the Train), Ryan Reynolds (DeadpoolCriminal), Hiroyuki Sanada (The WolverineThe Last Ship), Ariyon Bakare (Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellNew Blood), and Olga Dihovichnaya (Twilight PortraitHouse of Others). This is that rarest of birds. It’s an original sci-fi film. What was the impetus for the story?

Rhett Reese: Actually this was David Ellison’s idea. David runs Skydance and he came to us with an idea, and the idea was that, what if a Mars rover were to bring back a sample of life from Mars, and it was setting up the International Space Station and when it was exposed to atmosphere, it started to grow and attack the crew? And so, we took that idea and developed it into this screenplay and this movie.

CS: How specific were you in your writing about what the creature should look like?

Paul Wernick: We were pretty specific. You know, when we write, we always like to almost direct on the page. So because Calvin, our alien, was such an important character, we had to have a real vision as we set off to write it. We were inspired by a lot of very deep-sea creatures, translucent. You know, we did a lot of research into about what lives at the bottom of the ocean and found some translucent deep-sea creatures that inspired us. The octopus was another one that inspired us in terms of its ability to improvise and overcome obstacles. There’s a video of an octopus trying to squeeze into a tiny little hole, and it’s amazing and haunting at the same time, you know? So we laid it all out on the page. And as we were writing it, a lot of science inspired us. And Daniel and the creature design folks and visual effects folks came on. It evolved over time, but in a way that ultimately culminated in something that’s even scarier and cooler on screen than was in our minds.


CS: Speaking of that, what do you think was the biggest thing Daniel brought to it that went what was beyond the page?

Wernick: Well, I think Daniel, he’s an inspired filmmaker. I think visually, he’s heads and tails above just about anybody. He was able to create this weightless environment and create shots within this weightless environment that not only accentuated the reality, but enhanced it. There’s a shot where basically the camera’s upside down, as they’re controlling the capsule. His ability to make the camera feel weightless in addition to the actors, I think, was a really great choice. Daniel’s so wonderful with the actors, and great at back story, and he really is an actor’s director, as well as not only being a visual savant, so we were thrilled to see him kind of bring the pages to life.

CS: Whenever you have a small crew on a ship trapped with a killer alien, you’re going to get comparisons to “Alien.” I consider myself a connoisseur of alien rip-off movies like “Galaxy of Terror” and “Inseminoid.” This one, obviously, has a better pedigree of cast and production than those, but beyond the surface stuff, what do you consider the biggest differences between “Life” and “Alien” at a story level?

Reese: Well, I think probably the biggest is that it’s got a very grounded, ripped from the headlines, “it could happen today” feel. All of our research was done about existing things, not things that would be created in the future. So being in the International Space Station and weightlessness and astronauts, we relied on that, and we didn’t have to speculate much, except with regards to the creature itself. That was just really important to us. We really wanted to make it feel like this was not a science fiction movie, but was a science faction movie. I also think that just, it’s hard to believe, but “Alien” is a 38-year-old movie. I mean, it’s almost a 40-year-old movie. It’s two generations ago. So we just felt like we could both revere it and be inspired by it, but not tread upon it. And that was our goal, and whether we achieved that goal is really up to audiences, but we think “Life” stands alone. We think it’s really, really fun, and it’s a tribute to a great movie that we all enjoyed many, many years ago.


CS: This dumb online rumor started to spread that “Life” was somehow a “Venom” prequel. Obviously I’d seen the movie, knew it was bullsh*t, but how bankrupt is our culture that now people are trying to guess which original films are actually franchise movies in disguise?

Wernick: Yeah, I mean, again, people have a lot of time on their hands, but that being said, it takes a pretty wild imagination to make that connection. Having been involved with “Venom” many years ago, it brought a big smile to our faces, for sure.

CS: Early on you switched the characters Ryan and Jake were going to play, which is kind of funny because the character Ryan wound up playing could easily be described as kind of “space Deadpool.” Was there a reshaping to kind of fit Ryan’s persona?

Reese: Interestingly, no. I mean, Roy Adams was always the cowboy and David Jordan was always the more compassionate and just more introspective guy. And interestingly, yeah. I mean, Ryan was originally going to play David. And I think he was excited about playing the more introspective, you know, going a little bit against type. When the roles swapped, and he took the Rory role and Jake took the David role, I think Ryan did feel like he was very comfortable in his own skin as kind of the, I’d say the cowboy, but just someone who has a great sense of humor, is outgoing and is brave and is cocky a little bit.

Wernick: He’s Maverick from “Top Gun.”

Reese: Yeah, I know. He’s a pilot at heart and a mechanic and an engineer. And so, we felt like it really worked. But I think he could’ve played either part great. Jake could’ve played either part great, and that’s what’s so wonderful about working with great actors.


CS: Right. Well, what’s kind of funny, knowing the trajectory of the movie, Ryan is actually like, giving the movie star performance, and Jake is very much giving a character actor performance. He’s kind of in the background for the first half of the movie.

Reese: Yeah. I mean, and that we thought was fun. It was surprising. I mean, it’s like, I don’t know going in whether the audience will know who is the star of the movie and who isn’t, but we wanted to try to create that surprise, and force someone who is a little bit more introspective and shy to come to the forefront and be a hero, in absence of the guy who would normally take that role, so that appealed to us.

CS: Now in “Deadpool,” “Zombieland” and “Life,” you drop a lot of pop culture references. Where is the line as far as when do those references become more about liability than an asset? Like, “Will people get it? Is it too inside humor? Does it date the movie?” Stuff like that.

Wernick: Well, again, as our filmography will prove, we’re huge fans of pop culture references. I know that the convention in Hollywood is, well, you don’t want to date your movie, you know, and it’s like, what if people don’t get these pop culture references. And “Deadpool” as a prime example, almost the more obscure the pop culture reference, the funnier it became to us. And to us, it grounds the movie. It’s what people talk about. People do talk about pop culture among themselves and at parties and dinner tables. And so, to us, it does do a lot to ground the characters in today’s world. You know, again, as Rhett mentioned, “Alien” was set in the future. We wanted to really hammer home this idea that this was today, and that involves pop culture. So that’s “Goodnight Moon” and you know, “Goodnight Moon” is a book that I read to my kids as young children. And so, yeah, but I wouldn’t necessarily call “Goodnight Moon” a pop culture reference, but in a way, strangely, for this particular movie, it’s exactly that.

Reese: I always hate the note that, “the movie has to be timeless. We want it to be timeless.” And I always say, “Well, every movie is of a time, whether you want it to be or not.” If you go back and look at movies from the ’80s, you know they’re ’80s movies. They don’t have to be talking about ’80s pop culture for you to know that they’re ’80s movies. It’s the haircuts, the way they’re dressed and the filmmaking style. It all dates the movie. So we feel like go ahead and embrace the time period that you’re in.

Life is set to open in theaters on March 24, 2017.