Interview: Screenwriter Jon Spaihts Discusses The Long Road to ‘Passengers,’ Rooting Exposition in Character, and More
Posted on Thursday, December 22nd, 2016 by Jack Giroux
Passengers was partially born out of a movie that was never made. The first script screenwriter Jon Spaihts sold was called Shadow 19, originally a Warner Bros. project that made Keanu Reeves and his producing partner, Stephen Hamel, want to continue working with Spaihts — which ultimately led to Passengers. Spaiht’s script was famously embraced by those who read it, but it went on to spend years and years in development.
Almost a decade after Passengers got started, the sci-fi romance has finally reached theaters with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in the starring roles. In the years since writing it, Spaihts has worked on plenty of high-profile projects, including Prometheus, Doctor Strange, and The Black Hole remake, but Passengers is his first completely original script to get produced.
We recently spoke with the screenwriter — who’s looking forward to making his directorial debut when he finds the time — about Passengers‘ many years in development, how the story evolved, a deleted scene he misses, and more. Below, read our Jon Spaihts interview.
You’ve said sometimes you’ll start with an image, the concept, or a character. In the case of Passengers, which came first?
In the vastness of space. I was really intrigued by star power and the coming colonial era of when people first begin to leave Earth for other worlds. The more you study it, and if you’re of a scientific bent as I am, and get into the brass tacks of it, the more you’re struck by the unimaginably large times and distances involved in moving from star to star. The potential for isolation out there between one star and the next was fascinating.
As I was thinking about colony ships, I arrived at the notion of a person being stranded by himself, waking up too soon and doomed to play out the rest of his days between his point of origin and destination, never arriving and living entirely on that ship. The romance and terrible tragedy of that caught my imagination, and the story grew naturally from that vision.
Keanu Reeves was originally attached to star and it was a project you two discussed at very early stages. What do you recall about those meetings and how they maybe influenced the story?
Well, he and his fellow producer, Stephen Hamel, at Company Films were great development partners. They have a blue sky, wide open sky sensibility. I pitched them a different story from my notebook that featured the image of a man stranded in space towards the end. They liked it, but they came back and said, “Look, we’re not sure if that’s the story for us, but we love this guy stranded alone in space. Is there a story that begins there?” From that question, I started thinking about colony ships, long haul ships, someone waking up too soon, and riffed the spine of Passengers in one conversation.
As much development has gone on — it’s been going on for 10 years — the core of the story has never changed from that conversation, that first riff, and it’s stayed Passengers ever since. They’ve been ardent protectors of the story over the years that followed [the meeting], protecting it from dodgy studio notes, radical director rewrites, and other things that came along that menaced the essence of the story as we invented it. They were really great partners.
I know you two talked about a sci-fi detective story. Is your notebook filled with original story ideas like that one?
Well, there’s a couple of them. There’s a few sitting on shelves, there’s one usually in my notebook. It’s got somewhere between a dozen and two dozen strong ideas in it. You know, that noir detective idea is one I’m not talking about too much because I still intend to make that movie.
There are ideas whose origins literally date to my childhood. A story I was telling myself when I was 12 years old is still the seed of something I think would make for a movie. And then there are things still dropping in the notebook that come out of my reactions to other people’s stories, things I read in the newspaper, and even dreams I have. They slowly grow root. It’s kind of like a jungle, an ecosystem where things in the notebook rise to the top by suddenly mutating in my imagination, and suddenly a new idea will come and grasp itself to that idea, and it’ll get deeper roots, wider branches, and become more dominant in the forest. At some point, it’s the polished tree and becomes the next project.
In Doctor Strange and Passengers, you’ve conveyed some big ideas with simplicity. How do you pull that off?
I think you have to stay very close to your characters in order to impart a big idea without ever getting preachy or stopping the movie to insert a lesson or a sermon. The important thing is always to root the information you’re transmitting in the character’s need for that information, so it’s never just a dry lesson. The character you’re tracking and caring about has to need and want the answers to certain questions. In those answers, you get to smuggle in the information you’re trying to get to the audience.
Was there any piece of information you struggled with expressing on the page?
The hardest thing is imparting the difficulties of traveling and communicating the speed of light. Luckily they’re not moving so fast that time dilation and relatvitiy speeds have a massive effect on the timing of their voyage. I get there are things the audience has learned to expect from science-fiction, and they include instantaneous communication between places removed by lightyears from one another and relatively speedy transit from one star to another star.
Magic space radios, hyperspace, or warp speed are staples in the sci-fi universe, although they are not just things that don’t exist in our universe, they are things that the laws in our universe say can’t exist. Even though it is the truth we’re limited by the speed of light, it’s actually something you have to re-educate the audience in, because they are so accustomed to seeing those things in science-fiction. That gentle re-education was one of the most difficult things to weave into the fabric of the story, so the audience could really wrap their heads around the fact if you’re halfway between one star and another, there is no one coming to help you [Laughs]. Even getting an answer from the customer help line is going to take decades of your life.
How often, when you write, do you think about the audience? Do you usually think about an audience’s relationship with certain ideas and tropes?
Invariably. I always begin by writing the story for myself. I write the story I want to hear. In the refinement of many editorial passes, you have to remove as much crusty education and exposition as you can, and just streamline the film, and to try on the mentality of different audience members and walk through the movie and see if everybody is going to stay onboard and get it. Imagine you’re your grandad during the movie. “Does grandad get it? Okay.” What if someone who hates science goes to the movie? Roll through the movie and ask, “Do they get it?” You just put on different hats as you’re reading it to make sure it plays for everyone.
When you were streamlining the film and removing scenes, did you cut anything you still miss?
Oh, many. There are scenes that didn’t quite making the shooting schedule, there are scenes we shot that didn’t the final cut, and some of them were wonderful. Some of them I wish were in, some of them I think we were right to take out, and that’s the filmmaking process every time.
Do you recall the specifics of a scene that was shot and cut?
There was a scene I dearly loved where Jim asks for a drink he’s never had before. He’s told in response there are no drinks he’s never had before. He’s been sitting at the bar for so many years, drinking by himself, that all 1,436 cocktails have been placed in front of him. It’s a nice, comic bit that’s also a beautiful way of explaining the duration of his solitude.
We usually don’t see movies start with a character making a decision as unlikable as Jim’s. How much of a challenge was it trying to get the audience to empathize with him and to try to redeem him?
It was a definite challenge. I think the most important thing is to take the audience on his journey so that they understand the origin of the choice he makes. They’ve seen his attempts to save himself. They’ve seen his attempts at resistance and doing the right thing. And hopefully, if we get that part right, then the choice he makes is not so unrelatable at the end. I think the right conversation that’s happening in the movie is the “What would I do?” conversation. I think that’s a fascinating question.
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