'Life' Director Daniel Espinosa On The 'Green Screen Disease' And Long Takes [Interview]

Daniel Espinosa made his directorial debut with Easy Money, originally called Snabba Cash. His Scorsese-presented gangster pic has an aggressive atmosphere, and it ultimately helped him land his second feature and first studio gig, Safe House. Since then, he's directed Child 44 – a movie that reportedly had some difficulties – and his latest film, Life.

Espinosa's sci-fi horror thriller, which came out this past weekend, often moves as efficiently as the film's deadly alien, Calvin. The first living organism found on Mars creates a whole mess of problems for the crew on the International Space Station, all of whom Espinosa introduces in an eight-minute one shot.

We recently spoke with the director about the technically complicated shot, Alien and The Thing, the "disease of green screen," and Life's crazy ending.

How did you want the camera to move through zero gravity? 

I wanted to have an undeterred pace in the beginning; it was slow, but you felt that nothing would ever stop. The camera movement would indicate what the movie would do to you later. It sounds a bit pretentious, but you have to have some pretensions to make a picture [Laughs].

[Laughs] But those decisions help shape what the audiences feels, hopefully.

That's the hope for directors: your pretensions won't come out as pretentious, but as ideas. Sometimes they do.

Because Life is so VFX-heavy, did you have to be more rigid with your shot choices compared to Safe House and Easy Money?

I decided not to be limited by that. That's why I built the whole ship. I come from locations. On a movie like Safe House, I did not shoot at the studio. I wanted real locations, so I could hear the sounds of the cars outside.

When I was going to do this movie, I thought I could not do this green screen. I can't do this limited. I have to kind of build this space ship, so what I did was constructed this sort of console with sounds of the ship. I would get that feeling in my headphones, so I could pretend I was at least on a space ship. I would do my shots as I wanted. I think green screen is a great disease of our time.

Why do you think that?

It's claiming our reality doesn't affect us as characters. You know, who we are as human beings, we are powered by what's around, what we see around us. If you stand in a white room, you might be a different person from when you stand in a room filled with stuff. Those things can remind you of your past, who you want to be. That's why I think we all love those movies from the '70s. We feel the reality. They're shot on the streets.

And you feel less like you have to suspend your disbelief because you're seeing real people in real locations. 

Yes, yes, exactly. Visual effects are so tricky. When you do them, you really try to make something that's credible, but you know from watching movies, going back to movies you thought were great, 10 years later they can look awful.

When you're making a film that's playing in a sandbox with AlienThe Thing, and other classics, do you look directly to them for inspiration?

Of course. You go to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you get the fear of loneliness. And then you go to Alien, with the great feeling you're walking around in a cellar. And then you think The Thing, the fear of something coming inside of you. Then you go to great modern pieces like Gravity. I mean, it's stellar. It's some of the best zero gravity work that's ever been done. Of course, it has the masterful oners. That's why I tried to reverse it, make an indoor oner inside the grandness of space.

How long is Life's opening oner?

I think it's seven minutes. Seven to eight minutes.

Safe HouseDid you always envision beginning the film with that shot?

From the moment I read the script. Because I failed on my...When I made Easy Money, I entered the gangster movie genre, and that's another genre that has a great oner, right? When I finally got a script for a science-fiction movie on my lap, I thought, "Now I have to do this fucking oner." You know, to do the oner in the very beginning was just the case.

It was the first shot. All the shots are designed beforehand because it was so complicated. It's all about rhythm, and you can't edit it afterward because you shot it in one piece. You can't change the rhythm of it, and that's really daunting as a director. You're setting the rhythm for the whole picture in the first shot. You have to get it right. It took like a month to prepare the shot. You have to build walls on a machine that could go up and down, ceilings that could close up. The whole set would rotate.

For the actors to make that oner work, it must feel like a ballet, just how precise their movements had to be, I imagine.

Exactly. You have to rehearse it, so they can forget the technology. It was daunting, but also interesting because it's, like you say, a ballet. You rehearse a show.

I'm just curious, do you have any one shots that are particular favorites of yours?Touch of Evil, man. Can't get around it. It's also noir. It's so effortlessly done. Then you go to Goodfellas, of course, but Touch of Evil makes you go, "How the fuck did they do that?" Imagine how big the cameras were back then. They were huge.

Another great oner, one I admire a lot, is from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Did you ever see that?

I haven't yet. It's on my list of movies to watch. 

Okay. It's great. The whole movie is just oners. It's like 18. Every scene is a oner. Sometimes the oner is not that pretentious, you know, it's just two persons in a room. The way they move around is what makes it feel like a dynamic shot. It never changes its position. To do that is just mind-boggling.

Were there any scenes or shots in particular that had more hurdles than you expected?

Of course. It's always the ones you least expected. One part that was incredibly hard for me is towards the end when the whole ship is collapsing. I'm shooting this horizontal set, and I wanted to shoot it like they were climbing. How do you shoot something horizontal so it feels like it's vertical? When they fall down, it looks like they're really falling. That was quite interesting, cinematically, how to get a vertical feeling of horizontal set.

Ridley Scott said shooting actors in helmets can be tricky, and that you typically want to get them out of them as fast as possible. Was that your experience? 

Yeah, the helmets cover the actors from their own reality. I thought it was pretty immersive, though. I like those moments. I think when the characters get into their clothes, it gives them something. Today, what you can do is move the visor, and they can put on the visor afterward. You get to the characters a little closer.

[Spoiler Warning]I have to say, I'm a big fan of the film's ending. It's a good laugh. What was your initial reaction to reading it? 

That was the reason I wanted to do the movie, the ending. It tied into this kind of film noir idea of cinema, which I so miss. I so miss those film noir endings, where everything just turns. It's also a powerful way of ending. Some people will ask you, "Is there a sequel coming?" There's no fucking sequel coming.


Life is now in theaters.