Amon Warmann chats with Life director Daniel Espinosa (spoilers follow)…
When we caught up with Daniel Espinosa to talk to him about Life – the Swedish director’s sixth feature – we asked him about how his latest movie differs from Alien, working with Ryan Reynolds post-Deadpool, and playing music on set while the actors were filming.
I really liked that there was none of the dumb decision making you sometimes see in movies like these…
Yes! For me that was very important. These are not high school students in a campus who have no idea what to do. They’re astronauts who have been trained to make the correct decision in difficult situations, and I wanted them to do that as much as possible.
This film has inevitably been compared to Alien – was there ever any worry on your part in terms of doing a mean alien is loose on a spaceship type film when Alien exists?
No. I love Alien – I think it’s a complete masterpiece. For me, Alien belongs to a different age. Fiction is a keyhole into the future, regardless of time. If you ask anybody today what they think our lives will be like in 100 years, they don’t have a clue. What I liked about this film is that it was placed in some kind of realism. Alien takes place in a far distant fixture, but Life could take place tomorrow. It was more interesting to me to make something about us, and now. The other thing was that this movie has two great twists that are really surprising and brought the genre into a different realm, almost like an American film noir.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is your first go at using special effects. What did you like and what didn’t you like about that sort of filmmaking?
I thought it’d be much harder than it was. I made a CGI car in one of my movies, but that was just because the studio thought the car that I was using initially was too small and they made it into a bigger car. With Life we had people on wires, we were dealing with zero gravity, we had to deal with a CGI monster… so I thought it would be very challenging. But the fun thing about it is that you have to put your imagination into action as a filmmaker. You have to tell everybody what you were seeing in your head, and you can see them imagining and projecting their own fears into what they’re seeing, and I thought that was quite interesting.
Often times in movies like these you hear that the actors had to act against tennis balls…
Yeah. I wanted actors to come from a place that’s more theatre-like… When possible I tried to have something mechanical on set that resembled the creature. I didn’t want them to be looking at a tennis ball. I wanted them to be looking at a space where they could project their own inner fears.
Everyone in this film is constantly adapting, from the astronauts to the alien itself. How close is the final film to what you originally envisioned and what adaptations did you make while filming?
Pretty close. My first cut was 2 hours and 10 minutes [The final cut of the film is 103 minutes]. I also shot this film in a different way. Usually I’ve been shooting films in America with three cameras. On this movie I decided to make it with one camera, Hitchcock style, and just shoot exactly what I wanted. It was a challenge for myself, to try and stick as close to the original idea as possible. The only thing that I adapted to was the characters, because I like the actors to improvise. When I saw that Ariyon Bakare had this incredible intellect and potential rage in him, I thought that might be an interesting idea to pursue. Rebecca Ferguson had something nagging in her background, and then I gave her character a complex relationship to her Father. So in that way I adapted.
In preparing for this interview I learnt that you played music while the cast were filming scenes. Is this something you always do and what kind of music did you play?
No, I don’t do it all the time. But on this one, because I was entering this new realm and the ending had that film noir feeling to it which was something the movies in the 50’s had a lot, I thought to myself that there’s a great horror movie here called Psycho. The composer of that film was Bernard Hermann. And then of course we had to give an homage to the greatest science fiction film of all time – 2001. So therefore I said I want Bernard Hermann… And then I thought that this creature had something creepy about itself that reminded me of [Krzysztof] Penderecki, so I told my composer I wanted Penderecki and Bernard Hermann combined. We composed music before we even started shooting, so when we were on set we were playing the music from my composer.
Me and Jon [Erkstrand] have been making movies since we were 19 years old. He’s scored all my films. When I met him I wasn’t even thinking about being a director and he was this cool guy who was a DJ at this club. So he would get me into these cool spots where they had this strange music, and we would start to imagine where we could go. Every time I make a movie I think to myself “have I passed him yet, I’m so much better, I need to move on”. And then I go to his studio and listen to his music and think “fuck, I’m so behind!” [laughs]
I almost feel bad for bringing this up, because I’d love to get to a stage where this isn’t an issue, but this film is incredibly diverse…
Most of my movies are quite diverse. I’m a refugee from Latin America. I grew up in Africa. For me, diversity is part of my world. When I got the script it was based on the ISS, and the ISS is diverse. That was one thing where I said that I couldn’t compromise because it has to be an international cast – the ISS demands it. Also, it’s always good to put into people’s minds that not all people look Anglo-Saxon. We’re Latinos, we’re Asians, we’re Africans, and I always want that to be reflected in my pictures.
You worked with Ryan Reynolds before on Safe House… do you see any difference between then and working with him on Life now?
Yes, I did. When I did my first close-up of Ryan – he had no lines, it was just a listening shot – I looked at it and there was just something different. There was a kind of darkness and responsibility that wasn’t there when we did Safe House. I asked him “what happened?” and he just smiled at me and said “I became a father man. Life happened”. I just realised that he became a man. I don’t think it’s the success of Deadpool. I think it’s something within him.
People think there was something special about the character of Deadpool, but I think it was Ryan. Over the next 15 years he’s going to be one of those actors who hits their stride in their 40’s. I think now he’s gonna go on and not just become an action hero but a big actor. Within 10 years, he’ll have an Oscar.
Looking at your filmography it’s clear that you like to switch genres… is there any particular genre you want to do next?
No. I’m actually thinking about going back home and making small movies about my neighbourhood where I grew up. I think I have a bit of ADD. I can’t do the same thing in the same place for too long. We’ll see.
The trailers make it look like the black guy is going to die first, and I was pleasantly surprised when you avoided that trope. Killing off Ryan Reynolds first instead – arguably the biggest star of the ensemble – is a ballsy move…
That was one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie. When I was reading it I was thinking the same thing – “are they gonna kill the fucking scientist? The guy who is an African-English character?” And when that didn’t happen and this jock-like, brave hero-type got killed, I thought I had to do this movie. Then the trailer came out and everybody started going “man, they fucking killed the black guy” I was like “no, we didn’t!” [laughs].
There’s also another great twist with the ending…
That was the second reason I wanted to do the movie! It was killing off the white guy first, and then at the end when we all think we’re gonna have a cute, Sandra Bullock like ending, we don’t. Sandra Bullock gets thrown into space…
Film noirs always used to have those turns at the end of the movie where you thought that they made it and then everything turns to shit. One of the best endings of all time is Night of the Living Dead. That’s a beautiful ending, and it’s also more real.
Many thanks to Daniel Espinosa for taking the time for this interview.
Life is playing in cinemas now.