Daniel Espinosa, the Chilean-born Sweden-based director who broke in with Easy Money and followed with Safe House, takes his first outer space movie, Life, to SXSW. The thriller, which gets its premiere tomorrow in Austin, is set in a space station filled with scientists assigned to receive soil samples from Mars to see if there are any signs of intelligent life. We are so far from movies like E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind that it isn’t spoiling the film to reveal that what the scientists discover is horrifying. A creature which forms its sensibilities and power through each interaction with a victim, with Espinosa adding his kinetic action style to a genre stamped by Alien. Here, he discusses the pressure of following in that genre path, knowing Ridley Scott has his own new Aliens installment arriving in May. Skydance’s David Ellison financed Life at around a $58 million tab after rebates, and Sony Pictures, which put up one-quarter of its budget, releases the film March 24.
DEADLINE: Ridley Scott told Deadline he was so jarred seeing the first Star Wars that he canceled the movie that he was going to make to find a space movie, which led him to Alien. The concept of space travelers encountering hostile life forms has become hallowed cinematic ground because of that film. Explain the seam you saw in Life that provided your own footing.
ESPINOSA: When I read the script, I was struck by the dynamic movement and the strong pace and the potential for good characters, but what really hit me were these un-Hollywood-esque turns in the plot, those twists that sometimes exist in movies that are just surprising.
DEADLINE: It has become harder to surprise anyone…
ESPINOSA: For me it feeds into an old tradition, and if you walk back and look at both horror and space movies, you want to remember, say, one of the most glorious endings of all time, Night Of The Living Dead.
DEADLINE: You mean where the protagonist who survived the zombie onslaught gets mistaken for one and is shot.
ESPINOSA: ‘Please, we’re here.’ ‘I got a live one.’ ‘Take him out.’ Boom. That’s the best ending of all time. I thought to myself, you want to try and maintain the cinematic quality of science fiction. I distinguish between science fiction in literature and science fiction in movies. The latter has become about anxiety. I don’t know if you’ve ever suffered from severe anxiety, but there are two planes. One is white. White is endless and you stand in this endless room and it is the worst thing you can imagine. The other is black, and that is claustrophobia. If you look at these heroic movies in science fiction, you have Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. You look at 2001 and Alien, and these are all submarine movies. You look at modern achievements like The Martian, and that has elements of a submarine movie. What I liked about this is that it felt like a little more noir-esque idea of science fiction. Like Twilight Zone, with their surprise endings. I thought the script had two things that differentiate it from the obvious comparison, which is Alien. One, it ties in to like an old kind of American tradition of science fiction and horror. Science fiction came from noir. This tied into the noir idea of the work. Secondly, when Alien was made, it was the post-atomic age. When people looked to the future, it was this dystopian neo-punk view, and that was something people liked to speculate about and make movies about.
If you ask a young person today what happens in a hundred years, he doesn’t have a clue. He couldn’t even take a picture even in his imagination of what will happen in 20 years. The world is so chaotic. If you ask him well what do you fear the most, he will say what happens tomorrow. This movie is what happens tomorrow, not in a hundred years. The realism is today, but at the same time, it plays to an old American tradition, noir, right down to the score.
DEADLINE: There is a sense of disorientation and claustrophobia early in the film as you watch the crew pass through the ship in zero gravity in this space station set you build. You are claustrophobic. How does that impact the feel of those scenes and how you shot them?
ESPINOSA: That’s what guided me. When I made the movie I had two kind of major anxieties, and one was claustrophobia. The other was that I just became a father for the first time. What hits you is this fear that all your weakness, the horrible parts of you, will infect the child, that you’ll pass them on like a disease. I hope my daughter never reads this, but I used that anxiety and how wrong it could be. The fear of what would happen if everything that we have inside of us as human beings, which is quite horrible, would fit into a creature that knows nothing, and starts reacting accordingly.
DEADLINE: That is a very personal influence as this life form, which they call Calvin, assimilates qualities from the crew and uses it against them. Was that the key that made you feel you’d have room to put your own stamp on this well-worn genre?
ESPINOSA: It was just how Calvin changes. What is the first thing that Calvin encounters? It’s a hand. And that is why Calvin has five limbs. What is the first fundamental beings we had on Earth? It was a sandworm. Which rises exactly like Calvin. I thought, I would take all these aspects…if you watch the movie again, you will see the clues. Now, I know the audience will see this as a fun roller coaster, and that’s great. But to me, as a director, you have other purposes.
DEADLINE: I watched your breakout movie Easy Money. It’s crime genre, but you spent more time fleshing out the lives of everyone involved that it was more a character study than anything. How much harder is it to do that in these Hollywood movies where audiences want the roller-coaster ride?
ESPINOSA: On this one, I got lucky, and unlucky. What most often happens is, your post production in America is so long. You give your movie over to people with power and they are allowed to go home and contemplate, and their own anxiety gets to them. They feed their own anxiety into your material and try to iron out all the anxieties and what you get is a flat project. What was lucky with this is, we were supposed to be released in August. But then Fox and Ridley Scott found out, and they put their Alien film right on my date. So I had to move. I moved to May. And then my trailer got released and it got more hits than The Martian did in its first 24 hours. And then they put themselves a week ahead of us, and I had to move, again. I ended up with 18 weeks of post, which is what you get in Europe. It wasn’t enough time for those people of power to work out their anxieties and so I could muster through with those great ideas that existed in the script.
DEADLINE: You and Ridley were on the same team when he produced and you directed Child 44. What is that like, when he’s coming out with another Alien movie and it keeps landing on your release date? That’s a lot of pressure.
ESPINOSA: It was. After we moved to March, I went to a screening of a picture in London. I see Ridley coming in through the door. I know Ridley, and I wanted to say hello to him, but it seems that we have this kind of ongoing silent conflict. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to say. I felt like a gunslinger, and there’s this older, much stronger gunslinger who comes into the room. So I decided I’m not going to go up to him. People always go up to him in London, he’s a superstar. He’s a ‘Sir.’ Nobility. For real. Then suddenly he sees me and he raises his voice, like the general that he is. ‘Daniel, come over here.” I walk over to him and he says, “So, when are you releasing your movie?” I said, March. And he said, “Can you make the date?” He’s looking at me and I said, I’ll make the date, Ridley. If you move, then I’ll move again. He looks at me and it’s almost like we were waiting to draw our guns, you know? Then he smiles and says, “Make a good movie, and then it’s all going to be alright.” And then he hugged me and then we walked away, each in separate ways.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a draw.
ESPINOSA: Exactly, but that was nice.
MIKE FLEMING JR.