‘Life’ Producers on Their Terrifying Zero-G Thriller

     February 7, 2017


Last summer, when director Daniel Espinosa’s Life was filming outside London, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. The movie, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ariyon Bakare, revolves around the six-member crew of the International Space Station as they come into contact with the very first evidence of biological life on Mars: a small, single-celled organism. As they begin to research the specimen, however, this “life” proves far more dangerous than they could have ever imagined. Life was written by Deadpool’s Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese and produced by Skydance’s David Ellison and Dana Goldberg along with Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn.

During a break in filming I got to participate in a group interview with the producers. While they were very guarded about revealing too many of the films secrets, we did learn how the projects came together, how the first draft by Paul Wernick and Rhett Rheese is very close to what audiences will see, that the film takes place in a very near future over a few days, why they went with director Daniel Espinosa, how it was always going to be rated R, how almost the entire movie takes place on the International Space Station in zero G, casting the picture, and so much more. If you’re curious about how this film was made and what they’re trying to do with it, you’ll learn a lot reading this interview.

But before getting to it, I’d suggest you watch the trailer for Life so you can get a feel for the tense thriller. Life invades theaters March 24, 2017.

Question: What was it about this material and story that said, “We need to be involved, we need to make this”?


Image via Sony Pictures

David Ellison: Sure. Well, it was something that we grew out of Skydance. So I guess we’re biased in saying that we fell in love with it. But, ah — We were in post-production with [screenwriters Paul] Wernick and [Rhett] Rheese on G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Dana and I had always wanted to do an incredibly tense science-fiction thriller on the I.S.S. all in zero G, and this was right around the same time that Mars Curiosity had just landed on Mars, and we kind of got the idea of, what if the Curiosity Rover discovered life on another planet — you know, a single-celled organism — and brought it back to the I.S.S. for analysis and once you introduced it to an environment it started to display signs of intelligence? And that was really the core concept that we fell in love with and pitched to Paul and Rhett. They came back a couple of weeks later with a fully fleshed-out pitch for the movie and pitched the two of us [believe he’s talking about him and Dana Goldberg] at our office at Paramount and we fell in love with it. And very thankfully, the very first draft of that script is very reflective of the movie we’re making today.

Which is kind of unusual.

David Ellison: Yes. Yes.

What do you feel comfortable saying about the film in terms of story and characters?

[They all laugh]

Dana Goldberg: Not a ton.

Well, there have been a lot of sci-fi movies, there have been a lot of “finding life on other planets”type movies. You know, Alien, that sort of thing. What sets this movie apart from the genre?


Image via Sony Pictures

Dana Goldberg: I’ll say that I think one of the things that sets it apart is that we want this movie to feel very real. As David said, it’s inspired by real-life events and the timing of our film is somewhere in the very near future, but — and these ladies will speak to it — so much of what you’re going to see in this film, from the design of the actual ship to what is going on there, is very realistic, incredibly realistic and they will talk about numerous consultants who have ensured that. But that’s what we think differentiate’s it. This isn’t set 100 years from now or 75 years from now, and this crazy thing could happen one day. We’re set aboard the I.S.S. and, as David was saying, it’s not that far off what we’re talking about. He mentioned Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick, who obviously wrote Deadpool and wrote this for us. They were very proud a couple weeks ago. They sent out an email to all of us saying that, basically, NASA had tweeted out that the next Mars mission, the goal was to bring back intelligent life, the goal was to find life on Mars. And so they were very proud because they were like, “See?! We’re right at the edge! We are ahead of the curb but not too far ahead of the curb.” And that’s what we think is gonna really differentiate this film.

There’s kind of a trend right now of near future sci-fi movies or even present-day sci-fi movies, like Gravity, which is kind of on the edge. So, you know, The Martian, Interstellar — it’s all set in the near future. Do you think — and this might be a bit of a stretch — but do you think the fact that people are interested in this and watching these movies will have an influence on the space program in America, NASA? Do you think there’s a chance that maybe it will accelerate the rate at which we explore space?

David Ellison: Sure. I mean, I’ll use a different example, which is if you talk to a fighter pilot in the United States Navy, every single one of them says they joined for one reason, which is because they saw Top Gun. No exaggeration. And I personally am a space nut. I think if you look at what Elon Musk is doing, what Richard Branson’s doing and kind of the privatization of the space sector to where we are now finally pushing technology further than we’ve ever accomplished it, you have NASA coming back with the SLS going back to the moon in 2020, Elon’s talking very publicly about trying to colonize Mars and being interplanetary, and if you look back at some of the great science-fiction films of everyone’s collective youth, a lot of things they predicted have actually come to pass. And, so, as Dana was just saying, it’s kind of remarkable on this one right before you start shooting, NASA puts out a piece of material on social media that pretty much says that exactly how they’re — basically the core concept of our idea is based off of is what they plan on doing several years from now. So, yes.

There’s been a lot of articles hinting at signs of life, that’s been published recently. Have you guys used any of those specific ones to base the story around this one? ‘Cause there’s different, like, this planet might have life, there was a sign over here, this one might’ve had water. So are there any of those that you used to base the story on?


Image via Sony Pictures

David Ellison: The core concept came, without going into too much detail, if anything was going to survive on the planet of Life, on the planet of Mars, it’d have to be at a single-celled organism type of level. But what happens once you re-introduce that into an environment that’s more conducive to carbon-based life forms? So all of this movie is very much based in what is technically possible?

So what kind of challenges does that create in terms of — I mean, in Star Wars, no one has to explain how the Millennium Falcon flies, whereas this, this is presumed based on technology that we have right now. So is there greater pressure to make it realistic?

Julie Lynn: Yeah, it’s based on technology we have now, but don’t forget we’re projecting in a near future, and so a couple of things are at play. One is, it’s a movie. So, we do have to make some allowances for

David Ellison: Don’t tell anyone it’s a movie. [Laughs]

Julie Lynn: So, just as The Martian did, just as Interstellar did, you know what I mean? We’re making allowances for story and for the fact that it’s a movie, but also everything is near future. So what we’re doing is we’re working with a team of really great scientists and engineers and doctors, and we’re doing kind of future forecasting. Like, what might — and I don’t wanna give, there are great examples of it which I can’t give away — but what in this particular arena might have advanced in five or six or eight years where it’s still recognizably the I.S.S.? It’s still missions forming the way we talk about them with somebody from Russia, somebody from Japan, somebody from the U.S., somebody from England. But what might be some new experiments they might be doing? What might be new technology they have? What might be new abilities available for our narrative, right? And so we actually have a great team — we’ve reached out. Our tentacles are all over the world and all over the place in terms of different experts we’ve talked to, but we have three principle people who’ve been with us over email, on the phone, and actually on set — all three of them on set, we have all three of them on set here at different times. One is Rudi Schmidt, who was involved with the European space agency, and he’s done everything from look at the actual I.S.S. art that we’ve made. I mean, as you guys’ have seen, we’re not shooting this movie against green screen. We’re actually building physical sets the actors can operate within…

Sending them into space… [Laughs]


Image via Sony Pictures

Julie Lynn: Yeah, so as you guys walk around, you’ll see. So we’ve consulted about, what do these modules actually look like? Some were built by Russia, some were built by Japan, some were built by the United States, and Rudi has been a big part of looking at that and also about how the astronauts talk to each other. What’s the technological jargon that they use? What is the meaning behind a lot of the day-to-day operations? They call them “operations,” the things that they do. Then we have Adam Rutherford, who’s a molecular biologist, who is pretty well known here in the U.K. and is doing exactly what David was talking about, which is — and exactly what your question was — which is looking at what might be picked up. Where might that have come from? How might it have developed? How might it be able to survive a journey to the I.S.S., and what might, by introducing it into an atmosphere that’s different from Mars or from Pluto or from Jupiter or from wherever, what might happen to it when it comes into our atmosphere? So that’s our molecular biologist. Then we have Kevin Fong, who’s a doctor, who is also a space guy. So, because two of our crew members are doctors, we’re talking to him about what do doctors do in space? Because they actually, all the time, if you guys have seen any of the documentaries, they’re experimenting on themselves, they’re experimenting on each other, they’re looking at the loss of bone density, they’re looking at what happens to your heart in space. They’re constantly monitoring each other for the good of science and they’re bringing that knowledge back to earth. So, Kevin is with us to talk about all those things. So, particularly for the two actors playing doctors, what would their M.O. be in interacting with the rest of the crew and taking care of everybody? So, we’re really trying to be very, very careful while making allowances for the fact that it is a movie, that we are as respectful as we can be of the science while still allowing for narrative excitement.

Can you talk about what committed you to bring Daniel [Espinosa] on board as director and what his vision for it?

Julie Lynn: He’s amazing. And you guys will meet him very briefly because he’s actually working today. But you guys talk about that…

Dana Goldberg: Yeah. As David referenced, we credit to Rheese and Wernick, and the script they delivered was great, and after very little work we decided who’s the right person for this. And we always loved Safe House. We thought it was a beautifully made film where Daniel clearly got incredibly performances from both Ryan [Reynolds] and Denzel [Washington], but also when you look at the film there’s a beautiful tension to it that’s constantly building, which is something we thought was really apropos for this movie. We sent him the script, and it was one of those really lovely things: within 48 hours he called from Sweden and said — and you’ll meet him, he’s very passionate — and he called and he said, “I couldn’t put it down!” Almost like it was annoying to him that he couldn’t put it down, and he said, “I couldn’t put it down,” and he made some other comments I can’t tell you. And then he said, “So then I read it. I made myself put it down. I woke up the next day, and I read it again, and I still couldn’t put it down. I have to do this movie!” And, I would say, within four days of that phone call, he’d flown into Los Angeles to meet with us from Sweden and we all — he was just so impressive and immediately walked in with a vision for, Okay, this is what my version of the movie would look like. And truthfully by the end of that meeting we said, “He’s the guy.”


Image via Sony Pictures

Julie Lynn: And we were all making the same movie. I mean, I think that was the fun thing. Bonnie and I have been producing partners for a while now, and for us to have the pleasure of being with these guys and us all making the same movie, and then to have Daniel show up and he was making the same movie, that was…

Dana Goldberg: We made a few very smart moves. We hired Rheese and Wernick, then we brought in these guys [the producers], and then we brought in Daniel Espinosa.

In terms of the script, Paul and Rhett remaining their footing [in] comedic films, or films they’re best known for are Deadpool, Zombieland. Is that true of this movie? Does it have a humorous tone or is it more understated or is it quite serious?

Dana Goldberg: I believe our official definition is an intense sci-fi film. [Laughs] So the word “humorous” is not in there but I don’t think it would be possible for Rhett and Paul to write something that was completely devoid of humor. I just don’t think they’d be capable of doing it and, frankly, in most great science-fiction films there’s always a sense of humor to it no matter how serious everything is going on is and I think this applies.

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