Daniel Espinosa interview: Life, creatures, sci-fi, Giger

Director Daniel Espinosa talks to us about his new film, Life, and his thoughts on the science fiction genre...

NB: The following discusses a few plot points in Life, but only ones you’ve seen in its trailer.

Life immediately distinguishes itself from other post-Alien, monsters-in-space movies with one simple concept: it’s not set in the future, but the present. Its events don’t take place on a ship somewhere out there in the galaxy, but in the International Space Station orbiting Earth.

So when an alien organism’s discovered in a soil sample retrieved from Mars, and a group of scientists begin studying it, there’s an added layer of tension: in astronomical terms, the events are taking place on our own front door step.

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who previously made the superb thriller Easy Money, the Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington two-hander Safe House and drama-thriller Child 44, gives Life a grounded, realistic-feeling edge. His actors, among them Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson, turn in some believably unvarnished, terror-filled performances. The film’s atmosphere has the slow-burning edge of Gravity. Without spoiling things, the creature that slowly grows in the scientists’ petri dish proves to have a fearsome will of its own.

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Although Life is Espinosa’s first sci-fi film, he’s evidently a fan of the genre; as we sat down with the director ahead of his movie’s UK release, he had lots to say about science fiction, Hollywood filmmaking, and the time he met the late Alien artist HR Giger in his Swiss castle…

With these sorts of films, it’s very easy to go into B-movie territory. It’s an alien on a spacecraft, so there are all different ways you could handle it. But I liked the way you take it seriously.

Yeah. I’m not a pulpy director. And I think [screenwriters] Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese are very pulpy writers. I want to go into something from a realistic point of view; it’s my training from Denmark. If you come from the school of [Thomas] Vinterberg and [Lars] Von Trier, you want to have a certain kind of seriousness. That’s the thing I like about John Carpenter, also: like The Thing. He has a kind of sobriety. 

How did you go about pitching that tone you’re talking about?

Essentially, when I got on the movie, it was a bit of a smaller movie. They wanted to make a low-budget, $10m piece. And they were looking for a more inexperienced director than me. But I could just see that there was something in there, so when I got in, the budget went up to $30m. Then I called Ryan [Reynolds], who I knew from before [he’d co-starred in Safe House] which pushed it up to $50m. Then I got Jake [Gyllenhaal] and that pushed it up to $65m.

Then I thought, “Okay. If I do this very sharply, I can make it feel like the level of Gravity,” which cost $150m. But it demanded an almost Hitchcockian precision, because we didn’t have time. I didn’t have time to fuck up, because the budget was limited. So I shot with one camera, my unit – no second unit directors, no secondary shooting.

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In America, what you waste a lot of money on – and wasting money means wasting freedom later on – is that you have this secondary unit that just hovers around and shoots all this bullshit, you know? Stuff you have to edit out afterwards. I mean, it’s 90 people, working 24 hours blowing up cars and stuff. When I removed that, it took a lot out of the budget, but then you’re also left alone. Which for us Europeans is a good thing.

And I suppose as well, having that control over the camera means you have greater control over the pace, the build-up. Because a lot of this film is about the suspense of waiting to see what’s going to grow.

Yes! Exactly, exactly. You’re allowed to say how long something lasts. You’re not shooting with four cameras, where you’re kind of spraying. Because when you do that, when you come to edit, it becomes a bit like decision by congress – you have so much material that you can cut anything out of it. The chance that you’ll be pushed in a direction that is not where you want to go is highly problematic. Because I managed to get the actors, it gives the director the power, that you can push for a certain thing. 

There’s a real commitment to the performances here, as well, which I found interesting. There’s a moment between Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson that feels really natural and intimate. 

It’s Denmark, you know? It’s how we do things on smaller budget movies – you spend a lot of time in the preparation, just creating a life story for the characters. Giving them a real past together, so the story doesn’t start when the movie starts, you know? For me, Alien has this. People say, “Oh, they’re so natural in that breakfast scene”. But what’s great with that breakfast scene is that there are conflicts in that scene that are never mentioned in the picture. Has the blonde woman slept with that guy? You know? Is that why she’s pissed off with him, and she’s flirting with the black guy now? There are all these group dynamics, where you know they have secrets with each other that happened prior to the movie. And they don’t affect the movie, either; normally, when you have these small kind of conflicts, it’s a set up for a later pay-off. But here, it’s not. That’s the brilliance of Alien

When I did Life, I thought that I have to go back to the way I did things before I went to America. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted Jake, because Jake wasn’t easy to get onto this movie, because Jake doesn’t do these kinds of movies – he’s done them in the past and didn’t like the experience, so I knew that I had to come with a certain amount of preparation, and give him a vision that he could accept, that would equal those directors he’d worked with, like Denis Villeneuve. I’m one of Denis Villeneuve’s biggest fans. 

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He’s fantastic. That’s interesting that you mention Jake, because when you have actors like that, they make their characters more unpredictable. When I watched the film, I was thinking not just about the creature, but also who was going to crack first under the pressure.

Exactly. Me and Jake spoke about different things, but we even flirted with the idea of Norman Bates. It’s an interesting tension to give the audience a red herring. If you think about Jake’s character, he’s spent so much time in outer space, and when you do that, your body’s actually dying. If you talk to astronauts, after 60 days, when you come back to Earth, you’ll never get the physical stamina you had before. So you’re manually crippling your body for the rest of your life. Why does a person do that?

Also, [Jake’s character] is a doctor – the doctors who go up into space are very peculiar people. Because doctors have often the same grades as the smartest students, right? So they could choose to become lawyers. So most doctors choose to become doctors out of some kind of altruistic idea. But a person who does that, but then goes up in space, where there are no patients? That’s where the PTSD thing came from. The fun thing with Jake is that he isn’t afraid of those notions. He starts with those ideas; he doesn’t start with, “I’m the leading man” kind of thing. 

It strikes me that you could have taken the easy way out and set this in the future, so that you could have artificial gravity, which is what a lot of sci-fi films do. 

Or you could do the rotating space station. But they do it too small! Because it has to be huge to work. My producer insisted on [not having zero gravity], because of the money it costs to have everything on wires. We spoke to Emmanuel Lubezki [cinematographer on Gravity] and he said, “Zero gravity plus long takes equals vomit”. That’s what he said! I think he’d done it a bit too much. I adore Alien, but one thing I like about [Life] is that it could take place tomorrow. If we’d have taken the easy way out, it would almost nullify the difference between our movie and Alien

Alien represents what you did in the 70s. The atmosphere was the atomic war, so most films took place in a post-atomic environment, where corporations have eradicated borders, and you live in a dystopian, neo-punk future. In our society today, if you ask a normal person “What do you think Earth’s going to look like in 100 years”, he doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t have an idea about what it’s going to look like in 20 years. He doesn’t have a fucking idea. Not even a theory. There’s not even a philosophical thought.

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The only thing we can worry about is tomorrow, because that’s how messed up we’ve become. So I thought what’s interesting about this world today… when you’re talking about a dystopian future, it goes into a fantasy world, not a science fiction world. So for us to do science fiction today, we have to be set in the present, because we are living in the future. 

That’s really interesting.

If you did Alien today, it would be regarded as fantasy. 

Do you think some science fiction films can start to look the same in their depictions of the future now, because we’re struggling to envision what the future looks like? So we’re just borrowing ideas off each other.

Absolutely. Many movies that are science fiction, they don’t quite understand what science fiction in movies is. Science fiction in movies are submarine movies in eternal space. The Thing is eternal space, but it’s limited. Persona, by Bergman, which I think is almost like a science fiction movie. Solaris, 2001 [A Space Odyssey]. They dig down into our fundamental anxieties. That’s why The Shining almost feels like a science fiction movie.

Anxiety, as I experience it, is either white – it becomes white in front of your eyes – and it’s eternal. It’s so vast that you don’t know where to go. Or you’re completely claustrophobic. That’s what science fiction in movies have become today. 

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I like the idea in this that it is just a creature. If I woke up on an alien space ship, which the creature has, I’d probably do anything I could to survive as well!

Someone’s just tried to electrocute you! It’s not what the unknown does to us, it’s what we do to the unknown. It’s only responding. I just got a daughter, and I’m just thinking that everything that I put into her, she will respond back to me. That’s like Calvin; you give him a good place to live and you treat him well, then he behaves beautifully. When it takes the hand, it’s like a baby grabbing your hair. It doesn’t know that it hurts.

No one’s going to notice, but there’s this secondary language that goes into the picture. 

It’s interesting. Look at the way the scientists treat the rat!

Completely, completely. It’s those ideas, for me, that are the fascinating part of making this picture. 

How hands-on were you with the design of the creature? 

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First, what I did was, I spoke to a geneticist. Because I didn’t want to project my pure ideas of it. I spoke to Ridley [Scott] about his process. I thought, “I need to base this on science”. So I spoke to Adam Rutherford, your brilliant geneticist, who also worked on Ex Machina and also [Alex Garland’s] latest movie now. Adam slowly built up the idea of this creature and what it could physically do. How it could physically evolve and which way. I got a good friend of mine, a graffiti painter, and I put him in the same room as Adam. They started spit-balling ideas, and I came in once a week and started to guide them. My friend is this very dark artist. I met Giger once.

Oh, you didn’t!

Yeah, I visited him at his house. He had a box filled with pills that would make you funny, you know? I thought, “Maybe this is the time [to try one]. No, it’s not the time…” It was a very eerie place, because it was filled with his art. 

Was that his castle?

Yes, exactly, exactly. He liked acid a lot. My friend reminded me of Giger; he had the same kind of “Fuck off” mentality. So I thought that would be a good thing. So they worked together, and out came [the creature]. The five limbs that he has are like a hand, because the first thing he encounters is a hand. So he’s constructed like a hand. The first being that existed on planet Earth was the slime worm, which comes up very thin like this, and petals come out. And that’s what Calvin does; he creates these limbs, and then the petals become smaller. It all stems from Solaris; he’ll make an impression based on what they’re feeding into him and then respond.

There’s an amazing line in Solaris. “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.”

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That’s a great, great line.

That’s the secret of these sorts of films, isn’t it? They reflect our fear and…

Behaviour. Yes. The outside world changes as we respond to it. I think that’s the fundamental question. Now that we’ve found life on this planet, it raises the question of who we are. Because if we continue in the way we’ve been going, we will doom ourselves, and we’ll cease to exist. I think that’s what the function of these sci-fi movies is, to propose subtle, small questions. And sometimes the whole movie’s about those questions – the movies from the great artists, like Solaris and 2001.

Have you got a taste for the genre now? Would you like to make another science fiction movie? 

I would love to do another one, but the question is, where do you go next? What is the next frontier? How do you transcend this idea? One thing I do in my career is I always change genres. I think I like genres, because in Denmark, at film school, the fundamental building source is the dogma – the rule set. And genre gives you that rule set.

Daniel Espinosa, thank you very much.

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Life is out in UK cinemas on the 24th March.