Life: Daniel Espinosa and the “Magnetism” of Sci-Fi

The director of Safe House tackles his first off-world adventure with Life.

Director Daniel Espinosa, whose sci-fi thriller Life opens in theaters Friday (March 24), never thought he ever actually get a chance to make a science fiction film. “I never thought I would be allowed to tackle it, you know?” The Swedish-born director admits when we catch up with him via phone. “It’s more like an absent dream. When you make movies in Sweden, the budgets are $500,000. Science fiction is not really a dream that you nurture because it’s like nurturing falling in love with a woman or a man that you know is completely impossible to obtain. Of course, I always admired science fiction, like all of us.”

General film audiences may be most familiar with Espinosa’s 2012 action thriller Safe House, which starred  Denzel Washington and Life cast member Ryan Reynolds, but international film fans know him from his 2010 breakthrough thriller Easy Money (Snabba Cash), which put him and star Joel Kinnaman on the map and became one of Sweden’s biggest homegrown hits. Yet the idea of doing a sci-fi project was not a strange one for him.

“I think most directors have this kind of strange attraction or magnetism to the genre,” he muses. “When Tarkovsky did Solaris, nobody thought that he would enter that realm or when François Truffaut did Fahrenheit 451. It is a fascinating genre. Who hasn’t been inspired by Solaris and 2001 and Alien and The Thing by Carpenter? You also have great modern masterpieces like Cuarón’s Gravity or Nolan’s Interstellar so it is a fascinating area.”

The concept behind Life is initially not that far-fetched: on the International Space Station, a crew of six make the incredible discovery of a single-cell form of life in a soil sample brought back from Mars, successfully reviving it and even naming it Calvin. But as the organism begins to grow, its primal needs for nourishment and survival soon make it a menace to the humans on board the station and possibly the entire Earth should the thing somehow make it to the surface. The ISS crew — led by Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson — must somehow contain and destroy it.

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“It had this great roller coaster feeling and I was scared senseless when I was reading it,” says Espinosa about the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool). “But it also had these two great turns in the picture that I thought were unusual for a modern American film and felt more like something from the film noir from the ’50s. Then one thing that really struck me was the realism that was different. Compared to Alien, which takes place in this dystopian future, this movie takes place today.”

In doing his own research for the project, Espinosa says that the central idea — finding evidence that there was in fact once life on Mars — is not necessarily science fiction anymore. “There’s a great possibility that life has existed in some shape or form on Mars,” he explains. “If you look over the history of what they have drawn out of the history of Mars, there are these gaps where scientists don’t really know what happened, plus we have these samples of bacteria that we think are coming from meteorites from Mars. There’s this connection between it.

“What’s interesting with Mars, though, is that if you go back 10 years, 20 years, the idea that there was life on Mars was ridiculous,” Espinosa continues. “The only reason that we would say that there existed life on Mars because it was an old kind of mythological idea that stems back 2,000 years. Mars always became this symbol of the alternative that there was something out there. So it’s odd that in this place which we decided to make a symbol of extra-terrestrial life, something actually might have existed.”

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Visualizing what that something actually looked like was one of the biggest challenges facing Espinosa on the film, given the long history of alien beings on film. To come up with the design for Calvin — an amorphous, ever-shifting organism — Espinosa turned to two very different individuals. “I started off having this long meeting with this geneticist called Adam Rutherford, who specializes in the creation of life on the planet Earth,” he explains. “He’s like the Neil deGrasse Tyson of England and helped out movies like Ex Machina. He was so insightful and had a pure science perspective of what the creature might be. I just gave him the script and said, ‘Create something from this kind of rule book. Give us a molecular structure. Give us a cellular structure. Give us different propositions of how this can develop.’

“Then, after he got to the stage where he had gotten his scientific bearings, I took my graffiti artist friend, Ziggy, who’s one of the first graffiti artists on the planet, and put them together in a room,” he adds. “Then they worked together and came up with an idea. I thought it was more interesting to let them guide me instead of me, as a filmmaker with all my film references, guide myself. Mostly what people do is they hire these three big companies that create all those creatures for the movies and therefore most of them kind of look the same.”

Aside from coming up with a unique look for Calvin, Espinosa says that the most challenging aspect of the production was shooting on the physical sets that were built to recreate the ISS: “It was very difficult to shoot in such a confined space. The ISS is only eight feet wide and eight feet high in all areas…to shoot in that limited space was very inspirational but also very difficult. Then you add zero gravity, which you need to make people fly through the station. I kind of liked those restrictions.”

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Life was filmed at England’s Shepperton Studios, where Stanley Kubrick shot part of 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly 50 years ago, and Espinosa says it’s “staggering” what Kubrick achieved — nothing less than the gold standard of modern sci-fi cinema — with the resources he had back then. “There were these 70-year-old janitors that were standing outside smoking and one of them turned to me and he said, ‘Stanley used to shoot a movie just like yours years ago,’” Espinosa recalls. “And I go, ‘Who the fuck is Stanley?’ So this old man starts telling me these stories about Stanley Kubrick and what it was like to shoot 2001 and how they created what we today call the modern alphabet for science fiction.”

But five decades later, and making the leap in the last few years from the much smaller Swedish system to Hollywood, Espinosa says that the basics of making a movie — sci-fi or otherwise — have not changed much. “It’s a camera, you have some actors, and people are paid for it,” he says. “The more they pay for it, the more opinions they will have when you’re finished. It’s not difficult to understand.”

Life is out in theaters tomorrow.