Neal Moritz interview: producing Passengers

We headed to the set of Passengers to talk to its producer, Neil Moritz, about bringing a hugely ambitious sci-fi film to the screen.

Getting Passengers to the screen has been a prolonged job for producer Neal Moritz. The hugely ambitious sci-fi movie finally gets to our screens on December 21st, and when headed to the US set of the film last year, Mortiz took us through the long, long journey of Passengers to the screen…

After being ‘almost made’ for many years, it seems like the period between the green-light and shooting was incredibly quick. Now here we are on a huge set. Can you talk us through that process at all?

Well this is probably some of the biggest sets I’ve ever been on. We have five other sets at another studio, but this is our biggest one. Apart from the first two days of shooting, everything has been shot on stage which is a rarity for my movies. They’re normally on location. Here it kind of feels like we’re on our own spaceship. When you’re on stage for so many hours it’s kind of like Las Vegas, you lose track of time. Is it day or night outside?

But in all honesty it wasn’t a short prep, it was quite a long one actually. While the process of greenlighting took longer than usual, we had plenty of time for pre-production. This set took close to four months to build alone. This was actually two sound stages, and we knocked down the wall in the middle to create one big soundstage. In the movie the set will be even larger than the set you see physically here.

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The script has been around since 2007, with several different studios and talent attached. Why was the timing right now? Were you attached before?

I literally got involved less than one year from the day we started shooting. It was a project I had always really admired, but for a number of reasons the movie had a number of false starts. It was always a script that I loved, and was very jealous that someone else was going to make It almost happened with a variety of people but when there became this sliver of time where the rights became available I did everything possible to get them. I promised the writer and everyone involved in the making of the film that my main job would be to protect this script from much change. And really the script we’re shooting is very close to the original one. We’ve made a few little improvements but the heart and soul is all what we were excited about.

What did you love about it?

I thought the idea was so original. Yes it’s a sci-fi movie, but not really. It’s really a grounded movie set 600 years in the future yet it could be taking place today because at the heart of the movie it’s one of the most epic love stories ever put on film. This was the rare occurrence I’ve ever had on any movie I’ve ever worked on where we got our first choice on every position. Guy (Hendrix Dyas) was the production designer we wanted, Rodrigo (Prieto) was the DP we wanted. I met with so many directors who wanted to do this movie, some who had a past with it and some brand new who had read the script over time, but we were lucky enough to get Morten Tyldum who had just come off The Imitation Game. I had seen a movie he had done years before called Headhunters which I was a huge fan of.

Then when we went to go cast the movie honestly Jennifer and Chris were the two people we wanted. We gave them the script and like two days later each one of them had said I’m in. That’s why the movie was able to come together so quickly even though the two of them have so many things going on and so many offers. We had a brief window and we were able to make it happen. I couldn’t be more thrilled with what I’ve seen already. I think the chemistry between them is unbelievable. I think Morten is doing a terrific job at getting the nuances of each character and the relationship, which is crucial. We can have the best visual effects, the best sets, the best stunts, the best everything, but if those characters and relationship don’t shine the rest of it means nothing.

Do you think the fact that Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian, sci-fi films dealing with intimacy, have come out and done very well has helped you get Passengers made?

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It certainly hasn’t hurt us. In a certain way I like to say this is Titanic meets Gravity. But even though it’s set in space, we’ve made a real effort to make sure it has a relatability to it, through costumes and such.

So what does the future setting bring to it? What does it add to the love story?

What it brings to the love story is that deep down it’s a story about immigrants. Why would someone decide to leave Earth, and go through 120 years of travel? What is inside a person to make them do that? The two of them have very different reasons for why they would undertake this journey. Maybe everyone in this room has an immigrant story, and maybe that’s something very relevant to today that we can touch upon.

This set is so big and practical, it’s a marked contrast to sets we’ve seen before which are mostly green-screen. What has changed to make it more ‘real’?

We wanted actors to have an environment to act against, as opposed to green-screen. Honestly someone asked me, ‘why can’t you just find locations?’, and I said well you try to find a future spaceship from 600 years in the future and I’ll shoot the movie right there right now. We had to build this as it didn’t exist. The only two things we shot on location were a French restaurant and a movie theatre. They were the only two things outside we felt could fit in with the design of this ship which was meant to be awe inspiring but welcoming at the same time.

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I like to think about it as the first time people went on the Queen Elizabeth. You are going on the world’s greatest ocean liner, or in this case space liner, on an incredible journey where you’re leaving everyone you know behind to go and embark on a new life. We felt like the ship had to be worthy of that without being unrelatable.

You mentioned the huge list of directors interested in this, but what was it about Morten that made him the right choice?

When he first came in, the first thing he spoke to us about was the emotions and the relatibilty of who these characters were. He didn’t talk about any of the bells and whistles, it was all about the emotional journey. That was like boom! We were all sitting there, and after he talked to us, we were like ‘that’s our director’.

What made you confident he could handle the effects driven nature of the film considering his previous work?

Well I’d seen his commercials as well, and knew he could handle a wide range of story-telling. It’s always a leap of faith but I make all my decisions on my gut-instinct. But until you get on the floor with a director you don’t know.

We’ve heard that the script is amazing, but we’re very curious about what happens in the movie beyond it being a love story?

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Well there’s a lot of action, there’s ship we realise is malfunctioning. Let me put it this way, if the two of these people had not woken up together then everyone else on the ship probably would have perished.

How would you describe the dynamic between Jen and Chris’s characters?

What starts off as an incredible love story changes when one of them realises there’s a lie at the heart of this relationship, and it causes a huge rift. But ultimately they have to come back together to save themselves and everyone else.

You’re known for the Fast And Furious franchise. Has it been refreshing to make an original picture?

This is a wholly original script and that’s what’s so exciting in the land of sequels and reboots. Obviously I’m involved in a lot of movies that have had a lot of sequels, I will shooting in Atlanta soon, number 8 of another movie, which is exciting in its own right, but this is exciting beyond belief that we were able to do something so original. I think the movies that work so well today are the movies that have some original idea to them. Even though sequels are doing amazing and I couldn’t be happier about that, this is truly an original movie and I think that’s what audiences want.

If this was such a fantastic script, why has it taken so long to get it made?

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There were a number of fits and starts maybe because casting came together then fell apart. Honestly I don’t care about the past. All I know is that when I got my hands on what I felt was the best script in Hollywood, I seized my opportunity to make this thing in the best possible way. And I was lucky that Sony endorsed me on the idea and told me to go for it on a big scale. But we’re going for it in a way that suits the movie. We’re not just building big sets to have big sets. We haven’t just hired the two biggest actors in the world right now just because we felt like it. I didn’t get them, the script got them. It got everyone involved.

Can you talk about the budget at all?

For what I think this movie can do, I think this movie will ultimately have a small budget.

It was reported that you asked the director to lower the budget…

I didn’t ask anyone to lower the budget. Someone might have asked me to lower the budget! I think the budget is 100% appropriate for what this movie is. It’s lower than Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar and it’s half the price of any of my last Fast And Furious films have cost. I think everyone will look back in December and ask how we made it for this price.

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Are you paying Jennifer more than Chris? It’s been reported that Jennifer Lawrence is getting one of the highest salaries for a female actor ever, and this is being used as a banner to finally justify a woman getting her worth in a movie.

All I can say is that she’s getting her worth. I don’t want to discuss what she’s being paid but I think they’re both getting what they’re worth. I think they’re both very happy, not only to be paid doing a job they love, but more importantly to get to do this movie.

You mentioned that it has half the budget of a Fast And Furious movie. Is that partly because it’s an original idea?

When there’s a proven track record it’s a lot easier for sure. It validates what you’re going to spend. But there’s been a lot of scrutiny on budgets in Hollywood recently, but that’s true of every movie. I’m prepping Fast And Furious right now and will be having difficult conversations on that one too.

Aside from the budget, what have been the biggest challenges on the film for you?

Dealing with the very difficult schedules of Chris and Jen, getting the sets ready in time for us to shoot, and there’s a lot of visual effects. But every movie is hard to make. I was like this is going to be easy, we’re on a stage so we don’t need to worry about weather or night and day. But every movie presents a set challenges you never expected. They’re all hard. Making movies is glorious and I love it, but it’s hard. Every day is a challenge. You never have enough time or money, no matter how much budget or how long your schedule is. Yesterday they were shooting 15 hours, but I never heard anyone complain.

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Neal Moritz, thank you very much.

Passengers arrives in cinemas on Wednesday 21st December.

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