How do you sum up a film production like Passengers? On-screen, it’s an epic sci-fi love story set hundreds of years in the future featuring a pair of star-crossed lovers woken up early from hyper-sleep and trying to save a seemingly doomed spaceship. Off-screen, it’s an original sci-fi blockbuster that’s spent several years trying to get off the ground but now has a multi-million dollar budget and arguably the two biggest stars in the world, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, as the leads.
Despite the hundreds of crew bustling about their work, carrying cables, moving cameras, descending on the catering truck at lunch (where almost any food you could imagine was available), despite the giant aircraft hangar like proportions of the sound stage, described by producer Neal Moritz as the biggest he’d ever seen (it’s around 40,000 sq ft and is actually two sound-stages with the dividing wall knocked through), despite the vast practical set housed inside this space depicting the grand concourse of the starship Avalon, which is home to 5000 people over five floors and will clock in on-screen at over a mile long, there is actually one word I’d use to sum it up. Passengers, both the production and the film we’ll see, is intimate.
Before I get to why, a brief history of the film.
Passengers has had a somewhat torturous route to the screen. Jon Spaihts, writer of the original draft of Prometheus, as well as Dr Strange, wrote it back in 2007. The script became an instant word of mouth success in Hollywood, as Spaihts himself states: “It travelled laterally through Hollywood. Assistants, and development execs and creative execs passed it to their friends”.
It then topped that year’s Blacklist (of the best unproduced screenplays), and essentially made Spaihts his career as a writer to be reckoned with. Soon it attracted the attention of Keanu Reeves, who came aboard as both a producer and lead for the project. Universal were the studio backers. But then as is the way in Hollywood, casting fell apart, and the studios were unsure about a potentially risky original sci-fi film in a landscape dominated, as it still is, by sequels and franchises. As Spaihts continues: “There were many conservations over the years where big financial interests in Hollywood tried to push us into making the movie more like the other movies, to give us the gun fight, the aliens, the conspiracy that they needed to make them feel safe.”
Passengers began to be regarded as a holy grail of unmade scripts, with the respect for the story as it was originally written almost holding back the actual making of the movie. But then in 2014 when the rights came back on the market, those who had been dreaming of getting their hands on the script acted. One of those was producer Neal Moritz, of Fast & Furious fame. After winning the bidding war, he teamed up with Sony, who were willing to put the budget into realising one of the first tentpole original sci-fi films to come along in years.
So this brings me to a chilly day last November in Atlanta, the new boom town for filmmaking. I’m sat in a Japanese sushi restaurant being told “this is where the holographic fish will be swimming.” I’m actually surprised they aren’t already there, as this incredibly detailed and authentic sushi joint is just one small part of the grand set of the Avalon, but also a believable eatery in its own right. That sums up so much of what we’re shown in the initial tour of the starship’s concourse, a huge shopping arcade so shiny white and bright it immediately made me think of Westfield. That’s a compliment by the way.
There was almost no green-screen on display, bar the upper decks. Every sign, panel, and rivet was there to reach out and touch. The language was a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and English, with the design taking subtle influences from both East and West. The overarching impression was that this was a hopeful (if materialistic) vision of the future, full of bounty and luxury. This isn’t grim dark at all. This is a future you’d actually be happy with your kids living in. Apart from the whole fact that something might be terribly wrong with the spaceship.
While we weren’t told too much about the plot, we did get a few hints and descriptions from Jon Spaihts: “The beginning of the film is Chris alone for 20 minutes. But it’s not like he’s some guy being alone in a bummer. Even in difficult situations Chris is able to find the humour. So he’s here on a worker class ticket, and in one of my favourite scenes he wakes up one morning and is wandering around the ship all alone. He goes to the cafeteria and tries to order a coffee and the first time he tries to get a mocha cappuccino. But he’s not allowed that type of coffee, so he goes all the way down the options until he’s finally allowed a black coffee. Just the way he plays that is brilliant.”
To pass the time, Chris finds himself talking to the only person he can find to have a conversation with onboard, an android barman played by Michael Sheen. Which means there was a bar onboard this spaceship. Honestly, it’s a phenomenal set. Inspired equally by art-deco and Kubrick’s The Shining (make a note of the carpet pattern when you see the film), the bar was a masterpiece of set design. It was better than every house I’ve lived in, and acts a centre-piece to life on-board this vessel, as well as a focal point to the film.
Behind the bar was what looked like an elaborate torture device complete with a seat/kneeling pad, lots of metal, and wires. However, it turns out that it was simply the harness for Michael Sheen, whose robot character doesn’t have legs. Who wants the barman to be legless though? Dad jokes aside, it gave Sheen an inhuman motion as he glided between bottles when we saw him in action later in the day.
However, the machine was something of a surprise to Sheen though when he turned up on set: “It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would have to do that. But then they were like, ‘now you have to sit in this machine for every scene you’re in in the film’. I was actually a bit nervous about it. But even though it’s not the most comfortable thing, it actually becomes part of the character. For instance in that last take I didn’t actually have to be in the machine, I could stand. But now I actually don’t like standing. You symbiotically incorporate everything in a scene into your character, so I am now part-machine.”
Of course though, this isn’t a Chris Pratt drinks alone in a bar with an android Michael Sheen movie. This is very much a two-hander, with the other lead coming in the form of Jennifer Lawrence.
While Pratt’s character Jim has left Earth as he feels his blue collar skill set is no longer needed, Lawrence’s Aurora is a journalist, who believes telling the story of leaving Earth, visiting a new colony, before returning, is a tale that needs to be told. But she might not get to tell that story. In the plot’s most controversial moment, Chris’s character decides he can no longer face being alone, and wakes up Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a moral dilemma for both the film and the audience. On the one hand it’s a despicable act, but on the other it’s a understandable human action. However, things are made more complicated by the fact that Jim and Aurora fall in love. Which brings us back to the bar, as we were invited to watch the pair’s first date scene being shot there.
Crowded round a monitor in an adjoining room, we could finally see how the set would look on-screen. In a word, beautiful. The opulence of the bar, rich with so many details (including an enormous art-deco frieze of the Avalon in flight) and the fact it’s all really there, made you believe you could really be on this starship, years away from Earth, bound for a new life. After the stand-in’s for Pratt and Lawrence had exited the set, it was time for the action to begin. As the stars came through, it was immediate how easy and genuine the rapport seemed between them. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence always seem to be two Hollywood mega stars you could imagine going for an enjoyable pint after work with, and nothing I saw on set dispelled this notion.
As we watched, the pair (with Michael Sheen on excellent android barman duties) run through the scene several times, before shooting for real. It was a simple set-up, the awkward first date complete with an update on how the two could survive the long trip. Aurora is yet to discover Jim was the one to wake her, which must put this scene in the first half of the film. But as we watched, something seemed off. The energy of the scene felt flat. Perhaps the fact we were several months into the shoot was starting to tell? But then after a few takes, it transformed. I can’t tell you exactly what happened, but suddenly I understood why these two were stars, and not just actors. It seemed once they were settled and warmed up, the mega-watt charisma was turned on. The lines flowed easily, the chemistry connected, and you could believe in the love story. Even Michael Sheen, quietly stealing the movie from his mechanical harness, faded into the background.
I think they chose to show us that scene for a reason, and it goes back to my beginning paragraph. This is a film that has all the trappings of a huge sci-fi disaster movie, but actually concerns itself with themes of isolation, forgiveness, and the inner life of a relationship. It’s a film with a tiny cast, and despite the dramatic scale of the set, seemed to have the feel of of a small stage show, where the actors seem to reach out to the audience each night.
It wasn’t just me who felt this. The cast and crew each spoke of similar feelings. There was a camaraderie on-set which couldn’t be faked. A lot of that came from the film’s genesis. It was a personal project that had gone on a journey of its own, shepherded by Jon Spaihts, the original writer.
As I caught up with him by the craft services (he helpfully showed me how to use the fancy pod coffee machine), he explained his connection to the film, and one which I think everyone involved with it felt. Rather than just hand his script in and collect the pay-check, Spaihts explained: “I’m here everyday. I didn’t want to be on the sidelines consoling myself, or it to be a testament to my ego. Instead I can be useful and make meaningful contributions. It’s amazing to see my hugely personal script come to life.”
We’ll see just how it’s all come together on December 21st.