Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick interview: Life, original scripts

The writers of Deadpool and Life talk to us about writing original sci-fi scripts, big-budget horror more...

Something dreadful lurks on the International Space Station, awoken from its centuries of slumber by curious scientists. A microscopic organism brought back from Mars soon displays a worrying ability to grow and break limbs – and before long, the station’s crew realises that the creature has to be kept away from Earth at all costs.

Writing duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick scored a huge hit with Deadpool last year, but Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa, represents something very different. A straight-ahead, tense genre thriller, it’s not based on an existing franchise or comic book, and it doesn’t appear to have been written with some vast future movie universe in mind. Instead, it delivers 104 minutes of claustrophobic mayhem, with a sterling cast – including Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds –  and a commitment to present-day, Gravity-style realism separating it from all those other space monster movies from years past.

As Life arrives on DVD and Blu-ray, we caught up with Reese and Wernick to talk about Life’s origins, its unusual status as a relatively expensive studio horror movie, and what it’s like trying to write and sell original screenplays in modern Hollywood.

Life has an interesting genesis, because it originated with David Ellison [producer and head of production company, Skydance Studios].

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Paul Wernick: Yes, he pitched us the idea, kind of a one-line idea, about bringing a sample back from Mars and it coming to life. And the image that really stuck with us is the astronauts aboard the ISS, looking through that cupola window that actually exists on the ISS, and looking down on Earth, and really, it being so close, home being so close but not being able to return. That, to us, was a haunting image, and one we connected with in a way that we built it out based on his one line, and then pitched to him. We wrote it, he went off and made it, so it was a pretty seamless process from start to finish, relative to what mostly happens in Hollywood.

It’s interesting, because it was an assignment – the concept wasn’t yours – but then it’s not based on a comic book, like Dead Pool or something like that. You could have taken it in any direction.

Rhett Reese: You make a good point, in that it was an assignment, but it was as close to a blank slate as you could be given. So in a lot of ways it resembled a spec, except for the fact that we had to pitch it – we didn’t just go off and start writing it. Paul and I went away for a month or two and slowly worked out the movie based on his idea. We used that as our jumping-off point, and then we went back and pitched the story, and I think it really popped for us when we envisioned what the creature could be capable of; we didn’t want to make it a higher intelligence necessarily, but we wanted to make it a real survival machine.

We wanted to create something that people hadn’t quite seen before in a protoplasmic form, and where every cell of the creature was identical to every other cell of the creature, and it was able to do any number of different things. I think, once we had that locked in, then it became really fun; it’s like, we have our sandbox, that being the ISS, we had all our toys, we had our technology, we had our characters, and we had our bad guy. We got to play, and I think the joy of us playing and coming up with all the things that happen was what really worked for David and the guys, and they went ahead and hired us. 

What’s the process of writing between you guys like? If you’re coming up with all these horrific moments, how do bounce those ideas between each other?

PW: We sit in the same room as we break story, so we do a lot of research. What’s great about the internet these days is that it’s right at your fingertips. All these astronauts have Twitter feeds, there’s all these articles and great stories about life aboard the ISS. And we arm ourselves with all that information and all the stories, then talk about broad strokes – how the story lays out, and the specific moments, and we kick around ideas.

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To us, what was most important was that the movie be grounded, that it doesn’t feel like science fiction, but science fact, that this could actually happen. This isn’t 1,000 years into the future; there isn’t some anti-grav machine spinning around the ISS. The astronauts will be floating about, so I think grounded, realistic, and yet imaginative, with this creature’s methodical attack on humanity aboard the ISS. Once we lay out an outline, we lay it out on a cork board, and it’s pretty specific, then we go off and write in our separate offices, and trade scenes back and forth until it melds into one voice. That’s the nitty-gritty of our particular process.  

Right. There are so many monsters-in-space movies, but so few get it right: so few are scary, so few are as intense as Life, in my opinion. So how do you avoid the pitfalls – of writing just another B-movie?

PW: One, we were blessed with a budget and an A-list cast. And I think that helps tremendously. Then I think you have to look at the other movies and look at the specific cliches and try to avoid them. Like, for instance – I’ll just give you one – we were desperate to avoid the cliche of the representative among the crew who has some kind of corporate interest. Who wanted to somehow keep the creature alive in order to bring it back to Earth in order to study it, or whatever. That was a wonderful idea back in Alien and Aliens, but it’s one that’s really been overused. It was crucial to us that our crew act intelligently, and all in the interests of each other and the mission and sparing humanity. 

I think, in any number of cases, probably, we looked at the things that had come before and had been used a lot and said, “We’re not going to do that.” Obviously, there are certain tropes that will always be a part of a movie like this – people getting knocked off one by one. But we did our best to try to chart our own path, because we’re always mindful of the fact that we’re not the first space alien movie – there have been lots before us. We were just trying to be as original as we could. 

Do you think there’s a tendency, sometimes, to over complicate these kinds of scripts? 

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RR: Absolutely. Yeah, and that goes back to “There’s a guy on board who has ulterior motives who works for a big corporation”, like, it’s quite simple. A creature looking survive. The creature has that one simple goal, as do the astronauts. They too have one simple goal – that’s to protect us from this creature. It can never, ever return to Earth. Two very simple goals in a very contained, claustrophobic environment. It’s a perfect recipe.

PW: We did our research on astronauts, and what you find is that, astronauts have strict protocols to perform. They’re always answerable to Houston and to the committees on the ground that decide how they’re going to do things and the steps they’re going to take. They often feel like meat puppets, as Ryan Reynolds says in the movie; they don’t feel like they have autonomy. We wanted to create a situation where that was robbed from them, and then as the creature started attacking them and broke their communication lines with Earth, they have to act completely autonomously and independently. That means killing the creature. They make the decision: “We’re going to kill it. We’re not going to mess around with it, we’re not going to be mindful of the fact that it’s a new species.” We wanted to give our astronauts that ability, and we thought it would be really fun, that decision-making under dire circumstances. 

I love the darkness of the ending. It’s a brave thing to put into a film at this budget level, so I wonder whether there was any push back against that, or whether it was embraced at the beginning. 

RR: It was always embraced from the beginning. I guess, sticking to the realism of it, we didn’t want to mismatch the tone of a happy ending with the dire nature of the rest of what was going on in the movie. I think it was embraced, boldly by Skydance and David Ellison, and when Daniel [Espinosa, director] first read the draft, he latched onto it. It was a non-negotiable point for him once he came aboard with it. “This is the ending”. He knew in Hollywood that there probably be some push-back: “No, you can’t end the movie this way. Not with these stars and not at this budget level.” He just insisted. “This has to be.” It was the tone of the story he was trying to tell, and to do it any other way would be inconsistent. Brave decisions on everyone’s part.

PW: I’d also make the case that, if you’re a horror fan and you haven’t seen the movie, this is about the highest-budget horror movie you’ll ever see. I mean, there may be Alien: Covenant, because of that history and that franchise has the proven ability to make money, so they spend money. But we’re used to seeing horror movies as being no more than $5m to $10m spent. They’re allowed to have very bleak endings, and usually do, because that’s the chance you can take at that budget level.

This budget number is pretty high by horror standards – maybe as high as it’s ever had. There was a real danger of the studio system stepping in and applying a studio ending to what is essentially a horror movie that demands a horror ending. But it was all due to the integrity of those folks that it didn’t happen. I’d encourage horror fans, if they haven’t seen it, then see it, because you’re rarely gonna see your favourite genre done at this level with a cast this top-notch. It’s pretty cool.

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I agree. What do you think Daniel Espinosa brought to it, because I think the great thing is, he’s not a typical, dyed-in-the-wool genre director. He brings a very different tone to it.

RR: He’s fantastic. He was very protective of the script and the story we wanted to tell, and visually, that oner [one-take sequence] at the top of the movie that he does is art at its finest. He brings a visual style and a way of telling the story, and he’s wonderful with the actors – getting into backstory, dealing with who they are and why they are the way they are. It was a pleasure to work with him. 

It’s an interesting point you made about horror being made at this budget level. But there’s also the case that original science fiction ideas set in the present are on the ascendancy again.

RR: Christopher Nolan has as much to do with that as anybody.

PW: Original movies are few and far between these days, just because of tentpoles and studios making fewer and fewer movies and taking fewer and fewer risks. The great thing about David is, he’s willing to take those risks. He embraces them, and the studio system is such that it follows past trends, and a movie doesn’t succeed or fail because of a similar movie or genre before it. A movie succeeds or fails depending on whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s marketed correctly, and whether it’s told in a style that the audience relates to. So to us, we like move around the tentpoles that we do, like Deadpool. We always love to put out an original movie as often as we can, and as often as s

tudios will allow us to take that risk. 

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Do you think with Netflix and smaller studios like Blumhouse, that there’s more of a chance for screenwriters to get spec scripts and original scripts made again?

PW: The bummer of the movie business is there’s been a real bifurcation, where you only really get very expensive movies or cheap movies, and it’s the middle movies that you’re finding are going away. Hopefully the thrillers, the dramas, the things we used to go to the movies to see, are now really reserved for television. And so what you get are a vast number of independent movies, and then a small number of huge tentpole movies that come out every couple of weeks over the course of a year.

But you miss the movies in between, and I think those movies tended to be original, because with a big budget you want to protect your downside by having a brand or have it be based on a toy or comic book. What we would really love, and hopefully this will happen with the Netflixes of the world and the companies that are starting to make movies for straight-to-video, essentially, like Amazon, we’d love for those middle-range movies to find their place again. Because there’s a real healthy tradition in American cinema of film noir and dramas and thrillers. 

So between this and something like Deadpool, are studios getting more of an appetite for trying different things, like an R-rated superhero movie? Are they realising they need to break out of the formula a bit? 

RR: We hope so! We hope so. It just all depends on success or failure. If you get a string of these movies that don’t do well, then studios become more fearful. If you get a string of original movies that do well, then studios become more bullish. So it’s all about trust, and our job as screenwriters and filmmakers is to have the studio trust us, and if we can deliver on that trust, then we get more trust, then we get to make more movies that interest us – that are original and cool and left-of-centre. So our job is to write the best stuff we can, and to write stuff that we want to see and interests us. Whether that’s original fare or tentpole stuff, it entirely revolves around trust. So that’s our primary job from start to finish.

PW: I mentioned Christopher Nolan, too. I really think Christopher Nolan has been instrumental recently in creating a niche for original screenplays. Screenwriters are not often the source of stories – they just aren’t. They’re usually brought in on assignment. But Christopher Nolan is the exception, and with Interstellar – and James Cameron with Avatar – these top filmmakers have gotten huge by making original things as opposed to existing brands. They prove to the studios that there’s a big market for those kinds of things. 

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Absolutely. One final question, then, on that topic. I think you guys have another original sci-fi script that’s still in the pipeline: Epsilon

RR: Yeah, it’s called Epsilon, and it’s at Sony. It’s going through the studio system, and as these things sometimes do, we made a big splashy sale with it, it was a spec script that we wrote, and now it’s all about that trust. It’s them believing in the story, and believing there’s an audience for it, and wanting to push forward. 

PW: We also have another original science fiction project over at Universal, which is called Earth Versus Moon that we love. We pitched it and wrote it after that, so we’ve got a couple of scripts out there if we can convince the right people in the right place to trust us.

Well, I hope you do! Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, thank you very much.

Life is out on DVD and Blu-ray from the 31st July.