The Evolution of Passengers

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts discusses his decade-long quest to see Passengers reach the screen.

The last time we spoke with screenwriter Jon Spaihts, it was to discuss his work on Doctor Strange, and we touched briefly on his long-developing baby Passengers. Spaihts wrote the script a decade ago; it made Hollywood’s Black List of best unproduced screenplays in 2007, then began a long journey – not quite the 120 years that the ship in the story, the Avalon, is traveling, but close enough in Tinseltown terms – to the screen, passing through the hands of various studios and filmmakers, until it finally settled at Sony, with director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence bringing Spaihts’ tale to the screen.

The two stars play passengers aboard an interstellar voyage who awaken early from their century-plus sleep and must deal with the consequences of knowing that they will never see their destination and only have each other. While the film is getting a mixed reaction from critics as it opens this week – with one element of the story in particular creating a lot of discussion – there’s no question that Passengers is still the latest in a new wave of science fiction movies that actually use hard science to tell their stories and aim for a higher level of intelligence and character development than Hollywood has normally afforded this genre.

We spoke about this, the origins of the project and more with Spaihts, who is currently adapting Joe Haldeman’s classic novel of interstellar warfare, The Forever War, and who has also contributed screenwriting work to films like Prometheus, the upcoming The Mummy, and the yet-to-be-produced remake of Disney’s The Black Hole.

Den of Geek: What was the genesis of the idea for the story 10 years ago, or whenever you first had it?

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Jon Spaihts: I was working with a production company called Company Films, and we were trying to find a movie to do together, and I had pitched them something out of my notebook. A kind of noir, sci-fi story that took a big hook into deep sci-fi at the end. They chewed it over for a little while, and in the end, they came back and said, “Look, we don’t think this is the story for us, but we love the image in this story of a man stranded alone in space. Is there a story that might begin there?” I thought, “Okay, that’s an interesting question.”

Right there on the phone I started riffing, and instantly long haul colony ships came to mind as enormously isolated places. For a moment, I toyed with the notion of a kind of caretaker or lighthouse keeper who would ride those ships and tend all the sleeping passengers, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “That’s never how you’d set that up. It’s too long. Nobody would volunteer for that job.” So the idea came to me of someone waking up by accident, waking up too soon, being unable to get back to sleep, and it was kind of riveting. That would be the loneliest person in the universe.

I started riffing on the phone about what would happen next, and it seemed like the events of a story unfolded from the premise until this whole spine of the movie was born in one 30-minute telephone riff. That led to months of outlining and years of writing and developing, and trying to get the movie made, but in all that time, the spine of the story never changed. It was really born to answer that one question: what if you started with a man stranded alone in space.

The script made the Black List in 2007 and then went into development for years. During that whole period of time, did you tweak it? Did you revise it? Has it evolved much?

It was revised incrementally at many points over the course of nearly a decade. Most of those changes were small, and a lot of them reverted to the mean when a certain effort to get a movie made failed. There were a few times, in trying to get the movie made, we started developing in a different direction with a filmmaker, but when that filmmaker moved on or the project moved on, we sort of returned it to what we thought was the best form of the story.

The thing that evolved most was the ending. The consummation of the love story, and of the crisis, and the exact form of the epilogue. The body of the story has never changed very much, and there are a lot of scenes in the film, on screen, that are essentially unchanged from the first draft. There’s a lot of scenes, the character scenes that just landed and stuck. Some of the logistical matters evolved over time, the sci-fi and the ending.

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What made this one particularly personal to you, in the sense that you stayed with it as the sole writer all these years? That’s a rare thing in Hollywood.

Yes, having succeeded in staying in the saddle from end to end is a rare thing. The fact is that I could have a long and successful career, and never be the only writer on something again. But this was an extraordinary stroke of luck for me, and to have been so intimately involved in the production, on set every day, engaged in design questions, character questions, directing questions, just deeply engaged.

Even performing, I played the roles of all the AIs on the ship on set, on the day, speaking through a microphone. I got to play scenes with Laurence Fishburne, and Jennifer Lawrence, and Chris Pratt, which was great fun. You can actually still hear my voice in the movie in the role of the Autodoc.

And still to be engaged in post-production, all the way down to the finishing line, that was an extraordinary journey. That coupled with the fact that this was a story invented from whole cloth, completely original story, does make it more personal than anything I’ve gotten made, yet. I hope this is not the last time, because this kind of storytelling experience is the dream that brought me to Hollywood. It’s what I came here to do, and I very much hope to do a lot more of it.

Do you remember the craziest note you ever got on the script from a studio?

There tend to be a lot of those. The nuttiest notes were the ones we tended to get directly from big studios when we went to them, because the story is unusual in its shape. It doesn’t have an antagonist. It’s a survival story, and I think a lot of executives had preconceptions about what science fiction was or had to be.

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A lot of the early notes we got talking to studios were mid-level execs saying, “But couldn’t there be aliens on board? What if there was an alien on the ship? Or what if there was a conspiracy, and there were some sort of dark human force, and other people would wake up and there would be guns?” I had to push back and say, “That is very much not the vision. We didn’t accidentally omit villains from the story. It flows as it does for a reason. There’s a purpose. We’re getting something done here.” That was the wave of notes that we had to beat back as we tried to carry the movie toward the finish line, was the thrust to turn it into a movie more like all the other movies.

The antagonist in the film is time, in a way, and the ship is like a metaphor for life.


You’re on this voyage. You think it’s going to go a certain way, and things don’t go the way you expected, or you don’t have as much time as you thought you had.

Very much so, and even more specifically, I think, the journey of the ship is a metaphor for love. I think every love affair between two people is like a ship that no one else can see into. It is a voyage that no one else can completely understand from the outside. It is inevitably a voyage that doesn’t take you exactly where you hoped or thought it might go.

A lot of the art of living is the art of living the life your given, and not pining for the life you wish for. In that way, as outlandish as the events of the movie are, I think there are things in it that we all connect to and all relate to, because I think many, many relationships have these elements, even if they unfold in less fantastic settings.

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One of the other things that’s interesting is that you made the ship more like a luxury cruise than a scientific voyage.

Yes, there’s a blue tinted, sheet-steel, technical view of the future that is very prevalent in sci-fi filmmaking, and I’m weary of it. I wanted to see more variation. I love the notion of the Homestead Company as a profit seeking business that was in the very high stakes, and vastly capital intensive game of locating and grooming colony planets, and then populating them with people, and selling passengers a vision of a new life and a future of a virgin world.

From that notion necessarily came the vision of a ship that would be part of a sales pitch. A voyage that would appeal to the romance in the human heart, and people’s yearning for rebirth, for the golden age of nautical exploration; the idea of traveling between the stars in grand style. The ship was always imagined as a luxury ship, and part of the blandishment to lure people away from Earth and out into the colony worlds.

Did you do research into the theoretical effects of this kind of travel?

Yeah. I looked at the mathematics of time dilation and relativity, which actually are not major players at a mere 50% of light speed. I looked at possible destinations for the ship, and what direction it would be flying, and what things it might fly past. Trying to put the most amazing things I could outside the windows while staying within the realm of the rational in terms of what the ship might encounter on a voyage that can’t be longer than 50 or 60 light years.

Something I read a lot is, “You know for a science fiction movie that was pretty deep.” Or “That was pretty intelligent,” which kind of ignores the entire basis and history of the genre. But we seem to be in a space where films are coming out and pushing back against that.

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I hope we’re moving past it. There’s often a confusion between genre and setting. There was a time when if you told people that a movie was a Western, they knew that there would be lawmen, and gunfighters, and six guns, but in fact, to be a Western is merely to set your story in a time and place. That story can be a horror movie, as we’ve seen recently a couple of times. It can be a love story; it can be a philosophical meditation. It can be a war story. It can be a heroic journey, or an anti-heroic journey.

Similarly, to be a science fiction film is merely to incorporate fantastical elements and probably to be set in the future. But within that setting, a film can play out in any genre, and a story can take any shape. It can be huge or small, dark or light, straightforward or twisted, and I’m glad to see science fiction storytelling diversifying and exploring all of those avenues. I hope that fine art and high drama are on the menu, and that Passengers is moving there.

You are adapting The Forever War, one of the classic science fiction novels of the last 50 years. But there are elements of that book that people could, I guess, twist to their ends these days — the idea of homosexuality encouraged by the government to  keep the population down, or that these guys come back and everybody on Earth is speaking a language they don’t understand. How are you dealing with those aspects of the story?

I mean, I think The Forever War, as a novel, has found a beautiful science fiction metaphor for veterans, for what it means to be a soldier returning from the war and find that your homeland has changed while you were away. People are listening to new music and dressing differently, and talking different things, and for many the war is out of sight and out of mind, and the whole life altering experience you’ve just been through is invisible to them. The Forever War found in the time dilation and the time slippage of long haul flight between the stars, a perfect dramatization of that experience.

Some of it I think is very much dated. People coming back from Vietnam found the sexual revolution and the flower children waiting for them, the overturning of sexual mores and social mores, and so I think the book has a fixation with sexual orientation which is very much of its time. We live in a different time, so I am finding new ways to depict the change of culture that is alienating and disorientating for returning soldiers. The film will not have the same fixation with homosexuality that the book does.

Last time we spoke, we touched on some other projects you’ve worked on recently, but one I missed was The Black Hole. What’s happened with that?

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I don’t know. I love the script I wrote. I love the original film despite its strangeness and its goofiness, and I wrote a script that I think is actually deeply faithful to the original script while replacing everything in it that was ludicrous with something smart. It’s a big, dark, sci-fi epic, and Disney already has its hands full with sci-fi epics, so I don’t know whether it’s going to find a home, but I would certainly love for it to see the light of day.

Passengers is now playing.