Jon Spaihts on his inspiration for ‘Passengers’, his love for ‘The Forever War’, and whether he’d be interested in directing
Jon Spaihts is having quite an epic month and a half. Doctor Strange and Passengers are all being released a month and a half apart and the trailer for The Mummy just released two weeks ago. The commonality of those films is its screenwriter, Jon Spaihts. We were lucky enough to talk with Spaihts about his strong months, Passengers, and a few of his upcoming projects.
Where did the inspiration for Passengers come from? Did it come organically from an idea or was it something that you had to write right away?
It floated in part with a desire to explore science fiction that was not dystopian or post-apocalyptic. I wanted to imagine a future that was aspirational and offered the hopes and dreams that we might all share. Specifically, I became fascinated with the dilemma of someone being stranded alone in space, fascinated by the vastness of distances between the stars, and the solitude that that predicament offered.
So, I started thinking about colony ships making the long flight between stars, everyone asleep, some person waking up too soon and having no way to join the other sleepers and get back on track. I was just fascinated by that and the consequences, the inevitable at moves that that person would make seemed to unfold of their own accord and formed the spine of the story of Passengers. It really, almost, gave birth to itself in my imagination.
What I loved about Passengers was the way it made me question people’s morality and human nature, in general. Was it your intention to craft the story in a way to get people to talk philosophically afterward?
Yes, you are singing my song. Nothing would make me happier than have audiences walk out of this movie and talk all night about what they would’ve done, what choices they would’ve made, and how they think they would’ve acted. Ultimately, it is a story about moral choices, about the nature of love and about the way we choose to live. Making the choice to live the life we’re given rather than pining after the life we expected or intended to live. I think the ethical questions in the center of the movie are why it fascinates me. I think it will resonate with audiences and I hope they will resonate with audiences that they will start conversations.
What do you enjoy about writing big tentpole films like Doctor Strange and Prometheus versus something smaller and more intimate like Passengers?
Regardless of the financial scale of the movie, I like big ideas. A jaw-dropping idea can be passed between two people across a dinner table in very close quarters, but it’s really the big idea that I’m most in love with. That’s sort of the common thread between Doctor Strange, Prometheus, and Passengers. They’re all movies that grapple with huge questions: The origins of humanity, the nature of destiny and fate, what we’re capable of forgiving or living with for love, whether we’re capable of the ultimate selfless act of attaining enlightenment. These are the questions that draw me.
Is there a particular genre that you’re interested in exploring next?
Well, now I am presently adapting The Forever War which is a seminal sci-fi novel written by Joe Haldeman in the 70s. That [novel] is an extraordinary war story that has a beautiful love story built into it. It’s set in the far future and unfolds across the span of 1400 years and I’m writing that right now for Channing Tatum over at Warner Bros. I love that story; I’ve loved it ever since I read it as a kid. I read it many, many times, and it’s a thrill and a privilege to be able to work on it.
Do you put pressure on yourself in adapting The Forever War because you’ve loved that novel for so long?
Oh, it’s easy to be paralyzed by the possibility of getting it wrong, but whenever I feel that way I just have to remind myself that the reason I love it is that it has amazing bones. It is a great story in a fundamental way and all I have to do is trust it, let it be itself, and it’s going to be great. I don’t need to make it great, I just need to help it get born into the world of film.
You’ve had a very good month with Passengers out on Wednesday, Doctor Strange being released last month and the trailer for The Mummy dropping a few weeks ago. How do you feel about having these talented and prolific actors speaking the words that you wrote?
Well, it’s amazing because it’s what’s you get into the game for. Even when you’ve been rewritten in the theater and you’re watching someone playing out the story that you designed even though the dialogue has changed, that’s thrilling. When something is made very faithfully like when I sat there and watched Doctor Strange or Passengers, I’m hearing a lot of my words. Passengers is all me, Doctor Strange is a lot me. I sit in those theaters and my exact lines and tropes are playing out. It’s electrifying and as I said, it’s the thing you get into the game for.
It’s a happy accident that all these movies are preceding onto movie screens so closely grouped. It’s been four years since Prometheus came out and I have been working constantly since then. To the point where I desperately need a vacation. But a lot of that work is invisible to the public because there are projects slowly moving forward that can take many years. Of course, some things never get made at all; no matter how well you did your job. This is just the flip side of the last four years where I’ve been completely invisible to people outside the industry because I’ve been in my workshop grinding away on things moving forward. Suddenly, just as [laughs] the whim of the Hollywood conveyor belt would have it several things are landing at once. But it is pretty exciting. There were a few weeks as I was driving around Los Angeles, I couldn’t look anywhere without seeing a billboard for Doctor Strange or Passengers. They were overlapping all over town and I have to admit that was pretty amazing.
Now regarding The Mummy, were you a fan of the classic Universal Monsters movies when you got the call to write The Mummy?
Yes, absolutely. The original Boris Karloff movie was an odd film. It’s really compelling and hard to forget and Karloff in that make-up is just indelible. It an interestingly upside-down movie like a lot of the monster movies, really, where the monsters are the interesting part. In that original Boris Karloff Mummy movie, the love story between the mummy and his long-lost lover is an epic Romeo and Juliet tale. The nominal hero and heroine are just a sort of, shallow, good-looking people in the foreground who never become terribly interesting. But the mummy is fascinating and his lost lover is fascinating. I think a lot of the classic Universal monster movies have that inversion where we’re really interested in Frankenstein’s monster or the werewolf. The people in the foreground are just there to give the monster someone to scare. But yes, I am a fan of the black-and-white movies. I love The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s weird but fascinating. Because they have amazing elements in them, they are ripe for reinvention and refreshing.
Now I’m sure you can’t talk that much about The Mummy but the director of that film, Alex Kurtzman, is a member of your screenwriting fraternity. Would you ever be interested in making the leap into directing?
Yes, I think I’m inevitably moving in that direction. Certainly, having been so close to the physical production of Passengers. [I was] on-set every day and working so closely with the production team only cemented that interest for me. It was a great film school; to be so close to the film throughout prep, production, and post.
What is it about the experience that gave you the itch to direct?
I think there are different kinds of writers. Some are not very social, they like being at home with a computer and out of the public eye. But I’m social, I like people. I’ve been an executive in small companies before and I like running things. I’m an avid photographer and I think a lot about framing, about lighting, and about optics. I did a lot of theater and acting back in college. I also think a lot about performance so I’m just one of those writers who has an opinion about everything. I think those writers tend to become directors.
Would you write the screenplay for your directorial debut or would you go off of another screenwriter’s script that you thought was amazing?
I like creating things so I would always choose to write something from a blank page for myself to direct.
Passengers travels into theaters on December 21st.