Morten Tyldum on ‘Passengers’ and all those Kubrickian Easter eggs
Director Morten Tyldum came into the spotlight with the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game. Tyldum was nominated for an Oscar and fans eagerly awaited to see what the Norweigan director would take on as his next project. In 2015, Tyldum signed on to direct the film for Sony Pictures. We were lucky enough to talk with Tyldum about the film and his love for all things Kubrick.
What is it like making the jump from a biopic like The Imitation Game to a sci-fi film like Passengers?
In all my films, I like films that are character driven and I like characters that have to make extreme choices. [Those] put into extraordinary situations and then they have to figure out what to do and what is the right choice to do. I think there’s something very appealing about that. As it turned out, that’s something that you’ll see in all my movies.
That to me was the most appealing thing [about Passengers]. To me, the way I shoot and direct a movie, I want to have the story dictate how it’s going to look and what is needed. I follow the characters, in a way. Both movies there’s an intimacy and a scope. The Imitation Game is an intimate story about a man and his struggle but the big backdrop is in World War II. The same thing goes for Passengers, it’s an epic sci-fi but at the same time it’s an intimate movie about a relationship. So, I think that’s very appealing to have both [movies] have a big scope but at the same time are very intimate.
The film has a variety of genres including romance, sci-fi, drama, and mystery. Was it difficult juggling all of these genres?
It’s a huge challenge. It’s definitely the biggest challenge of this film. You have all of that and I like movies where you cannot just put it in a box. Where you’ll just take it out and say it’s an action or it’s a drama. As you said, it’s a movie that starts off one way and it transforms itself a little bit and forms itself again.
That is challenging. When we were shooting, everybody was surprised on how complicated it was to shoot the film. The studio was like, “why do you have to build all of this? It’s a relationship story.” I was like, “yes, but it takes place in the biggest, coolest spaceship you’ve ever been to.” And to me, performance is very important. I didn’t want to do a lot of green screen because acting is reacting. You respond to surroundings, you respond to other actors, and you respond to what’s around you. So, I wanted everything to be practical sets. I built everything and there were these huge sets with very few actors in it. Every robot you see are practical robots that moved around.
Yeah, yeah. We enhanced them with CGI but yeah, there were robots there so the actors can react to them.
That actually brings me to my next question because a lot of directors nowadays are trying to make a push for the use of practical effects as opposed to heavy CGI. In your opinion, why was the use of practical effects and practical sets important for a film like Passengers?
It is important for a character-driven film like Passengers. Every time they’re in front of the camera, there’s a big emotion. There’s either intense love or hatred or anger or fear or they’re about to die. [laughs] There’s big emotion and how can you ask them to really go deep and to give really strong performances when they’re standing in nothing but green screen.
I tried to create lighting effects and [practical] sets and the actors were there. We had a lot of robots that would be mechanically moved so it’s actually easier for them to be there and immerse themselves in the situation. I think you can actually see that in the performance and I think it would’ve been impossible in front of a green screen set.
These days Hollywood is focused on making sci-fi films as grand and expensive as they can be. A small intimate sci-fi film like Passengers is a rarity. Did you feel any pressure or any concern about making this film a success so we can get more films like this?
Well, first of all. you [sit] in a bubble and all you care about is the movie itself and what the movie needs without thinking too much about the consequences. But yeah, I think it’s nice but at the same time, I wanted to show that this movie also has scope. I wanted to make a few scenes that you haven’t seen before like Jen drowning in the pool [when the ship loses gravity]. We wanted to show that this movie can be both. That you can have smart stories that are about people then you can have big visual effects and big epic scenes.
It’s an unusual story, it’s not a typical Hollywood story because it’s a different kind of story. I think there’s room for that. Now, in a world where you mostly see franchise movies and remakes, I’m blessed to actually tell an original story and it’s a story that has important themes. I hope and think that people will be talking about it when they walk out of the cinema. That they’ll be discussing, “would you have done it? What would you have done?” I wanted this to be a popcorn movie, but I wanted this to be a popcorn movie that makes you think. That’s what I love about movies is that you bring something out of it. You’re not just trashing your popcorn then it’s over and you’re done and forget about it.
Chris, Jen, Michael, and even Jon have delved into big Hollywood tentpole films, would you be interested in doing a tentpole film if given the opportunity? Is there a franchise that would be like a dream job for you?
I’ve had some meetings with some of the big franchise studios and if it’s the right project like if it’s the right story… I always surprise myself what I end up doing because I have to, sort of, let myself be in love with the story. I have to be obsessed about it because you’re going to have to be dealing with it for about two years. So, if you don’t really, really care about that story then don’t do it. If it’s a superhero movie or if it’s a franchise movie that I go, “wow, this is interesting. There’s an interesting dilemma here. There’s something in this that I really like to explore. This is something that’s interesting for me as a filmmaker” then I’d be more than happy to do it. Or I’d end up doing a small independent movie next time because that’s the story I fell in love with. That’s the beauty of it because I’m being drawn to something which is important for me personally. If people react differently to it than I do, then that’s fine. That’s why it’s called art. There’s something personal in this story for me which is important for me and that’s how it will be for every movie.
Can we talk about your apparent love for Kubrick because when I watched Passengers I could tell that Kubrick was a huge influence. Was Passengers the film where you thought to yourself: I have this big Kubrickian itch I have to scratch and this is my opportunity?
Definitely. [laughs] There’s a few Easter eggs for Kubrick fans where they can see very specific set elements from at least three Kubrick movies. I said, “I want, not just to be inspired by it, but I want THAT.” These specific things will be popping up in my movie so people can find it for themselves.
In every Kubrick movie, the set and surrounding are like a character in itself. The Shining, of course, is a big example but also in 2001 [with] the space station. Every detail in the sets is such an important part of the story. I felt that the spaceship Avalon is a character in itself. The way that Kubrick treats the sets and how the character is put in its surroundings is something I was very inspired by when I was doing Passengers. It felt very natural to do a literal tribute to him. It’s also fun because our production designer (Guy Hendrix Dyas) is also a big Kubrick fan and it was fun to put those little Easter eggs in there and sprinkle them in the movie.
Can I ask what the third Kubrick movie is?
I’m not going to do it! [laughs] You’re going to have to find it! I’m looking forward to when the movie comes out and I’m going to browse the film geek sites to see if they can find what we put in there. It’s a fun little thing for film geeks.
Did you pull inspiration from any other directors or was it strictly Kubrick?
Yeah. Like with wardrobe, there was a lot of inspiration from early Steve McQueen movies and Marlon Brando when he was young. I said, “this is how I feel Chris’ character should be dressed and how he should be feeling.” We looked a lot backward and forward. We looked at modern computer design and a lot of research on the science part.
Then we also looked back in time because there’s a sort of lost masculinity in Chris’ character. In a world where nothing is being repaired, like if your car breaks down you have no idea how to repair it. If this breaks down, I’ll just throw it away. Nobody fixes things anymore. So, a character who wants to build things with his hands and to do things, he’s obsolete. There’s no need for him in a society like that. This is part of a masculinity that is more or less [gone]. The one who survives in the woods and builds things for himself. Those skills are gone a little bit. So, we look back on it as the masculinity that is caring, building, and constructing. That’s what I wanted for Chris’ character. It’s fun to do sci-fi and look back as much as we look forward. I wanted this to be a film that isn’t just about the future but about our history and the past.
Passengers travels into theaters on December 21st.