Perhaps it’s because he refuses to live in LA or he tends to liken the way he makes movies to the classics he grew up on, but when Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa was given the chance to direct the sci-fi thriller “Life,” he didn’t see a blockbuster. Instead, he saw a chamber piece about life back on earth.
“People compare this to ‘Alien,’ but this is a movie that takes place now,” Espinosa recently told Business Insider from his home in Sweden. “Back in the 1970s people speculated what our future would be, this is a somewhat realistic piece. Yes, it’s the feel of an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ or a zombie movie like ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ but its reality comes from Raymond Chandler.”
The movie follows a group of scientists on the International Space Station who discover life on Mars, but while studying it, that life becomes deadly and takes out the crew one by one. It all ends with a dramatic conclusion you never see coming, and that’s what hooked Espinosa.
“I wanted to make the two turns in the movie the essence of the picture,” he said, referring to the alien suddenly turning on the crew and the surprise ending. “But also have the characters have a complex past that would reflect on their actions. Normally in American movies that doesn’t really happen. You get everything told to you. In this movie all these characters had their secrets and that’s why they react certain ways.”
To explore those complexities, Espinosa got some of the biggest stars in the world to join him: Ryan Reynolds, who was Espinosa’s first call, as the two had worked together on the director’s 2012 film, “Safe House”; then Jake Gyllenhaal; and finally rising star Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”).
But there was one other person Espinosa had to reach out to before taking on the film: Ridley Scott. Though the legendary director has no real direct involvement in “Life,” his fingerprints are all over the story, written by “Deadpool” screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, which very much resembles Scott’s “Alien.”
“Once I decided to do ‘Life’ he gave the blessing right away,” said Espinosa, who had a relationship with Scott already as he was a producer on Espinosa’s 2015 movie “Child 44.” “He has always been encouraging of my work and he didn’t think it was an ‘Alien’ rip-off at all. I actually had the opportunity to spend time with him in his office and go through his storyboards for ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ and talk to him about them. It’s an honor that he allowed me to do that.”
Though “Life” has the look of a big-budget blockbuster, it was made for a relatively modest $57 million on a shooting schedule of 65 days. Quite barebones for a Hollywood studio movie with A-list stars.
But for Espinosa, it created the perfect working environment. Sony mostly stayed out of his way and let him do unconventional things like ditch having a second camera unit and use preproduction time to come up with extensive backstories for the characters.
“What I do is a tradition of the Danish system in which we create the backstory to each character but they are not allowed to discuss it,” Espinosa said. “So as we are doing the scenes, all the actors are equally surprised by the reactions.”
It was that kind of detail that instantly grabbed the actors.
“What I loved about this role and how Daniel described it was the philosophy of her and the romance of science,” Rebecca Ferguson told Business Insider of her character. “It was all created through the backstory, which is never told, but hopefully it’s displayed through our acting.”
Then there was also Espinosa’s technical ambition. To open the movie, he introduces the cast and their mission with a five-minute single shot (or a “oner”) that travels throughout the International Space Station. No cuts allowed.
“I thought I have to do a oner to understand the claustrophobia and the ballet that these characters have to do to survive,” he said.
Though it’s a standout moment in the movie, looking back now, Espinosa admits it was a lot harder than he anticipated.
“Halfway through [shooting it], I thought that I had gone mad, that this was completely impossible,” he said, though with the guidance of his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (known for his famous oner in “Atonement”), they pulled it off.
But what really makes Espinosa stand out in the Hollywood system today is his feeling about sequels.
“I think it’s uninteresting,” he said, when asked if there will be a sequel to “Life.” “I think you make a piece of work that stands by itself and then to go back on it is like meeting an old lover and trying to start a relationship again.”
Espinosa believes it was a big gamble by Sony to allow him the creative freedom to take chances and not be controlled by test-screening audiences or the pressure of building a possible franchise. He hopes “Life” is part of a trend of studio projects that tell unique stories.
“We’re in an interesting time where movies that don’t fit under the current banner, like ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Logan’ and hopefully my movie, show there is an interest in something that is different than the road we’ve been going down the last 20 years,” he said.
“Life” opens in theaters on Friday.