Daniel Espinosa, the Chilean-born Sweden-based director who broke in with Easy Money and followed with Safe House, takes his first outer space movie, Life, to SXSW. The thriller, which gets its premiere tomorrow in Austin, is set in a space station filled with scientists assigned to receive soil samples from Mars to see if there are any signs of intelligent life. We are so far from movies like E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind that it isn’t spoiling the film to reveal that what the scientists discover is horrifying. A creature which forms its sensibilities and power through each interaction with a victim, with Espinosa adding his kinetic action style to a genre stamped by Alien. Here, he discusses the pressure of following in that genre path, knowing Ridley Scott has his own new Aliens installment arriving in May. Skydance’s David Ellison financed Life at around a $58 million tab after rebates, and Sony Pictures, which put up one-quarter of its budget, releases the film March 24.
DEADLINE: Ridley Scott told Deadline he was so jarred seeing the first Star Wars that he canceled the movie that he was going to make to find a space movie, which led him to Alien. The concept of space travelers encountering hostile life forms has become hallowed cinematic ground because of that film. Explain the seam you saw in Life that provided your own footing.
ESPINOSA: When I read the script, I was struck by the dynamic movement and the strong pace and the potential for good characters, but what really hit me were these un-Hollywood-esque turns in the plot, those twists that sometimes exist in movies that are just surprising.
DEADLINE: It has become harder to surprise anyone…
ESPINOSA: For me it feeds into an old tradition, and if you walk back and look at both horror and space movies, you want to remember, say, one of the most glorious endings of all time, Night Of The Living Dead.
DEADLINE: You mean where the protagonist who survived the zombie onslaught gets mistaken for one and is shot.
ESPINOSA: ‘Please, we’re here.’ ‘I got a live one.’ ‘Take him out.’ Boom. That’s the best ending of all time. I thought to myself, you want to try and maintain the cinematic quality of science fiction. I distinguish between science fiction in literature and science fiction in movies. The latter has become about anxiety. I don’t know if you’ve ever suffered from severe anxiety, but there are two planes. One is white. White is endless and you stand in this endless room and it is the worst thing you can imagine. The other is black, and that is claustrophobia. If you look at these heroic movies in science fiction, you have Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. You look at 2001 and Alien, and these are all submarine movies. You look at modern achievements like The Martian, and that has elements of a submarine movie. What I liked about this is that it felt like a little more noir-esque idea of science fiction. Like Twilight Zone, with their surprise endings. I thought the script had two things that differentiate it from the obvious comparison, which is Alien. One, it ties in to like an old kind of American tradition of science fiction and horror. Science fiction came from noir. This tied into the noir idea of the work. Secondly, when Alien was made, it was the post-atomic age. When people looked to the future, it was this dystopian neo-punk view, and that was something people liked to speculate about and make movies about.
If you ask a young person today what happens in a hundred years, he doesn’t have a clue. He couldn’t even take a picture even in his imagination of what will happen in 20 years. The world is so chaotic. If you ask him well what do you fear the most, he will say what happens tomorrow. This movie is what happens tomorrow, not in a hundred years. The realism is today, but at the same time, it plays to an old American tradition, noir, right down to the score.
DEADLINE: There is a sense of disorientation and claustrophobia early in the film as you watch the crew pass through the ship in zero gravity in this space station set you build. You are claustrophobic. How does that impact the feel of those scenes and how you shot them?
ESPINOSA: That’s what guided me. When I made the movie I had two kind of major anxieties, and one was claustrophobia. The other was that I just became a father for the first time. What hits you is this fear that all your weakness, the horrible parts of you, will infect the child, that you’ll pass them on like a disease. I hope my daughter never reads this, but I used that anxiety and how wrong it could be. The fear of what would happen if everything that we have inside of us as human beings, which is quite horrible, would fit into a creature that knows nothing, and starts reacting accordingly.
DEADLINE: That is a very personal influence as this life form, which they call Calvin, assimilates qualities from the crew and uses it against them. Was that the key that made you feel you’d have room to put your own stamp on this well-worn genre?
ESPINOSA: It was just how Calvin changes. What is the first thing that Calvin encounters? It’s a hand. And that is why Calvin has five limbs. What is the first fundamental beings we had on Earth? It was a sandworm. Which rises exactly like Calvin. I thought, I would take all these aspects…if you watch the movie again, you will see the clues. Now, I know the audience will see this as a fun roller coaster, and that’s great. But to me, as a director, you have other purposes.
DEADLINE: I watched your breakout movie Easy Money. It’s crime genre, but you spent more time fleshing out the lives of everyone involved that it was more a character study than anything. How much harder is it to do that in these Hollywood movies where audiences want the roller-coaster ride?
ESPINOSA: On this one, I got lucky, and unlucky. What most often happens is, your post production in America is so long. You give your movie over to people with power and they are allowed to go home and contemplate, and their own anxiety gets to them. They feed their own anxiety into your material and try to iron out all the anxieties and what you get is a flat project. What was lucky with this is, we were supposed to be released in August. But then Fox and Ridley Scott found out, and they put their Alien film right on my date. So I had to move. I moved to May. And then my trailer got released and it got more hits than The Martin did in its first 24 hours. And then they put themselves a week ahead of us, and I had to move, again. I ended up with 18 weeks of post, which is what you get in Europe. It wasn’t enough time for those people of power to work out their anxieties and so I could muster through with those great ideas that existed in the script.
DEADLINE: You and Ridley were on the same team when he produced and you directed Child 44. What is that like, when he’s coming out with another Alien movie and it keeps landing on your release date? That’s a lot of pressure.
ESPINOSA: It was. After we moved to March, I went to a screening of a picture in London. I see Ridley coming in through the door. I know Ridley, and I wanted to say hello to him, but it seems that we have this kind of ongoing silent conflict. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to say. I felt like a gunslinger, and there’s this older, much stronger gunslinger who comes into the room. So I decided I’m not going to go up to him. People always go up to him in London, he’s a superstar. He’s a ‘Sir.’ Nobility. For real. Then suddenly he sees me and he raises his voice, like the general that he is. ‘Daniel, come over here.” I walk over to him and he says, “So, when are you releasing your movie?” I said, March. And he said, “Can you make the date?” He’s looking at me and I said, I’ll make the date, Ridley. If you move, then I’ll move again. He looks at me and it’s almost like we were waiting to draw our guns, you know? Then he smiles and says, “Make a good movie, and then it’s all going to be alright.” And then he hugged me and then we walked away, each in separate ways.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a draw.
ESPINOSA: Exactly, but that was nice.
DEADLINE: The first time I wrote about the movie, Ryan Reynolds was going to play one role and then he switched with Jake Gyllenhaal. How does the qualities each actor brings impact the characters they ended up playing?
ESPINOSA: They represent two different styles of actors. Ryan always makes everything seem so easy. He has a levity to himself, a Robert Redford quality. Robert always made it seem like an easy trick, to make those excellently beautiful performances. Jake is the ideal of the concerned actor who always contemplates, and tries to find new ways. He’s like a young Dustin Hoffman. So the idea to take a Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman of their generation and let them play out their scenes together is something that as a director you can never deny. Really, one day, if I’m lucky enough, I could make an All The President’s Men with them, too. That would be a dream.
DEADLINE: Are you a big fan of those ’70s movies?
ESPINOSA: Of course. I was brought up with Scorsese, with Michael Cimino. Even Brian De Palma with Scarface had characters with a lot of pulsation. Such beautiful movies, you had Midnight Cowboy. Who doesn’t dream of doing their own Midnight Cowboy, one day? It was a glorious time, and akin to like when I made my movie Easy Money. I drew a lot from Alejandro Inarritu. If you look at Inarritu, he drew a lot from Scorsese. When I was making Easy Money, I never imagined that Inarritu would watch my movie, and so I thought I could steal from him, ferociously. And I didn’t think he would ever notice.
DEADLINE: You just described your Ridley encounter. What was it like to run into Inarritu after he saw a movie you made that borrowed so heavily from him?
ESPINOSA: This was a phone call. He called me up and I was a bit nervous. And he congratulated on my movie and then he asked me how it was to work with Tom Hardy and I got to give him some advice and it all felt kind of nice. He’s a nice man.
DEADLINE: You made Life with Ryan Reynolds, who had become something of a journeyman after star turns in films like Blade III, Buried and Green Lantern didn’t really launch him. For you he played the Tom Cruise role in Rain Man, the straight man alongside Denzel in your film Safe House. Did you see the potential for the Deadpool performance that finally made him a star?
ESPINOSA: I did and I didn’t. When I had my first shooting day on Life I did my first close-up of Ryan. After the first take I stopped. We were alone in the room and I hugged him and said, ‘What happened, man?’ He was different. And he looked at me and he smiled — and it was a nice moment. He said, ‘I became a father, and things happened in my life.’ And it’s truly like something had happened, a gravitas. You look at that movie and you could call it a bit of stupid comedy, but his performance is brilliant. I’m not the man for those kinds of movies, normally. But when I saw it I thought, there’s no way you can say this is not a good performance. I think it’s about becoming a man. Some actors really thrive when they get in to their forties. I know that one of his kind of big idols is Cary Grant. And I can see him now, in his forties, he’s going to thrive. He has a different kind of gravitas now.
DEADLINE: You really think the difference between him when you shot Safe House and when you started filming Life was about changes in his personal life and not the confidence of finally being regarded as a big star?
ESPINOSA: Yes, absolutely. When we did Safe House, to get in to those high depths of character, it was something that we worked for. And now, it was just there. I asked him to get into a small side of darkness within him back then, and here, it was just pouring out of him. I saw he’d become this man and I didn’t have time to completely explore the depths of darkness that he had. But I saw that he’d suddenly became this man, you know? It’s there and it’s something we will be enjoying for 15 years as he takes that further.
DEADLINE: I did a long interview with Denzel Washington in early fall for Fences. After Donald Trump got elected and started talking about reinstituting interrogation techniques like waterboarding, I wished I’d been able to ask Denzel about his feelings about that, after he underwent that interrogation technique when he starred in your film. After seeing that up close, what do you think of waterboarding as a humane way of extracting information from bad guys?
ESPINOSA: It’s a horrific way to extract information. Also, you don’t know if they’re telling the truth. A big problem with torture is that after a while, you will be saying that your mommy is your daddy. My father got tortured for four years. In Chile. They put him in to a small box that was 3 feet by 3 feet. They kept him there for one month.
DEADLINE: Oh, my.
ESPINOSA: And my father said, I told them everything they wanted to know, but I never gave them the names. I never gave them the names. Because otherwise he would have been completely pointless. That’s the problem with torture. It doesn’t get you the information you want to get, it just gives you the information you are asking for. If somebody would say, is he a terrorist? They would say yes. But you would not know if it was truthful. I would say that my friend was a terrorist after, you know, the prolonged torture.
DEADLINE: What you just said about your father must have made directing those scenes with Denzel Washington…well what was it like?
ESPINOSA: Horrible. It was horrible. Just horrible. But also seeing the bravery of Denzel, and the commitment to do something great, something he felt was necessary. Denzel, it was a beautiful relationship I had with him, he was always so kind and very supportive. I never saw the side of Denzel that some people have talked about. I think he was very supportive because I was young and he liked my movies. Also, I was a Latino. He knew that we were both part of people that normally are not allowed to do movies in this industry.
DEADLINE: Life has a very international feel to it. We in the U.S. are trying to get a handle on a new president bent on closing borders and being more isolationist. How does America look right now to a director who lives in Sweden, and grew up loving the idea of America depicted in Hollywood films?
ESPINOSA: It’s two-sided. You also managed to mount the biggest demonstration that mankind has ever seen, with the women’s march against Trump. So in this whole mess of the world right now there are also great kinds of hope. People are raising their voices and that’s truly American. That’s a fundamental of your country, the inspiration that your country has given the rest of the world, since you were created. That you demand to be free and you demand to have your rights. And that’s beautiful.
DEADLINE: We often see directors who make a breakout movie in their country that hits at their country’s box office or gets noticed on the festival circuit, and suddenly there is a stampede of agents and studio execs offering scripts. What was that process like when Easy Money got discovered?
ESPINOSA: It’s a bit absurd. I think that for the first five phone calls that I got from agents I thought they were prank calls, so I started cursing them out. I said, it’s enough. Stop calling. I’m trying to go to bed and this is bullshit. I said, the movie has not gone to my head OK so stop calling. I thought it was Swedish people that were harassing me because they felt that my head was getting too big. Because, it was the first movie on the planet to beat Avatar and take the No. 1 spot. So I thought it was a prank call but then I felt very stupid when I realized that it was not. And I’d cursed out some people who were maybe important, people I could respect. And then the scripts started coming in. But I never had really a dream of working in the American film business.
DEADLINE: Sometimes it’s best, not to seem needy.
ESPINOSA: When I got the phone call about the Safe House script, they asked, you know, who would you get to do this movie? I said like a joke, you know, Denzel Washington. I said it because I felt that the idea that he would say yes was so absurd. It was like asking to go to the moon. And then, suddenly, they said, Denzel wants to meet you in New York. So I had to go to New York, just to spend even an hour having dinner with this legend of a man, who has opened doors for so many of us. That was enough. And then he enjoyed my company and wanted to do the movie with me. And then I had to do the movie and that’s how I got introduced to the American film business.
DEADLINE: It doesn’t seem like you are defined by your place in Hollywood.
ESPINOSA: I have a great small two-bedroom apartment in Stockholm; that’s the only thing I own. I have a good daughter. I have a beautiful wife. I don’t mind going back to Sweden. I do these movies in America because I enjoy being in America and I enjoy working with these actors, these sublime artists. The best artists in the world right now are working in this industry. To work on this movie with [cinematographer] Seamus McGarvey, who has walked the same path I have and started with The War Zone, the great movie by Tim Roth. That was shot hand-held, very much like Easy Money. And then Atonement.
DEADLINE: What advice would you give to the next director from outside the United States who gets the same sudden attention you did, besides the suggestion they refrain from cursing out agents and studio executives as you did? We’ve seen lots of filmmakers get chewed up and spat out and we never hear from them again.
ESPINOSA: Remember that you enjoy your work at home. Go over there because you enjoy your work over there and make sure you enjoy it, but don’t do it as a stepping stone. There are no stepping stones in our industry. If we try to look at it like stepping stones, normally we don’t last for that long. Because our industry is hard. If a director has 10 good years, we force our way into movie history because that’s how unusual it is to have 10 good years. Look at Spielberg. He had 10 great years. And then he had some down ones and then he came back. But he had 10 great years, back to back. And that’s why he’s a legend. Inarritu, he had 10 great years, and now he’s a legend. That’s four films? Look at Alfonso Cuaron, what has he made, four movies? That’s how hard it is. If you try to do stepping stones, you end up looking in the mirror and looking back at the person we refused to be when we were 19 years old. I’m hoping not to become that person, but I don’t know that yet. I’ll figure that out, later.
DEADLINE: So you’re saying, don’t take films you don’t believe in and that if you’re going to fail, better to do it on your own terms?
ESPINOSA: Yeah. Then when you go back, you say to yourself, I did something that I believed in, and it wasn’t what they wanted. Now, I’m going to go back home and I’m going to enjoy my life and make great movies from my own platform.