Meet Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the Writers Behind the Sci-Fi Horror Movie Life

The International Space Station becomes a hunting ground for a Martian creature

6 min read

“Life” screenwriters Paul Wernick [left] and Rhett Reese [right]
“Life” screenwriters Paul Wernick [left] and Rhett Reese [right]
Photo: Eric Charbonneau/Invision/Sony Pictures

Opening around the world this weekend is Life, a “hard” science fiction movie set in the near future starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson. It opens when a sample return mission from Mars brings its payload back to a somewhat expanded International Space Station. A laboratory has been set up on the ISS to analyze the Martian samples in a bid to avoid any potential cross-contamination with terrestrial organisms [PDF]. Much to the joy of the crew, a dormant organism is found in the samples, proving that there is life beyond Earth. Very soon, however, things turn nasty and the crew starts pining for a return to cosmic loneliness.

Life was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who came to prominence with last year’s unexpected smash hit Deadpool, which followed their earlier success with 2009’s Zombieland.IEEE Spectrum’s Stephen Cass talked with Reese and Wernick about how they used the real experiences of astronauts living and working in space to inform the plot of their latest movie and distinguish it from trapped-with-a-nasty-E.T. classics such as Alien or Pitch Black. (Very mild spoilers below. The conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.)

Stephen Cass: I know you had advisors, but the plot sometimes hinges on elements of life onboard the ISS that would be familiar to a real astronaut, and even sometimes borrows from actual incidents. Are you space buffs?

Rhett Reese: I am a pretty big space buff. I have to qualify that because I’m buddies with Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, and there are space buffs and then there are space buffs. He is a real space buff. I am certainly a lot less so. But that said, space always fascinated both me and Paul in childhood. We always wanted to be astronauts growing up. … And we did a fair amount of research in writing the screenplay. We didn’t talk to any advisors until after we’d written the screenplay actually, and had a document to show them. So almost all our research was done from books and the Internet.

Paul Wernick: I was desperate to go to space as a child. To this day, I’m still desperate. I’ll jump on that SpaceX rocket to the moon. Anytime Elon Musk calls, I’ll answer!

SC: The version of the ISS that is depicted on screen is almost a gothic kind of place, for example with the cupola becoming like a cathedral window. How much direction did you give in the script in terms of how its spaces should be arranged, or how people might think about using different modules in the movie’s production design?

PW: We looked at the ISS and how it was constructed. It’s obviously such a grand structure. … It’s a multi-billion dollar floating space ship. We took conceptually how it’s laid out and re-arranged the pieces to match the choreography of our scenes. … We essentially took all those capsules and reshuffled the deck a little bit, so that the geography matched our story rather than the story matching the geography of the actual ISS. [But within that we] tried to stay as authentic as we could to the actual station. The set was built with every little detail in mind. [For example,] the buttons are in Russian and English. It feels like an international space station. And the set was constructed on two sound stages in London to try and mimic the structure of the current ISS, again with a little bit of jiggering for our story.

RR: [The set] was also built as contiguously as possible. It was divided in half, but you could move from one node to the next [in one shot]. I think that gives this realistic sense that it’s almost like a labyrinth that you can move within. The wires were dangling from the roof, and the actors were attached to them, but you could move them from one node through the passageway to the next. And it really feels that way when you watch. It doesn’t feel like you’re moving from a set to another set to a third set.

SC: As I mentioned before, there a number of plot details in the movie that hinge on real aspects of life on the ISS, such as space suits’ use of liquid-filled coolant loops, or how the ISS adjusts its orbit using attached Soyuz spacecraft. How did you approach incorporating these elements without getting bogged down in exposition for those movie-goers who might not be familiar with these details?

RR: What’s really interesting is that scene where a [space suit starts leaking coolant fluid internally] actually happened to an astronaut. … He nearly drowned [PDF]. And so we just thought, “Oh, my God. We have to put that in the movie.” So, very often, the truth actually amplifies the drama as opposed to slowing it down. … But as much as we try to act like astrophysicists, we’re not astrophysicists, so I’m sure there’s stuff that falls through the cracks. But you do oftentimes find that you’re discovering fun things in the research that actually shape your story.

SC: There are already a number of movies where people get picked off by one or more alien creatures. How did you approach the problem of making this movie feel fresh?

PW: I think zero-g was a big thing of ours. There’s always the impetus, just because it’s cheaper [to film], to have the fake futuristic artificial gravity machine so that there is gravity aboard. And for us, we were trying to embrace authenticity and make it as real as possible. There’s no such thing as a gravity machine. There is zero-g in space. People float. We wanted to embrace that, just the concept that our characters are not able to run from this creature, but have to float away and swim away. That’s terrifying to us. But yet, it feels real.

RR: The weightlessness allowed us to make interesting plot moves. For instance, they lure the creature at one point by taking blood and using [floating] droplets to lure the creature into a capsule. We were always looking for ways to separate it from Alien, and the way we generally found to do that was by grounding it in the technology of today, without having it be in a distant future, in a distant galaxy. … Most often our solutions were found in that [grounded] reality.

SC: The hostile alien is called Calvin: can you talk a little about how you conceived it?

PW:  The look of the creature was very much determined by the character designers. Our concept was essentially a multicellular organism where every cell in the organism is the same. It doesn’t have differentiated systems. It doesn’t have nerve cells or photoreceptive cells or blood cells. It just has one kind of cell that can do all the functions essentially. We did describe it as best we could by kind of mirroring deep sea creatures, for example having a translucence like some creatures that live really far under the water. We used an octopus or a starfish as a rough model of what it might look like. And we did have kind of the baby version, and a teen version, and the adult version. But beyond that, [the creature designers] are the ones who took it from there and visualized it, and created it within the computer.

SC: I really liked that, when Calvin proved itself dangerous, there was no clichéd agonized debate about whether or not to kill it.

PW: We’re so tired of that character who’s either secretly trying to bring the evil creature back to turn it into a weapon …. or is just so entranced by the science that they don’t realize the threat. We’re like: no. At the end of Act 1, the crew all decide to put manners aside and kill it. And then [Calvin] becomes so difficult to kill because it’s very adaptive … we loved the idea that every single time they manage to solve a problem, a new one arises because Calvin keeps challenging them and keeps finding ways around their solutions. And that felt like it was propelling the plot.

RR: There’s no real villain in the movie other than Calvin himself, and he’s not a traditional villain. He doesn’t have a mustache to twirl. He’s just looking to survive. [Daniel Espinosa, the director,] wanted to base it in reality. What would really happen if something came to life and started killing our astronauts? There would be one simple solution: kill it. End of story. Not, “hey, let’s bring it back for exploration.” Rather, “let’s just kill the [expletive] thing for killing us.”

SC: Finally, you’re coming off the success of Deadpool which is a very different movie. It’s comedic and stylized. How did you make the shift to a suspense horror movie?

PW: This was a story that inspired us, that we wanted to write and we were passionate about. Yes, it’s not what people know us for … but [Life] was a story that we wanted to tell. And it doesn’t have the laughs that people are used to having when they see one of our movies, but we feel like we replaced the laughs with scares, and we hope that this will be another kind of thing that we’ll be known for. 

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