Passengers is Morten Tyldum’s second English speaking film, but he knows good actors when he sees them. “Actors are actors,” he says. “To me I don’t care if Chris and Jen are the biggest stars in the world I wanted them in the movie because they’re great actors.”
Screen Rant sat down with Tyldum at Passengers L.A. press day to talk about Pratt and Lawrence’s method, his directorial advice, and why practical sets were so crucial on set.
Passengers is your second English directorial debut?
Obviously the first being The Imitation Game.
Do you notice any cultural differences when you’re filming for different languages and obviously for different countries and audiences?
Yeah, I mean [Passengers] was really different because it was a big studio, a big movie scale and all of that. But surprisingly little-
Because we’re all human right?
Well, human and actors are actors. To me I don’t care if Chris and Jen are the biggest stars in the world I wanted them in the movie because they’re great actors. They really fit the characters. So when it comes down to it, it’s working with great actors. I’ve been feeling very blessed because I’ve been working with all these great performers and doing a story with people you know which is important to you, working with DP’s it’s just a lot of similarities. There are of course differences, I think that doing a movie like Imitation Game was more dialogue driven, more about the written word, it was also British actors; it was more perform through dialogue. This movie the performances are more emotional and more raw in a way because it’s either extreme despair, or love, or hatred, or fear, so in that way everything is different. But I find that directing is in essence, is the same thing. You have to find the core of the movie, why you want to tell the story. Why is this important story for me? And I don’t care if anyone gets it or not. The whole thing is why do I want to tell the story and then you have to tell that story. And you have to stop thinking if people like it or not because you have to be true to what you feel yourself is important. And that sort of transforms in any cultures and languages.
Did you fall in love with Passengers the same reason everyone else did, because it was such an original story?
I mean it’s an intimate story that is also epic. All my movies are very different which I like, which I want, but I think the biggest similarities is that they all have characters that are in Deepwater and are outside their comfort zone and have to make some really tough choices, some unpleasant choices. And that is very interesting to explore. If you take somebody and then put them in a very unique situation and then to see what would you do. And I love exploring that and that was something that was in Passengers which I really liked and loved. And at the same time, it’s a love story, and I really wanted to do a love story. That’s something that was intriguing about it. It was also unique, it was about redeeming yourself, it was about forgiving, and it’s about everything that can happen in a relationship. It’s the lie, the lie that’s being revealed, it’s the hatred, it’s the forgiveness but it’s put to the extreme. Which is fine.
And the last thing of course was that I’m a sci-fi fan but most types of scripts that have been sent to me have been either you know, you find aliens or you have to save the planet or you have to do something like that, but this was about characters and at the same time I could design this crazy spaceship and really think about how it will work, how it will function and you know there’s some legendary spaceship designs. You know, the millennium falcon, so I wanted to try to create something that hopefully people will reference later on. Remember the Avalon from Passengers?
Which they will because it was so unique. Why was it important to have such a practical sets versus CG? I appreciate that, but was it because you wanted the audience to be able to see something tangible?
Both! I mean I think I like CG but first of all it’s for the actors. Working with actors is what I appreciate most about filmmaking, and to get performances- I mean acting about reacting. It’s about taking in what your co-actors and what your surroundings are doing to you and responding to that and responding to the scene. That’s when it becomes real. You want to find a truth. You feel it if something is not true in a moment, so to really go deep you have to find the truth and the core of that moment and to do that if everything you see around you is just green walls it’s almost impossible. You’re asking so much of the actors. So I wanted it to be a real space that they’re in. I mean even the robots that we had they were built and we just move them around so and I think that’s why so much of the performances are so strong is because they’re actually responding. They’re being in the moment; they’re being there. Also you can play with light on sort of a different level then if you’re doing everything green screen. Of course we had green screens because we didn’t shoot it in space.
(Laughs) Of course.
But as much as possible I wanted everything to be done practically. Which was a pain in the ass.
I’m sure! But very empathetic of you for you to be able to get the best performances from the actors versus green screen.
And this is what carries the movie, the movie is a character driven movie. The characters come first. We’ve seen so many movies that have huge CG effects, explosions, things go off all over the place but you don’t feel anything, you don’t care. And so I don’t think you can impress people anymore with the effects. The effects should be there as a tool to use, and emphasize what you already have, but you have to build things. Our biggest build, I mean we’re shooting in pinewood in Atlanta and you know where marvel doing all their movies now, and our biggest build we couldn’t fit into a stage. We had to tear down the walls and use the stage next to it. It was this huge place and it helps [the actors] being alone and lonely and they are actually on this big set all alone.
As I’m watching the film I realize, and love, that the trailer gave almost nothing away. Did you do that on purpose with the trailer?
I have to give my kudos to the studio because as a filmmaker, especially when it’s such a big movie, of course the marketing you don’t have complete control over, but that was something that the studio really wanted. They wanted to hold that back which I think is so important because I want people to be in that moment with the characters, and wonder is he going to do it? Is he not going to do it?
You have this great combination of comedy and relief versus these really intense heartbreaking tear shed moments, how did you create that mood on set? How did you prepare for those big intense scenes?
As a director you can only inspire and steer and guide your actors. Every actor has their own technique. Every actor has something they do. Like Chris used music a lot. A lot of the time when he performed he has an earpiece, but you can’t see, which would send music. So he listened to music.
Oh, while he was acting?
While he’s performing.
So that’s the way for him to use that. Jen I think needs to, you know, go to some really dark places, some really desperate places. But she could be joking right before. You have to have that line, so you can joke around and then go there and just visit some demon somewhere or go to a really tough place to be. And sometimes on set we talked about it, she would say I could do this four times then I will probably be so exhausted. So I’ll figure it out, okay let’s do one camera this angle, and this there and there. It cost them a lot to go there and really wrap up your soul before you start to sort of imitate yourself. I mean there’s only so many times you can do it when it’s real and when it’s fresh. I mean a lot of it was talking about where the characters are and what was happening and then support them in their own method.
Everybody has their own method. Like Benedict Cumberbatch as a completely different way of working when we did the imitation game. So every actor has their way of finding the goal and you just have to be there. I think also one of the biggest jobs you have as a director is to know what the goal is. This is the mark, then hit. And I know when we hit it and when we’re not hitting it. So it was really wonderful working with them and it was exhausting days because they either had to be so intensely in love or they had to hate each other so badly or they did physical stuff where they were in this very heavy space suit hanging in wires all day. So I think both of them were really surprised, I think everyone was surprised on how demanding it was a shoot this movie because we read the script and everybody was like yeah it’s gonna be fine a few actors it’s gonna be nice but was actually very exhausting for them to do.
Well it paid off it was absolutely incredible. I would like to ask, especially directors, what advice do you have for those future directors out there?
To only do things for yourself. To not do things because you think it’s smart or a good career move or I probably should do this because the audience would like it more, whatever. What kind of movie do you want? Why do you want to make this movie? And do it for yourself, and do it as a movie you would love to see yourself. It’s the only thing that matters because then it becomes true, it becomes something that you really genuinely like and enjoy and then other people will do it. I think that also when you’re sitting in meetings and people want to hear you pitch something or you’re competing for a project or whatever don’t try to tell people what they think they would love. Just be honest, if there’s things about it you don’t like say it. If there are things you like about it- say them. That’s the only thing you can do. That’s the hardest part about being a director is you have to take away all the noise. Everybody thinks they know how a movie should be made. Everybody has an opinion. The DP, the producer, the actors, everybody knows how a scene should be but there’s only one that really knows it and that’s yourself. You have to be able to tune out all the noise and just be mentally following your own taste. I don’t care if you don’t like it; I have to do it because this is what’s true to me.
I love that, I was going to say staying true.
Yeah stay true.