Passengers Writer Discusses Film's Development & Van Helsing Reboot

We interview Passengers writer Jon Spaiths about the film's long development, why it almost had to change titles, and the Van Helsing reboot.

Passengers - Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence

Screen Rant caught up with Spaiths at Passengers L.A. press day to discuss the story of how Passengers came to be, potentially having to re-title the film and what he’s working on next.

First of all congrats on the film!

Thank you!

I really enjoyed it. You wrote the [Passengers] script in 2007 right?


Is that normal for scripts to take that long to get developed?

It's far from unheard of. Getting a movie made is hard and there are plenty of movies that have been through the ringer years on end before they finally got made. A decade is a long time even in that context but it happens. Passengers is kind of an usual project in a lot of ways. It is several kind of story at once. It is an existential comedy, it's a passionate love story, it's a survival thriller all of it in a big sci-fi context. So you can't reassure a movie producer or studio by saying ‘look at these three movies just like passengers that did really well,’ because there are no movies just like Passengers. So you need to find true believers to bring you home. It's also not a movie you can make inexpensively which is sometimes an option. If you want to make an unusual story is make the cheap version and it will give you some room to experiment. This needed to be a grand film. So we needed someone ready to make a big leap and what finally made it possible for us was Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence embracing the film and saying yes.

Is a true Keanu Reeves and Emily Blunt were originally set for the film or is that just an online rumor?

No there were several earlier ‘almost’ incarnations of the movie. Keanu Reeves was one of the sort of producers aboard the movie from its inception and his Company Films and this guy named Stephen Hamel commissioned me to right the script. A long time ago he wanted me to write an original and so I came up with Passengers then and we tried to get it made for a long time. So yeah, there were a few people attached to act and direct over the years but in the end as recently as a couple years ago we were still always bald but then we got Morten Tyldum, Chris Pratt, and Jennifer Lawrence in rapid succession, and went from a standing start to a production in full flight with shocking rapidity.

Passengers (2016) - Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence

Was the film, watching it back, exactly how you imagined it in your mind or did it exceed your expectations?

It was in many ways just like I imagined. I mean everything was very faithfully executed so scenes that have been essentially intact since the first draft are in the movie and faithfully rendered. And so in dramatic terms it's sort of just what I imagined. And then the starship itself, I mean, invariably there's evolutions in the realization of things but it's a beautiful dance of stuff. It is delightful and surprising and nothing I ever imagined and stuff that's almost eerily like what I had in my head. It feels like the film we made is very true to the script and a really profoundly satisfying execution of the story.

In 2008 there's a film called Passengers. When you heard that, because it was a year after you created your script Passengers, when you heard that they were developing that film was there a brief moment of panic thinking that it was a potentially stolen script? Or was it just completely ironic because it's unrelated to your story?

It's utterly unrelated. I absolutely watched it come, watched it go up and was heartbroken because it meant I was going to have to re-title my movie. But then it did poorly and quickly vanished and thought oh maybe there's hope. But we're still going to have to retitle it because it just came out and then enough years went by that it became old enough that we can stop thinking about it. And that sort of stuff happens all the time. It's easy to panic as Hollywood does when a similar project pops up on the radar and the knee-jerk reaction is change everything!! But I think it's often best if you've made good choices in designing your own story to stand your ground and wait and see as long as possible because very often there's no need to divert your course and you could end up hamstringing your own story for no good reason.

And clearly it paid off. Why did you choose to keep the same name? Why was it important to keep that same title?

Some projects are hard to name. Other projects just whisper their name to you from go. The plot of Passengers was born in a 30-minute phone call ten years ago, and by the end of the phone call I new the title.

How did that phone call go?

Guy I was working with wanted to make a movie with me and I pitched them something that featured the image of a man stranded alone in space as kind of like a closing image of the story. And they thought about it for a long time and said we really like it but we don't think it’s the story for us. We love that guy stranded alone in space, is there a story that starts there instead of ending there? And I said well, let me think and instantly thought of colony ships flying between worlds on a long lonely voyage and who would be alone on that ship? Would it be a caretaker maybe, or some sort of crewman? What if passengers woke up too soon? And that got really interesting and just started pursuing it and in 30 minutes just riffing the elaborations of the plot emerged with the feeling of necessity, of logical inevitability. And in 30 minutes or 40 minutes I have riffed the plot of passengers really in every major particular and I knew what the story was called, the story was called passengers it just made sense. And the film itself says a few words to explain the double meaning of that title, the meditation on destiny as much as it is a literal title.

Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers

Watching the press conference clearly you see Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence speaking so genuinely about how original this film is and coming from an audience member it's hard to find a film these days that's not a sequel or prequel or remake and do you have more in there? Is that something that's very important to you, to stick to original stories?

Yes, it's the dream of telling original stories in the art form of film that brought me to Hollywood. And it drives me now. And if the success of Passengers could do any one thing for me, Far more then praise or prizes or paydays what I would wish for would be the opportunity to tell more original stories. My notebook is full of them I will never run out. It's what I'm here to do. So it is going to be my primary push from this point forward to tell more original stories.

Good! When you were writing [Passengers] did you have a specific genre in mind because you're right you kind of integrated a little bit of comedy, very dark moments, very real human moments in this space experience so when you're writing it did you have a specific genre in mind?

It was it's own beast the whole time. The absurdist comedy of the heroes predicament was unavoidable to me, it's hilarious and dire, it's terrible and wonderful-the fixes in it. There's definitely some Douglas Adams homage the absurdity of the artificial intelligence’s in the robots by whom he’s surrounded, the cheery marketing based messages that he gets back when he's asking life or death questions. The love story and I think I'm a deeply romantic human being and most of my stories end up being love stories in someway and so the deeply felt love story was always part of it and seemed like an essential core of the story. And I’m a science geek. So richly imagining a colonial future and the technology of space flight was always part of it as well and those things just dovetailed to me in a really flavorful way. It felt like a naturally successful recipe so I never thought about what I wanted it to be like or how I wanted to categorize it, I just wrote it as it felt it should be. And loved what came out of it.

Perfect. And you were in filmmaking prior to writing is that right?

I had a production company that did documentaries and multimedia for museums mostly. And then I was executive right before I wrote my first screenplay and sold it but I've been writing stories since I was four years old. I was always planning to be a writer for a living it just took me a little while to figure out how to do it.

Van Helsing SyFy Poster

Can you tell us anything about Van Helsing?

Van Helsing is awesome. I love that script, I co-wrote it with Eric Heisserer who wrote The Arrival. It's a smart, funny, sexy, dark monster hunter story set in the present day. Total reboot of the notion of Van Helsing. The titular character whose novel Van Helsing comes from plays a role, and it's not the role people are going to expect. I think it's a fantastic ride, I’m really hoping it's the next thing out of the Universal monsters shoot. And we'll see how that thing goes. And right now I'm also adapting the Forever War, which is one of my favorite sci-fi novels of all time, for Channing Tatum over at Warner Brothers. That is a sci-fi war movie of cosmic scale, that unfolds over the course of 1400 years. It’s one of the very few stories I've ever encountered that is both a thrilling war story and a really successful love story. It's both of those things at once.

Is that in pre-production are you writing it right now?

I'm writing it right now.

Awesome can't wait! Thank you so much!  

Key Release Dates
  • Passengers (2016) release date: Dec 21, 2016
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