The closing night selection of the South by Southwest Film Festival is the world premiere of “Life,” directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. In the film, screening Saturday night at Austin’s Zach Theatre, a team of astronauts on the International Space Station discover and successfully reanimate a life form from a soil sample taken from Mars.
Soon this breakthrough turns from tremendous to terrifying when what the astronauts have on their hands is a creature that gets out of their control and goes on the attack. We may wish to find life on other planets, but careful what you wish for.
This year’s SXSW festival had an emphasis on innovative genre storytelling, and so it makes sense that it should conclude with a sci-fi action horror hybrid that is by turns thoughtful and incredibly intense. That is in no small regard due to the work of screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
The pair wrote the 2009 action horror comedy “Zombieland” and adapted last year’s smash hit “Deadpool,” for which they earned a Writers Guild of America Award nomination, bringing unexpected respectability to an irreverent deconstruction of the superhero movie.
Reese and Wernick first met in high school in Phoenix and have been writing together for more than 17 years. Ahead of the SXSW premiere of “Life,” they recently got on the phone from their respective homes in Los Angeles to talk about the origins of “Life” on the big screen.
You wrote this from an initial idea from producer David Ellison, what hooked you?
Reese: Well, we were both fans of the movie “Alien,” which of course our movie will be compared to, maybe fortunately or unfortunately. But on this our general feeling was “Alien” is, if you can believe it, almost a 40-year-old movie. And it was always set in a universe that’s pretty far-flung from our own — it’s the future, it’s spaceships off in distant galaxies.
We were attracted to “Life” because it really felt like the grounded, real, science fact-ion version of this story. We really are on the hunt for life on other planets and on Mars itself. And we also are discovering different species on Earth often. We really liked taking the genre aspect, this alien, and dropping it into today and a location that actually exists, the International Space Station.
What better haunted house in the entire universe than the International Space Station? You can’t get out, you’re stuck.
At every turn in the script we’d ask ourselves,”What would really happen?” We didn’t want a poison pill character who was secretly intending to bring the specimen back to Earth. We just wanted six astronauts good at their jobs who suddenly found themselves in over their heads against something they didn’t understand.
Wernick: And what better haunted house in the entire universe than the International Space Station, 200 miles above Earth? You can’t get out, you’re stuck, it’s the ultimate haunted house.
So from your research and preparation, how real of a possibility do you consider the discovery of life on other planets?
Reese: There’s great debate in terms of how likely is it for life to spontaneously occur somewhere when the conditions for it are present. I think my basic understanding is that while it is an unlikely occurrence, the universe is a very big place and there are a lot of hospitable places that could support carbon-based life forms. So [it’s] likely we aren’t alone.
That’s both the dream and the frightening idea, that we aren’t alone.
If you could search far enough and wide enough you’d find some stuff. Now if what was happening in our movie were to happen, which is the discovery of life on a nearby planet, I think that would imply that life not only is out there but the universe is really teeming with life.
If it happens coincidentally in two places close to each other, it’s likely to be happening everywhere. I think that’s both the dream and the frightening idea, that we aren’t alone and that what is out there may not take forms that are either compatible with us or we could really understand.
We just never would have guessed that ‘Deadpool’ of all things would be our prestige play
Let me ask about “Deadpool,” which of course also starred Ryan Reynolds. Why do you think audiences responded so strongly to the movie?
Wernick: I think it was an apple among oranges. There’s superhero movies upon superhero movies, and not only anymore in the summertime. Every month is the summertime, which is good for the movie industry but it feels like it’s just an onslaught of more of the same.
I think it had a freshness to it in the sense that people hadn’t really seen anything like this, an R-rated, self-deprecating, self-loathing antihero who you fall in love with and root for.
The fear was, and why it took six-plus years to make, is because everyone, and perhaps including us, thought it had the potential to be a one-quadrant movie. It had the potential to only appeal to superhero geeks and nerds.
So I do think it came as a massive surprise that it did hit so many quadrants. And I think that was because he was a relatable character. Despite the fact he was scarred, he did feel like one of us.
There is an escapist fantasy in watching some of these superhero movies because you do always picture yourself behind the mask. The nerds always saw Peter Parker and thought, “Oh, that’s me.” And then you put on this mask and you’re this amazing superhero who can save the world.
Deadpool, Wade Wilson, is a guy who has been kicked … so many times — the world has not been kind to him — and I think people related to him in a way, feeling like, “That’s kind of me up on that screen.” He’s dealt with everyday stuff, life’s tragedies that hit us all. And I think that resonated with audiences.
Which all must have made the film’s unexpected traction during awards season another surprise, including your WGA nomination.
Reese: It was incredibly surprising and gratifying. Basically we just never would have guessed that “Deadpool” of all things would be our prestige play. So I think the joy of it was the surprise and the gratification of how did this movie ever get considered in this fashion. It was certainly not something we ever expected.
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