Prometheus Co-Screenwriter Jon Spaihts
by Edward Douglas
ComingSoon.net and ShockTillYouDrop.com are currently in London for the junket and premiere of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, something we can’t say too much about just yet unfortunately, but we know how excited everyone is for this movie, so we’re kicking off a week of Prometheus stuff with an interview with co-screenwriter Jon Spaihts, who was involved with the early stages of making the movie happen.
Spaihts is a screenwriter who has been very much demand in recent years, mainly due to his screenplay for an outer space adventure called Passengers for Keanu Reeves that made the 2007 screenplay Black List - an industry award given to the best unproduced spec screenplays each year - but has still yet to be produced. Since then, Spaihts worked on the screenplay for last year’s The Darkest Hour, and the anticipation for Ridley Scott returning to the world of his early film Alien in Prometheus has gotten even more people in Hollywood interested in Spaihts’ work.
We actually had a chance to speak with Jon a few weeks back, long before anyone had a chance to see the movie, so for those who want to know more about how Prometheus came together and how Spaihts worked with Ridley Scott and then Damon Lindelof on developing the concept but don’t want to worry about spoilers for the movie, this is the interview for you! (We also talked with Spaihts about some of the other screenplays he has in development including an adaptation of Ashley Wood’s graphic novel "World War Robot" and movies with Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin.) Shock Till You Drop: I read another interview you did, so I know a little about your background and that you were a big science fiction and fantasy fan, so how did you end up writing screenplays rather than novels and literary fiction? Or have you done that as well? Jon
Spaihts: I spent my youth writing short stories and planning novels. When I was kid I thought I was going to write science fiction and fantasy myself. By the time I got into college and out of college again, I was more interested in literary fiction. In New York after college I started working more and more in multimedia, shooting and editing and directing video and film, mostly for work. It just made me think more and more about using those tools for storytelling, and my writing ambitions changed very quickly in the direction of cinema. That intrinsically, for me at least, changed the kind of stories I wanted to tell. When I was thinking about novels, I was thinking about novels with human relationships, but when I started thinking about film, I started seeing the kind of films I most loved to see, which tended to be more escapist and more fantastic and epic in scale. The more I thought about screenwriting instead of novel writing, the more I returned to the genre fiction of my childhood and my youth, and started thinking about science fiction again.
Shock: I haven’t read the screenplay for "Passengers" personally, but I know that’s something that’s opened a lot of doors. Was that your first screenplay or was that one of many screenplays you’d written but the first to get attention?
Spaihts: No, "Passengers" was my second script. The first screenplay I wrote was a thing called "Shadow 19," which sold to Warner Brothers and to which Keanu Reeves was quickly attached. He and I worked through a few drafts together, and we finished a draft that we deeply loved and wanted to make, and we couldn’t convince the studio to make the draft of the movie that we wanted, so "Shadow 19" spiraled down into development hell. A few weeks later I got a call from Keanu’s production partner, a guy named Stephen Hamel, saying that, "Keanu wants to find something else to do with you. Do you think you guys could find a story to tell?" I riffed through a couple of ideas on the phone, and I guess for six weeks we pursued a notion of mine, it was a noir thriller that took a big sci-fi hook at the end. Keanu was intrigued by it, and we talked about it for weeks, but it was a very dark story, rather bleak, and with a grim ending. Me and Keanu decided it was too dark for him, but it prominently featured the image of a man stranded alone in space. He kind of came back and said, "Look, I think that story’s too bleak. I’m not feeling it, but I love this guy stranded alone in space. Is there a happier story we can tell around a notion like that?" That was one of those magic fertilizing questions, and not something I’d ask myself, but the minute someone asked me if there was a happy story about that stranded man, it just telescoped open in front of me and I started riffing live on the phone about the tale of a man on a colony ship to a new world with everyone on board sleeping for more than a century. The man, due to some malfunction, wakes up 90 years too soon and can’t get back to sleep, and he’s going to be dead of old age before the ship gets there. He’s fallen out of his life. That’s "Passengers," and Keanu and Stephen Hamel and I worked on the script for many months and a number of drafts. It is probably the best thing I’ve written and the best loved thing, and it is a turbulent road in Hollywood. Everyone loves it. Everybody wants to make it, and yet it’s kind of hard to make. So there’s been a constant scrum of activity around this since the day I wrote it, but even to this moment, we have yet to get it made, although things look very good now in ways that I can’t talk about. It’s always a struggle to give birth to a movie.
Shock: When you think about sci-fi noir and long voyages into space, you immediately think of Ridley Scott, so it’s funny that it would lead you to boarding "Prometheus." How did that happen? When he contacted you, did he say, ‘I want to do something in the vein of ‘Alien’ or did he say specifically it was going to be a prequel? How did he actually pitch it to you or come to you?
Spaihts: Yeah, the people in his company reached out to me in a general way. They liked my material. I was someone they wanted to work with. They wanted—as everyone says in Hollywood—to be in the Jon Spaihts business. (laughs) I went to a meeting and they asked me if I had original ideas, and they talked to me about books and remakes that their company had on its slate. Only late in the meeting got around to mentioning, not in a very focused way, that they wanted to go back to "Alien," and asked me if I had ideas about that.
Shock: Did you have a meeting with Sir Ridley himself or meeting with his people? Did they already have ideas of where they wanted to go with that?
Spaihts: I began by speaking to the head of Ripley’s company. They had no particular ideas about how to revisit the "Alien" universe. They only knew that they had been interested in, and trying for a long time, and a lot of big writers had taken shots at it and failed to find a solution that got Scott Free, his company, off the line and into making a movie. It was in that first conversation when I was asked what I would do to return to the "Alien" universe, that I found myself galvanized by the question, found an answer leaping forth fully formed from my head even though I hadn’t thought about it before. I talked for 45 minutes and outlined a pretty detailed story, including honestly, things as specific as set pieces and visual images, which are still present in the final film. A lot came to me in the moment, and the fellow I was talking to asked if I were to write that down for Ridley, and I did. It went not just to Ridley, but also into the studio apparatus, and right up the chain. I was sitting in a meeting with Ridley in a matter of days and meeting with the heads of 20th Century Fox within two weeks. It all happened very fast.
Shock: That must have been kind of strange having worked on "Passenger" for so long to connect with Ridley Scott and have something happening so fast.
Spaihts: Absolutely. "Passengers"’ development process was collegial and leisurely. We would meet at Keanu’s house or Stephen’s, and we’d start the day drinking coffee and then some afternoon start drinking wine and talk story all day in a really focused, hard working way, but still very comfortably and over quite a number of months. Then I’d go write my draft and come back. The "Prometheus" process so at that time, or at that time, ‘the untitled Alien prequel process,’ that was much more intense and driven. I went for my first pitch meeting to a contract in under two weeks. I had an outline of tremendous detail maybe 10 days later. I wrote the first draft in three and a half weeks. (Laughs) I submitted a draft on Christmas Day, got notes back immediately, submitted revisions on New Year’s Day, pulled three all-nighters a week the whole time just to get it done. It was incredibly intense.
Shock: Since "Passengers" has similar deep space and suspended animation themes as "Prometheus" so was it hard to find a different way to handle the material without coopting stuff from "Passengers"?
Spaihts: An important distinction is that science fiction is really not a genre. It’s a setting, it’s a milieu. "Passengers," a sci-fi story, is a romantic adventure, and "Prometheus" is kind of an epic thriller. While they both unfold in interstellar space and they both involve space ships, they’re tonally at opposite ends of the range. "Passengers" is funny and heartwarming and hopefully heartbreaking, and "Prometheus" is gritty and chilling and wrapped around mind-blowing ideas. They were very different spaces and it was very easy to step out of one and into the other.
Shock: I know Damon Lindelof came in eventually to work on the screenplay, so did he keep the same story and pump up the dialogue? What were some of his contributions?
Spaihts: His main contribution honestly is something I can’t talk about. He shifted the center of gravity of the story a little bit in ways I can’t be specific about without giving too much away. He worked on a few shifts in the mythology, and then inevitably worked to touch on a lot of other things, so wrote a lot of new dialogue to the scenes and modified a few of the character relationships in very interesting ways. It is still very much the story I wrote to begin with, with my cast of characters, my structure and big set pieces. There’s a lot of new work in there, there’s a lot of Damon in it, but it’s still very much a lot of me.
Shock: Damon said very early on that they want to do two more movies in this world? So are you involved in coming up with some sort of outline for those other movies?
Spaihts: Yeah, from the get-go, the studio made it plain that they were interested in not just a new film but a new limb for a new franchise altogether. My story development envisioned a trilogy from the beginning.
Shock: So if "Prometheus" does well, you’ll be involved in fleshing out the elements from the outline you think?
Spaihts: It’s very possible. There’s been talks, the talks are ongoing, but making schedules and creative notions line up in this town is always difficult, so it’s very possible, but far from certain.
Shock: I know that you’re developing something with Jerry Bruckheimer, which is also an original idea that sounds like it has similar themes, being a dramatic adventure and science fiction. Is that also very different from "Passengers" or a similar genre?
Spaihts: It may engage a few of the same themes, but it is very different. The thing I’m about to write for Bruckheimer is also a romantic adventure. It’s got a big love story, and it’s got big action, but it’s set in our world in the present day and makes the science fiction work from there, whereas "Passengers" is set entirely on a starship in the far future.
Shock: How do you approach writing something for Jerry Bruckheimer different from "Passengers?" I would imagine most people would know some of his sensibilities so do you try to cater to them while writing?
Spaihts: It’s actually a pretty comfortable fit. I had the same sort of impression of Bruckheimer going in, that they were huge, populist, action-driven stories, but if you look at his company’s catalogue of films, you’ll see that he actually covers atw broad range and there are a lot of different kinds of films in that space. My storytelling fits very comfortable within that zone, I think. He makes very big films, so you do need to conceive and tell a story that will reach many people, and it needs to be exuberant and exciting. So you have to choose the right thing from that notebook to go work at Bruckheimer, but it actually was one of the smartest development teams I’ve ever worked with, a great edge for story, a great edge for characters, deeply rooted in the character experience. It’s been a delight to work with them. The notes I get there are among the smartest I’ve gotten everywhere. They’re kind of always right.
Shock: You’re also working on "World War Robot," and I know the graphic novels quite well. It’s a very visual book so is it hard converting Ashley Wood’s visuals to words? I guess it’s the opposite of writing words and someone else translating them to visuals. Was that a big challenge?
Spaihts: I was much happier that way, actually, because the story laid out in Ashley Wood’s "World War Robot" is very sketchy. It’s implied by scraps of letters and missives and communications from the front. It’s kind of epistolary hope that sketches very loosely the outlines of the world. That leaves a lot of room for me to get in there and create and invent, which is great, then on top of that, you’ve got the inspiration of his amazing art, and all the inspiration of this material without the manacles of a previously-developed story.
Shock: Have you worked with Ash yourself? Is he involved at all in the process of adapting it? Does he give you notes?
Spaihts: Honestly, I’ve worked only from his book. I’m a big fan, but I know him only through his work.
Shock: Hopefully after the screenplay is finished, he’ll be involved in bringing some of your words to life with new visuals.
Spaihts: I would very much hope so.
Shock: I know at one point you were writing something called "Children of Mars" for Scott Rudin, so was that actually something that was picked up while Disney were in the process of making "John Carter" and do you think there’s a possibility of it still happening?
Spaihts: I do think it’s very possible that it will happen. I have to say, if I do say so myself, "Children of Mars" is awesome. It’s such a great story. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of that I’ve written. While it hasn’t yet found its moment, I think it’s also good enough that it’s never going to go away, so I think the odds are very good that it will become a film in due time.
Shock: Was that something that they picked up as possibly a franchise for "John Carter" or is it something very different?
Spaihts: Utterly different. This is more of a science fiction "Narnia" story, or a science fiction "Harry Potter."
Shock: That’s a great pitch right there. Anyway, I hope with "Prometheus" and some of these other things, I hope we’ll finally see "Passengers." I’ve heard so much about it for years and there was so much buzz for the screenplay.
Spaihts: I hope so. Certainly the story deserves to be made, and I think it’s one of my personal children, really. So, I’m deeply invested myself in seeing that become reality and seeing that become a film.