Warning: Major spoiler below.
In 2007, unknown screenwriter Jon Spaihts showed up on the coveted Black List, a yearly highlight of the best unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood, with a sci-fi love story set on a luxury star ship millions of miles from Earth.
Nine years later, that script, “Passengers,” is finally coming to theatres on Wednesday, with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as its stars. It’s the most recent example of how no project is ever really dead in Hollywood.
Looking back on the close-to-decade journey out of development hell, full of false starts with numerous actors attached, Spaihts calls the time his “film school,” as he took part in almost every creative facet of getting the movie made (he’s also an executive producer on the movie). But at the same time, Spaihts also built up his career, as the “Passengers” script opened doors to him getting screenwriting gigs for prominent projects like “Prometheus,” “Doctor Strange,” and the upcoming “The Mummy” reboot starring Tom Cruise.
“Passengers” follows Jim (Pratt) and Aurora (Lawrence), two passengers on a 120-year voyage from Earth to a colony planet who wake from their sleep chambers too early as their ship is still 90 years from its destination. Now, awake and alone on a luxury spaceship with anything you’d ever need, the two learn about a malfunction on the ship and must fix it to save the thousands of people in hibernation on board the ship.
“It was my calling card for a long time,” Spaihts told Business Insider of the script. “If we came right out of the gate with that Black List script back in 2007, and a studio had picked us up and started running, I would have almost certainly, as an unknown baby writer, had been replaced instantly with an A-lister that reassured the studio. And that would have been my last contact with the film until I ended up in a movie theatre watching it. So I was very fortunate, in a way, for the long difficult road getting the movie made.”
Though Spaihts puts a positive spin on the experience now, for years he had to bear the responsibility of keeping the purity of the project intact (as is most often the screenwriter’s duty) during various attempts to get the movie made. At one point, that even included coming up with a workable version that could be made at Warner Bros. on a budget between $50 million and $60 million, which would have starred Keanu Reeves and Rachel McAdams (the budget of the film that got made is $120 million).
“I think that would have been very strong, but it didn’t quite get there,” said Spaihts of the Reeves/McAdams version (there was also a version that would have starred Reeves and Reese Witherspoon for The Weinstein Company).
Sony would be the project’s final home in 2015, attaching Lawrence (at a $20 million payday), Pratt, and director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”).
But Spaihts’ work was far from done. On the set every day as principal of photography, he did rewrites while staying true to the story’s center, and in post-production, he was a major voice in locking the ending.
“Sticking the ending was one of the trickiest parts of the film,” said Spaihts. “Not just during production, but all the years leading up to it.”
Spaihts said multiple versions of the ending were shot during production and “a very small amount” of reshoots (“a day or two,” he said) were also done to strengthen it.
But perhaps the movie’s biggest sticking point is the important piece of the plot that has been kept out of the marketing of the movie. As “Passengers” looks like a love story in space, in fact it’s a little more complex than that.
In the movie, Jim is the first to wake from his space slumber after a malfunction in his sleep chamber and spends a year on the ship by himself. One day, while contemplating suicide, he comes across Aurora’s sleep chamber. After presumably weeks of reading up her file and watching videos she did before the trip, he decides to wake her up so he has a companion. After the two fall in love Aurora learns what Jim did, and obviously shattered by the revelation, vows to never interact with him again. It’s when the ship begins to malfunction that they are forced to reconnect.
Critics have taken the film to task for Jim’s shocking act. “In space, no one can her you scream ‘date rape!'” wrote The Playlist.
“I think if it succeeds, the movie will lead everyone in the audience to the question of what they would have done in that place given those options,” said Spaihts of Jim’s actions. “The justification is in the dilemma. It opens interesting questions, I think fascinating questions, about how we carry guilt and the dark power of secrets. Is it possible to forgive?”
There was one version of Spaihts’ script where Jim stops his attempt to open Aurora’s sleep chamber but it turns out has gone too far and the chamber inevitably opens.
“There was a momentary experiment in that direction,” said Spaihts, “but I would say every official version of the script had Jim clearly make the choice he makes.”
We’ll find out in the coming weeks if general audiences feel the way about Jim’s act as critics do, but regardless, it seems what is on screen Spaihts stands behind completely.
“I fought tooth and nail to preserve the essence and soul of ‘Passengers’ throughout the entire process, all the way down to the closing minutes of post-production,” he said. “I never stopped pushing to protect it and movie it to the finish line.”
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