In the new sci-fi horror film “Life,” Swedish/Chilean director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”) tells the story of a team of scientists who discover an evolving and dangerous life form that escapes in space and begins to wreak havoc on the crew.
During an interview with me during the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month, Espinosa, 40, talked to me about his thoughts about the sci-fi genre, and how his fear of small spaces affected the making of the movie.
Prior to making “Life,” what was your relationship with sci-fi? Was it a genre that intrigued you? Did you think it was something you’d like to try during your career?
The idea that I would get to do sci-fi was something almost surreal. I never pictured it was something that would happen. It was more like one of those daydreams—allowing yourself to have dreams that are bigger than you could imagine. I think all directors want to be in the world of science fiction—even great, artistic directors like [Andrei] Tarkovsky. I think we’re all intrigued by this genre.
I got the opportunity to interview you in 2012 when you made “Safe House” with Denzel Washington. During that interview, you said when it comes to making American films, “you have all the money you want” and “it’s almost like a dilemma” because “how can you be creative when anything is possible?” Did you have the same experience making “Life?”
No, because my budget [for “Life”] was like $56 million or $58 million. I mean, “Gravity” looks like a more expensive movie, but not a much more expensive movie. And “Gravity” was $120 million. [“Life”] was severely under-budgeted. It costs more the other way around when it requires creativity. I decided to shoot the movie only with one camera and no second unit this time. So, there were more limitations. You have to be aware of what story you want to tell.
Something I didn’t know about you until recently was that you’re actually claustrophobic. Did you worry at all that you wouldn’t be able to make it through this film just from a physical standpoint? I mean, how did you work in such a confined space.
(Laughs) Yeah, I can’t even stand the idea of tight confinements! I just told myself that this was a good thing for the movie. I used it almost like a spider sense. When my anxiety went up, I knew the shot was great.
How do you feel when “Life” gets compared to other sci-fi films like “Alien” or “Gravity” or “The Thing?” Would you rather that it stood on its own?
I think in the tradition of science fiction, you’re always supposed to talk about each other and compare. “2001” has to echo against “Solaris.” And they have to echo against “Alien.” And “Alien” has to echo with “The Thing.” In comparison to “Alien,” “Alien” was placed in this dystopian future, which was modern back in the 1970s because of the atomic era and the fear of the atomic bomb. I think science fiction is supposed to be a keyhole into the future—a look to technology. I think that keyhole today doesn’t allow you to look into the future. It only allows you to look to tomorrow. That’s what I found fascinating with [“Life”]. It takes place tomorrow.
You explained in another interview that you spoke to director Ridley Scott after his upcoming “Alien” movie was placed on the schedule on the exact same date as the release of “Life,” which forced you to change your release date. How much of that strategic, behind-the-scenes stuff is frustrating for you as a director, or do you welcome that competition?
I don’t care, man. It’s complicated making movies. I don’t really get too many headaches over those kinds of things. I’m only concerned about getting my movie as close to what I want it to be. Making a movie is like raising a child. You see all these dreams and aspirations, and hope you have the knowledge and insight to be able to facilitate those possibilities.
What were some of the challenges of making a movie where a CGI character is the main antagonist? Did you enjoy the process for those scenes?
I thought it was kind of fun. It’s fun having the actors revert back to their roots. The root of performance is imagination and creation. To let these actors present this inner fear on screen at something they can’t see coming, but can only imagine was interesting. An imagination will always be stronger than reality.
I know you live in Sweden and you have no plans to move to Hollywood. Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on opportunities because you don’t live closer to the action?
No, I don’t. I really enjoy my quiet life in Stockholm. I get to walk with my daughter to pre-school. I get to walk home and meet an old friend on the street corner. He yells at me a little bit for being a sellout in America. And then I go home and make a coffee and read a script. Do you think I would give that up to be in the fast-paced life of Hollywood and to hang out at some bar with celebrities?
You’re half Swedish and half Chilean. What do you resonate with the most about your Latino heritage?
I think it’s our revolutionary past. It’s a side of ourselves that will never die down. When people say, “Is it hard to be in the Hollywood system?” I say, “It’s hard being a refugee, man. This is easy.” When I meet studio heads and they want to fight, we’ll give them a fight. It’s like a Mexican boxer. You know they’ll give a good fight no matter what.
There are about 150,000 Chilean immigrants living in the U.S. today. What do you say to those people who are part of the political landscape today who think we need to worry about America first and not immigrants or refugees?
I think that’s terrible. I think that’s atrocious. Most of those people who criticize Latinos, they are former refugees. Most of those people who came over on the Mayflower were bandits and crooks. They are in a horrible position to be pointing their finger. This country was based on the brilliance of refugees. It’s very un-American.