EUROPA REPORT Making the Film: director Sebastián Cordero
EUROPA REPORT Making the Film: director Sebastián Cordero
Interview by Randall D. Larson, June 2013.
EUROPA REPORT began as an idea from producer Ben Browning and his production team, who devised the film’s concept and scope, which screenwriter Philip Gelatt (writer and director of the 2011 horror film THE BLEEDING HOUSE), developed into a shooting script. Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero, in his first Hollywood film after more than a decade making films in his native country, was brought in to helm the production. Even though his previous films had been contemporary dramas and thrillers, the producers recognized his ability to handle an ensemble of actors and create honest tension in those movies and felt he was right for EUROPA REPORT.
Q: What was the genesis of this film and how did you become involved in the project?
Sebastián Cordero: It’s strange because it’s not a project that I started myself. I was approached about it by the producers involved in the film. I’m not your typical choice for a sci-fi film,
actually this is the first time that I made a science fiction film and it’s also the first time that I made a film in English, but I do think that the producers wanted from the beginning to have a strong actor’s director, because it is a contained piece with six characters inside the space ship. There were a lot of elements that we had to play with because of the faux documentary elements, where I think they had liked my work. The pitch which I gave to them regarding how I would approach this film was shooting it almost in real time with eight cameras simultaneously in an enclosed set that would work 360-degrees. We could exploit a little bit more the natural side of having all the actors there together and even improvising occasionally. These were different elements that I think were very interesting and which were the elements that appealed to me about the project. The other thing that appealed to me tremendously was that the project was very grounded in science, and everyone wanted it to remain so. So it was really a pleasure to be able to start investigating, doing research, and meeting science advisors – people from JPL, from NASA, Marine Biologists, oceanographers, people from SpaceX, you name it. We really ended up having access to a lot of very knowledgeable people in this field, and everyone was more than thrilled to contribute to us, wanting to make the film as grounded in science as possible.
Q: Do you know how the initial idea came about?
Sebastián Cordero: I know that for a long, long time now whenever you mention Europa, it is one of the most fascinating and more interesting places within the solar system, and there’s always been theories on what could exist there. Even back in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and 2010, Europa plays a significant role in his literature, and I think it had to do with the fascination and the mysteriousness of a place like that, which suddenly feels within reach. It was a project that was developed by the producers. They found the idea fascinating and they got the project off the ground, but it’s definitely a theme that is within the possibilities of space travel in the next few decades. I know that Phil Gelatte, who wrote the screenplay, did a lot of research on the theme, but from the beginning they had talked about keeping the story within these parameters and telling the story of the journey to Europa.
Q: One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way it progresses in a very interesting, non-linear way, using a shifting progression of found footage from vidcams, news conferences, and video diaries. How did the film’s unique style of filmmaking come about?
Sebastián Cordero: On one hand we had to use the concept behind the film. From the beginning, one of the great elements about the screenplay was that the story was told from the perspective of the cameras inside the ship, and that one of the key elements in the plot had to do with how did we as an audience end up watching this footage, how did it get back to earth? And there’s a lot of crucial plot elements that play with that, but in order for that to work well I think it was very important for us to be very strict about the conceit, to really tell the story from the perspective of [this being] a documentary that was put together by the company that sent these people to Europa. So, on the one hand, we would have the perspective of how this company chose to tell this story, on the other hand, they would be limited to the footage that was recorded on the space ship, and from the beginning when the Director of Photography said, ‘let’s place the cameras where they would place them in the ship, not necessarily for aesthetic reasons but more for functional reasons of why someone would want to record that area and let’s not break the rules. The minute you break a rule and suddenly have a different angle or tell the story a different way, it falls apart. The audience I feel cheated, and I didn’t want that to happen with this film. So from the beginning we stuck to that reality. Obviously there’s also the interviews, the talking head scientist who is showing us the perspective of the company or behind the mission.
The logic behind the shuffling and reshuffling of the chronology of the story has to do mostly with the fact that however this material was recorded and returned back to Earth, it’s material that needs to be really arranged. It didn’t necessarily all arrive in sequence and we thought it was actually a lot more interesting and it played a lot more with our notion of keeping the audience guessing about what’s happening, although they know where things are heading. The fact that to break the chronology is something that’s being done in a lot of films that I like a lot and that I felt was an element that we could play with without it actually breaking any rules. It was simply a matter of the perspective of whoever’s telling this story, they chose to do it this way because it would make the story more interesting, more fascinating, and give it a little more suspense, but that was always thinking about the perspective of this company putting the film together.
Q: The film has an excellent international cast – how were the players chosen and what kind of direction did you give them during filming as far as how their characters would develop throughout the story?
Sebastián Cordero: One of the great things about the screenplay is that is allowed for that international, very diverse cast. With our casting director, Avy Kaufman, we were went through a
great process of looking at different possibilities to really build this palette of actors and personalities which had to fit within the parameters of what an astronaut has to be. We wanted to have two pilots/officers/commanders on board, two engineers, and then two scientists, which is what you would need on a mission like this, and it was real interesting to see what each actor brought to the ensemble. The first actor who came on board was Michael Nyqvist, who plays Andre. He read the screenplay and was really into it and he found the idea of how we were going to shoot it, building this set and working within an enclosed space, very interesting. Sharlto Copley, whom I had seen in DISTRICT 9 and thought his performance there was fabulous, he’s a big science fiction fan and when he read the script he was really into it as well. He loved the idea of playing against Michael, and I think that had a lot to do with his decision, and once you have actors like those two, they start becoming magnets for other actors. Anamaria Marinca, who plays Rosa, I’m very familiar with her work in a Romanian film called 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS & 2 DAYS, which won the Palm D’or at Cannes a few years ago, and I immediately thought of her when I read the script, but I didn’t think it would be anything up her alley, it was very different from anything she had done, but actually it was that which attracted her to the project.
The other thing which was really interesting about working in this way with all six actors inside the ship, basically there was no one from the crew inside the set when we were shooting, the set was designed so that it work in all directions with all cameras shooting, leaving very little dead space where anyone could hide. So we ended up just emptying the set. The lighting is done through the practical lighting through the ship, and so the actors once they were inside, there was an environment that was surrounding them that was completing the illusion of being inside this ship, and I actually had to communicate with them through a microphone so that I could stay outside. It was quite an ordeal to go in and out of the ship once everything was ready to shoot, because the ship was built on top of a gimbal, it had to be separated so it could move, so just to go in and out took quite a few minutes, which are precious when you are shooting, so it was easier just to talk through a microphone. In a way it was almost like having mission control talk to the astronauts! That was challenging for me as a director but I think it helped them a lot. They did a lot of research early on about the life of an astronaut, and we did a lot of character work on what their backgrounds were, even though very little of that is actually shown in the film, but it was very important to have that. They also had access to a lot of specialists in the fields that each of their characters was working on, and I made everyone watch the wonderful documentary FOR ALL MANKIND about the Apollo missions because I thought that really reflected the spirit of who these characters were and what they were reaching for.
Q: What was most challenging for you about filming EUROPA REPORT?
Sebastián Cordero: Probably the most challenging thing, with this being a very heavy visual effects film that was shot on a stage in a very enclosed and very controlled environment, was the transition from the footage we’ve shot into the more epic scale with the visual effects. A lot of things we had to previsualize and imagine and do our best to get there, which took a lot of faith in what the process will bring. In a way I really let the film itself dictate its own rules, more than any other film I’ve done before. Whenever you do something that wasn’t working it just felt wrong, it felt like it didn’t belong to the film, and sometimes there were huge decisions about filming filmed things in one direction and they ended up going in a different path. One of those, we’ll get to this in a second, I’m sure, had to do with the music and what type of music to use in the film.
Q: What did you have in mind for the kind of music you wanted the film to have?
Sebastián Cordero: That was one of trickiest decisions to make. Early on, I was very tempted to really play with the found footage element and have very little music – to actually play with a lot of silences or sounds of the spaceship. However, the minute we started editing the film together, we realized there was a huge risk of losing the human side of the story if we didn’t enhance it with music. So we started playing with a lot of different temp things, and none of them quite worked, ever. There were things that were interesting, but they were not quite hitting the mix of emotion, tension, humanity, and at the same time really flowing with the film and becoming part of the film without it feeling like it was an additional element. When we started looking at different possibilities for people who could compose the score, I wasn’t familiar with his music before, I had not seen BATTLESTAR GALACTICA until one of the producers told me ‘Check it out, it might work with the type of stuff that the film needs.’ And I heard one of the themes from BSG, I think it was “Passacaglia” or “The Shape of Things To Come,” one of those two, and I immediately knew that this was the composer who was right for the film, because there was something about just the progression of harmonies, the repetition that he plays with, that felt just right for what we were looking for.
Once we talked to Bear and realized that he was such a huge science fiction buff and such an important part of the science fiction world today with his contributions to BSG, it just seemed that all the elements were coming together. Also, he got the film, he really understood what we were after, and he really understood the need to have a soundtrack that would really enhance what’s happening inside these characters – the sense of wonder, the sense of awe, the sense of discovery and enthusiasm but at the same time the tremendous amount of pressure and tension that exists when pursuing something as difficult and complicated as a journey through space. So he understood it from the beginning.
There was a day when he came to New York to do a spotting session with us, and in the weeks after that there was also some really interesting back and forth communication in terms of finding also the right balance as to how to keep this tension constant – also how to balance the score so that it has a very melodic and very harmonious side but also has the tension that comes in from these deep sounds and deep rumbles. At some point we described them as spaceship sounds – you wouldn’t quite recognize what they are, they’re the rumble of the low engines or the systems within the ship, but we treat them musically. We had a temp mix for our sound, and a lot of our sound effects and atmospheres were already starting to come in place when Bear came on board, and we were really able to go back and forth and have him also hear what we were doing with sound so that it would all build together rather than fight each other.
Q: It’s a subtle score which kind of lingers in the background or develops this pulse to really accentuate the tension, but there are moments in the score, such as when they are landing, and this wonderful melody from the strings, really adds a very strong emotional quality to it.
Sebastián Cordero: Absolutely. You know, it’s funny that you mention that cue, because that cue for me and for the rest of the producers was really crucial in finding what the final sound of the score was going to be. In our first pass of cues that Bear did for the film, I remember the one cue that just hit us spot on, that we didn’t want to change at all, which was the landing. And with the landing there were so many elements with the pulse and almost like the cycles going on with the music until you have that melody that is really beautiful. There were so many references for the later part of the film that came from listening to that landing, saying, “Okay, this is really working, let’s focus on something like this as the tension increases throughout the second half of the film,” and I think it really paid off.
Q: How closely did you work with Bear on developing his main theme and subordinate themes – and what kind of input did you give him?
Sebastián Cordero: For me the whole process was fascinating. I come from a background of music in my family, and as a kid I used to play the piano, so perhaps I know a little bit more about music than other directors do. That’s a good thing but it can also be dangerous, because you can also get stuck on little details and I would do into really intricate notes on what Bear was sending me. Once the communication flowed in terms of exactly what I was after and how that fit with his view of how the score should be, then everything started falling into place. But I remember some of the discussions we were having as, how do we make the score work, there was a danger of the artificiality of whatever this company who was editing this film could be doing. You don’t want that part of the concept to hurt the actual emotion of what’s happening and to take you out of the film, so it was a very interesting balance to find. My communication with Bear couldn’t have been better. He’s incredibly receptive and he’s not afraid to take criticism or to say ‘okay, this isn’t working, let’s dismiss this path and let’s see if we go into a different direction.’ But, like everything, once you find the right approach, it’s incredible how well it just blends in with the rest of the film. When I screened the film back in L.A. at the film festival there, a couple of friends of mine who are filmmakers told me they felt the music had been incredibly powerful but they hadn’t really noticed how much it came in or out; they really felt it complemented the film so well and there was no single moment that it distracted them from what was happening, only enhanced it. That’s the best thing that can happen with score – you forget that it’s there even though it’s doing so much to enhance the experience. I think Bear had real talent to achieve that. When you listen to specific themes, they’re just gorgeous but the moment they’re integrated into the story it just feels like part of the thrust of the film, of the mission, of the story that’s being told, and it really fits incredibly well.
Q: There’s a very interesting moment at the end of the film, which I also discussed with Bear, where Rosa has opened the airlock as the alien creature is approaching in order to capture it on the vidcam, and Bear’s score begins to react to its radiation, distorting the music in the same way as the A/V in the landing module is being distorted. That was an unusual use of dramatic music configured to react to what is happening in the movie. How did that come about?
Sebastián Cordero: The people who were designing all the sounds inside the ship, they really approached that third act very musically, and they added all these distortions to the sound design – the elements that suggested a glitch in the communications, where the transmissions might not make it back to Earth. That’s what they had in mind, but it was really cool also when they heard what Bear was doing, and he heard what they were doing, and they definitely started complementing each other. That was very nice to see happening, because very often you work so separately with the musicians on one hand and the sound designer on the other, and here, although there were many stretches of time where each one was doing their work on their own, when it all came together there was a chance of seeing how the sound and the music could complement each other.
Q: What’s your final analysis of the effectiveness of Bear’s score in the finished film?
Sebastián Cordero: I think it’s great when all the elements of a film come together so well, but there’s something really special and really emotional about this score that doesn’t stop surprising me. Whenever I’ve seen the film again with an audience I feel that pulsating element in the music and that mixture of very low rumble with very beautiful melody, that really pulls people in. I think it’s done wonders to make the film come together. To me it was a real pleasure, a real discovery to work with Bear. I’m very curious about all his other work, and what he has coming up in the future!