Quickly becoming the go-to guy for space adventures, screenwriter Jon Spaihts turned a a conversation about returning to the universe of Ridley Scott’s seminal film Alien into a job writing the highly anticipated summer blockbuster Prometheus, out in theaters on June 8th. Many established writers had taken stabs at the idea with little success, but Spaihts offered a take, during a meeting at Scott Free Productions, that interested not only the studio, but Ridley Scott himself, who signed on to direct it. Five drafts later, screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost) came on to rebalance the story and elaborate on some character relationships and mythology while leaving the characters in place and the infrastructure of the story standing.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider (which was done just before the announcement that he would be writing a reboot of The Mummy franchise), Jon Spaihts talked about what it was like to collaborate with Ridley Scott, blocking out expectations when you’re writing a screenplay for a film with so much interest, why all of the secrecy is crucial for the viewing experience, remaining true to canon whenever possible, that he read Lindelof’s draft which he says has a new energy and some new ideas but is still a story that he feels a lot of ownership of, and more. He also talked about completing work on the graphic novel adaptation World War Robot, an original story he’s doing for Jerry Bruckheimer that’s a romantic action-adventure with a sci-fi hook, the original feature Children of Mars that he wrote for Scott Rudin (that is currently circling in development, as it’s not the best time to make a big sci-fi movie about Mars), a rewrite he did of George and the Dragon, and whether he’d ever consider trying his hand at directing. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JON SPAIHTS: I had written a couple of scripts that had gotten the attention of the folks over at Scott Free, Ridley’s production company, particularly a science fiction epic, called Shadow 19, and a science fiction love story, called Passengers. On the strength of those scripts, I was brought in to talk about finding something to do together. It began as a general meeting, with books and comic books across the table, and they asked me if I had any original ideas of my own. Late in the meeting, the fellow I was talking to – Michael Costigan, the head of Ridley’s company – mentioned that they had wanted, for a long time, to return to the universe of Alien and tell a new story, but that nobody had been able to crack it. And, it seemed they couldn’t really go any further forward with the story they’d come up with, so they had to go back in time, and they asked, “So, what do you think?” It was interesting because a question I had ever asked myself or been asked before, and certainly nothing I had prepared for the meeting. But, I found that, when the question was asked, I had opinions that were, in fact, pretty strong opinions, so I just started riffing.
The original Alien left behind some tremendous mysteries about the universe and the world in which it was set, and the mysterious were provocative. I followed a thread of thought into how those mysteries would have to be resolved. That seemed, to me, to make the best sense, and I told the story for 30 or 45 minutes. At the end of that time, Michael asked me if I wouldn’t mind writing that down for Ridley, who was in post-production, at that time, on Robin Hood. You’re not really supposed to write stuff down, as a writer, and leave the document behind. You’re supposed to only talk about it in the room. But, it was Ridley Scott, so of course, I did. In a very short time, that document had leapt from Ridley’s hands into the studio structure and up the ladder. I think it was less than two weeks, before I was sitting in a room with the two co-chairs of 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott, talking about a deal, and Ridley had turned from being merely the producer of the project to wanting to direct it himself. After that, things moved very fast, indeed.
What was your process of writing the screenplay like?
SPAIHTS: I wrote the first draft of that screenplay in three and a half weeks, which is a personal record. And then, I was just in the shoot with Ridley for awhile. I would write a draft, and then I would sit in the room with Ridley Scott and his two lieutenants, at that time, and we would talk about the story for weeks at a time. Ridley was tireless and constantly drawing. He has a fierce visual imagination, and was constantly throwing curve balls at the story that I would then need to adjust to the logic of my universe. We worked through five drafts like that, over many months.
SPAIHTS: Oh, absolutely! I am still new enough at this game that I have internal reality checks going on, whenever I find myself sitting across the table from a famous person. As Hollywood visionaries go, I don’t think you get bigger than Ridley Scott. He’s one of the great living filmmakers. He has made some of the most seminal films in the world, especially in the world of science fiction. Between Blade Runner and Alien, he’s cast as long a shadow as anyone alive, in the world of science fiction, and there we were, talking about working in the Alien universe together. So, yes, I was absolutely on Cloud 9 about everything. On top of that, Ridley is utterly lovely. He’s this charming guy, full of fantastic stories. He’s utterly informal about everything, so he puts you at ease instantly. He was a delight to work with.
This film is not only one of the most anticipated films of the year, but people are kind of rabid in their interest of it. When you sit down to write something, especially on the first day, can you block that out?
SPAIHTS: Ultimately, you have to, but it does make some noise. Prometheus was maybe the eighth studio project or assignment that I had had, but nobody knows that because screenwriters do most of their work underground. You take an assignment and write your draft, and maybe that film gets made, or maybe it goes to another writer, or maybe it ends up on a shelf. That’s just the lot of a screenwriter. Nobody knows about your work, until years later when a movie comes out. But, in this instance, people wanted to know about this project before I started writing. There was an audience before I began, and dire threats of what would happen, if information were to get loose. There was this giant security apparatus in place, around the film. It was the first time that the scribblings in my notebook, while I was outlining the film, had a market value. Leaving my laptop in a café could be a giant public relations disaster. So, it did feel a little bit like walking around with a briefcase full of diamonds or Soviet microfilm, or something really critical.
I was aware that there was an audience to please, but moreover, there is a civilization out there that exists now, of its own accord. The Alien universe has residents. There are people who live there. There are online encyclopedias where hardcore nerds have painstakingly reconciled all of the minutiae of six different movies, computer games, comic book series, fan fiction and novelizations. Many of these things are mutually contradictory because a lot of different writers ran off in different directions in this universe now, but people have tried to make a bible to make all these things make sense to one another. What’s interesting is that these historians of the Alien universe actually know much more about the Alien universe then any one of the writers who has tried to write a story in it, I guarantee you. They write what they call the canon of their universe. All hardcore nerd fan populations jealously guard their canon and they want their universe to be consistent and its awesomeness to be preserved, and you inherit that, as a responsibility, as a new writer entering that universe. You have to balance the responsibility to the canon and all the fans who live, in some part, in that universe, with your responsibility to tell the best story that you can. But, for me, it’s very important to honor canon, wherever possible.
Do you think the secrecy of the information about Prometheus is crucial to the experience of viewing the film?
SPAIHTS: At this point, people are so vested in the experience they’re going to have watching the movie that many of them are actually pushing back against the release of information. It’s such a rare experience, these days, to walk into a movie without having been fed most of it already. Years ago, I was lucky enough to be working very, very hard at the time The Matrix came out, and I hadn’t seen TV in months. I had had my head in a computer, the entire time. And, when I went to see The Matrix, I didn’t know anything about it. Nothing, at all. And, I had one of the most amazing experiences in a movie theater, ever. All the surprises really were surprises, and my mind was completely blown. I think that someone who gets to walk into Prometheus tabula rasa is going to have a similarly thrilling ride.
You talked about wanting to remain true to canon, wherever possible, but did you also write in Easter eggs?
SPAIHTS: You do try, but there are too many variables in play, on a film this big, for you to have a lot of control about things like that, especially when you’re working with someone like Ridley. The fact is that Ridley is a creative volcano, constantly spewing ideas and pursuing new directions, that change the direction of the project, as you go. In the end, a lot of what’s up on screen is coming straight from Ridley’s mind. He’ll come up with an image for a thematic concept that he wants to follow through with, and it becomes my job to build the story around that and give it a logic and a reason for being. So, much of what I see, when I watch the Prometheus trailer myself, is me, but I see Ridley everywhere. In the end, if there are Easter eggs and delicious mysteries in Prometheus, left to be resolved, some of them will be the process of the writing work that I did and that Damon [Lindelof] did, and some of it will just be the by-product of Ridley’s imagination.
SPAIHTS: Certainly, it evolved a lot, while I was on it. I wrote five rapidly evolving drafts that changed a lot, even on my watch. And, I’ve read Damon’s draft as well. I would say that what Damon did was more of a rebalancing of the story than a reinvention. My plot, my characters, and my mythology are all still firmly in place, but he found a way to complicate it and elaborate on some character relationships and mythology, and he wrote some great new scenes and a lot of new ideas. It’s impossible to be very specific without getting into spoilers, and I want to preserve the secrecy of the story, as much as I can. So, there is definitely a lot of new energy and some new ideas, but when I read the script or watch the movie, I see a story that I feel a lot of ownership of.
Did you have any direct collaboration or communication with Damon Lindelof, or did he work entirely separately?
SPAIHTS: We worked separately and sequentially, which is usually the way with writers. The other writers are the people coming into the room as you leave, or vice versa. But, we have been in touch, and we’ve had a lovely and civil correspondence about the project, throughout. He’s been a perfect gentleman.
SPAIHTS: Certainly, it’s something that every screenwriter lives with. It’s simply an aspect of the job. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t get rewritten. On this project, in particular, I came in as an unproduced writer on a colossal franchise. My agents were cautioning me, from literally the first day, that I should not expect to stay in the saddle, all the way through, because the studio was going to want a name writer on a project this big, before they went into production. In a way, having the studio turn to that name writer was like a pat on the back. It meant that they were going to make the movie. It meant that I had gotten it there. But, it’s not easy to be taken out of the saddle. It’s harder on some projects than others. Screenwriting is a highly variable job. Sometimes you are paying the rent, and sometimes you’re deeply imbedded in a labor of love. Sometimes it’s business as usual to move on and have another writer step in, and sometimes it’s heart-breaking. In this instance, it was not too bad. I was very lucky. Also, when a new writer comes onto a project, he’ll make wholesale changes just to mark the territory or for greater credit. Damon was an extremely respectful rewriter. He left my characters in place and left the infrastructure of the story standing, and he embellished that and built on it and respected it, from the very beginning. That we were able to be friendly to one another, on top of that, was just the icing on the cake.
SPAIHTS: I think my first love is film. There’s something about the span of it and the completion of the experience. You sit down for two hours, in the dark, and you go somewhere else, and then you come back, having completed a journey. It’s like finishing a novel. There’s a deeper satisfaction in that, to me, on some level, than the long, wandering road of a TV series. But, we are also living through the Golden Age of television drama. The best writing the medium has ever seen is happening now. I don’t think there are any writers who don’t think, at least some, of television because there is such amazing work being done there. It is true that, with TV, a writer gets a great deal more respect. That’s something Damon talked to me about. He comes from a universe, in which he is accustomed to being king. In the world of features, even a writer as big as Damon is king no more.
Do you have multiple scripts in various stages right now, or do you focus on one thing at a time?
SPAIHTS: Well, I’m working on assignment. I’m not spec-ing anything, so I literally have legal constraints about how to work on things. It’s not generally permissible to go work on other projects when you’re in a writing period for a studio, on an assignment. So, I work through them in the order I get them. I’m doing two [Jerry] Bruckheimer projects, back to back, right now, and that keeps my plate pretty full.
What are the films you’re writing for Jerry Bruckheimer, and what’s it like to collaborate with someone like him?
SPAIHTS: I have been less in the room with Jerry than I was with Ridley. I work with the three top people at his company, and they are my development team. We are just completing work on a graphic novel adaptation, called World War Robot, which is a fantastic space opera of interplanetary war and a cautionary tale about the military industrial complex. And then, the next thing that I will do, also with Bruckheimer, is an original story that’s a romantic action-adventure, set in our universe with a sci-fi hook. I’m very excited about that because that’s my own idea. That’s going to be one of those labors of love.
Are you still working on Children of Mars?
SPAIHTS: Yeah. That’s an original I wrote for Scott Rudin’s company, under Disney. That is still circling in development somewhere. It is an unfortunate time to be a big sci-fi movie about Mars.
Have you finished rewriting George and the Dragon?
SPAIHTS: Yes, I did that for Doug Wick at Red Wagon. He is just a lovely gentleman, and a great producer to work with. That one is also still circling. It comes up, once in awhile. People like a good dragon-slaying story. But, it’s a big, expensive movie, so it’s one of those things where everybody needs their ducks in a row, before they move forward.
Do you just focus on the work then, and not worry about if or when any of these movies will ever get made?
SPAIHTS: Always. For a successful writer, the secret is to have many irons in the fire. Write the next thing. Once you’ve written a good script, it will get made or not get made, according to variables you cannot control, like stars getting interested, and the superstitions in Hollywood rising or falling around what is over and done with versus what’s in. You don’t control whether your movies get made. You can’t. All you can control is whether your draft is great. So, you write your great draft, as best as you can, and then move on to the next thing.
SPAIHTS: I grew up a really nerdy kid. I read science fiction and fantasy voraciously, for the first 16 years of my life. I read a lot of classic Cold War science fiction, which is much of the best science fiction, so I speak the language well, which is a commodity that’s not easy to come by in Hollywood. The science fiction I write comes from a pretty deep pool of literature, not just from the reflection of other science fiction films, and I think that gives me somewhat deeper roots. I also have wider tastes, but because I sold a big science fiction epic, it was easier to get in the door talking science fiction the next time. And then, you sell a second, a third and a fourth, and pretty soon, people say that that’s what you do. But, I love these stories and I love writing them, so I’m happy to follow the path of least resistence because it goes to a place I enjoy. Down the road, when I’m more firmly established as a writer, I am sure that I’ll exercise that liberty to write more broadly, but for the time being, I’m very happy where I am.
Do you have a dream project that you’d love to do, but haven’t gotten the chance yet?
SPAIHTS: Sure, I have a couple of historical dramas, based on real stories from a thousand years ago, that I would love to write. They’re much smaller budgets and much smaller stories than the ones I’m working on now. My agents would never let me go write them, and they’re not what people are looking for. So, I expect those will be labors of love in my later career.
SPAIHTS: I would say that working with Ridley Scott makes the process of directing much more terrifying. I visited his set outside London, and the film was shot in exquisite 3D. In the director’s tent, you wear 3D glasses and you look at 3D monitors with four different camera angles coming in, all at one time, and there are all of these beautiful, live 3D shots. And, because you’re in Ridley Scott’s director’s tent, the exposure, the lighting, the props and the scenery, in every frame, are perfect. It looks like the Blu-ray. You could print what was on any one of his monitors straight to DVD. It was ready to go. He’s a stunning visual craftsman. I aspire to be like that, some day, but it’s daunting to watch him at work. Ultimately, I am an avid photographer now and am technically-minded about filmmaking, and I’ve done some documentary production in the past and have run small companies. Between liking to tell stories and loving photography, I’d like to try it, some day. Directing offers you the hope that your vision will reach the screen, unmolested and intact. Therefore, it’s tantalizing to all writers.
What was it that inspired you to make the leap to screenwriting? Was it something that you had always wanted to do?
SPAIHTS: I’d wanted to be a writer since I was knee-high. Once I knew that books were written by people and didn’t just happen, it was obviously that I would write them, too. Most of my life, I thought that I would end up a novelist. But then, in New York City, after college, I started a company with a college friend where we made documentary video for museums. In that capacity, I shot, directed, edited and began to learn the vocabulary of film. Instantly, my writing aspirations translated from the printed page to the screenplay, and I started filling notebooks with ideas for movies. And then, a scary thing happened. The company I had founded with my college friend was bought by a dot com and he, and I became dot com executives together. Doing that job was challenging, intellectually demanding, lucrative and deeply satisfying, and I saw the peril in it. I might never write, if I stayed in this challenging and comfortable job. So, I hoarded money and quit my job, and took a year off and wrote Shadow 19, my first screenplay. I rewrote it 27 times, but it got me representation and it sold. On the back of that first sale, of the first script I had ever written, I moved to Hollywood with everything I had and bet everything on making that career stick. I’ve been lucky. A lot of screenwriters have a drawer of unsold scripts that they cut their teeth on. I don’t have one. Everything I’ve written, after my first spec, I wrote on assignment. Everything I’ve written was work.