Discussing Sci-Fi Storytelling & World Building with Writer Jon Spaihts
by Brandon Lee Tenney
May 21, 2012
Prometheus is coming. It's merely weeks away. And to say my hopes are interstellar-ly high would still, somehow, be an understatement. Thankfully in this interim before I get to soak my brain in Ridley Scott's latest sci-fi odyssey, I've had something in my back pocket to get me by, that today, with this article, I'm going to share. It's a taste of the very beginnings of Prometheus from the man in the very engine room of the ship itself. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts speaks more clearly and deftly about writing than almost anyone I've heard. He's the credited writer of The Darkest Hour and co-credited with Damon Lindelof on Prometheus, but it's his unproduced sci-fi work for which he's most known and for which he has become so sought after.
One of his unproduced scripts, Shadow 19, is a big, bold sci-fi head-trip that toys with the basest notion of man versus self versus nature while exploring a side of teleportation that no other film has even attempted to traverse. And then there's Passengers. Passengers is one of the best scripts I've ever read. It's beautiful. It's simple and complex at once. It's the story of a man who's awoken too early from suspended animation in the middle of a 120+ year interstellar journey. He's alone. But it's his decision whether or not to awaken another for company that sets this story apart. The small, laser-focused character story, the relationship drama of that moral dilemma, set in relief against the huge, sci-fi spectacle is awe inspiring.
That's what Jon Spaihts does best. He creates worlds. Worlds we haven't seen before or have only seen in passing, but haven't yet truly explored. He builds environments for his characters to inhabit that mean just as much as the characters themselves. When we first sat down to discuss Prometheus and his science fiction work, it's that knack for world building and set-up that I was most curious about. So, to kick things off in our discussion, I asked Jon just where he starts his stories when a new story needs starting. Let's begin:
When you are ready to write something, do you look at characters first or do you look at the world you are writing in? (When you are creating a new story.)
Jon: It's a good question. And I think, for me at least, a story is never born the same way twice. But if I had to guess the form the process most often takes, it would be that I begin with a predicament. And almost instantly that predicament calls into being a character who answers that predicament appropriately.
In Shadow 19, a soldier sends essentially clones of himself on a suicide mission again and again, each clone knowing a little bit more, having trained a little bit more, armed a little bit better, until finally one of those clones completes the mission and comes home again, which was never supposed to happen. The character you need to send into that predicament must be a superlative soldier, because that's the virtue on the basis of which he's been called, and he must be arrogant and unwounded, untouched, a perfect solider so that in this crucible, this hell world to which he's sending copies of himself, he is humbled, he is broken, he is wounded, he becomes wiser and comes home a better man than he left.
So, to some extent, the predicament dictates the character. In Passengers, a colony ship is flying to another world on a 120-year voyage and 30 years in, while everyone else is sleeping in suspended animation, one man wakes up too soon. And he's got to live out his life alone on this ship and die of old age before they arrive at their destination. What kind of man should that be? That guy needs to be the fellow who struggles a little bit with his own feelings so that the experience of isolation and solitude bear on him and sort of force him to become a philosopher over time. But he can't begin a philosopher, or he wouldn't have a sufficiently difficult time.
He needs to have a yen in his heart for love so that his isolation weighs on him so that he will go and seek love, which leads to the moral crisis of the film. And he should be a guy who will try to fix his predicament technically and fail. He needs to try to get out of his problem and be unable to, which boxes him into his moral dilemma. So he's a mechanic, but not at a gifted starship-building level. He's not a nuclear physicist or a rocket scientist. He is just a mechanic. So he's got a shot of improving his lot in some ways. And maybe, if everything breaks right, at saving his life somehow. But it won't be easy. His tool set is insufficient to the task. And so he's far outside his comfort zone.
And there again, I feel like the kind of guy that hero needed to be was called for, summoned out, really, of thin air by the predicament itself.
He'd have to be someone who's willing to leave earth behind, too.
Jon: Right, exactly. He's got to be somebody who'd go get on a colony ship, leaving his entire life behind so that everyone he knows will age into old age and die before he arrives. It's a grand kind of geographical suicide. And it takes some kind of break, some kind of… more than an impulse. Some real need and a yearning to lead someone to such breaks. And yet, people have done it all the time. In older days of immigration, many people from poor families in Europe came to the United States for the first time. They came a long ship's journey that took every penny they had, with no prayer that they would ever be able to afford the journey home or that any of their relatives would follow.
They might receive a few letters, but many of those early immigrants from poor families were essentially committing suicide out of their own world to be reborn in a new world. And that impulse fascinated me. And it becomes a through line of Passengers. And that's the feedback cycle that, if you tap into it the right way, will deeply enrich your story. The predicament gives birth to a protagonist. Your protagonist character then informs a story. And if you just map the predicament without giving thought to that character, you come up with a certain scaffold. But following that character's heart, that character's bliss, that character's fear and flaws through the course of the story, you generally come up with surprising events and shapes you didn't expect when you were first outlining your technical predicaments. The two things interweave in a really beautiful way if you've got the balance right.
I think no matter how dazzling a cinematic background you lay behind a story, you are only going to invest to the extent that you connect to the characters you are watching. There are three motives of story that matter: having something that you hope for, having something that you fear, or having a burning question that you need answered. Any one of them is sufficient. If you can have more than one of them running at one time, or all three—you can be afraid of one thing and fearful of another and desperate to understand some mystery that's been dangled in front of you, then you are maximally engaged, all three motors running.
Lacking those three motors, what you've got is idle curiosity. "What's going to happen next? And now what's going to happen?" And idle curiosity is a very weak form of engagement. I guess you can sprinkle a little salt on that if you are putting a technological spectacle in front of the audience where they say, "Well, what can they do now? Now what can they do?" And you sort of see planets cracking in half and things transforming into robots, and what have you.
But you bleed for a story when you see someone striving to rescue someone they love, or someone making a horrified realization that they are not who they thought they were, or that they have to make a devastating moral choice. You get into a story when it shows you a horrible new fate that can befall someone. And suddenly, a hero you've come to know is fleeing a kind of fate you never imagined before. That's investment, where you are given things to hope for, things to fear, things to wonder at.
The other thing science fiction gives you is the emotional correlative. We all experience the daily events of life rather cataclysmically. We're fired from our jobs, we get dumped by someone we love, we chase some dream and it falls into our hands, we kiss someone we've had a crush on for a long time, something irreplaceable breaks. These experiences we have, we experience cataclysmically. It's as if one thousand-foot chasms opened up in front of us or colossal tidal waves crush us and the moon fell from the sky. We feel like that. We feel transformed into monsters.
And science fiction allows you to externalize those commonplace emotional experiences, those commonplace emotional extremes with comparatively extreme macro events; the world can reflect your internal experiences proportionally. And I think that's what science fiction does when you are doing it best.
I don't mean to jump into discussing Prometheus too early because this is such a great topic. But I asked Jon, because the way he is describing it is perfection in designing a script. But I wonder, with Prometheus, did the world come first? Did he have to say, "We exist in this Alien universe. How do we build around it?" Or did you go into it with that predicament and those motors first. And obviously, I don't want to ask what it was specifically, because we'll eventually find out…
Jon: The universe of Alien comes with rules of two kinds. It has a certain technical lure, which has become canonical and was very well known by large population of fans. So you have to play according to those rules. It also comes with narrative archetypes. You can't return to that world and do a musical comedy, or a western, or a straight detective story, because what's the point? The world contains not only trappings of science fiction, but trappings of narrative. There are archetypes, dualities.
In the universe of Alien, you look hard at the duality between humanity and the beast. You look hard at the duality between humanity and artificial man, the android. And that duality is always present in an Alien film. You look hard at the duality between humanity and the corporation. And that duality is always present, that rift. I think those forces need to be active in any story you tell in the Alien universe or you are breaking the franchise.
So without tipping my hand about the nature of the dilemmas that called the characters forth, there definitely was a landscape of narrative that was kind of binding. There was going to be a corporation. There was going to be artificial humanity. There was going to be an alien menace. And there was going to be remote interstellar travel. There are also things that I think are hallmarks of Ridley's seminal first Alien film that you want to pay homage to in any film that returns that that universe.
I think the story properly told in that universe, the menaces should be few in number but very terrible. The world should be dark and claustrophobic, and there should be many shadows and hiding places. You should be removed and isolated with no hope that help will come. You should be confronted by a sense not just of menace, but an ancient menace of stories set in motion long before your arrival that are bigger than you. I think all of those are qualities of that first film that it was very important to me to honor going forward, or in this case, going back.
So, from his answers so far we have the very seed of Spaihts' worlds: the predicament that calls forth the characters most—and, at first, least—suited to deal with that particular predicament, which then leads to the motors of placing those characters in situations where they will, if done correctly, hope for one thing while fearing another all while attempting to answer a burning, fathomless question. (Continues below.)
What, then, does Spaihts look to for his inspiration? What is the world inside his head populated with so that he can then populate the worlds before our eyes? And what about the world of science fiction (and movies) in general: what has changed? How is it evolving? Will we see more "space operas" again?
Jon: Well, the stuff that is most evocative for me is the science fiction that I was reading when I was a kid, which was the postwar short fiction and Cold War short fiction that was written in a world still trembling from the aftermath of WWII and the Cold War that followed.
And in that time we saw one of the most monumental depictions ever of humanity's ability to be utterly inhuman to other human beings. The possibility of genocide at an industrial or planetary scale. We saw atomic bombs used in war, weapons of mass destruction that beggared the imagination. And then we saw even greater weapons tested. The hydrogen bomb became real and two vast super powers scrawling over the globe, arming themselves with these weapons, and the possibility of destroying our entire planet became not just believable but real.
And, at the same time, the space race began in a technological push that was inextricably tied up with the arms race between the Soviet Union and the US. We put men on the moon and looked outward at Mars and the prospect of space travel became grippingly real at the same time. And Star Trek is born in that era. So, there was this incredible tension in the psyche of every thinker in the world between the yawning abyss that had just opened up, the possibility of real destruction, real evil, civilization ending cataclysms. It put the end of the world in everybody's mind. And, at the same time, this infinitely beckoning of possibility of outward flight, new worlds, infinite future was opening up.
So we felt the pull in both directions. And I think it created vast science fiction. I think the science fiction of that era remains some of the most powerful that's ever been written. Since then, we've become less macrocosmic.
Jon: Yeah. We went through John Varley to William Gibson and Neal Stephenson; we looked inward. We looked inward at hacking the body, inward at hacking the brain. We dove into cyberspace. We got into the micro rather than the macro. We tunneled down into the code, into the dysgenic spiral, into the cells. And there are great questions there of identity, of the soul, of what's biological real, what the nature of humanity is precisely. But we lose the scale of the space opera that preceded it.
I suppose what I am striving toward is a revival of the scale of the space opera in the light of all these newer developments. So I don't want to lose cyber punk and I don't want to lose web head thinking. I don't want to lose hacking the body and all of the rich questions those things bring. But I want to bring back the macrocosmic space opera with high concept driving that story.
Is there a certain amount of hope in space opera as well?
Jon: Yes. It has that techno-optimism.
Something like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is all about that hope of new life and discovery, but the insidious nature of the unknown. And that's what space opera is, and that's what I've been missing. And it's so refreshing and wonderful to hear that want to revive it.
Jon: When you look at Rendezvous with Rama, you see a tremendous tale of hope. Here's the work of a civilization far greater than ours capable of manufacturing artificial worlds and sustaining life in one way or another for eons between the stars, and are presumably engaged in travel and colonization of new worlds.
And, at the same time, the spacecraft explored in Rendezvous with Rama is utterly alien, and unknowable, and unfamiliar, and therefore frightening. It existed on a scale that suggests terrifying things about its creators.
Just in its potency makes it plain that there is, or at least was, some race of beings out there that could swat us like fruit flies, against whom our best tricks would be the tricks of children. And that's terrifying. Even if they are benevolent, that's terrifying.
Not to get too off topic, but at the end of that book, what's so powerful is that they could swat us away like flies, but they don't even care to.
Jon: Yeah, we are literally flies.
They don't even… we think they are here for us. But we're just another blip for them. They're going somewhere else we can't even know…
Jon: And we just crawl around like bugs on their spacecraft for a pinprick of time and disappear again. We're not even a glitch in the program.
Is that more terrifying? I mean, I think so.
Jon: The great fear and great dream of science fiction is that we long to be significant. The Matrix—fantastic high concept science fiction—and the horror in The Matrix is of office-cubicle insignificance of a rat race of anonymity, of being lost in the hum of modern life somewhere in an office building, in a cubicle, facing a laptop; you are nobody. And then, of course, the great fantasy of The Matrix is rising to utmost significance, to world altering messianic significance. What if you were not just someone, but "the one"?
He's referenced some amazing works, both on the page and screen so far. But so then how does he tackle the unknown in writing sci-fi? (The unknown being such an important part of the Alien franchise, after all.) I next asked Jon specifically: "How do you display… how do you make your readers and then potentially the audience in the theater, feel the unknown if it is in fact the unknown?"
Jon: Well, in many ways I think the less said the better when you are walking in those fields. If you want to scare people, you do so more effectively with the implied than with the shown, very often, in the same way that a noise in the dark is frightening because it engages the imagination. An incomplete story or a thing incompletely shown more readily begets fear, terror, and a sense of grandeur.
So you use the tools of cinema and storytelling to set the scale of events. You show them a vast space. You give them a great noise. You let someone speak about terrifying ideas, colossal spans of time; things that are not necessarily big spatially or temporally, but can be big in their significance. The ability to make blasphemous alterations in the human essence, the human spirit, the human body. Those are horrific things. The ability to alter your memories, your soul, your character, your nature, to hack inside your head, to tamper with the input of your senses—those are terrifying things.
You set that stage and then you signify what's happening in a way that allows the imagination of the audiences to complete the experience. And you don't over tell, you don't over show.
So, then, how does one know what to show? And when one knows what to show, how does one avoid or build upon what others have already shown? Can science fiction avoid repetition anymore? Should it?
Jon: It's a split answer because one utterly true answer is that you can't. No one does. It's all been done before. There's nothing new under the sun. I do believe that's true. You can find some parallel to anything in some other work. But what people object to is not some fanatic resonance with another work or some literary parallel with another storybook film. What people object to is the sense in their gut and the visceral feeling that we've been here before, that this is just that place again; a kind of déjà vu.
And that, I think, is mostly a danger when there is a confluence of cues lined up together to feel like you are looking at a scene you've looked at before. That means not just a similar chain of events in a similar rule set, but also treated with a similar style, maybe framed in a similar language, maybe even lit or colored or musically backed the same way. When a filmmaker is consciously or unconsciously leaning hard on specific material, the audience can smell that. If you're just seeing similar patterns emerge in storytelling, it's sort of mythical resonance, and that's in the nature of storytelling itself.
The trick is to be alert… I think really the unconscious quotation is really more dangerous than the conscious. The critical thing is to audit yourself always for inadvertent borrowing, because that's where you are going to get in trouble—when something comes to you naturally and you feel ownership of it because it's down in your bones, and you fail to realize that it came to you because someone gave it to you one, or five, or ten years ago, and it lives in your subconscious now. And that is a tricky process.
Everybody's heard stories of a songwriter who wrote a brilliant tune and then had a friend tell them that that was a Sinatra song, you asshole. As storytellers, we are subject to that same pitfall all the time. All you can do is be alert, try to be awake to it.
That's the delicate ground Spaihts walked on while writing Prometheus and then, later, while working with Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott to actually see the movie to fruition. But Prometheus is not just another Alien film. It's of its own accord, called by its own name for a reason. Jon Spaihts is hyper-aware of that. And, well, after talking with him—and hopefully after reading what he said, above, you do too—I trust him explicitly. Is it June 8th, yet? Why the hell does it even matter, then?!
We'll find out all the answers in just a few more weeks. Thanks for reading this discussion of worldbuilding, science fiction, and, really, screenwriting craft with writer Jon Spaihts. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed discussing with Jon. Look out for more coverage of Prometheus and, specifically, more from our in-depth conversation with Jon Spaihts in the coming weeks. Yes, there's more! You'll want to read all about his breakdown of just what the Alien franchise means to us today, the archetype of the android throughout sci-fi film and literature, and just how this journey with Ridley Scott all got started. Then, of course, once you've read all that, look for Prometheus in theaters June 8th. Unless you plan on entering hyper-sleep between now and then. But careful, I hear the process still has a few bugs to work out.