You may know that Ben Ripley is one of Hollywood’s brightest up-and-coming scriptwriting talents. His script for Source Code was on the Hollywood ‘Black List’ of best unproduced screenplays before finally seeing the light of day as a star vehicle for Jake Gyllenhaal.
The film was directed by Duncan (Moon) Jones, but before he came on board, it was Shane Abbess, the Aussie director of Gabriel, who was working on the project with Ripley, with the then little-known Bradley Cooper set to star.
It’s not surprising then that the director and screenwriter have teamed up for 7th Day, a Sci Fi film that will be produced by the Dino Di Laurentiis Company, overseen by the legendary producer’s wife, Martha Di Laurentiis.
Not only will the film be directed by an Australian, but it will be shot in Australia – and they’re ‘ditching the green screen’.
Abbess is going for a level of realism that includes a full sized mock-up of the space craft, having the actors go through NASA training, and having the actors live on board the ship during the shoot.
I spoke with Shane and Ben via the magic of email and they’ve kindly offered the first few hints of details of the film. Of course, with 7th Day not scheduled to release till 2014, details are thin on the ground.
There is some concept art going around – but it’s not yet available for public consumption.
My questions are in bold, and Shane Abbess (SA) and Ben Ripley (BR) have replied to each in turn.
On the seventh day, so Christian theology has it, God rested. Is this when the (presumed) aliens in your movie were created?
SA – With what happens in this movie, I can assure you, no-one, not even a higher power, would have the chance to rest. This should then lead us to assume we’re leaving the Aliens to the masterful Ridley and moving on to new and uncharted territory.
BR – There’s certainly a Biblical subtext to the story. We’ve tried not to be heavy-handed about it, however. We want to embed it in the storytelling rather than draw overt attention to it.
7th Day has been described as The Shining on a spaceship. Does that mean it’s one guy with his family? One guy who murders his family, or is the spaceship haunted?
SA – It’s more referring to the tone and our focus on story, character and atmosphere over CGI and Music Video style disposable story-telling. The crew experience a descent of sorts which pushes them well beyond breaking point. As far as specifics, you’ll have to wait and see but I can assure you you’ve NEVER seen this story told before so forget all preconceptions because we’ve intentionally subverting that the whole way.
BR – The only thing I’ll add to Shane’s comments is that The Shining was an inspiration because it was highly contained and it did a good job exuding disembodied dread and filming the invisible, which is something our story dwells a lot on.
You worked together on Source Code – but Shane did not end up directing – what did you learn from each other during that process? What did you vow never to do again? What did you vow to always do?
SA – That experience was like a lifetime of lessons in itself. I really enjoyed Ben’s sensibilities, his love of the genre and his meticulous approach to his craft. Source Code was the beginning of a wonderful collaboration which really got the chance to mature on this film. As far as vows, I only had one – INTEGRITY – the final product will definitely have our combined voice which has been paramount to me on this – to really collaborate beyond the norm in sharing a passion or child-like enthusiasm to see our vision come to life. We’re good at helping one another achieve that.
I rallied against the advised approach to setting this movie up because I believe the story is too unique to be watered down by the traditional system. It’s a fight I take on nearly each and every day and Ben’s been the warrior poet making the fight worthwhile. It helps that our producers are behind us so strongly also.
BR – With Shane, there is always a creative fix. He keeps coming up with new ideas, and that in turn gives me something to build on. In making decisions on Seventh Day, Shane & I both operate as if the movie has already been completed and we are simply going forward in time, watching the finished product, and taking notes from it. Although the moment-by-moment efforts of a movie’s creation have plenty of roadblocks and challenges, there has also been a sense of inevitability with this one – as if it has already been created in a perfect state and we’ve been granted the ability to glimpse it, from time to time.
When you’re establishing a colony in space, what’s essential to bring along?
SA – Things that remind you of why you’re out there. I think it’d be like being out at sea, you always need your bearings both externally and internally because that void gets really quiet so the voices inside get extra loud and sometimes you might not like what they have to say… and if that fails, bring an Xbox with Halo or Gears of War but make sure it has a really good wireless setup.
BR – Any colony on a new planet will be forced to survive under harsh conditions. So it’s a low-tech camping trip as much as a hi-tech spectacle. The imperative is survival. Every piece of gear must be designed with that in mind.
What can you learn from a movie like Pandorum which had a similar setup?
SA – I think with any film that comes before, you learn something from it. If it nailed what you wanted, you move on, satisfied and if it didn’t, you see where, as an audience, you wished it might had have gone. In truth though, the two films aren’t even remotely similar, even in story. We just have to keep the premise simple for now while everything’s under wraps. Even the script has never been distributed with the ending on it. Makes the actor meetings very interesting ‘So, how does it end?…’
Classic influences for solitary or sparsely crewed space ship films are thin on the ground – Solaris, Dark Star and Silent Running cover a wide range of possibilities. Can you narrow the ‘feel’ of 7th Day in description?
SA – I describe it as a classic film in every sense. We’re building the ship completely so you can physically walk through from front to back. We’re ditching the green screen. We went and got the best Production Designer you could imagine for it (contractually can’t say yet) and the focus is on character and twists that will truly flaw an audience. We’re taking an approach to sound with vision that has never been attempted BUT at its heart, we’ve gone back to when these movies kicked MAJOR ass with a simplicity of sorts.
I’ll use the word again – INTEGRITY. Actors living on the ship throughout the shoot, NASA space training in character to serve as rehearsals, the film crew wearing flight suits on vacuum sealed sets… there’s a ‘method’ of madness to everything I want to do – so I’d describe it as an ambitious approach akin to Apocalypse Now meets the tone of The Shining meets something we took years to make sure you’d never seen before.
BR – The entire purpose of the ship and the crew is centered on colonial survival on a hostile, primitive world. The ship is not designed for years of glamorous cruising or space battles. It is a floating base-camp. The crew are not Jedi Knights or astronauts. They are colonists. They drive nails, repair circuit boards, diagnose diseases, cook dinners.
What is it about Sci Fi that draws you in, creatively?
SA – It’s usually something I’d never get to experience in this lifetime so it’s an adventure or escapism of the highest kind. It’s themes though, when done well, lie in traditional and relatable moral scenarios.
BR – The best science fiction combines great story engines with deep meditations on existence. I suppose the highest examples of movies in many other genres do this, but science fiction has its own added sense of scale and spectacle that Hollywood – for all its risk-aversion – has shown itself more than willing to invest in realizing.
BEN – Source Code was on the Hollywood Black List for a few years – obviously a great calling card, but it must be immensely frustrating to have something regarded as excellent, but unproduced, especially when some pretty terrible movies come out.
BR – I was obviously very gratified to see the film made and have it perform so well, both critically and financially. Although there were plenty of moments during the script’s development where we thought the film might not get made, the script’s path to production was actually fairly quick. I sold it in 2007. Two years later it was green lit. And even before it got made, what it did for my career was the real pay-off – getting me into business with higher caliber projects and people.
Film is a mix of art, entertainment and business. What kind of considerations do you take on board, other than story, when creating a film?
SA – I’m always just trying to satisfy that 12 year old child inside of me who wants to be stoked and amazed. It’s why my time here (in LA) has been tricky because there’s so many films that are just the same thing repackaged with the hottest new guy or girl on the block. Audiences watch it because there’s nothing else to go and see but I’m trying really hard to not fit into that category.
I’d like to be a guy who, in years to come, you could rely on to push something further and fight for more than just a pay packet and a house in the hills. So to that end, I always go into a project to see what hasn’t been done before and how does this relate to that child inside who used to believe that his neighbors were Replicants and Ellen Ripley was out there somewhere fighting the good fight. There’s got to be a high level of risk involved because then there’s potential to do something new.
BR – One of my screenwriting teachers in film school said that you can do anything in a movie except be boring. That’s a tremendously important thing to remember. You can break rules, subvert expectations, deliver surprises, anything except be predictable. No script should be a slog to read. As long as it’s interesting, it will have traction. It will gather fans.
SHANE – you’ve been in Hollywood since Gabriel came out in 2008 – with lots of things in development over that time, but nothing produced. How hard is it to keep going in Hollywood?
SA – I never came here to be a ‘career’ director and just rack up lots of credits until something hit because I came here with a very specific approach and point of view. There’s only certain types of stories or intensities to character that I like. It takes time to earn people’s trust, to learn how to achieve something that wants to be elevated. Most films also take a while to mature before you can really see what you have and it’s only then that you know where you stand or what you feel as an artist – The Dark Crystal sequel was an amazing year with the Hensons until I was horrified to find our financiers wanted something that wasn’t in line with Jim Henson’s vision at all.
Source Code was a phenomenal 2 years that merely ended with the age old ‘creative differences’. I set up a movie adaptation of the 80’s video game Contra over at Paramount for about a year before a rights struggle got it stuck in limbo… you can see where the time went… so when Ben and I started work around the same time on 7th Day (2 years ago), I finally, for the first time, felt completely ‘battle ready’ to navigate the mines on the gigantic playing field of Hollywood.
It also helped me to set up the other projects I’m developing because I’d seen some of the uglier sides of things early in my journey – I knew where to wage my wars. In the long run, I’m glad I had those trials because I still get to make the type of movie I want to make but now also know very clearly how to achieve that, well beyond just the direction. As Hetfield says ‘ What don’t kill ya, makes you more strong…’
Is there anything in Source Code that you would have done differently?
SA – Ha! And here’s the part where we hand Shane the shotgun to shoot himself in the foot… No, it’s all good. Most of my favorites scenes and moments I helped create ended up in the final movie, (except for Ben’s original ending which was amazing) just obviously approached differently.
I was fighting for Bradley Cooper in the main role because we’d had a great connection at our initial meeting and I’d just seen The Hangover. At that stage, the powers that be wouldn’t back him but I would have liked to have seen what he and I would have done. That version, with my vision for it was a lot edgier.
There were a set number of times to go back, the father was in the city that was being threatened, I’d designed each death to take you through the moment in a really unique way and I know Jake Gyllenhaal disagreed with how serious and intense I wanted to make it. He wanted it lighter, more straight down the middle, which he and Duncan did a fine job with since they’re both wonderful artists.
My take was more ‘Hitchcock on crack meets Jean Pierre Junet on speed’ so it’s like comparing apples and oranges. It worked out for the best anyways because I’m not sure we’d have 7th Day as it is if I’d been on Source Code till the end and this is one movie I was prepared to wait a lifetime to find. (Luckily, it came sooner).
BR – Shane obviously comes from more of a tech space, and just reading his above comments gets me excited about what he’ll bring to 7th Day. Having seen Source Code produced, I’ve realized that movies are a product of 200 people making the best decisions they can. No writer – or director or actor or producer – can or should deliver a film via dictatorial fiat.
Stanley Kubrick, whom many consider the ultimate auteur, always insisted that his films were products of strong collaborations. Without Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 would not be what it was. Without Jack Nicholson, The Shining could have gone in another direction. On and on.
7th Day, on outset, sounds like a few key cast members will be crucial. Can you name any candidates?
SA – I’ve met with a lot of amazing actors and we have the beautiful nightmare of figuring out where everyone goes and schedules etc. since it’s an ensemble. Details will be revealed soon, I’m sure.
- Oscar Hillerstrom