We've praised the astounding beauty and raw realism in the space thriller Europa Report for some time now. In a world where hard science fiction is traded for alien carnage and chase scenes, Europa is a rare creature, but how did it get that way? We spoke with screenwriter Philip Gelatt about the arduous research process that lead him to create one of our favorite films of the summer.
Europa Report is so very different from what we've been seeing lately in science fiction; it's serious science fiction. When you first started passing the script around, how was it received? Were people into this idea? Was a hard science fiction story always the goal?
Philip Gelatt: Yes, absolutely that was always the goal. I started writing it with one of the producers already onboard, so I'd spoken to them before I started writing. From the very beginning, the idea was to be as faithful to the science as we could. I'm a big science fiction person in general, and there's this whole thing of hard science fiction that people are always talking about.
There's always a lot of complaints that science fiction isn't really about science. I thought it would be kind of fun to try and do something that had aspirations to be hard science fiction. Especially in film, because you don't really see it that often. A lot of things get a kind of pass if the characters in the fiction speak like the science is real. I think a lot of people think that Star Trek has some science to it, and it does but it's mostly because those characters seem intelligent in that world. But there's no such thing as teleportation and warp drives and those kinds of things.
So, yes, it was always the goal to make the science real. And people liked it. Early readers responded a little bit more to the—not to be spoilery—[question of] "who's going to die next" a little bit more than the science. But I think the appeal rests in the conglomeration of the two. The goal was to write something that was interesting and exciting but then also had this base of science to it.
Also, on a more personal level, I realized that I couldn't read non-fiction unless I'm being paid to read it. So I was really excited to have an excuse to force myself to wrap my head around these things. I don't normally sit around and read about Europan science and deep space travel.
What do you consider hard science fiction?
I feel like it's a really difficult and fraught term within the genre in general. I would consider 2001 to be hard science fiction. But even 2001 (at the end) it jumps and does this crazy evolution thing with the star travel, so I don't know if you can necessarily call that hard science fiction at that point. It embodies [Arthur C.] Clarke's law about "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It kind of embodies that. And then in film, you don't ever really see it. What do you think?
Gosh there's really nothing like Niven's and Bear's writing that's comparable to film for me. But I would agree with 2001. For a long time (when I was younger) I thought Alien was hard science fiction, but then I read hard science fiction.
I recently took the time to hierarchy out my favorite movies of all time and Alien came out number one, just for the record. So I do love non-hard science fiction as well… And I just finished Hull Zero Three. Maybe Sunshine to a certain degree? Maybe? But not even 2010, the 2001 sequel, which is a movie that I thought that people had forgotten about, and then we made Europa Report. So I read io9 all the time and every comment every time you post about [Europa] includes, "All these world's are yours except Europa." Apparently some people have not forgotten about 2010.
How did you research the space travel realism?
The research of the project was basically broken down into two segments. Because I couldn't just research deep space travel, I also had to research Europan science and what you would do when you got to Europa. The bulk of my research ended up being about the planet and about how we would approach the planet, whether we were exploring with robots or humans. For the deep space research there's a book that I read that I know the director loved as well, Packing For Mars. It's a general primer on space travel.
And because we wanted to do it on a budget, there were questions even in the early script stages. For example, "Are we going to have artificial gravity on the ship?" I think in my very first draft, there was no artificial gravity on the ship at all, which I think is probably more realistic because the cost of building what they have in the movie, which is the Centrifuge Gravity simulator, the logistics of building something that was really hard to wrap your mind around.
Because of the budget of our movie, we need some areas of the ship to have gravity because it was going to be too complicated to have no gravity anywhere. So we talked to one of our advisors and they said yes, the centrifuge will work, but if you are going to make it work, the length of those arms would need to be very, very long. Because otherwise the gravity at your feet and the gravity at your head would be different and therefore that would undercut the effect. And not to out the parts of the movie that aren't necessarily hard science fiction—but I think that the length of our ship isn't quite right in the terms of that gravity.
Who specifically did you guys end up working with as consultants?
We talked to Steve Vance and Kevin Hand who are JPL's younger generations, resident Europa experts… And then we talked to this fantastic Marine Biologist (whose name escapes me) who is obviously a marine biologist here on Earth but her passion is Europa life. If there is an ocean on Europa, what would the life be like? We spoke to her quite a bit about life science. And we had a collection of consultants about deep space travel. As a film person, you have this instinct to ask these experts, "At what point to people go crazy in space?" so we asked what kind of psychological training you would have to go through to prepare yourself for being off Earth. And his response was, "Yeah none because you don't really go crazy, it's actually not that bad."
That was such a huge part of Europa Report: the characters are consummate professionals. They do not freak out. They do not lose their cool in an irrational movie way. And then when they do emote, it's really terrifying.
That also was by design. A lot of the writing process was trying to have them be like actual scientists, which isn't to say that all scientists are emotionally cold people. But they don't lose their shit when they encounter problems. These are things that they've trained for and things that they know about. So I wanted to keep them grounded in that sense. I got to say it's a concerning thing to write because it strips you of a lot of the tools that you tend to use writing fiction to keep it snappy and exciting, like the "they don't go crazy" thing. It was an interesting exercise in trying to make a different kind of character. I was definitely concerned about it but it seems to have worked out.
There was a running note I had while writing was to try and prevent the script from becoming "movie-movie" was the adjective I was using. Which applied to the characters as well as well as what was going on. The impulse was to try and do the genre a little bit differently.
What else did you learn from your consultants that made you think, "I'm going to put that into the script"? Or "I'm going to take that out of the script."
Oh man, so there were a ton of rewrites. There were a lot of things that kept coming in and out. The thing that jumps out to me, which doesn't sounds that exciting but it was exciting to me, was at one point we were talking to one of the Europan scientists about what the ice/water interface would look like. The interstitial area between frozen water and actual water, if there is water. And I was fascinated by that idea. In my mind it was just a layer of ice and a layer of water, but he was saying that ultimately, probably it would be this half frozen mixture. I think that was an interesting visual idea.
A lot of this stuff, they don't have an answer for, which is another tricky thing about talking to scientists about specific story points. They work in almost probabilities, because they haven't been there. After a certain point, after you've done your research, you kind of have to make your decision.
I have one inspirational story that came from consulting with the scientists. The very first time I spoke with Steve Vance (the Europan Scientist) who is incredibly intelligent and completely devoted to the science. He really really thinks that we should go to Europa with robots, yes, but also with people. I asked him, "Is it weird or does it bother you that this thing that you've been working towards you're whole life… you're probably going to die before this happens, does this bother you?" And he was 100% earnest and said that it actually didn't. He said he knows that we'll eventually do this, and that no matter what happens it will be worth it. I think he said it had never even crossed his mind.
I thought that was really amazing, I don't think I could do that. I don't think I could spend my whole life working on something that I wouldn't see the fruits of the labor. That was very inspirational and that sentiment is infused in a lot of the characters. They would work towards it whether they would see it happen or not, that devotion was really important.
He was also the same person who cleared this up and I see this in a lot of comments so I'm just going to go ahead and address it [laughs]. That the radiation around Jupiter would kill anything that you sent to Europa. Which is kind of true, there is a lot of radiation around Jupiter. Enough to kill a human pretty quickly and enough to fry your electronics. But you could build a ship with enough radiation shielding to land. And in fact, this is a really awesome idea that we couldn't do for various reasons, but one of the things they think about doing if we go to Europa is to crash the ship. Because water acts as an insulation to radiation. So one idea is to crash the ship into the ice so that Europa, itself, would provide your radiation shielding. We asked one of the scientists if we could get you to Europa and you didn't have a spacesuit an EVA suit with enough radiation shielding from Jupiter, would you still go outside and walk on the surface? And he said, "Yes of course." So that was pretty funny.
Slight spoiler but there's a huge moment—almost a crack—in Europa Report where that attitude is really shown in the crew. You look at them differently after that happens.
The general structure that you're talking about was always in the movie. That's a tricky moment in the movie because if handled inappropriately it's almost the same as the bad horror movie beat where someone hear's a noise and goes towards it. Which we absolutely didn't want. So when we heard this guy talk about this radiation thing, we realized that this isn't a horror movie. We realized these people are already putting so much at risk and they're so close to something they've been working so hard to find. That if we can make that work, and het that across in their personalities that this beat won't feel like a bad movie feat. It could feel like pioneers working to discover something new.
Was it always written to be non-linear? You see glimpses of things that happen in the future in the first 20 seconds of the film.
No. Not originally. The fact that there are scientists commenting on the footage was always written to be that way. But the fact that you see things happening in the future that was done in the editing process. I think it works. The concept of the movie is, it's found footage but all of the cameras are stationary. So even when writing it and discussing it we all thought that this was a movie that would be found in post. Especially because they shot it in an odd way. I think it turned out well.
Were you worried about the "found footage" trope getting in the way of the storytelling?
Yes, 100%. I'm still worried about it. In the very first discussion I had about the movie the original "Let's do a low budget science fiction movie about a journey somewhere," we hadn't even settled on Europa yet. And it was the producer who said we should think about found footage — and my initial instinct was that I don't want to do that. But then we started thinking about it, and the parts with the scientists when they're commenting that made me excited to do it. It might be polarizing aspect of the movie because it's weird to have these talking heads pop up. I think we're trying to expand the "found footage" language to include other documentary techniques, which sounds cool to me.
Europa Report is available on VOD today!