It might seem strange in the cinematic world today in which sci-fi movies are huge money makers, not to mention enormous money spenders, but truly there’s not a lot of “science” in science fiction. That’s why it’s so refreshing when a movie like Europa Report gets made that focuses on the drama that would occur from real, or at the very least mostly real, events and doesn’t rely on the fantastical. The film tells the story of a near-future mission to Jupiter’s moon of Europa in the hopes of finding the existence of any form of life beneath the moon’s thick layer of ice. Naturally, things do not go exactly according to plan, and the crew of six, played by an international cast featuring Sharlto Copley and Michael Nyqvist, have to improvise to complete their expedition.
The science behind the film was overseen by two real scientists from the Jet Propulsion Lab and the set was a real 360-degree, enclosed capsule with eight mounted cameras capturing the goings-on. The shoot was only 19 days, but the post-production was ten months. Not your typical space adventure film, to be sure. At Comic-Con last week, we sat down with the film’s director, Ecuadorian filmmaker Sebastian Cordero, and one of its stars, Karolina Wydra, to discuss the unique and clever low-budget movie magic used to create Europa Report‘s look and feel.
Nerdist: What drew you to Europa Report and how did you get involved?
Sebastian Cordero: I felt that I was an unusual choice to direct a sci-fi film. The films I’ve done before this have been very realistic; this is actually my first English language film. Also, the first film I haven’t written myself. What’s interesting when I read the script, what actually drew me to it is that from the first version I read, it felt really grounded in science. It didn’t go into the directions that a genre or sci-fi film would usually go into to be entertaining. If we were to explore that notion to its most extreme outcome, the film would really benefit from it.
N: What was the reason behind keeping it as close to hard science as possible?
SC: You know, we just did a panel at JPL, who were our science advisers, and one of the things that came up was that there are enough incredible and amazing things in the real universe that are probably much more fascinating than anything you could make up. Why not use them? The fact that we used real science doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining and thrilling at the same time. So, it was really cool to see a project that could allow for that. When I met with the producers and pitched them on my take on the film, both in sticking with the real science and the conceit of the monitoring cameras, the found-footage element, that if we really took it to the extreme, I thought it could really work and be something quite unique.
N: One of the movie’s defining features is the set, which is the command module and living quarters; can you talk a bit about the design and how you incorporated the cameras?
SC: 80% of the film takes place inside the spaceship, and in order for it to really work, we really built it from scratch, it was a 360 degree set and we had eight different cameras set up in different spots in the ship. It was a set that worked from every angle, which was also really unique. It added to the realism that all the actors would be in this enclosed space and no one else from the crew, not even myself, was in there. I was talking to them from the outside, playing mission control. It was different from anything I had done and probably will do, in terms of how it was put together.
N: Karolina, you play one of the astronauts; since the movie is so true to real science, how much studying did you do?
Karolina Wydra: My character was a marine biologist so I actually spoke to marine biologists, and it was really interesting to get into the mind of how they live and who they are and also reading books on oceanography and reading books on Europa and books Sebastian gave us about space travel and what it’s like to mentally prepare for what these people really go through. Packing for Mars is a really fun book to read. It’s fascinating, all the tests they have to take to even be able to go up. So, there was a lot of research and then about three weeks of rehearsal and talking about stuff.
N: Since the set was closed off, how was it being directed by a disembodied voice?
KW: It was very different. It wasn’t like one-on-one where you talk everything out. It was very strange, because we’re closed off, but it’s also very intimate. When you’re shooting, normally you have “okay, it’s your coverage; okay, it’s your coverage,” but this didn’t have that feel. You’re doing it almost like a theatre ensemble piece where you’re all together and the cameras are picking you up at whatever moment. You didn’t know exactly what was being captured so you really got the chance to live the scene.
N: Since it’s a found-footage, documentary-style movie, how did that play into your direction and staging of the scenes?
SC: The characters know that there are cameras there, so it was interesting to play with the dynamic of that. You know where the cameras are; some of the characters would be more responsive to placing themselves in front of the camera, some would move away. And it was interesting to see what would happen if you were slightly off screen, if things were not perfectly placed. And also, from a scientific perspective for the people who designed the ship, why would they place a camera here? What is it that they’re trying to capture? How do we enhance that and make it feel natural so it doesn’t feel like everyone is placing themselves in the right position? And that contrasts very strongly with the moments, particularly with Katja, Karolina’s character, when you actually have the extreme close-ups when she’s inside the space suit, and she’s basically reacting to a whole world that is then going to be created.
N: So, did you have any idea what you were supposed to be seeing?
KW: They showed me photos of what it would look like, of what they were trying to do with it, but you create your own world in your mind to play when you’re looking at black and green. “The most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen” and it’s just nothing. [laughs]
N: How did the space in which you were working affect the special effects in the movie, specifically the zero G stuff?
SC: We needed to balance how much artificial gravity we would use and how much weightlessness, given that this was a pretty modestly budgeted film. We tried to do as much as we could. We wanted to have our big moments of zero gravity, but use those spaces as much as we could. Also, because on a real trip into deep space, the astronauts would be encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the artificial gravity modules so their bodies can have gravity and their muscles don’t get weak.
N: What were some of the bigger effects moments for you?
SC: There were a few hero moments for zero gravity where we really had to sell that. The first place it made a lot of sense was when Sharlto Copley’s character, James, showing off the inside when he’s giving the tour of the ship. We thought it would be really cool if he started out with artificial gravity, let go of the ladder, and then float up. And that was actually done with wire work and sometimes a mixture of wire work with the backgrounds being added in digitally later. That was the fancier stuff; we also had moments where one character would be strapped to the seat and another is floating next to them and in some of those we actually had a green yoga ball for the character to lie on and a green man holding their legs or helping so the movement would be smooth.
KW: You should have seen it! (she acts out balancing on the yoga ball)
SC: At first people were like, “Really? You’re going to do it that way?” But, actually those ended up working really well. Since the cameras are all locked down, it’s not that complicated. It’s a relatively simple effect and it works quite well because the person is already there to begin with. It’s much more difficult to actually integrate that when you have to shoot everything separately and then put it all together. It becomes a much more difficult post-production process and it doesn’t end up looking as good.
N: I’m sure being in such a small space with five other actors meant you were pretty close and worked pretty well together.
KW: You’re living in that space. Sebastian told us when we were rehearsing, “when we close the door, you’re going to get claustrophobic,” and you really do start to feel like the space is so small. Living in that space, and dealing with people, it gives you more of an authentic feel of how it would be. And the dynamic between all the actors, I felt like it worked really well. We talked about the relationships between each of the characters before we started shooting so you kind of knew what you were getting yourself into when you’re doing the scene. To do it the way we did, it worked incredibly well. The way it was set up, you basically just throw yourself into the scene.
N: Was there anything in the movie that isn’t particularly scientifically accurate?
SC: One thing the JPL scientists did question and laugh at is, early on in the movie, there are chyrons on the screen that state the mission cost and in the film we say it’s something like $3.7 billion and they were like, “Oh, it would be a hundred times that.”
KW: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
SC: For a manned mission; for a robotic mission, like the one NASA is actually preparing to send in about ten years, the Europa Clipper mission, it’s roughly around that cost. The thing is, it’s very different if you’re sending people or if it’s just a probe.
To see what happens when you send people to Jupiter, and to see these innovative filmmaking techniques in action, check out Europa Report on-demand and digital download right now and in theaters beginning August 2nd.