“It’s adventure, it’s romance, it’s a thriller, it’s scary, but it’s emotionally resonant. There are great moments of humor and spectacle.”
Passengers is an exciting action-thriller about two strangers who are on a 120-year journey to another planet when their hibernation pods wake them 90 years too early.
Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora) and Chris Pratt (Jim) star in an exciting action-thriller about two strangers who are on a 120-year journey to another planet when their hibernation pods wake them 90 years too early. Jim and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) are forced to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction as the ship teeters on the brink of collapse, jeopardizing the lives of the passengers on the greatest mass migration in human history.
“Passengers is about two people who were supposed to be on the trip of a lifetime – the 120-year journey to a new planet – when they get woken up 90 years too early,” says Chris Pratt, who stars in Passengers alongside Jennifer Lawrence. “But it turns out there’s a reason they woke up early. They have to solve the mystery of the malfunction, and fix a ship that is quickly failing, if they are going to survive and save the lives of the passengers on the greatest mass migration in human history.”
“It’s about characters who face extreme situations and have to make extreme choices, and I always find that fascinating – what would you have done?” says Morten Tyldum, who directs the film, his first following his Oscar nominated triumph with the hit The Imitation Game.
Against the story of high stakes action, the filmmakers set a sensitive story of two passengers who find each other in this moment of peril.
It’s a story that has attracted Hollywood for many years; writer Jon Spaihts’ script has landed on the “Black List” of the industry’s best unproduced screenplays. “One of the things that drew me to this script was the way Jon set an intimate story on such a large stage,” says producer Neal H. Moritz. “It’s an action film with epic spectacle, but it all hinges on these two incredible characters brought to life by Jen and Chris.”
Pratt’s character, Jim, decides to give up his life on Earth for very practical reasons. “He’s kind of a throwback,” says Pratt, “very much a working class guy. He’s considered a desirable trade, as a mechanical engineer, because he’ll be helping to start a civilization. If something breaks, he’ll be there to fix it.”
When Jim and Aurora wake up 90 years before reaching that destination, those skills kick into high gear. “He’s a problem solver by trade, so he’s trying to figure out how to get back to sleep or contact somebody for help. And then, it turns out that there’s something very wrong with the ship.”
“Chris is very different than Jim,” says Lawrence, who plays his fellow awakened passenger, Aurora. “Jim acts like he’s never really had a girlfriend, and he doesn’t really know how to behave around women; that’s charming and sweet, but it’s not like Chris at all, who’s married and funny. It was interesting to watch him go from Chris Pratt to a shy, insecure, romantic person.”
In contrast to Jim’s working-class hero, Aurora is part of a different social circle. She is a New York writer with a great assignment – she is making the 120-year journey to Homestead II, then will make the 120-year journey home. She will be the first person in human history to make the round trip. “It’s such a huge decision to make,” says Lawrence. “It’s a 120-year journey – when you arrive, everyone you know will be dead. You have to start a brand new life on a brand new planet that you’ve never been to. I can’t imagine saying goodbye to everybody that I know and love – I understand her thirst for more, but I don’t think I could make that kind of permanent decision.”
“When Aurora first wakes up, I think her first reaction is to feel an incredible empathy for Jim,” says Lawrence. “She’s only been dealing with this problem for a few days, and he’s been by himself, like a trapped animal, for more than a year. Seeing him react to a human being makes her feel bad for Jim.”
Tyldum says that it was apparent from the beginning that Lawrence and Pratt would be the perfect actors to bring Aurora and Jim to life.
“It’s great that they are the biggest stars in the world, but first of all, I wanted to make sure that they were the right actors for these roles,” he says. “I had to get the feeling that they were going to click, that they would have chemistry. We sat for many hours – I had a four-hour dinner with Jen – and I could immediately see that they would be perfect. They’re very smart people who had a clear understanding of what they wanted the character to do. They really understood the choices, the motivations, the life these characters have to go through – so that made me feel that they really got it.”
Producer Stephen Hamel was the first to team with writer Jon Spaihts on the concept. “I’m deeply interested in original content, original voices,” he says. “There was something rather playful in Jon’s writing that I loved – he took the time to allow the characters to be human, to have weaknesses. The originality of the story seemed really appropriate.”
Ori Marmur, who works with Moritz at Original Film, agrees.
“The screenplay is life-affirming and warm; it speaks to the human condition,” says Marmur. “And as a first-generation-born American, the idea of two people leaving Earth and traveling a great distance for opportunity elsewhere resonated with me personally; my parents traveled a great distance to come to this country of opportunity – they didn’t know anyone, and it worked out.”
Aurora and Jim’s different stations in life are thrown into contrast by their home: the spaceship itself. “The Avalon is part badass spaceship, part luxury cruise liner,” says Pratt. “They wake you up three or four months before you get to your destination, so you can party, swim in the pool, or rack up a big bill playing the slots or shopping in the high-end stores.”
“The ship is really luxurious, almost like a cruise liner,” says Lawrence. “There’s an observation deck, a movie theater and grand concourse and amazing rooms – well, for my character. It looked very different; everything was beautiful and interesting. It was a different atmosphere for a movie.”
“The sets were huge,” says Pratt. “We had to break down a wall in the soundstages. I was looking around, and it was like looking at a real ship. Guy Hendrix Dyas’s sets made the movie big in scope and as epic as this story needs to be. We had a great special effects team that built amazing props and toys and cars and screens everywhere. It was really cool.”
Jim and Aurora’s companion is Arthur, the bartender on board the ship. An android with a remarkably human upper half, he moves with efficiency, grace, and skill, and responds to passengers’ worries and anxieties with a kind word and warm heart – if a little naïveté. “Arthur is an important element to their mental state, because he’s the closest thing to a human that they have besides each other,” says Lawrence.
“He’s programmed to be the greatest bartender ever,” says Michael Sheen, who plays Arthur. “He’s empathetic, he’s able to listen, and he mixes a fantastic martini. But there’s a limit to how much he’s interacted with people: he’s usually dealt with thousands of people in very short interactions, but he’s in new territory with Jim, interacting with one person for a very long period of time.”
So, because Arthur is not quite human, Sheen and Tyldum discussed just how to shade the performance subtly. “Bartenders are the ultimate confidants, and when Jim meets me, I am someone he can talk to,” says Sheen. “The challenge was I had to figure out the balance of how robotic and how human should Arthur be?”
That was an incredible challenge, one that Sheen rose to meet with a creative, technically difficult, and utterly believable performance, according to Tyldum.
“Michael had to bring humanity to it, and at the same time, you have to understand that beneath the surface is a machine, without making it a cliché,” says the director.
“There’s a naïveté and a wisdom to it at the same time. He becomes their friend, the one they talk to, the one who gives them advice. At the same time, there was such precision to the performance. He could never look at his hands while doing things, because a machine wouldn’t have to. He was mixing drinks, very casually and with no effort, and talking with incredible comedic timing. That’s incredibly hard, and he pulled it off so flawlessly.”
Part of Sheen’s performance came through a physical transformation, with the help of the on-set special effects team. The team designed a rig to move him swiftly back and forth behind the bar; with Sheen kneeling on the rig, the filmmakers could control his movement, like an android’s – later painting out Sheen’s legs and the rig with a robotic stand.
But as luxurious as the ship and their surroundings are, Aurora and Jim soon realize that something has gone terribly wrong.
“The ship is falling apart,” Pratt explains. “Robots start to malfunction, lights flicker on and off. Ultimately, our characters find out that there’s a reason why it’s malfunctioning, and we are suddenly in a desperate situation, trying to fix a problem to save not only our own lives, but the lives of all of the other passengers on the ship.”
But it is not until Laurence Fishburne’s character Gus Mancuso wakes up that Jim and Aurora understand the gravity of the situation. “He’s a spacer – a man who fell in love with the stars and the notion of interplanetary travel at a young age, and has spent a lifetime traveling in space,” Fishburne explains. “Luckily, he’s a crew chief, so he has access to certain things that they wouldn’t have access to as passengers, and he helps them figure out what’s wrong with the ship.”
One of the problems on board the ship is that the gravity fails. Suddenly, Jim and Aurora find themselves weightless. “I was pulled up by wires, but I had to pretend that gravity wasn’t pulling down on my hands and feet. To do that, you’re doing a plank in mid-air. It was one of the best ab workouts I’ve ever done! It was really difficult, and Morten was very particular – he wanted it to look perfect. He didn’t move on until that angle was perfect for the whole take.”
To create the appearance of Jim being weightless, stunt coordinator Garrett Warren created a spinning ring with an extension of a speed rail and a counter balance weight on the back of it. Chris Pratt would be able to move freely and then Garrett’s stunt team would use winches to fly him back and forth.
Aurora is in a swimming pool when the gravity fails. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever shot,” says the Hunger Games star. “Spending that much time in a pool, water up my nose, everywhere. But it was amazing – when I saw the CG example of what it was going to look like, I was really excited. I’ve never seen anything like that in a movie.”
Even with these incredible action set-pieces, the filmmakers never lost sight of the movie they were making, says producer Neal H. Moritz. “We tried to keep the emotional stakes of this movie well-grounded, so it would not be overwhelmed by the gadgets, sets, and space,” he says. “Though obviously these are important aspects of the story, they are not the heart of the movie. At the heart of the movie is the relationship between these two characters.”
At the center of Passengers is a very human, emotional story – but it is set in space, which required extensive visual effects. For Visual Effects Supervisor Erik Nordby and Visual Effects Co-Producer Greg Baxter, that required an approach to visual effects that was clean and supportive and rarely taking the spotlight. “It’s unique to have a movie of this size where the visual effects play a supporting role,” says Nordby. “I relish that fact, because visual effects are always best when it’s supporting something grander than itself. The narrative of Passengers is tender and humanistic on every level, and I think we’ve done our job well if at no point you feel in awe of the magnificence in front of you.”
On any film, the telling of the story comes together in the editing room. On Passengers, Maryann Brandon, an Oscar nominee for her editing work on Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, took charge of cutting the film.
“Part of my job as the editor is to protect the vision of people like Morten, Rodrigo, Guy, and Erik,” she says. “I try to open all of communication between departments. I want to be able to go to Erik and propose an idea and see if it’s possible to achieve before I pitch it to Morten. I need to be able to talk to Rodrigo and ask him how he wants a scene to look and feel. I like to feel that we have one goal and that’s to make a great film.”
Brandon was especially excited to join the project for a number of reasons – not least of which was to work with Morten Tyldum.
“The script and cast are amazing, and I’d seen Morten’s two previous films, The Imitation Game and Head Hunters, and I loved those films. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to work with a super talented guy. It meant going right back to work, right after completing Star Wars, but how often does one get an opportunity to work on such a great script?”
“Passengers is an epic, in that it really has everything in one movie,” says Pratt. “It’s adventure, it’s romance, it’s a thriller, it’s scary, but it’s emotionally resonant. There are great moments of humor and spectacle.”