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Johan Renck on Adam Sandler in Netflix’s Spaceman

Johan Renck on Adam Sandler in Netflix’s Spaceman

In Spaceman, Adam Sandler joins a long line of lonely men lost in space, a proud cinematic tradition going back past Ryan Gosling’s First Man, Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, Sam Rockwell in Moon, and Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar to the crew in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

The latest in this sci-fi linage, adapted from Jaroslav Kalfar’s novel Spaceman of Bohemia, is set in an alternative future where the Czechs are frontrunners in the space race and their national hero is Jakub (Sandler), a cosmonaut on a solo mission to investigate a mysterious dust cloud on the edge of Jupiter that might just hold the secrets of the universe.

But millions of miles away from home, and from his pregnant wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), Jakub is consumed by loneliness and existential angst. Enter a huge, telepathic and empathetic space spider, voiced by Paul Dano, who promises to help the cosmological explorer on his emotional voyage inward.

Spaceman is the only the second feature film from Swedish director Johan Renck (his first was the 2008 drama Downloading Nancy), who is better known for his TV work, including the Emmy-winning Chernobyl, and music videos for the likes of Beyoncé, Madonna and David Bowie. But with his new production company Sinestra, set up with Spaceman producer Michael Parets, Renck is set to explore new cinematic horizons. The company, which has a first-look deal with Fremantle, will be a vehicle for Renck’s new movie projects, including an in-development feature on the final days of Saddam Hussein.

Renck spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Spaceman’s world premiere in the Berlinale Special program of the Berlin International Film Festival.

What drew you to this story of a lonely man in space?

I had just come out of Chernobyl, which was this big limited series with everything that entails, and I was pretty spent. I had decided, like I always do after any project, to quit and do something else because I can’t fucking deal with it anymore, it’s so taxing and so intense. So I was doing other shit, running around in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, because I was going to open a restaurant and stay here, not travel around, not shoot, not be burdened by all the fucking privations of making movies.

But then this very early draft of this script was sent to me. And I was like, “Fuck, I’ve got to do this.” Then I read the book, and it was so appealing to me. It is very much a story about myself, very self-biographical, a story of how we egotistical, narcissistic men with our ambition fuck up our relationships, our relationships with ourselves and our relationships with everybody else. I’m on my third marriage. Hopefully, it’s the last one, but I’ve managed to fuck up every relationship I’ve ever had, through my own ego and ambition.

So this story resonated with me on so many levels. I’ve also always had an interest in the more theoretical sort of sci-fi stuff. Tarkovsky is one of my heroes. There’s something about the meditative aspects of solitude in space, and how that was sort of reflected in all of us as we entered the pandemic with the solitude and the lockdowns and how that affected our relationships and our understanding of the world. This cabin fever of the spaceship where all the frustration with what’s going on on Earth, which you cannot control, becomes sort of manifest in this spider creature who is there to help you navigate all these issues.

The aesthetic of this film is reminiscent of Chernobyl with a ’70s/’80s Soviet-era analog technology, despite being a science fiction film. What is it about this aesthetic that so appeals to you?

Image-making is a big part of me as a filmmaker. That’s why I started making movies in the first place. Film is a real world-building adventure in which you can be your own boss. A film like this is removed from reality to an extent. Nobody would ever go on a solo journey to Jupiter. The real-time communication technology we have in the film, where Jakob can speak with people on Earth in real-time, that’s impossible. If you spoke to Jupiter, you’d have to wait like eight hours for the answer to come back to you. So it’s already science fiction. But I liked the idea of this retro-futuristic world. I have no interest in sleek, minimalist design. And it doesn’t make for an interesting place to put a camera. I wanted everything to be chaotic and messy. I wanted it analog to some extent because I just have a profuse loathing of screens in any shape or form. I hate all of that.

I don’t work with film references, I’m a book person. I don’t watch a lot of movies. My interest in film comes from reading books and playing the film in my head. More than anything else, I hate anything that is derivative from other movies. Unless it’s very, very intentional. So I didn’t use any other movies as references for Spaceman. But Chernobyl and Spaceman happen to have a similar kind of aesthetic because the book Spaceman comes from [Spaceman of Bohemia] is based on the world of the Czech Republic, and it deals with some of the same sorts of remnants of the Communist regime, so there are touching points with the world of Chernobyl and 1980s Russia and Ukraine.

What did you think of Adam Sandler as your ideal Czech cosmonaut?

When I look at this film now and I look at Adam’s performance, it’s phenomenal. He was hanging there on the wires. And he’s no spring chicken anymore. He’s not a gymnast or a bodybuilder. And he’s hanging in mid-air, acting against a tennis ball, with me around the corner reading lines. Then you look at the film and see the profound curiosity in his eyes, the bafflement, all these subtle details. All this acting against a fucking tennis ball. I would come home every day after the shoot, feeling tremendously frustrated because I only had one-half of the movie. It took months and months as we created the creature, did the voice, everything.

Paul Dano was my first choice [for the voice of the space spider Hanus]. I wanted him for his cadence, for his personality. He was perfect. But the way you shoot a film like this, there’s no point in recording anything before, so his voice was recorded after the movie was cut. It was a tricky way to make a movie. But through it all, what kept on baffling me was this tremendous strength in Adam’s performance, the nature of this thing he’d done. I love Adam. He’s the best human being on the planet. He’s a tremendous actor, formidable and amazing. This film would not exist in any shape or form without him.

Carey Mulligan gives another astounding performance. Interestingly, her character seems connected to her Oscar-nominated role in Maestro. Again she’s playing a very intelligent, capable woman who is beginning to question her marriage to an ambitious, famous and emotionally distant man.

I never thought about it. But you’re absolutely right. Carrie is the most exquisite actor I’ve ever worked with. She’s so technically perfect and so delightful as a human being. She takes the work so seriously, like I do. I’m a very serious person in what I do. So it was just a joy to work with her. I’d say to her once she got into character with Adam, that I didn’t even need to be there on set. I could go home and play with my kids because you guys have fucking got this. She’s really a master as an actress, and so versatile. She can do anything. It’s bliss to work with very talented people. It makes my job tremendously easy.

So all the space effects were done in camera, with wire work, etc. No vomit comet?

No, that was a decision we made early on. We used rigs, some CGI, every trick in the book to try and create an experiential sense of zero gravity. For me, one of the most important things was to get the camera to operate in a way that it looked like they were in zero gravity. I tasked Jakob [Ihre], my DP, to figure out a way to make the cameras a bit out of control. Everything on the spaceship, he shot from cranes with a 360 lens on them. So the cameras are perpetually moving in an axis, jumping up and down and left and right. So we could do a close-up on Adam and he could be just standing there, not even hanging in the rig, and the camerawork would make it feel like it was zero gravity.

You’ve done award-winning television and hundreds of amazing music videos and commercials. Does this mark the start of a different direction for you into film?

I made a film [in 2008] called Downloading Nancy with Maria Bello and Jason Patric, which was in competition in Sundance. It’s probably the most nihilistic and bleak movie ever made. It didn’t do me any favors in the American movie business because it was so dark and fucked up. But what happened was Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, saw the movie and said, “Dude, you should come work for me. You know where to put a camera.” I was like: “No, I’m a movie director. I’m not going to do TV.” And Vince, I owe him a lot. He said: “Would you rather come and work with me, work with amazing scripts, great actors and so on, and perfect what you’re trying to do? Or do you want to sit around and wait for your next music video and hoping to put a movie together?” He had a point. So I ended up working intermittently on Breaking Bad and then one thing led to another and I started delving into miniseries. Now I love the limited series. They’re sort of the ultimate form of film because they’re both plot-driven and character-driven, and you have a lot of ample space to do whatever you want. But the issue with limited series is that they’re fucking horrendous to make. I took my family to Lithuania for nine months to do Chernobyl. Nine months!

But the other thing is, quite honestly, films are way more difficult to make because they’re not forgiving at all. TV, even a limited series, is more forgiving. But with a movie, you have to cut with surgical precision. Everything has to be fucking perfect. It’s very, very difficult. And I like it when it’s difficult. So right now I want to see if I can make a couple of movies and see how good I can make them.

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