Director Peter Chelsom may be signing up for some hard work when he agrees to make a movie with a sci-fi hook like “The Space Between Us,” but he makes it sound like he’s a kid going to the playground.
The accomplished British filmmaker has a diverse array of moves to his credit – including heartwarming indies like “Hear My Song” and “Funny Bones” to music-fueled sensations like “Shall We Dance” and “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” But he admits that he couldn’t resist the chance to get behind the camera for the romantically tinged sci-fi opus starring Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson and star-crossed – and genuinely planet-crossed – young lovers – especially, as he reveals to CBR, when he got a chance to do some research at SpaceX.
CBR: What was the first thing about this project that got its hooks into you? Was it the opportunity to play with the metaphor that’s inherent? Or was it just the fun of doing space stuff?
Peter Chelsom: I love doing space stuff. I’ve had a weird career, I think. People have said to me, “What was it like doing a sci-fi space adventure? The answer, honestly, is, it’s all filmmaking. I loved it. I love the territory of it. But it’s always the story.
When I first read the script, I actually said, “I don’t emulate or copy other directors, but I’m the first to stand in line and admire them.” It felt like a Robert Zemeckis film in terms of -- I think what Zemeckis is always still good at, is creating massive scope, with a very sure heart beating at the center of it. The pulse of it is strong because of the intimate center. I felt it had that.
Yes, in terms of metaphors and themes, I always have to make a decision whether I’m writing, or directing, or both, very early on, what is the theme? And I write it down. I just keep it in my head, and I think I decided that it was isolation versus connection, separated by the vastness of space. Now you don’t preach that when you make a film, you just keep it somewhere in your head. So I love that. I love that element of it. And really, yes, a territory that I had never been in before that suited me. I loved it.
What was the fun for you of learning about actual space exploration programs that you wanted to apply to your near-future storytelling? Was there a learning curve that you embarked on?
Yes, I love that. I can’t bear not to have authority to direct something. I feel like a fraud. So I’m privileged enough to meet with Elon Musk and go to SpaceX, all those things. We are very lucky as directors sometimes. We’re privy to a certain world, wherever we go in the world, what we film, we have access to people and things that normally are denied to others. We should be more grateful for that I think.
I was very struck, for example, when I was working with Gary [Oldman], because I know how he works; I’ve known him for 30 years, I said, “You’re not playing Elon, you’re not playing Richard Branson, but you really would be wise to go to SpaceX, because you will be blown away, you will be consumed by the power of one person who’s determined to do something.”
It’s extraordinary. On the one hand, it’s this height of sophistication, and on the other hand, it looks like my ten-year-old boy could have drawn the rocket. “Daddy, there’s going to be a Starbucks here because they’re working on a rocket.” Seriously, because there’s a Starbucks. “Daddy, they’d use skateboards to get around.” Why wouldn’t they? They do in the average age: the workforce is 32 years old.
You’re just aware of the power of conviction. A man who is fought the naysayers for so long, so the science of it, and then we got this guy, Scott Hubbard, as our consultant, who’s great, because he’s not repressive in his advice. He knows you’re ultimately making a film.
When I showed him my intention for the landing pods when they come back to NASA 16 years later, those things that are like piers into the sea, six of them. And he went, “That’s interesting. Why did you do that? Not sure we would do that.” I said, “Well, I’m trying to point to the casualness with which people will come and go, like it’s a taxi rank.” Then he went, “Oh, I get it. He said, it’s a reflection of the character of Gary, isn’t it? I said, yeah. Why does he do this? Because he can.” “Why do they build in Dubai? Because you can.” You have to push it.
So he was fabulous in terms of, he gave me the science. Like in that original presentation scene, the astronauts come on stage, and he said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “God, why not?” He said, “Because they’d be quarantined.” I said, “So what if I build a quarantine on the stage with plastic sheeting?” He said, “Oh, I like that.” I said, ‘It’s fantastic because it suits the theme: everyone’s within reach of each other, but disconnected.” So I love taking the science and being true to it, but taking license a little with the approval of someone.
What do you enjoy about working with these young actors? You’ve certainly done it before, and they’ve gone on to no small things – Miley Cyrus, to name one. What’s the delight of catching these actors just as they’re really honing their craft, and learning, and hitting their groove?
I think it’s different according to Asa and Britt, because they’re very different. That works so well. I’m always interested in the person as opposed to the craft. They have to act, of course, but I’m always very intrigued by the person. So I try to celebrate the actor as well as the character, and it’s particularly rewarding when an actor is so close to the character.
You’ve met the kids: their inherent qualities – she’s like so front-footed, you think she’s going to fucking punch you; and he’s this gentle spirit, which is very disarming – he’s like a lie detector. He looks at you, it’s disarming. I love that combination.
She’s a very self-directing actor. Unbelievable. And I love not directing. I don’t have to find a place for my ideas in her work. It still says “directed by Peter Chelsom” at the end of the movie. But she’s so prepped and so prepared, and then I just guide. Asa: different. Not as experienced. Not the same age. And I come from a very, very, boringly respectable British background, but I’m not purist about how I work, so I’ll try anything. It doesn’t matter.
But you have to love them. You have to be there for them. And they were just, that was pure joy to push them, once you get them confident.
Did you have a perimeter in mind when it comes to telling a romantic story with characters this young? Do you know where limits are, how far you want to go and where you want to maybe push a boundary here or there?
Yeah, sure. We’re a PG-13 movie. What I hope we achieved, what I tried to achieve, is that if you want to imagine that they made love by the campfire, they did. And if you want to imagine they didn’t, then they didn’t. Because it’s not about sex. It’s about union. Sorry to sound cheesy! So it is a fine line. Yes, of course you have to be aware of it. I think I’m proud to have made a family movie without it being family-esque.
What was your favorite day on set?
Gosh, that’s a good question. Gosh, that’s a good question. I think it was the second day when Gary did that presentation at SpaceX, and the doors open, and the rocket’s there and everything. I’m just a kid from the north of England. I still pinch myself that someone took me seriously. When it’s a big set with lots of people, and looks like a massive movie on the monitor, I still have the opacity to go, “Wow – who directed that?”