Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
In director Peter Chelsom’s THE SPACE BETWEEN US, Asa Butterfield plays “Gardner Elliot,” a sixteen-year-old born on Mars who longs to travel to Earth, learning about himself and the wonders of the new world around him. The futuristic romdram emphasizes human connections along the protagonist’s journey towards self-discovery.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, we learned quite a few new things about the futuristic romdram from the creatives behind the scenes and the actors themselves – things we think you would benefit from knowing as well.
The science featured is accurate. For any of you who like to doubt movie accuracy, you should note that this film checks out. In fact, the scientist assigned to aid the filmmakers add authenticity, Professor G. Scott Hubbard, is nicknamed “NASA’s first Mars czar.” Producer Richard Lewis affirmed, “The science was very, very important to me personally. I met Scott early on at a Hollywood Exchange with the science community. I gave him the first draft of the script and he was kind enough to jump in. He was able to verify what we were doing so the science of what’s plausible is all based on real science.” Hubbard augmented, “The center that I was in charge of, NASA Ames, flew the only experiments that ever had a living creature to get pregnant or give birth in space. We flew a bunch of pregnant mice that gave birth in orbit. When they examined them later, they had all these anomalies; the bones didn’t develop. The heart was enlarged. These characteristics fed directly into Richard’s story.”
Pregnancy in space is a legitimate concern of NASA’s. Lewis stated, “Where I started from conceptually is the question, ‘What would happen if an astronaut discovered she were pregnant on a flight to Mars?’ I picked up the phone and called NASA Ames and posed that question and there was silence on the other end of the line. They said, ‘Have you been listening to our phone calls? It’s probably going to happen and we don’t know what to do. We’re not prepared.’ That started the evolution of the story.”
Kendra Wyndham is a pioneer on many levels. Carla Gugino plays Genesis mission engineer Kendra Wyndham, a female astronaut who becomes the de-facto mother to Gardner after his dies. The character wasn’t able to have children – something that caused a rift in her marriage and led her to choose career over sadness. Traditionally in cinema, women with fertility issues have been portrayed, rather literally, as “baby crazy.” However, here, she’s shown as a smart, capable and secure woman. “I was interested in the fact that she had come to peace with it. She was like, ‘I have this other mission that’s extremely important to me and I’m okay up here.’ I have step-kids and god-kids and there was a point where I thought I don’t need to have my own kids. It is amazing how much women’s identity, a lot of times portrayed on screen, is tied in with motherhood – much more so than male identity is tied in with fatherhood.”
THE SPACE BETWEEN US differs from Ridley Scott’s versions of space films. Chelsom elucidated, “He did not nod to the gravity difference. They had a spaceship which created its own 1G. It had its own spinning part, which is what everyone is doing these days. Chris Nolan did that in INTERSTELLAR. I had to really embrace the gravity difference because it’s a plot point. It’s subtle. It’s achieved by frame speed – slightly slo-motion, but also, what you don’t see because it’s been painted out, there’s a massive crane wire going down to his harness, lifting him as [Butterfield] runs.
Asa Butterfield did NOT watch penguin videos to nail his Earth walk. Gardner, not having ever dealt with Earth’s gravity, is tasked to figure out how to walk. Butterfield’s discovery process on how this would look involved ankle weights, not mimicry of penguin videos. “I tied weights around my ankles and had a weight vest on to see how that changed the way you move and run. Then you take them off and try and replicate them as best you can. The hardest part was keeping it consistent and have a consistent tailing off of it. I start off where he’s got some severe issues, but as he gets more human, he finds it easier to walk.”
THE SPACE BETWEEN US deals with the physical toll on the human body. Hubbard stated, “Traveling in space is a lot like going backwards in a time machine. You age. You lose calcium out of your bones. Your muscles atrophy. The fluids shift around. That’s why so many of them appear to have fat faces when you see them on screen. These things are all reversed when you come back – for the most part. Finding counter-measures if you’re going to Mars has been a challenge. They think they’ve got answers. If you were actually born in micro-gravity, some of these effects would be permanent.”
“Gardner Elliot” earned his name from two cinematic inspirations. Lewis said, “His name is Gardner Elliot off ‘Chauncey Gardiner’ from BEING THERE and ‘Elliot’ from E.T.. That was just one I had, six or seven years ago when we started, as a placeholder and it stayed that way.”
THE SPACE BETWEEN US was shot in 39 days. “It’s a ridiculously short shooting period of principle photography,” the affable director stated. Chelsom then joked that we should all write, “Pete Chelsom is very good value.”
The real life age difference between Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson augments the narrative. Robertson was 25 when they shot the film and Asa was 16. Chelsom thinks this worked well in terms of the casting, stating, “She is just older than a boy who’s so isolated and cocooned – born in a bubble. That dynamic worked really well. The natural chemistry they each had was fantastically right for ‘Tulsa’ and ‘Gardner,’ because she’s very on the front foot with this great competent spirit and he of gentle spirit.”
In order to achieve ‘zero gravity,’ tracking for wires had to be built-in and disguised. Many sequences utilized the look of zero gravity which meant many of the actors had to be in harness and hard-wired into hitting choreographed marks. Said Chelsom, “The wires go into a track and then we removed the wires. The track is built into the spaceship not to look like wires and tracking. But you can’t go, ‘I’d like her to go over there,’ on the day. You have to preconceive the moves. You have to be very fit physically. You’re acting weightless a lot of the time.”
Carla Gugino loved the harness work. Chelsom praised her super athleticism, saying, “Carla’s the fittest, badassest.” Gugino explained that her work running around the track was harder than it probably appeared. “We really wanted that gazelle-like quality in contrast to her being in Earth’s gravity. I had a harness around my thighs, waist and wires connected to the sides. So what they were doing was just giving me a little lift, but because of that lift, getting to the next foot was really tricky. It was much more challenging to be elegant than I thought it would be, but once I got into the rhythm, it was really fun. Then I never wanted to be released from my harness.”
The filmmakers spent time with Elon Musk at SpaceX. Chelsom said, “It’s a whole new world. We had time with Elon Musk, which was a great honor. I said, ‘Gary, you need to go to SpaceX because you will be so aware, consumed by the power of one’s conviction. You’ll be so aware of the fight against the naysayers.’ There’s a picture of Mars, terraformed with green and water and all that.”
THE SPACE BETWEEN US opens on February 3.