Space exploration & futuristic tech shape director Peter Chelsom’s ‘THE SPACE BETWEEN US’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I have an aversion to pedestrian photography. I can’t do that. It’s against my religion. I have to achieve things in images almost first.”

British director Peter Chelsom is probably one of the most earnest, down-to-Earth people you’ll ever meet. With features like SERENDIPITY, SHALL WE DANCE, and HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS under his belt, the affable filmmaker has a true knack at finding the romance within the everyday. His latest film, one that’s incredibly near and dear to his heart, THE SPACE BETWEEN US, is no different – only that it deals with otherworldly possibilities.

Peter Chelsom at the premiere of THE SPACE BETWEEN US.

In the futuristic romdram, Asa Butterfield plays “Gardner Elliot,” a headstrong, curious sixteen-year-old born on Mars who longs deeply to travel to Earth, meet the girl of his dreams (Britt Robertson), connect with his mystery father and find his Earthly identity.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, a cold-stricken Chelsom and I spoke about everything from the recent proliferation of space films, to the futuristic tech spotlit in the film, to how this project struck a chord with him.

It’s funny. When I was growing up in the 80’s, there were lots of teen space exploration films. But now, not so much. Could this be a re-invigoration of that sub-genre?

Yeah. I think it’s very much in everyone’s minds because the imminence of going to Mars is really there. It’s scarier than we think. If the movie does well, I think everyone will want to copy it. There’s a trend. There’s a lot space stuff going on at the moment.

Sure. Like ARRIVAL and THE MARTIAN. But this is different.

This is different. You might be right. It’s as if we’re the next chapter to THE MARTIAN, which was about getting off the planet. This is about getting onto the planet.

This movie is gorgeous. You sorta fall in love with Earth all over again. Was that part and parcel to the visual storytelling of Gardner’s narrative?

Yes. Completely. ‘What’s your favorite thing about Earth,’ is a massive point. I’m very obsessed with not just making it look good, but transporting. I’m interested in making films about worlds that don’t exist, worlds that would exist, worlds that we fear might exist. But if you do that with a movie, you go from story to tale. That’s what cinema should be. I push it photographically – I always have. It’s very purposeful. I can’t bear… I guess I have an aversion to pedestrian photography. You often seen films where you’d hear directors stand on the set and say, “I’m just hosing down that side of the scene.” And they mean it. I can’t do that. It’s against my religion. I have to achieve things in images, almost first. It is a celebration of Earth. I also have an innately redemptive streak in my work that will never change, where it ultimately has to give you hope.

You also don’t make this film’s version of the future stand out like a sore thumb. Future possibilities and technology are integrated organically.

That’s exactly our intention. I didn’t really want to get into futurism too much because I wanted it to feel very imminent and accessible. I didn’t want that to be what the story was about. It was a very conscious decision so when you have moments like Gary [Oldman] self-driving through the night, then they stand out. That’s happening now.

What was working with Volvo like for that featured car?

[laughs]. I’ve cast Volvo in my last four movies.

Oh wonderful! Do you get Volvos for life now?

No. You’d think, wouldn’t you? It’s always the stars that get the massive discounts.

Come on!

But to be honest, I would never cast a Volvo if it didn’t feel right. I felt that Volvo rides that line between luxury and the future and cutting edge. I love the idea that Gary’s character was being shuttled in a Volvo in what was only a few years from now and sixteen years later, he’s in another Volvo. It felt good casting. When Volvo came to the set, when I start on the grill, because it’s an inadvertent commercial, I had to explain the shot to them again and again. They saw take one and said, ‘Oh my God! It’s fantastic! It’s so good for us without looking like it’s so good for us.’

I wanted to ask about Gardner’s robot. It was built in three weeks?

It was intentionally supposed to look ‘meccano’ – the American expression would probably be ‘Mickey Mouse.’ It’s supposed to look like he was a part of building it and it was built by people who were not film-friendly. The head fell off on day one and broke in seventeen pieces. They didn’t know what they were doing, these guys. They’d literally say, ‘You want it to do that again?!’ ‘Yeah! This is what we do! We do this seventeen times.’ It was very sweet, but we got there.

Initially, I did the voice because it really suited me. I just kept doing the voice and I kept re-writing the robots lines which I could do in the cutting room. There was a studio meeting and I said, ‘Okay. So what about the voice?’ And they said, ‘What do you mean? We love it the way it is.’ So I’m the voice of the robot.

You also have a song credit in this film. Tell me more about this.

Well, it’s a little overblown, to be honest. I wrote the lyrics to a piece of opera in there. I speak Italian fluently. It’s called, ‘Oh Caro Sollievo,’ [translated] ‘Oh Dear Relief.’ [Composer] Andrew Lockington and I said, ‘I’ll do the lyrics for the opera,’ and I got the credit. Andrew’s work, I think it’s an extraordinary score. When I sit and watch the film for the umpteenth time, I’m always struck by the score because it’s vast and slightly off guard and modern.

How did this project creatively satisfy you?

All my life I’ve been a combination of two things really; At school, I was the guy who couldn’t decide between the arts and the sciences. I loved them both. I would say this is one of those examples where I was using all of me – the touchy-feely part of dealing with actors and the obsessive technical side of dealing with the CGI and effects and photography. That’s what I loved about it. That’s what was so great about it – using all my skills at one time. I happen to really like scale. I’ve never been afraid of it. I’m more relaxed at the center of a set where it’s massive. That versus a two-hander where an actor is in a bad mood? I’d rather have a big day.

THE SPACE BETWEEN US opens on February 3.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is an 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.