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Passengers Screenwriter Talks about Time Dilation and a Story's Inner Truth

Hollywood's go-to hard science fiction and space epics writer Jon Spaihts says drama takes precedence but he also tries to write scripts that teach no harmful fallacies
Jon's notebook drawings


Jon’s notebook film drawings featuring sci-fi technology design.
Image courtesy of Jon Spaihts

Originally posted on SoapBox Science, a community guest blog from Nature.com

Jon Spaihts is the screenwriter of The Darkest Hour, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and the upcoming Passengers and The Mummy. The one-time physics student and science writer has become one of the go-to writers for hard science fiction and space epics in Hollywood. He is currently working on a remake of Disney’s classic, The Black Hole and is writing Marvel’s forthcoming movie Doctor Strange.

Jon also features in today’s OSAM blog: Behind the Science of Hollywood

Here Jon speaks to Alex Jackson on collaborative work with scientists on film, the importance of science in filmmaking and finding the right balance between scientific practice, current knowledge and future developments with the demands of fine storytelling.

What experiences of working with scientists in the screenwriting process, do you have?

Much of the collaboration I’ve done with scientists is related to projects still in development – so there’s only so much I’m allowed to talk about them.

For example, I’m currently working on a remake of Disney’s classic, The Black Hole. It raises critical questions about robotics, artificial intelligence, interstellar travel, singularities, quantum mechanics, and string theory. Quite a to-do list! We’ve convened a panel of remarkable scientists to help us think through the scientific issues.

The consultations themselves take different forms at different times. Sometimes you know the story you want to tell, and you need help making it plausible. Sometimes you’re brainstorming for possible stories in a given universe. And sometimes you’re just listening. Without a scientist’s knowledge base, a writer can blow right past the most interesting idea in the story-world and not even realize it. It’s good to ask questions – but also essential to shut your mouth and let the scientists riff. Treasures fall from their tongues when they talk among themselves


Hollywood’s go-to science fiction writer.

What role does science play in your films?

I work largely in science fiction, so science is everywhere in my writing.

Sometimes I invent an anomalous occurrence in the everyday world – which means describing the scientific community’s response to that event. For example, I’ve just finished a script that deals with an alien visitation.

At other times I create futuristic worlds – and instantly inherit the burden of describing and explaining everything: how transport works, how communication works. Money, weapons, government, everything. It’s common to say the world is a character in such movies. Certainly the world imposes a huge burden of invention.

What’s the importance of science in film-making?

Filmmaking is a technical discipline in its own right: you could call it the science of simulation. A movie set is a huge, complex, unnatural operation that uses sets, make-up, special effects, computer graphics, sophisticated lights and optics, and elaborate human performances – all to create a counterfeit reality as naturalistically as possible.

All that then goes to create the surface of a fictional world. But it’s equally important to create the inner truth of that world: the story, the theme, the heart. The science in your narrative is an essential part of that. The rules you teach your audience and the choices of your characters. Everything matters.


“You show the truest science you can – and you fabricate where your story requires it. It’s more important to represent the spirit of scientific inquiry and the scientific method than it is to offer a tutorial on science facts.”

What are your thoughts and opinions on finding the right balance between scientific practice, current knowledge and future developments with the demands of top storytelling?

Drama takes precedence. It has to. Make a dull film full of sterling science and no one will come. The story has to thrill – and the storytellers have to do whatever’s necessary to make that happen. But given that requirement, I always depict the best science I can.

First I try to do no harm: teach no harmful fallacies. Try not to misinform. Secondly, I try to represent scientists as multidimensional people, and to accurately depict the scientific approach to questions and dilemmas. And thirdly, wherever I can, I include pieces of real science to delight science fans and intrigue newcomers.

I bear in mind the Star Trek Principle: there’s very little good science in the old Star Trek show – but it probably deserves more credit than any other art for inspiring people to become scientists. It did that not by giving science lessons, but by making a scientific expedition look like grand, high-minded adventure. The coolest scientists ever!

How do you guarantee the scientific credibility of fiction?

Can’t be done.

The funny thing is, these days a sci-fi screenwriter has educational obligations in both directions. There’s a host of imaginary technologies that audiences take for granted: artificial gravity, force fields, tractor beams, interactive holograms, and so on. If you want to set a story in a future that lacks these things, your audience has some unlearning to do.

My script Passengers, in pre-production now, is set on a colony ship bound for another world. But the journey will take a century, because the ship is confined, like all real spacecraft, to sub-light speeds. And while that’s a fact of the universe, we’re all so accustomed to movie spaceships jumping blithely from star to star that if there’s no “hyperspace” in your movie you have to explain why not.

The movie Gravity grappled with a similar problem. When the movie came out, various scientists weighed in to say the movie got its orbital mechanics wrong. But real orbital mechanics are so counterintuitive that NASA itself missed its first few orbital rendezvous attempts. Teaching the audience how orbital manoeuvring really works would have eaten up precious minutes the movie couldn’t spare dramatically. And even with visual aids they would have lost part of the audience. They represented real-world spaceflight with the best fidelity they could, and cut their losses where they had to.

That’s how it always is. You show the truest science you can – and you fabricate where your story requires it. It’s more important to represent the spirit of scientific inquiry and the scientific method than it is to offer a tutorial on science facts.


Jon explains the Starship Excelsior:
“I created these deck plans before writing my script Passengers. The entire movie plays out aboard the starship Excelsior and I needed a detailed understanding of the environment in order to write the story. It helped enormously. I was equally meticulous about working out round-trip travel time and speed-of-light communications lag.

“I took a run at calculating time dilation from travelling at relativistic speeds, but it was too complicated to make it into the script except as a line of dialogue in passing.”

And to the arguments / observations that a lot of fascinating science is being done that doesn’t then find its way into science fiction?

Scientific domains aren’t all created equal, cinematically. Golden Age sci-fi, after World War II, was fascinated with engineering, rocketry, and space exploration. That translates beautifully onto the screen. But more recently, the explosion of information technology gave rise to cyberpunk, rooted in the interaction of data systems and human consciousness. Trickier. Cyberspace has visual potential but it’s rife with pitfalls, including the fact that information technology’s moving so fast that you run the risk of reality getting ahead of you by the time your movie comes out.

Some fields, like quantum mechanics, deal entirely with unobservable phenomena. In moviemaking terms, quantum physics is all talk. Botany, on the other hand, is thoroughly visible but achingly slow. There’s fascinating stuff happening in plant engineering – but it happens on time scales that are less accessible on a movie screen.

Movies will always have a sensory bias, preferring science that we can see, hear, and feel. For example; robots, starships, anatomical modifications, futuristic cities, alien worlds and creatures. They’re the low-hanging fruit of science fiction. That’s not to say you can’t make movies about other matters: you can make a good film about nearly anything. But the more subtle sciences require more cleverness and craft.


Jon’s notebook film drawings featuring sci-fi technology design. Image courtesy of Jon Spaihts.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Nature SoapBox Science blog. The article was first published on July 23, 2014.

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