Pandorum was released in 2009. I saw it on opening weekend, and immediately added the sci-fi/horror film to my Best of 2009 list. Sadly, the majority of critics and cinemagoers failed to share my enthusiasm. I recently rewatched my Blu-ray copy with the commentary track turned on. Questions remained, so I was thrilled when screenwriter Travis Milloy agreed to a phone interview with Fieldingonfilm.com. (This may contain spoilers.)
Milloy was born in Chicago but grew up in Minnesota. After high school, he attended a variety of universities. “I was not a good student,” he said. “I attended six different colleges, taking all of their film courses. I basically worked in the film industry in Minneapolis. In 1995, I made my own film and brought it to Hollywood. It was a low budget, action/thriller that I made for $150,000. It was the first independent produced film in Minnesota to make a profit.” The studio that bought it, renamed it as Street Gun, and re-edited it. Easy-going Milloy said that that was OK, because “we got all of our relatives’ money back.” And, more importantly, the film launched his career.
He found representation at ICM but not as a director. They wanted to represent him as a writer despite the fact that he had only written Street Gun, because he didn’t have another screenplay. When his representative became the president of Warner Bros., Milloy was invited to sign a contract with that studio. “It took me some time to figure out the politics of Hollywood,” he said. “I always wrote what I thought they wanted. I made a living but nothing I did ever got produced. Hollywood is a complex, political machine. The odds of what you are up against are daunting. Of the 200,000 scripts submitted every year to the six studios, maybe 400 of those will be turned into a film.” And then it takes an average of eight years to get a film made.
After having churned out scripts for the studios for years, he said he was “having a hard time with my writing career. I wasn’t interested.” That’s when he sat down and wrote Pandorum. It was essentially born “out of spite,” he said. “I wrote the movie that I wanted to see.” His idea was to make the film himself for about $50,000, shooting at an abandoned paper mill. The screenplay began with a simple idea: He would focus on one guy lost on a spaceship, and all he had for illumination was a flashlight. “I didn’t have an outline and didn’t know where it was going to go,” he said. “I just wrote for myself. I put myself in Bower’s position, so I knew as much as he does as he slowly recovers his memory.” He added that he was writing as an audience member, always asking himself: What would we expect to see? What do we expect to happen? “When I got to the ending – where they look out of the spaceship’s window – I didn’t know what I was going to do. Nadia looks out the window and … what would I expect to see? I took the dog for a walk, and while I was looking up at the stars, I noticed that the dog was drinking out of a puddle of water.” This gave him the idea: The spaceship was underwater, and it had already been there for 800 years.
Milloy had started casting and was location shooting, when his agent called him to say that he thought the script was “really good” and that it could get picked up by a studio. Milloy’s reply?“Whatever. I’m going to shoot it with my friends on video.” But his agent was right. Impact Pictures was really interested in it, and soon so was German director, Christian Alvart, who was “really hot from Antibodies” and was “looking for his first American film.” As Milloy tells it, Alvart was having a lot of scripts thrown at him, but once he read Pandorum, he “almost fell out of his chair.” (The director says essentially the same thing on the Blu-ray’s audio commentary track.) Alvart had started writing his own script – he was about “30 pages into it” – and the beginning of his work was nearly identical to Milloy’s.
Noting some similarities between Pandorum and Dead Space (2008), a reporter once asked Milloy if this video game had inspired him. It hadn’t. He penned his script in the late 1990s, and, initially, it wasn’t even going to be science fiction. He said that he had tried setting his story during the present day on a plane, a ship, or even on a submarine … but none of these settings worked. Science fiction did, because when writing in that genre one has unlimited options; the world can be more complex, he said. It’s interesting to note that the two films that he credits most for “inspiring” Pandorum are: Escape from New York (1981) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The former, he said, “scared the shit out of me when I was a kid, and that’s the same feeling I wanted for Pandorum.” In fact, he tapped into some of his worst fears for the screenplay. For instance, he’s claustrophobic, and he said that he can’t imagine anything worse than being stuck in a space in which you can’t turn around. Add to that the horror of falling face first in that confined space, and you have one of the film’s most tense moments. “I also pictured Payton as a father figure, and for me the worst thing would be to find out that my father wasn’t who he claimed to be,” he said. And finally, what would be worse than finding yourself in a situation in which you don’t know where you are, and the only person you encounter speaks another language? The character of whom he speaks is Manh, played by Cung Lee, a fighter-turned-actor who, in the film, speaks nothing but Vietnamese. “My original script was more Robinson Crusoe. Nadia spoke German; only a little English. It made for an interesting group of heroes, and gave the ship more of a global feel.”
How much of what you see on the screen came from Milloy and how much came from Alvart, who shares a writing credit? “He brought in the colony settlers,” he said. “And that whole element that this was the last hope for humanity. He melded his vision with mine; we met in the middle.” Unlike some directors, Alvart involved Milloy in the filmmaking process. “I went to Babelsburg for the first few weeks of shooting – I was still writing while he was shooting – I learned a lot from him.” Alvart, he said, is very focused, and if you want to change something in your script, you will end up having a five-hour long conversation about why you want to do that.
When asked if he had any say in the casting of Pandorum, he explained that everyone was able to throw in names. “My pick for Payton (played in the film by Dennis Quaid) was Jeff Bridges, but at that time, he didn’t have a career,” he said. “This was before Crazy Heart (2009), Tron (2010) and True Grit (2010).” As for Bower, he said that he’s not really in the know of who is “in” for younger actors. That said, “Ben Foster was great. He was like Christian (Alvart) in that he really liked the script, and he stuck to it like it was his Bible. If you gave him a new line, you had to explain to him why you wanted to change it.” (Speaking of Foster, he said that he has the “ultimate souvenir” from the Pandorum set: The skin that the actor peels off after he comes out of hyper-sleep. It even has the tattoo on it. Despite the fact that no one was supposed to touch anything on set, Milloy couldn’t resist pocketing the skin. “I put it in my pocket,” he said. He also has the flight suit worn by Cam Gigandet.)
After the film was released, the reaction wasn’t favorable. Milloy said that the small but very hardcore fan base for horror/sci-fi films decide what is allowed and what isn’t; which films they support and the ones they don’t. At first, the comments were that Pandorum was a rip off of this; rip off of that. “Right away, there was a lot of criticism,” he said. “When I first saw the film, I noticed that all of the reveals are at the end. It’s the opposite of Avatar, where all is known in the first act. Fans tell me that each time they see (Pandorum), they like it more. And the more they see Avatar, the less they like it. Avatar is an amusement park ride; Pandorum is like reading a book. I told Christian that I didn’t think it would do well; that fans would eventually embrace it 10 to 20 years later.” Milloy said that he has already seen a “big turn” in reaction to Pandorum. In the beginning, nine out of 10 people hated it; now it’s the opposite.” Milloy said that his “biggest dream” is to have Pandorum become a cult classic in much the same way that Blade Runner (1982) and The Thing (1982), both “flops” when they were released, have.
Anyone who has seen Pandorum knows that the ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel. “We definitely had a plan, and it was to have a sequel and a prequel,” he said. The prequel would have detailed the story of Gallo (played by Cam Gigandet in the film), beginning with the launch of the space ship Elysium, continuing with his descent into madness – his becoming the “king of the ship” – and ending with him putting himself to sleep. The third film, a sequel, would have taken place on Tanis, the Earth-like planet. The survivors would have encountered two groups of “creatures” who were engaged in a religious war; their primary points of contention being who owns the land and who is the chosen one. Milloy said that the “twist” of the story is that these warring groups are the descendants of the Elysium crew; people who came out of their sleep chambers 800 years ago. They are products of Gallo’s demented ideology. Because Pandorum did poorly at the box office, these project ideas were scrapped. When asked why he doesn’t develop these stories in another medium – as a novel or comic book, for instance – he explained that he’s “not much of a novelist. Screenwriting to me is the most simplistic form of writing; you are creating a blueprint for a movie.” Writing a novel is another thing entirely, he explained.
(It’s interesting to note that Alvart’s other “Hollywood film,” Case 39, which starred Renee Zellweger, also did poorly at the box office. When asked about it, Milloy said that even though Pandorum and Case 39 were both released in 2009, Case 39 was shot before Pandorum. Apparently, Alvart was offered the chance to direct the Zellweger film, and asked Milloy what he thought about it. “I said that he should take it. We waited one and one-half years for him. Luckily, I was in no hurry. When he said that he still wanted to do Pandorum, I was elated.”)
As of this writing, Milloy has three screenplays making their way through the Hollywood studio machine. One is Exit 147, a Hitchcockian thriller that is scheduled to begin shooting in June 2012. Another script, Monstrum, is an apocalyptic comedy that is slated to begin shooting in the fall of 2012. And then there is No Prior History. Originally called Outsourced, it is based on a novel by Dave Zeltserman and is about a team of software engineers who get in over their head when they plan a high-tech bank heist. It is being produced by Impact Pictures with John Luessenhop, who helmed Takers (2010), slated to direct. “I just finished rewrites on it,” he said. When asked about Monstrum, he said that he wrote it at about the same time as he wrote Pandorum. “I was going to shoot it with my friends,” he said. The story focuses on two guys, sort of a futuristic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who are mountain biking across America. About 99.9 percent of the population has been vaporized but no one knows why. And all the fuel is gone. The main characters come across a Wal-Mart and find a village of people living inside who are being tormented by a “huge King Kong beast.” The protagonists stick around and help the villagers battle the creature. “It’s fun but scary,” he said. Gil Kenan of City of Ember (2008) and Monster House (2006) fame is directing. How did he come up the idea? From spending a lot of time walking around Wal-Mart, he said. When told the story is somewhat reminiscent of The Mist (2007), he said that Monstrum is “not as dark as dreary. It’s a fun ride. You have two average guys who joke that they feel like they are in a bad horror movie.”
So which films/filmmakers/writers inspire Milloy? “Let the Right One In (2008) is one of my favorite films made in the last 10 years,” he said. He liked it so much that even though he has heard good things about the American remake, Let Me In (2010), he hasn’t seen it nor does he plan to in the future. As for filmmakers, he said that he admires David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, Walter Hill, Richard Donner, James Cameron, and Brian DePalma. And as for writers, he really likes the work of William Goldman.
Before the interview concluded, he was asked if he had any advice for someone trying to break into the business. “The fastest way is to make your own movie,” he said. “Sam Raimi always said that if you have a $10 budget, make the best $10 movie you can. And, after that, keep shooting. You learn along the way. The guys who are making the deals now are getting attention from YouTube.” And with that, he mentioned Fede Alvarez, a Uruguayan who directed Panic Attack! (2009), a short film about giant robots that invade Montevideo. “He shot it, edited it, did his own effects … now he’s helming a studio picture,” he said. That “studio picture,” according to IMDB is the reboot/remake/reimaging of Evil Dead. Another success story, Milloy mentioned, is Gareth Edwards, a visual effects artist who made the low-budget, and critically lauded feature Monsters (2010). He will supposedly helm the Godzilla reboot.
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