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Into ‘The Expanse’: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Guided The Making of ‘”Chinatown” in Space’

Into 'The Expanse': How 'Game of Thrones' Guided The Making of '"Chinatown" in Space'

One of the most exciting aspects of Syfy’s upcoming series “The Expanse” is the fact that the show strives to create an entirely new universe in its first few episodes; one laden with new technology, but one that uses it in an authentic way.

PART ONE: What Syfy’s New Sci-Fi Gamble Learned From ‘True Detective’
PART TWO: What It Means to Be Human, and Why ‘Sci-Fi Ended With Ridley Scott’
PART FOUR: Great Sci-Fi Doesn’t Require A Good Hat, But It Helps

That’s part of what Indiewire digs into this week, in our continuing discussion with “Expanse” executive producers Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar, conducted at the TCA 2015 Summer Press Tour. What’s key to making this sort of advanced technology feel authentic? What’s unusual about the make-up of the show’s writing staff? How did “Game of Thrones” inspire them, in developing the first season? 

An edited transcript is below. First, we were digging into whether the show was an optimistic one, at its core, which led to this:

When you feature such advanced technology that’s buried or executed in a way where it feels really practical and achievable, I think that has its own sense of optimism, as well.

FERGUS: One of the things we love about the book is they just barely talk about technology and you’re like, “Where is it?” It’s in the background. It’s there. We just don’t talk about it.The vastness of space puts us pre-cell phone because cell phones ruin thrillers for us. Technology has made it hard to be isolated, hard to tell those types of stories. The vast space puts you in a place where it takes a long time to get a message out. It takes a long time to get a response. It takes a long time to get anywhere. Everywhere is kind of back to the frontier rules so it gives us all that stuff back that we lost. Cellular technology. You can get a little more western about it, waiting for the message to come on the Pony Express.

SHANKAR: And we’re so not a techno porn show. The uses of technology are so casual. It’s not like– There was a show whose name I will not mention, and they did like a four-minute scene about a robotic trash can. It’s like, “Look how cool it is. Drones pick up the garbage.” It’s just so weak: “Look how cool the machine is.”

OSTBY: The people operating it make seem like it’s this exotic thing, yet they’ve been operating it and using this thing every day.

SHANKAR: Ty and Daniel [the authors of the novels] would always say that nobody gets into a car and thinks, “Look, what a fine internal combustion engine.”

OSTBY: “I am inserting the key.”

FERGUS: Cancer is cured in their world of “The Expanse.” And they drop that into the story. It’s so barely mentioned you almost miss it — that, you know, when you’ve been radiated you take these anti-cancer pills. You have to take them forever, but you’ll never die of cancer. It’s just thrown out casually, like, “no more cancer.”

OSTBY: You’ll die from lack of water, not cancer.

FERGUS: There’s no scene about it. There’s no moment about it. It becomes important for the moment. So, that’s how they treat technology, which… I just don’t give a shit. At some point, that’s not the story. Unless it’s coming to kill you, technology is not that interesting.

SHANKAR: Well, if it is the subject of the story, that’s one thing. Like the AMC show “Humans” or “Westworld.” If that’s what it is about, great.

FERGUS: But it doesn’t always have to be what the show is about. My prediction is that at some point technology will teeter out or level out at some point. It’s not gonna kill us or save us, and it’s never going to be that interesting to tell stories about.

SHANKAR: I think it will destroy us. I’m just saying.

The flying trashcans are coming for us.

FERGUS: When is Apple going to invent a recycling trash can?

OSTBY: I think it’s changing us already. Look at kids and how they interact.

Apparently some millennials are really bad at understanding facial cues, but at the same time texting communication is completely different for them. New lexicons are being invented.

SHANKAR: I think it’s born out of that primal fear of people not being around other people, sharing actually human contact. Disconnection from the natural world.

OSTBY: When you affect with empathy–

SHANKAR: Well, you disintermediate and depersonalize… Kids can be so mean online in a way that they never are directly face-to-face, because it’s a very different thing.

OSTBY: You’ll be on a yoga site and somebody will say, “Hey. Beautiful day.” And then three posts down, “Yeah. You think it’s beautiful, you son of a bitch. I’m going to figure out where you live and kill you.”

SHANKAR: [to Ostby] What yoga sites are you going to?

FERGUS: That’s why we love the book so much. It had nothing to do with technology. It was not really anything about that. It was kind of mind-blowing. 

SHANKAR: It’s interesting, too. From the staff perspective on our show, we had a very unusual staff for what traditionally a science fiction show would have. Obviously Mark and Hawk did “Children of Man” and “Iron Man” and everything, but Robin Veith is from “Mad Men.” Dan Nowak is from “The Killing.” I mean, these are people who never had any interest in doing science fiction. And yet they responded to the human themes of the book. It’s kind of a cool thing. The fact that it attracted people from outside the genre is really good.

FERGUS: Robin said, “This Canterbury ship reminds me of when I used to work on a circus train.” I’m like, “She’s hired.” She used to work on a circus train. She’s like, “This is being with a bunch of people you think you know.” Those are the kind of people we wanted to bring to write this show.

It also speaks to the fact– You mentioned having a Western feel to some of it, but you also have a very strong noir component. So, is that what you’re going with? Sci-fi noir?

SHANKAR: Is that what we’re calling it this week? Sci-fi noir? I like epic space drama, too.

And bringing in people who don’t care about or who wouldn’t necessarily watch a space ship — that’s easier these days.

FERGUS: Like, why do people watch “Game of Thrones”? I don’t like sword-and-sandal shit, but I love the power struggles, family, destiny.

SHANKAR: It’s because everybody wants to murder their boss. That is the appeal of that show.

Clearly “Game of Thrones” is going to come up a lot for you guys because of the books and bringing people into a new world. But what I actually also really find interesting about “Game of Thrones” is that at the very beginning, you have the zombies, but afterward it really feels like you’re just watching “The Sopranos” or something, but in medieval times. Then the ideas of magic and mysticism get slowly woven in.

FERGUS: We had that same exact discussion for a long time, breaking this into a pilot episode. [With “Game of Thrones,”] showing magic in that opening scene and then forgetting about it most of the rest of the season, that changed the whole season. You take that scene out, there’s no longer the thing pressing in. We debated endlessly if we should do that in our show, introduce the idea that there’s more to this. So, it was that exact discussion. You say magic exists? We’re going to take it away for a while, but know that it’s there, while all these idiots fight with their swords and shit. There’s something else going on that’s going to affect more.

SHANKAR: Mark said it before [in Part 2]: Julie hovers over the show. You keep touching on it. You keep talking about her and what she’s doing and that’s putting her into the world. Even though our characters aren’t aware of it, it’s there and you know it’s coming. And I think that is very much like “Game of Thrones.”

FERGUS: They went a long way with that White Walker. It showed us that you can show it and then put it away for a while. And let it simmer.

SHANKAR: The brilliant thing about “Game of Thrones” is the way it’s referenced without referencing it. The guys on the wall say, “The things behind the wall.” “Winter is coming.” You know the terrible something is coming, so you keep feeling it. It’s a very artful way of doing it.

OSTBY: And every time Miller looks at Julie Mao we know something is coming.

FERGUS: I’ve never read the [“Game of Thrones”] books. Does the book tell you about magic, in the same way? Because without that opening scene, it’s a bunch of folktales. It’s a bunch of superstitions. With that scene, it’s real.

It certainly stands out in contrast to, let’s say, “Lost.” I remember when that show first premiered, I made some joke to one of my co-workers about them all being dead, or being zombies — which wasn’t an uncommon theory at the time. And she was like, “Ugh. I hope not. Because then I’m going to stop watching.” She just didn’t respond to sci-fi at all, so her position was that the second the show became a sci-fi show, that’s the second she was out of here.

SHANKAR: I think that’s the genius of it. It’s “Lord of the Flies.” That is the relatable quality to it. And “Game of Thrones” is the corrupting power — power corrupts you morally, the search for it. That’s immediately relatable and respectable. The lack of magic and demon-summoning bologna. That gives it credibility. It just feels real. They’re expressing the world in actually understandable terms, even if the nomenclature is a little bit different. I think we’re trying to do that with our show.

“Lost” is “Lord of the Flies.” “Game of Thrones” is the medieval battle for power. What’s “The Expanse”?

FERGUS: “Chinatown” in space. That spoke a lot about the little guy stepping in this vast world. It’s the story of the future. Whether it’s California or the future of the solar system, it’s resource-based with very powerful people gaming the future for their own needs until one little schmuck steps in the plan and starts poking around too much. There were a lot of parallels in that respect.

SHANKAR: The one that I always go to, because it feels so much like a socio-political allegory, I keep going back to history, so to me it feels like “The Guns of August.” It’s about this series of mistakes and miscalculations and misapprehensions amongst people on all different sides, that leads to this insane conflict breaking out. There’s an incredibly interesting story in World War I. We talk about it a lot, especially in Season 1. A lot of people don’t really know what’s going on and they make the wrong conclusions about why people are doing what, and all that does is it preys on their own prejudices and hatreds and stirs the conflict even more, which is part of the plan of the bad guys. They’re counting on human beings living off their worst possible nature. And so, to me if feels a little more connected to history.

You can preview “The Expanse” Episode 1 online now. The series officially premieres December 14 on Syfy.

In Part 4: “Every villain thinks they’re the hero. Every perspective thinks that theirs is valid.” Also, we get in depth about Thomas Jane’s hat.

READ MORE: Here’s How This Filmmaker Shot a Short Sci-Fi Film on 35mm for Next to Nothing

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