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Into ‘The Expanse’: What It Means to Be Human, and Why ‘Sci-Fi Ended With Ridley Scott’

Into 'The Expanse': What It Means to Be Human, and Why 'Sci-Fi Ended With Ridley Scott'

Syfy’s upcoming drama “The Expanse” has the potential to change the game in a major way for science fiction on television: The series, starring Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo and an intriguing ensemble cast, takes us from a 23rd century Earth to the rising colonies of Mars and the mining communities of the outer asteroid belt.

PART ONE: What Syfy’s New Sci-Fi Gamble Learned From ‘True Detective’
PART THREE: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Guided The Making of ‘”Chinatown” in Space’
PART FOUR: Great Sci-Fi Doesn’t Require A Good Hat, But It Helps

It’s ultimately a human story, in part thanks to Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), a young woman who we first see at the beginning of the pilot, and whose life choices and mysterious fate come to represent an awful lot. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of exciting sci-fi touches.

In part two of a discussion with executive producers Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar conducted at the TCA 2015 Summer Press Tour, Indiewire got into the nitty-gritty of the show’s production — for example, how much of what you see on screen was physically built on set — as well as more existential questions, like what it means, in the world of “The Expanse,” to be human. An edited transcript is below.

I’m curious, for each of you, do you have a favorite character? A True North, if you will?

OSTLY: That’s like asking, “Who’s your favorite kid?”

SHANKAR: We love all of our actors equally.

[Everyone laughs.]

OSTLY: You know, in writing them, some characters come to you a little easier. In my head right now, Amos (Wes Chatham) is kind of fun to write because his reactions to things are so different — completely different than what we’re used to, and it’s kind of fun playing with it.

FERGUS: He’s got a bent antenna. A weird way of perceiving the world. I would say Julie Mao for me because she’s the least visible, but the most important. She’s kind of a ghost who gets everybody. She’s the one who activates everybody to crack open their shitty lives and preconceived notions, and follow her across the universe to see what she can teach them. It’s amazing. But marginally her power is that she’s not there. She’s an ideal to follow, and it’s a lot of fun to thread her through the season without really getting to see much of her. Because she’s the mystery girl who it’s all about ultimately. She was always hovering even when she wasn’t in the scene. She was always hovering and that I love.

OSTLY: What’s so cool about that, too, is you begin a space show in a storage locker. It’s not that outer space shot of the ship coming through.

And at the same time — talking about starting off small — is it keeps the person trapped and trying to survive.

OSTLY: [To Shankar] Who do you like?

SHANKAR: Whoever surprises me that week.

I’m curious. How much did you build to make this happen?

SHANKAR: Everything. There are no visual effects in the show. None whatsoever. We went to space. The spaceships are real. They are very, very large.

[Everyone laughs.]

Everything is a total of about 80,000 square feet. There’s a big stage that’s 40,000 square feet and then two 18,000 square foot stages. It’s in Pinewood Toronto, but it’s massive. The sets were really big. I mean you don’t usually build on this scale for science fiction. Obviously as big as they were, we enhanced them massively with visual effects. There’s a good amount of blue screen work, but — the physical environment of the series — a ton of it is practical. The spaceships, the interiors. We built The Knight, which is the shuttle they go off in the pilot. It’s 30 feet high. Three stories, actually almost closer to four. And the vertical space, we pulled people up on a wire so you could actually do zero-G floats on them in a convincing fashion. Again, it’s rare when you build that kind of vertical space. The airlock set that we built is 30 feet up and goes 25 feet down. It’s not common to build like this.

The fact that I knew to ask the question without doing any research–

SHANKAR: It felt big, right?

It definitely felt like you guys built some stuff.

OSTLY: It enhances things as well because to spend all day on the blue screen–

SHANKAR: It’s tough. It’s really tough.

OSTLY: You know, it adds something, to be in a physical location.

FERGUS: It’s accepted now — everyone knows you’re watching bullshit. You know you’re watching a fake environment, but everybody is fine with it. It’s kind of accepted now that that’s the vocabulary of fantasy or sci-fi or even drama, when I see people sitting in a car. It takes you out, but it’s accepted. You can do it, and not feel ashamed about it anymore, but it still sucks a lot of the time because you feel disassociated with the environment and then actors can’t give that little extra bit of truth to a piece of plastic. I just feel like it’s beautiful to have people in real spaces, as much as that old Kubrick kind of ingenuity.

SHANKAR: We used every trick possible. Blue-wrapped teeter-totters, so people could float around without wires. The actors had movement coaches so they could hold their hand up properly at zero G so it never floats down. And shooting off speed and hiding wires. No trick was spared.

FERGUS: But we did study quite a bit of zero gravity. Zero G is not as weird as movies usually make it seem. A lot of it is like swimming through water. The only time we really said, “screw it” was when we wanted Julie Mao’s hair to look awesome like a mermaid. That’s not how hair reacts in zero G — it kind of stays together. It’s not very beautiful. So we said screw it.

I think it plays.

SHANKAR: It’s fun to just do a show for once in science fiction where gravity plating isn’t the solution to everything. It’s like everybody is walking around in a hotel. The fact is, if our ships are not under thrust, then our characters are weightless. And they have to use magnets to keep themselves latched to the deck. One of my favorite shots probably is in an episode where we have a couple of Belgian miners, rock hoppers they’re called, and the guy whose ship it is, he’s kind of drunk and in the shot there’s just a whole pile of beer cans floating in this little pile and then he turns on the engine and the second the engine comes on, the beer cans hit the ground because as soon as the ship accelerates they have weight. It’s just a great little fun way to do things that you never see done.

It speaks to one of the things that I think the show really accomplishes, which is the physical reality of traveling through space. This is a dorky way to introduce the idea, but I remember riding the “Mission: Space” ride at Epcot, where you spin around in a centrifuge essentially, with the brutal reality of experiencing those G-forces. I think that’s something you get, from what’s going on here.

FERGUS: One of our favorite parts of the book is that to go really fast or to brake really hard in space, you almost die. You have to tell your body, “Don’t die. Don’t pass out. Don’t have a stroke.” You’ve gotta shoot yourself up with drugs, and put a mouthguard in so you don’t bite your tongue off, and strap in. You don’t see that in “Star Trek.”

SHANKAR: No, you don’t. The flip and burn sequence from the pilot, it took forever to get it right. We talked about over and over again.

On a writing level?

SHANKAR: On a filmic level. But it was hard. It was really hard. Just the notion that the only way to slow down in space, if you’ve got a big engine at the back of your ship, is to flip around and then use that to brake. It’s a hard concept because nobody ever expresses that. They never do. And the language of films… Every space movie since “Star Wars” has basically done a World War II dogfight in space, but those are aerodynamic planes’ gravity. It has nothing to do with actual travel in zero-G, where things are moving as fast as they can possibly move until you slow them down. And what we discovered is that this is kind of the signature move of our spaceships. And we keep doing it over and over again because it’s cool. If you’re coming into something, you see the ships flip over and fire the engine to slow down. Which sounds counterintuitive, but that’s how it works. And it’s become this great, cool move and it looks awesome. Really great.

FERGUS: The windows in ships was the big thing for me.

SHANKAR: The ongoing battle.

FERGUS: It’s dumb to have vulnerable spots in the haul. And there’s no symmetry to ships because there’s no gravity.

SHANKAR: Aerodynamic ships. There’s no reason to have them. But what happened was, and this is really a fun thing, when you throws that shit away it’s like suddenly the shapes become different and you can make things very unusual in ways you’ve never seen before. The flipping to decelerate, you get great filmic opportunities — like in the pilot, where the Knight comes to the Scopuli and turns around, the engine’s flare lights up and it looks really beautiful. Cinematically, there’s an advantage to it as well.

I’d imagine that in a genre that has so many iconic moments and iconic ships, having elements that make you stand out is a huge help.

SHANKAR: It makes it distinctive out of the gate, and that’s a great thing. Anytime you can put something out that people haven’t seen before, it’s instantly attractive.

FERGUS: In the book, the thing that always stuck out were the things that were– This is like an early, early, early, version of hyperspace, this flip and burn, but I’ve never seen that. You feel it as you’re reading it and that’s what you want to see on screen.

OSTLY: So much sci-fi is influenced by “Alien,” the [H.R.] Giger design, the lighting. That sort of bluish green. We tried to get away from a lot of that.

FERGUS: Sci-fi stopped with Ridley Scott, almost.

Sci-fi stopped with Ridley Scott?

FERGUS: And rightly so. It’s awesome, but you can’t just riff off that forever. There are other visions of this thing. We definitely tried to love what we love. Not get caught up in it.

OSTLY: One thing that was really cool was that we didn’t have to do a bug alien. Because every time you do sci-fi you have to have an alien and it almost ends up looking like a bug. Legs go this way instead of that way.

FERGUS: Ridley Scott had this story — we did a pitch with him once — and I don’t know if he was just being a wise ass, but he said that Kubrick decided to not show the aliens in “2001” because there was no version that would be satisfying. Or he hadn’t designed one that he felt was sufficiently interesting or made it more of a mental state. Because once you show the thing…

SHANKAR: I saw a fascinating web gallery about the conceptual art for the end of “2001” that he rejected because he could never quite get– There were a million different versions of the alien, different versions of the place he went, and at the end of it he went, “This is all bad.” And this became what you’re talking about. He rejected everything. They tried everything. It was painting after painting. It was fascinating. I’d never seen it before.

FERGUS: In “Alien,” the Giger stuff was the only time we were thinking, “Oh, this is going to be bad,” and when it shows up it’s worse. It’s so scary that that was worth the wait. Usually, it’s really hard to make the monsters scary once the monster shows up.

READ MORE: Here’s How to Shoot a Sci-Fi Film on a Low Budget

It’s great that you brought up “Alien” because… I’m curious if this is a bigger thing or if I’m just being a complete nerd here. The answer is probably “both.” But the idea that, when you start talking about how people born in different environments than Earth then evolve differently, does that completely change the idea of what it means to be alien?

FERGUS: That is sort of the central idea of the book series, in many ways, for me. The Belters we’re talking about?

Or like the fact that this guy has a different physicality because he has a different kind of bone density.

FERGUS: In the books, the Belter is rather tall or rather thin because of reduced gravity on the skeleton. It would eventually be a genetic reinforcing, but for now it’s just an environmental impact on this frame cartilage and bone and lungs. But we decided for practical reasons we’d never be able to shoot everybody being tall, and so some people are taller, some it affects their bone structure. We have the whole spectrum of different effects of low gravity, but it’s said in the book that because we left the planet, because gravity affects bodies, a new type of human emerges called a Belter. And what does that mean? Are they now an alien because they’re no longer driven by a fresh air environment? They can’t come down to Earth or Mars because they’d die. It’d crush them.

SHANKAR: It’s one of the themes that we keep trying to hit on — this notion of human tribalism and factionalism. It’s one of these things that always seem to happen when one group of people can identify against another group of people and say they’re different. That’s when you start to fight. In the world of “The Expanse,” we’ve got Belters at the cusp of change. When they’re starting to self-identify genetically, culturally, with language. Something other than Earth-bound humans and Martian-bound Martians. Suddenly, everybody is like, “Wow, we’re not the same,” and when we’re not the same it’s okay to kill somebody and fight somebody and do all those thing that humans do so incredibly well.

FERGUS: “They’re human, but a tiny bit less human than us.”

SHANKAR: So, it’s okay to murder them in a group. And it’s the easiest thing in the world, and that sort of horrible wheel of history is operating underneath the story that we’re telling.

Do you see ultimately having an optimistic message at the core of this?

ALL: Oh yeah. Definitely.

SHANKAR: We’re out there, and we haven’t destroyed ourselves yet. So, there’s a fundamentally optimistic, initial approach.

FERGUS: The first thing we asked the authors is “Do you know where the fuck this is going or are you just making this up as you’re going?” And they told us the last scene in the last book and it is hopeful. You’re like, “Wow, this is one big story.” It’s one big interconnected movie that has a lot of pieces to it, but it’s been very well thought out. And it’s really optimistic, and hopeful, not in the kind of, “Yay!” kind of way. It says that about 51 percent of humanity makes us worth preserving. We’re a work-in-progress that deserves to keep going and trying to get to that light, whatever it is. So it’s pretty hopeful.

SHANKAR: It’s postmodern optimism, which is tinged with great sadness.

FERGUS: We’re 51 percent great, 49 percent horrible.

So it’s the Star Child (from “2001”) but really emo about it?

SHANKAR: It’s not happy to be there.

OSTLY: It’s little people rising up at the great turns of humanity.

FERGUS: And it kind of goes back to this girl Julie, who starts the whole story. This person who is idealistic and goes out and fights for a cause that’s not her own and it teaches all these other people the meaning of selflessness and something better than themselves and something noble. Even if it’s misguided or flawed and messy. That there’s something beautiful in being your brother’s keeper and that sort of ultimately what the whole show is about. Not technology rising up and killing you in your sleep.

SHANKAR: Which could happen. But it’s not really what we’re talking about here.

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

In Part 3: Why “The Expanse” is not a “techno porn show,” and the reason everyone watches “Game of Thrones.” 

READ MORE: Here’s the Best Science Fiction Discovery of the Year

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