It isn’t every day you read about (or write about) a major new intellectual property being birthed – and that goes double for science fiction, which tend to be at the upper end of the budget scale, and therefore most commonly based on existing media, be it a film, television series, novel, comic book or toy (Avatar, Pacific Rim and Interstellar being notable exceptions). It was therefore heartening to hear that 20th Century Fox had paid around half a million dollars for The Leviathan, a spec script by Jim Uhls (Fight Club) based on a concept by Irish-born director Ruairí Robinson (The Last Days on Mars), who had earned an Academy Award nomination for his 2001 short film, Fifty Percent Grey.
The news came on March 27, just four days after a striking three-and-a-half minute short film, entitled “The Leviathan – Teaser”, which played like a proof of concept for an awesome sci-fi spectacle about whaling in space. “By the early 22nd century, Mankind had colonized many worlds,” an opening captioned informed curious audiences. “Faster than light travel was made possible by harvesting exotic matter from the eggs of the largest species mankind has ever seen. Those that take part in the hunt are mostly involuntary labor,” the caption went on, before treating viewers to an astonishing CG sequence of starships and what can only be described as space whales. As a short film, it was a strange beast, resembling a cut scene from an epic video game more than a self-contained narrative. But the clue was there in the word “teaser”, and four days (and 1.2 million views) later, the tease became tangible as Fox announced its purchase of the project behind the proof of concept, with proven sci-fi heavy-hitters Simon Kinberg (X-Men, the new Fantastic Four, an upcoming Star Wars) and Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, the next Alien) on board as producer and executive producer respectively. So what exactly is The Leviathan? I decided to ask the two men most likely to know: Robinson and Uhls.
“I’ve previously described it as ‘Jaws plus Wages of Fear multiplied by Alien’,” says Robinson, “but it’s basically Moby Dick on another world. It started started as a joke about how franchises years ago used to end up in space when they ran out of ideas (Hellraiser/Jason X, etc.) so I decided it would be funny to ruin great literature by setting it in space (Wuthering Heights… in space!). Scrolling through lists it didn’t take long to hit on Moby Dick and actually it stopped being a joke right away because I thought the idea was actually pretty awesome.”
As Robinson began to outline the concept, people would point out precedents to the ‘sci-fi Moby Dick’ idea, including similarities with aspects of Frank Herbert’s Dune – which, Robinson says, he has never read (though he did watch – and didn’t love – the David Lynch film). “Which is fine, but basically irrelevant to what I was doing. I was plugging in ideas of my own and an aesthetic I love (heavy industry) into the structure of a pretty classic story, so I steered clear of outside influences.”
Armed with a five-page outline and his teaser (“I hate verbally pitching,” Robinson explains, “so I’d rather spend a year of hell making something I can just press play than spend 15 minutes talking in front of an audience”), Robinson began looking for writers who could shape his idea into a feature film.
“Fight Club is one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite scripts,” he says of his reasons for approaching Jim Uhls. “I actually spoke to a few writers, had to hedge a bit in case Jim wasn’t into it, but Jim responded to the idea, which gave me all the emotional spinach I needed to spend a year on the visuals. The teaser and script were developed in parallel so we had the strongest hand possible to sell.”
“Ruairí approached me with the initial concept of hunting creatures on another planet as a resource,” Uhls remembers. “We hadn’t worked together before, [but] I was blown away by his short films.” Uhls claims a lifelong interest in science fiction, “particularly when it has strong sociological and psychological components. It has resonance as a type of new mythology.” One of his first script sales, to Carolco Pictures in 1987, was Dead Reckoning (later Isobar), which Uhls describes as “a sci-fi action thriller, set in the future, in which an altered form of life gets loose on a high-speed runaway underground train,” and which was planned as a new collaboration between director Ridley Scott and his Alien designer H.R.Giger, before the project got sidetracked into development hell. (Commercial break: The full story of the project’s derailment is told in exhaustive detail in my book Tales from Development Hell.) Uhls returned to the genre with his screenplay for Doug Liman’s Jumper, and is currently adapting Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin for SyFy. “In an adaptation, all the elements have to be considered as to whether or not they will work in a film – and then made to work, or changed,” he says. “So, there’s always challenge of creating a screen story that works.” The Leviathan, by contrast, offered the writer a rare opportunity to create a science fiction story from scratch.
“It’s set in the future, when the prevailing method of commercial energy production uses exotic matter,” he says of the story. “Gigantic creatures called ‘leviathans’, which inhabit the gaseous planet Fomalhaut B, are hunted because they have an internal source of exotic matter. The correctional system allows for a convicted felon to either serve prison time or serve as crew on a hunt, which amounts to a shorter sentence, though more dangerous. We follow the story of a young convict who chooses the crewman option, and his relationship with the ship’s captain, who is obsessed with finding a legendary mutant oversized leviathan.” Yes, it really is ‘Moby Dick in space’.
It seems appropriate that one of the film’s executive producers is Neill Blomkamp, whose critically acclaimed first film, District 9, grew out of a short film – not a million miles from the teaser which brought The Leviathan to the attention of a major studio, after a million-plus Vimeo views proved there was an audience for it. With the leaked Deadpool footage ultimately granting that long-delayed film a green light, could this be a new way to help get a movie made? Damn straight, says Robinson, who was using visual effects house Blur’s render farm in downtime when the Deadpool leak happened.
“I think at the very start [Deadpool director] Tim Miller had been a bit bummed out because he’d done this awesome proof of concept himself and he had a script everyone loved and yet none of this had seemed to be enough to get the project going – until the public saw it. And this is what turned the tide. I have no clue who leaked that teaser,” he adds, “but they deserve all the beer. So it was incredibly exciting to see that movie ramp up so fast while I was doing a similar proof.” Adds Uhls, “There is a definite advantage in proving the existence of an audience. I think it helps a large scale concept gain traction.”
We’re jumping the gun, of course: Fox may have paid “mid six figures” for the script, hired a couple of heavyweight producers, and agreed to let Robinson direct (“If they want the project they have to have me,” he explains), but Uhls would be the first to admit there’s a long way to go before the film reaches the screen. Nevertheless, he is hopeful that Fox will see the possibilities for the future of The Leviathan. “I think there’s very strong potential for a franchise,” he says. “It’s a world that compels revisiting, and with wide open possibilities of what could be encountered.” In the meantime, he says, “I hope it will be an entertaining, unique film with the qualities that earn it a place of distinction.”
Speaking of a place of distinction, Robinson could not be more excited that the project is being set up at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind such science fiction franchises as Star Wars, Alien, X-Men, Planet of the Apes and Avatar. When I was a kid, the fox fanfare was to me the sign that I was going to see something I loved. It seemed to be on all my favourite movies. That seems to have tapered off a bit in the last decade or so… but suddenly with great movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes being made, I’ve been getting that feeling again.”
“It’s pretty cool when something you make gets a reaction like this,” Robinson says of the Internet reaction to The Leviathan. “But I’ll have to make sure I don’t end up chasing it. That feeling can be addictive. I’ve worked in the trenches long enough to know how things flip on a dime and you can be in favor or out of favour overnight and back again.” For now, he says, “I’ll just continue to remember to wear pants and tie my laces and put one foot in front of the other when I walk before I start thinking about my place in history with a movie I have not yet made.”
© 2015 David Hughes. Be a pal and link to the original post when quoting.
With a bow to Jim Uhls and Ruairí Robinson and a nod to Andrew Jones