3022: Director John Suits on How to Craft a Character-Driven Sci-fi

Omar Epps as John Laine in the sci-fi film, “3022,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

by Carrie Harris (@carrharr)

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to director John Suits about his film, 3022, which stars Omar Epps, Kate Walsh, Miranda Cosgrove, Angus MacFayden, and Jorja Fox. The film was written by Ryan Binaco.

In 3022, a group of astronauts living in deep space awake to find Earth has suffered an extinction level event. John joined us to talk about the challenges of writing a character-driven sci-fi film and how to get those intangible moments of internal change on the page.

Carrie Harris: So this is one heck of a pressure cooker of a sci-fi film. I thought it felt very claustrophobic and, ultimately, it’s as much about how the characters feel as it is about the cool space stuff they do. How did you come to this approach to what’s usually a fairly action and tech heavy genre?

John Suits: Yeah, I found it initially five years ago. Ryan Binaco, the writer, I think is incredibly talented, and I’m really a fan of his style, and that’s why I think I responded to it initially. It’s a very intimate story told on a grand scale, and definitely a pressure cooker. And you’re dealing with these sort of existential crises.

I found myself, too, when I was reading it the first time, asking myself, “What would I do here?” You know, you’d like to believe that you’d fight and keep going, but you know, I think everyone would handle the situation in a different way, and there’s twists and turns along the way that sort of present more challenges. I think it was interesting to have this more intimate, personal story in space.

And you know, the claustrophobic thing was something we were really going for. We were trying to make it feel isolated, but we were also trying to make it feel like the intensity’s growing as they’re getting further and further down this path where they don’t really seem to have much hope.

Carrie Harris: Right. Well, I thought it was a fascinating choice, and you really had me from the first moment. And I felt like you made some smart and unique storytelling decisions. Packing all that backstory into that opening montage. Barely any dialogue, and then picking up the story at the moment it all starts to go sideways without leaving me feeling lost. How did you come to that structure, and how do you keep all that backstory from getting in the way of the story you want to tell?

John Suits: Yes, well that was the goal. The writer, Ryan — one of the things that I like about his writing is that he’s not really big on exposition. And I think it was from the first version of the script I read — which has changed a decent amount since then — but that was always the case, where it had this kind of initial silent sequence with all of these events unfolding, and I think it was obviously a challenge for me. I’m glad to hear that it was making sense, because you read it on the page, and it was really cool to read all of these different beats and things like that, but in the end, you have to figure out how you show that in a few seconds, you know?

That was the challenge a lot of the time. It was like, you’re reading, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, it’s awesome!” But then you’re like, how do we make sure we’re communicating that visually as well with these little beats? That was one of the big things to think through, and it was fun. I kind of like starting the movie that way, and it felt like, again, it was a choice that was different maybe from the way it could have gone.

Kate Walsh as Jackie Miller in the sci-fi film, “3022,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Carrie Harris: Yeah. And it felt like really picking the right moments to show visually was what was important.

John Suits: Yeah, definitely. That’s what was actually fun, too. When we shot a lot of those moments, the actors kind of did some improvising and stuff like that, so we got to say, “Here’s the beat, here’s what’s supposed to be happening,” and we’d roll the camera and let them do different stuff, and we kind of found some happy little new moments there.

Carrie Harris: I’d think that this movie would carry some unique filmmaking challenges in that you’ve got a small cast of characters confined to this space station, but you’ve got to keep the story moving without feeling stagnant. I never felt like nothing was happening, even though there were stretches where they knew nothing about the event and couldn’t really do anything. Can you talk a bit about how you made the pacing work?

John Suits: Well that’s a great question, and that was one of the big challenges. That’s one thing, too, when Ryan and I were working on it — kind of for logistical reasons — the first version of the script was 120 pages, and we cut it down to I think 95 pages. So it was also, I admit, a bit of a darker movie than it is now. It’s still a pretty dark movie, but it’s slightly more hopeful than it used to be.

But that was definitely one of the main challenges — that you’ve got this movie that’s kind of contemplative, and there are these people who are in a situation where there’s nothing– like, what can you possibly do? And how do you make it not repetitive and make it not feel boring? That was something I think we really worked on in the structure of the script, to try to make sure that there’s at least something, some bit of hope, something that the characters can be aspiring towards, you know? Or some challenge. And then also making you invest in the characters and their relationships so that you’re hopefully along on the ride with them and sort of putting yourself in those situations, which also helps to drive the movie forward.

Omar Epps as John Laine in the sci-fi film, “3022,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Carrie Harris: Right. So maybe a little less about what’s happening on the screen, and more about what the characters are wanting, or what their motivation is?

John Suits: Yeah, I think that’s right. You know that there’s obviously a puzzle that’s unfolding, and you’re learning little bits of information, but then additionally, I think you’re dealing with these four different characters and how they are trying to deal with this situation, and you’re watching those paths as they diverge. And people have different ideas on how to save either themselves or the crew, and what I like, too, is that I found with all the characters throughout the movie that I could — if I didn’t agree with their position — I could understand their position.

That was important to me, and it’s something that Ryan did a good job of. You don’t go, “Oh, that guy’s crazy, why is he doing that?” With everybody, you understand why they’re doing it. You hope you wouldn’t do that in that situation, but you understand why they’re doing it.

Carrie Harris: Right, right. It was definitely clear, and that really brings me to my last big question, which is that these characters go through huge emotional and mental journeys, and I really liked the fact that it really feels like they change by the end of this enormous event. How do you capture something so internal and intangible on film?

John Suits: That was the major challenge, and first and foremost it was getting it there on the page, and that’s what Ryan does a nice job of. When you read the script, he’s a fan of almost no exposition, so any exposition that’s in the movie is probably my fault. You know, a little more information here, some things like that, to try and find that balance again.

So I think it’s that, but on top of that, most importantly, is what the actors brought to it, and that’s where I was so fortunate to get to work with Omar and Kate and Angus and Miranda and Jorja and Enver and Haaz…. They’re all awesome actors, they brought a lot to the characters and made them more dynamic, and they had a lot of good thoughts and ideas on how they were going to portray their characters. That really helped to bring out those elements that were in the script and make sure they were on screen. And it’s scary as a filmmaker, because you’re hoping it works. I’m glad to hear that it’s coming through, because we haven’t gotten many reactions yet, and that’s the goal, you know. So that’s good.

Carrie Harris: Yeah. Well, I really enjoyed it, and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

John Suits: Thank you. Likewise. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

3022 will be in theaters, On Demand and Digital on November 22, 2019.

~

Carrie Harris is a published novelist, game designer, and aspiring screenwriter. She lives in Utah with her husband and kids and is probably drinking caffeine right now. Learn more about her work at carrieharrisbooks.com.

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