Matt Bomer and Patrick Wilson in Space Station 76
About a month ago I was fortunate to catch Space Station 76 at Outfest. Fresh, unique and thoroughly entertaining, the film was directed by the prolific film and TV actor, Jack Plotnick and is undoubtedly one of the most surprising and original movies in recent memory -- a dark, brooding comedy disguised as an homage to 1970s sci-fi. By juxtaposing serious character drama with the visual campiness of retrofuturism, Plotnick created what is sure to become a cult classic. The film stars Matt Bomer, Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Jerry O'Connell, Marisa Coughlan and Matthew Morrison -- all navigating beautifully through the film's quirky, unsettling tone and giving very compelling performances.
In our interview, Plotnick talks influences, inspirations and merkins:
What was the genesis of this project? And what inspired you to go with the 1970s sci-fi setting?
JACK PLOTNICK: I had wanted to find a way to explore and dramatize what it was like for me being a child in the suburbs in the '70s. And setting it in on a lonely space station in the retro-future seemed to be a great metaphor for the unrealized dreams and isolation that many people experienced in the suburbs. I wish I could remember the exact moment I thought of the idea. Sometimes ideas come in a logical, consequential way, and sometimes they just appear, seemingly fully formed, out of the mixture of elements in your brain at the time.
Since childhood, I had always been obsessed with the look of that perfect future we envisioned at that time; and not just in films. During the '70s, there was a lot of design and architecture being done which had a futuristic spin. If you look at some the buildings that were built then, they look like spaceships! And the insides were decorated like you were on Moonbase Alpha. I think the reason why is that we had just landed on the moon, and so I guess people got excited about living "in the future!" The funny thing is that, although we hadn't perfected a lot of the technology we have today, we knew it was coming, and we wanted that technology to hurry up and arrive! We didn't have flatscreen TVs, or digital clocks yet, so we made our TVs and clocks look more futuristic. Molded white or orange plastic, curved surfaces, Lucite and chrome all made us feel that we were far away from the dreary 50's and 60's and into a new tomorrow full of possibility.
The first time I recall really "getting" and loving this aesthetic was when my family went to Walt Disney World, and we visited the Contemporary Hotel. I wanted to live there, among the orange, pink and brown shag rugs, and have a monorail drive through my living room.
Can you talk about the process of work-shopping the script?
PLOTNICK: The movie began as a play that was created through improvisational exercises; similar to the way A Chorus Line was made. I put together a dream team of talented actor/writers, and would record them improvising scenes I would direct them through. Then I would type out the recordings, choose the best stuff, and hand it back to them, to continue finessing through more improvs. The whole process took three months. The most important aspect of that process was that everyone really understood the tone I was after, which was funny but restrained. I like to call what we were going for "subtly hilarious" or "heartbreakingly funny." It's comedy that comes from pain and very uncomfortable situations. We wanted to make sure that the jokes were coming from an honest place and revealing character, and not just punchlines.
The film is unlike anything else that's out there, did it make harder to pitch to investors, studios, actors or easier?
PLOTNICK: Yes, I guess the film is pretty surprising to some people. Although it's a comedy, it dramatizes the malaise and angst that typified life in '70s suburbia. It's a thoughtful, darkly comedic, and emotional character story wrapped in nods to your favorite science-fiction of the '70s. It's a mash-up up genres and tones. I mean, it's about suburban ennui...in space, for goodness sake! Certainly not what you expect when you hear sci-fi comedy.
The kind of movies that inspired me to make it were family dramas I love, like Ordinary People and The Ice Storm, and dark comedies like Happiness or Heathers. And of course classic sci-fi like 2001, Space: 1999 and Logan's Run.
I never considered making it more "mainstream." This was the story I wanted to tell, and this was the way I wanted to tell it. But I was very lucky because I found soul mates in my incredible producers Rachel Ward and Edward Parks at Rival Pictures. They immediately "got it" and wanted to be a part of it. And the film just became a "happy magnet" for the rest of the producers/investors. I was thrilled that actors seemed to really like the script. I think that we don't often realize how many movies and TV shows are plot driven, where the characters inner lives come second to the action. But this is a sci-fi film where there are real, conversational scenes to dig your teeth into. Where the emotional life, needs and growth of the characters IS the action of the film.
I knew that not everyone would want to work on a film like this, but on the other hand, the people who would be attracted to it, would really get into it. Matt Bomer had my favorite thing to say about why he did the film. He said it fulfilled two of his childhood dreams: "To be in a '70s sci-fi film, and to live in a John Cheever novel."
Is there a character in Space Station 76 that's closest to your heart.
PLOTNICK: Oh gosh! I've lived with this project for so long, that they are all my babies. Ha! But I guess you could say that Sunshine is the character which represents me, and all those latch-key children of the '70s. And if she can survive the insanity on that ship, then hopefully we have as well...
How much did the project evolve from your original idea and in what ways?
PLOTNICK: I'm happy to say that the film still retains the original impetus, and in a way, does tell the story of my childhood. None of the characters are 100 percentmy family, but all the issues and pain and laughter from my childhood is there in the film. When my brother saw an early screening of it, he said to me "that was our family." That really made me feel good; that he felt the parallels.
But in adapting it into a screenplay I did find that the world got larger, new characters and storylines were added, and new, perhaps more universal, themes were strengthened; such as man's inability to connect, and our ingrained dissatisfaction and constant yearning for something... more.
But the robot-hand, boob-squeezing scene is still there, thank goodness! In fact, there's a bunch more nakedness in the film version. And one interesting thing I learned is that most women shave down there now. So, for all you filmmakers out there, if you want '70s "muff" be prepared to purchase a merkin.
Can you talk about exceptional production design / art direction of the film?
PLOTNICK: I am so lucky to have attracted the designers I did. And they all had a ball creating this very specific world.
Seth Reed, the production designer and Jenny Moller, the art director, were a dream team, and constantly made miracles happen. Kat Wilson, the set decorator and Mike Casey, the prop master, both constantly chose just the right pieces to bring it to life. And Sandra Burns did the costumes, which were a mix of actual '70s clothing, and original, designed uniforms, all of which were gorgeous.
I am amazed to see that the film looks better than I could even have imagined. They all elevated it beyond my wildest dreams. Before production got under way, I had discussed with them that I wanted the look of the film to be something "we have never quite seen before." It was not to be a straight out copy or parody of sci-fi sets, props and wardrobe. Instead, I wanted the look to land right in the center of a blending of what sci-fi films looked like in the '70s and what actual suburban homes and clothing looked like in the '70s. These two things melded together would hopefully make something new, which would still feel incredibly familiar and have emotional resonance.
While the audience in one moment would be seeing something completely fictional (like a machine that makes meals at the press of a button), in the next moment they might think, "Hey my mom had that ceramic owl cookie jar in our kitchen!" Yes, people on the ship live in capsules reminiscent of Space: 1999, but some of those capsules have wood paneling and recessed living rooms covered in shag carpeting.
My friend joked to me that it looks like Space: 1999 and The Brady Bunch had a baby. Which is exactly what I was going for!
Robert Brinkman, the director of photography, is also greatly responsible for the look of the film. We wanted to shoot it in classic '70s form, and the way he lit and framed the shots was very deliberate and beautifully done. And of course none of it could have been possible without my VFX Supervisor, Billy Brooks, who brilliantly created the very '70s VFX and digitally extended sets. We recently figured out that there are 20 minutes of VFX shots in the film! Some more subtle than others. One of the highest compliments we could get is when people think we used miniatures for the ships. They were all digitally rendered, but Billy lit them in a way that they appear to be real physical models.
Have you been surprised by the responses to the film so far?
PLOTNICK: I am beyond thrilled that so many reviewers are getting what I was attempting to do, and seem to really appreciate it.
I know that some people will come to the film expecting a balls-to-wall, sci-fi parody like Spaceballs, or a light-hearted and spirited sci-fi action adventure like Galaxy Quest, but hopefully they will be able to let go of that and enjoy the ride. But most importantly, I am so happy that I can watch the film and think to myself, "Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted, and nothing was lost or compromised."
What is your biggest hope for the film?
PLOTNICK: Space Station 77, Space Station 78 and Space Station 79! Ha! I'm just kidding. ... But that would be awesome. No, I just would love if the film finds its fans and takes on a life of its own. If I ever see someone at Comic-con dressed as one of the characters, I think I'll just die and go to sci-fi heaven.
When will we finally see the Girls Will Be Girls sequel?
PLOTNICK: I am happy to report that we are getting so close! Definitely next year!!!! Last month we shot some terrific additional scenes, and Richard Day, the writer/director, is working his ass off to get all the editing and VFX done. I think people will be shocked by how many exciting VFX sequences there are in the sequel. We shot for two weeks on a green screen stage!
What's next for you?
PLOTNICK: I have a couple of projects in the works, but most importantly is the upcoming Broadway production of my musical, Disaster! I co-wrote it with my dear friend and long-time comedy partner, the brilliantly funny, Seth Rudetsky. And earlier this year I directed what turned out to be a very successful Off-Broadway run. (New York Times called it "Irresistible," Time Out gave us five stars, and Daily News voted us "Top 10 in Theater")
Robert Ahrens (who helmed the Broadway hit, Xanadu) has since joined on as producer and we are currently raising the money for our Broadway production, which I will also be directing. So if anyone out there wants to be a Broadway producer/investor, give us a shout!
You've been a part of several projects that have a huge cult following from playing a lead in indy drag classic Girls Will Be Girls, to memorable roles on Reno 911 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and being the voice of Xandir Whifflebottom on Drawn Together . Which role do people recognize you from the most?
PLOTNICK: I really enjoy transformational roles, so I don't look much like the characters I play. ...Except Xandir's perfectly chiseled chest and abs. They completely based that animation on my actual physique. Ha!
I would say that the most excited fans I meet are the Girls Will Be Girls fans. That movie means a lot to some sick and twisted people... and I love them for that! I once worked with a celebrity who told me that she would actually decide whether she would be friends with someone based on their reaction to the film! In other words, if someone could laugh at the sick sh*t in that film, they passed the test. But I love that Richard Day, the writer/director, gave that film real heart as well. Quentin Dupieux, who wrote and directed the films Rubber and Wrong, which I recently starred in, is also a great inspiration to me. Both Richard and Quentin buck the system, make the unconventional movies they love, and always find the heart in the absurd worlds they create.
Space Station 76 will open to a limited theatrical release on September 19th. Meanwhile, you can watch the trailer below: