As much as a Sci-Fi film full of laser cannons, ferocious aliens, and non-stop action can be tremendously fun, there’s also a very intelligent and explorative nature about the genre. The whole idea of people sacrificing their lives to drive around space for nothing but a picture or rock sample shows the dedication humans have to advancing their knowledge, and the courage people possess that pushes them farther and farther. Europa Report is a brilliant little space exploration flick about a team of scientists going blindly into the unknown all in the name of science – and the challenges they face.
I know it seems overdone, but I actually found the film to be highly thought provoking, plenty full of dramatic tension, and brilliantly acted by all involved. It’s no wonder why I jumped at the chance to interview director Sebastián Cordero in a one on one setting, letting me pry open the mind of a man who embraced the terms “found footage” and “slow burn” with the best possible results. Read on as we talk about the heavy themes Europa Report deals with, our fears of the unknown, and how our director was able to create something fresh out of the typically stale “found footage” sub-genre. Enjoy! (Oh, minor spoilers will follow, so read at your own risk.)
We Got This Covered: So the first question I have to ask, and I’m sure you’ve answered this a million times already, but what brought you to the Science Fiction genre?
Sebastián Cordero: It’s funny. I’m not an obvious choice to do a Sci-Fi film if you look at the rest of my filmography. Strangely enough, I was really into Sci-Fi as a teenager. There was a period where I was reading a lot of Sci-Fi, mainly short stories, but I got into a few novels. You know, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov – all the big Sci-Fi masters, I was devouring them for a while.
Then, for some reason, when I started making my own films, that world seemed completely out of reach. It didn’t seem like it would be easy to go in that direction, and I wasn’t really bothering with it, anyway. I thought, if an opportunity comes along at some point, cool, but we’ll let it be. Then one day I got the script for Europa Report, which was unlike the stuff that usually gets sent to me and I read. Most of the films I’ve done I’ve generated myself. Either I’ve written them myself, or it’s a story I’ve heard and developed myself. But here, suddenly there was a story I felt was really gripping, was really cool, and had this great equilibrium between a gripping story and something that explored that Sci-Fi world that I did like very much and I didn’t think I’d ever be doing, so I spoke to the producers who sent me the script. To this day, I still think it was a strange, risky choice for them because I had no experience with the genre before, but they saw something which I myself would see if I was in their shoes. Ultimately, you’re going to need someone who can put together a good story and who is going to be able to handle a cast. I consider myself first and foremost an actor’s director. I think that and having a solid screenplay are the two crucial elements that make a story work.
There are a lot of complications in making a film where you have visual effects, physical effects, and a lot of elements to play with – that were new for me. But it was always about telling a good story and finding the resources to overcome the challenges in doing so.
We Got This Covered: Europa Report is of course of the dreaded “found footage” sub-genre as well, but it is actually a pleasure to watch. How did you manage to keep the “found footage” aspect so fresh, and how did you use it to your advantage?
Sebastián Cordero: Ah, yes. It’s funny, because I’ve realized, while going through a lot of interviews recently, “found footage” has quite the stigma at this point. [Laughs]. People seem to be really tired of it, particularly in the horror genre or basically when it’s a hand-held shaky cam…
We Got This Covered: Like Apollo 18 for example?
Sebastián Cordero: Or yes, Apollo 18. Actually, the concept for Apollo 18 wasn’t bad at all, but then halfway through it they break all the rules they make. Up to now, I can’t explain how the footage in Apollo 18 went back to how we were watching it. The logic behind that setup still escapes me.
So on one hand, I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t break the rules. I think the device, the concept of “found footage” and telling the story from monitoring cameras inside the ship, was really cool. I didn’t have a preconception about it going into the film. I actually felt like “Wow, let’s push it to the extreme. Usually you have shaky cameras, but here let’s have fixed cameras. Let’s not be afraid of really exploring a different aesthetic you normally wouldn’t – particularly because you’re dealing with a futuristic, high-tech aesthetic that isn’t really used for ‘found footage.'”
What you could also do in terms of split screens and showing the action from different perspectives was so cool. I just thought it was a different palette of elements to play with. Normally the tools you have when a character has a big revelation involve something like a dolly being pushed in, but here, suddenly you can’t have that, so you have to be creative in terms of how you achieve that same emotional impact. How to stage a situation for your actors so they arrive at the positions you need them in for the camera, without it feeling stagey or contrived. There were a lot of elements to play with.
It’s funny, when I spoke to cinematographer Enrique Chediak about the project for the first time, when I pitched him the idea, I really wasn’t sure how he was going to react. I was basically telling him “It’s going to be all fixed cameras, so all our work and framing happens in pre-production,” and I knew I wanted to do a closed set that would work at 360 degrees. We set up 8 different cameras inside that set and we would shoot simultaneously, so that means our lighting had to come from the practical lights on the ship. Once the set was closed, only the actors are in there. Basically, I felt like I was taking away all the tools. I was like “Oh, he’s not going to go along with it.” That was actually one of the things he liked the most. He said “I find it so challenging and so cool, in terms of what we can achieve.”
I’m a strong believer that the limitations a film brings you, depending on each situation a film has and how you deal with them differently, but all limitations actually end up being what creates the language of a film – what creates the visual language. Here, it was really about sticking to those limitations and seeing what else we could gain from them. I use the example at the end of the film, after the crash landing, the cameras are being effected by all the damage on the ship, and you have one camera where the focusing system stops working. It’s actually the hero camera, for Rosa, at that point, and you have a whole sequence where she’s out of focus and she comes into focus slightly more or less depending on the moment and the scene. That gives you so much more tension than you can have any other way, and on any other film it wouldn’t even be an option to do this – it would just be a mistake. Here, you embrace it, and it’s just part of the visual language.