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Roundtable Interview With Ben Ripley On Source Code

Ben Ripley penned the sleek sci-fi thriller Source Code, in theatres April 1st. It premiered at Austin’s popular SXSW Film Festival, and Ben took some time to sit down with me and discuss the project.

Ben Ripley penned the sleek sci-fi thriller Source Code, in theatres April 1st. It premiered at Austin’s popular SXSW Film Festival, and Ben took some time to sit down with me and discuss the project. Check it out below.

Source Code is a sci-fi film that finds a satisfying balance between the technical, emotional and romantic elements of the story. The movie follows Captain Colter (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he wakes up in someone else’s body. Before long, he learns the disturbing truth that he is part of a new program called the source code, which makes it possible to send his consciousness back into another person for eight minutes before that person’s death. Colter must discover who put a bomb on the train to try and stop him from doing it again.

We Got This Covered: What was the story concept, the motivation or inspiration behind Source Code?

Ben Ripley: I’d written a lot of creature science fiction before this and wanted to do something that was more of a thriller and I wanted to do something that played with time and played with narrative. My wife works for a medical device company who do a lot of bio tech stuff, engineering and I’m surrounded by scientists all the time. And it just struck me that if we could think up a conceit where there’s a specific weird device that let’s you investigate something that no one else could, no one lived from some terrible event, that would be an interesting excuse for a thriller. So that was the genesis of the idea.

WGTC: You must like sci-fi, you’ve worked on Species 3 and other work in the genre. What is that you like about it, is it your favorite genre? Would you like to write in other genres?

BR: You know I never thought of myself as a science fiction person, I was an English major in college but my father is a computer scientist and I grew up in a world of technology, long before anyone else had technology. We had a computer in our house and I guess I encoded that in my DNA growing up but I’m not really a tech person, it took me ages to get a cell phone but I feel very comfortable around it so I guess it’s kind of a paradox. I like historical projects, I’ve written a few of them but technical thrillers I feel is a genre getting made right now and you have to work where the money is.

WGTC: The growth of technology is exponential, I see it as one of these things that will leap so far in the next few years, more than we have in the last 50 years.

BR: Yes, and there were a lot of classic movies from the 70’s and 80’s: Jacob’s Ladder and even Ghostbusters that if you made them today would have much more technology in them because we ourselves are surrounded by it and it permeates so much of our lives.

WGTC: As far as film influences, I got a 12 Monkeys feel, only not as bleak…

BR: The early drafts of the script were pretty bleak, it was almost impossible for him to establish any kind of connection and as we developed the story the relationships became warmer. I tried not to get so bogged down in weird twists for the sake of twists, and I think the reason why Source Code is comprehensible to people is because the mystery is really about his character. Yes you kind of want to know who the bomber was but the deeper mystery is how did that get here and can I influence those events. So I tried not to put a lot of bells and whistles on it for the sake of that.

WGTC: I like the balancing of hard sci-fi and the more emotional elements. So did you try the develop the emotional elements versus the hard sci-fi?

BR: Yeah it was so important. I took a lot of the science out and a lot of the explanations out. There’s not a lot of infrastructure, when you think about it you don’t see the Source Code technology at work. You see a lot of screens and computers and a lab, but that’s it. First of all by taking out a lot of that it makes it more believable because you’re not sitting there explaining everything saying: ‘Ooh look at our generators, look at our CPU tower, isn’t that spooky’ It’s spookier sometimes if you don’t see it. Second of all it created room for the character relationships, and if you look at this as a character mystery and you look at this as an attempt by a guy to reach out to people over this yawning gulf between them I think that’s why its so satisfying. The last 10 – 15 minutes of this movie are so satisfying on a character level because even though we’ve satisfied elements of the plot we are interested in where he ends up as a character. That’s the most important thing and the most important thing to get right.

WGTC: It’s important you don’t get too involved with the technology…

BR: I think one decision that helped with that is by not making him a professional operative and if you had him trained up in Source Code and everything and he was gun-ho, it’s hard to sympathize with that, there’s no emotional foothold, but if you keep him confused, and an unwilling participant, and a participant who is disoriented and a fish out of water and overwhelmed. I think you’d like that guy, and his quest for information is also how you get out the exposition. As a writer you’re always trying to figure out, how can I tell you what’s going on in a way that doesn’t seem like I’m telling you what’s going on.

WGTC: I appreciated that there was no data dump, I liked the pacing of the information as it was given to him…

BR: You have to kind of give it out in little pieces, and for Vera Farmiga it was challenging for her just on the page because she is so dry and technical when informing him of things, as an actor you’re kind of wondering: ‘what is the emotion and intentionality behind that?’ But I think if you see her performance, especially as the movie goes on, it gets deeper and you sort of see more of her than just a bland mission controller.

WGTC: What kind of future projects are you working on, is it going to be sci-fi?

BR: Yes, for better or for worse that’s where I am locked in, that’s where people trust me to inhabit. Everything I’ve done since then, and these are scripts that are working their way through the Hollywood system, have been on a much bigger canvas. So I’m still trying to get good at telling stories on a bigger canvas than on Source Code. But I’ve been instructed not to reveal too much about what I’m doing next. Anyway that may sound more mysterious.

WGTC: I did hear Duncan Jones talking about setting something on a bigger canvas, more sci-fi, future cities. But had you thought of Duncan directing this when you wrote it?

BR: Actually no I wasn’t familiar with Duncan’s work back when I was writing it, after it sold and started coming together as movie, they were interviewing a lot of different directors and it took a long time. It was over a year of interviewing directors, and I kept thinking: ‘How many directors do you need to interview?’ And there were famous directors and infamous directors and no name directors and then when it started to become apparent that Duncan was a serious contender I went and watched Moon and was very impressed with what he was able to do on a very low budget with one actor.

And I thought great he’s got four actors now and maybe a little more money, I was extremely excited and I think he was a great choice for this. He really respected the material and he put a lot of thought into, this is not a director phoning anything in. You can’t do that, you can tell if that’s being done. And this wasn’t that, this wasn’t an exercise in style or like trying to cheeky or wasn’t just about loud noises. This was a director who was thinking all the time.

This concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Ben for taking the time to talk to us. Make sure you go out and see Source Code when it hits theatres on April 1st, 2011. And also check out our Source Code review, our January interview with Duncan Jones, our SXSW interview with Duncan Jones, our interview with star Michelle Monaghan and our interview with star Jake Gyllenhaal.

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Amy Curtis