SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses plot twists in the new movie “I.S.S.”
“I.S.S.” is a thriller set in outer space, but the creative team was filled with pioneers in their own right. “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite helmed the project, with Oscar winner Ariana DeBose suiting up for the lead role — both creatives playing in a new genre for the first time.
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The result is a fleet, pulpy film in which three American and three Russian astronauts are living and working together on an international space station. But things turn dire quickly when their governments declare war on each other and both groups are instructed to commandeer the space station by any means necessary.
Cowperthwaite and DeBose spoke to Variety about the challenges of shooting an accurate space move, how Russia’s real-life invasion of Ukraine almost put the film in jeopardy and being baffled by the ending.
Gabriela, you’ve spent your career working on documentaries and feature films based on true stories. What was it about “I.S.S.” that made you want to tackle this original story?
Cowperthwaite: For this one, I get to be a storyteller without making any enemies in the real world, which my documentaries don’t always let me do. So there was that, but honestly, I just read this cool script with a great conceit that I couldn’t believe hadn’t been done before, and it allowed me to make a film I would go see. There’s this earnest documentary filmmaking side and real-life storytelling, all that stuff. But I’m a popcorn-chomping moviegoer. I love horror. I love sci-fi. I love thrillers. These aren’t the types of scripts that come to me, so I was very excited to do something completely different.
Ariana, audiences have never seen you in a role like this before. Why did you want to head into space?
DeBose: I first read the script and loved it because it was so wildly different from anything I’d ever done. I had made “West Side Story” and “The Prom” at that point. I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be labeled a one-trick pony. So when this came to me, there was a part of Dr. Kira Foster that I understood. She’s a person that is malleable enough to make the decision she needs to make at the moment, but they are so very surprising to her. I knew that stillness and specificity would be my friend as an actress. From there, I said, “I’m gonna go get this part. I’m gonna convince Gabriela to let me do this. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I’m a dancer. I will look good floating in space, maybe if that’s the only thing I have to offer.” [laughs]
What was the most challenging part about filming zero gravity realistically, for nearly the entire film?
Cowperthwaite: I just wanted it to look as real as possible. We tried different contraptions, some of which were a bit more comfortable, but unfortunately for the actors, they didn’t look as good. Now I understand why so many films don’t do zero gravity.
DeBose: To achieve this look and feel, we shot the movie in harnesses that are very tightly secured on our hips. Then there were tethers attached to them. We had about two weeks of training, where we learned how to balance our bodies. It’s very hard, but the especially challenging thing was when we had scenes that involved all six of us. That meant we were all in harnesses, and for every one of us, there were at least two or three people operating. While you don’t see the tethers, they were very much there, so shout out to VFX.
Gabriela, you’ve made films about many real-world issues. Was the state of U.S.-Russia relations ever on your list of pressing concerns before making this film? Have your views on the topic changed since directing?
Cowperthwaite: I had been working on a documentary for six years called “The Grab,” which was a very global story. There was some investigative reporting there. So coming into the script, I knew enough that we’ve had an adversarial relationship for time immemorial. It’s not enemies, so it’s this gray area of, “Do we believe what they’re saying?” Reading the script, I thought it was interesting because of the human beings who are charged with these directives from down below. They love each other, have friendships with and trust each other.
The Ukraine-Russia situation happened when we were in post, and it became a very real question: “Can you come out with this movie right now? Is this too much of an Achilles heel for most of the world?” But it’s about the little people who bear the brunt when any nation tells them, “That person is no longer your friend, they’re your enemy.”
The ending is left up to interpretation, but do you have any theories as to what country the escape spaceship ended up in?
DeBose: No, I don’t have an answer for that. When we shot it, I asked Gabriela and she did have an answer. But when I saw the film, I didn’t know where they were going. I liked that the question was left open for interpretation. Do you go back to your home when you don’t know what you’re going to find, with the knowledge that the last time you looked at your planet it was essentially decimated? Or do you just stay in space and float?
Cowperthwaite: Nobody really knows.
DeBose: Hey, I don’t even know.
Ariana, now that you’ve gone to space, do you have any thoughts on when you might return to Broadway?
DeBose: I’m still looking for the right thing. There have been a couple of things that have come my way that I’ve loved, but It hasn’t been the right time for me yet. Emma Stone recently said it very clearly: “Broadway is hard.” I’ve been out of practice for a very long time, but whenever I go back you will see me walk away from moviemaking for a while because you cannot go back to Broadway without training for it. It’s a full-time job, and what I won’t do is let audiences down by giving a subpar performance.
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