Since Jon Spaihts first appeared on the Hollywood scene in 2007 with the inclusion of his SciFi/Romance script Passengers on the highly coveted “Black List,” he’s had a meteoric rise to the very top of the industry. Jon’s worked with Ridley Scott, Keanu Reeves, and Jerry Bruckheimer to name a few. Most recently he’s been asked to reboot The Mummy for Universal. The son of a computer programmer and an electrical engineer, his passion for science is evident in all of his projects, however none more than his current film, Prometheus.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always wanted to be writer. The several careers I had before I managed to start writing for a living felt like stopgap measures and stepping stones, even at the time.
Can you give us some insight into the creative process? What is the most difficult part of your job?
I’m not sure anyone can give us insight into the creative process. Some of the work of storytelling is straightforward problem-solving but there’s a generative aspect to it that remains mysterious even when I’m doing it.
The hardest part of my job is that screenwriting is fundamentally collaborative. On each project I work with a team of people who push my story around for a host of reasons: creative, budgetary, strategic, technical, personal. To succeed in this career you need to be able to accommodate these other inputs and keep falling in love with your story all over again – making it right with your muse. Lose that love and you’re just a hack. It’s a constant balancing act.
Have you always been interested in science? How did you acquire your interest in science?
My father was an electronics engineer and my mother a computer programmer. Both well-informed and free-thinking. Dinner conversations often led to nature guides and Encyclopedia Britannica volumes being handed around. That kind of house gave me a head start, I suppose. I’ve always been keenly interested in how things work, which is the core scientific question.
Why should film and television projects consider science advising? What is the advantage of using real science in film or television?
I think people can smell authenticity. And people love to learn things in the context of a movie. If real science fits in your story, real science is better. Science advising also sharpens your tools. We tend to have general or vague notions of fields outside our expertise. Getting an infusion of subject-area knowledge leads to grittier, more robust writing – and may even stimulate that creative lightning bolt that kicks your story to the next level.
How would you describe the Hollywood community’s interest in science? For example, has it always been there, or do you think that interest has grown or changed in recent years?
Science has always been a point of fascination for Hollywood – after all, moviemaking is a form of storytelling that owes its existence to a new technology, the motion-picture camera. Cinema was born in a period of technical optimism. It’s no accident the most famous image from silent film is the Man in the Moon with a rocket in his eye. Frankenstein, Metropolis, adaptations of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells – the peril and promise of science has been a major theme from Hollywood’s earliest days.
What has changed is science itself. In the early twentieth century, the most visible scientific advances were on the macro scale. Steamships, railroads, air travel, and rocketry. Submarines. Telephone and radio networks. Television. All tools that gave humanity wider powers without particularly threatening our idea of ourselves.
Now scientific progress on a macro scale seems less visible. It’s still happening – we’ve got rovers on Mars and James Cameron at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – but the headline-grabbers are about cloning. Genetic manipulation. Artificial intelligence. Technologies for tracking and predicting human behavior. Increasing the penetration of synthetics and prosthetics into the body. These scientific advancements may enlarge our power but they also raise questions – legal and philosophical – about the boundaries of personhood and humanity.
You’ve participated in a number of Exchange activities. Why did you become involved, and what have you enjoyed most about working with The Exchange?
Asking me to a gathering of storytellers and scientists is like tossing a cat into a pile of catnip. Only without all the writhing around on the floor. Well, slightly less writhing. I have deep interests in both science and filmmaking and wanted to be part of the synergy between them. I felt the possibility of being a facilitator. And, selfishly, I just wanted contact with all those wonderful brains.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
To the filmmakers I would say: Remember that the Frankenstein fable is not the only tale of science. It’s just the easiest one.
To the scientists I would say: You devote great effort to explaining what you’ve found. Be sure to devote equal effort to explaining how you think.