Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Director Johan Renck Explains How Spaceman's Stars Humanize His Heady Cosmic Drama - Exclusive Interview

Following his work on such hard-hitting series as "Breaking Bad," "Bloodline," and "Chernobyl," director Johan Renck felt that the time was finally right to strap himself aboard a cinematic rocket and leave the harsh realities of Earth behind for a while.

As such, Renck found the perfect celestial destination with "Spaceman" — an intriguing sci-fi drama adapted from Jaroslav Kalfař's 2017 novel "Spaceman from Bohemia" — which is largely set on the edge of the universe. Adam Sandler stars in the Netflix original film as Jakub Procházka, a prolific Czech cosmonaut on his way to an ominous space cloud to collect particles and hopefully discover what sorts of ramifications the phenomena has for his home planet.

However, since Jakub is the sole member of the spaceship that's six months into its eight-month mission, he's battling with bouts of loneliness exacerbated by nightmares of his troubled childhood and ongoing struggles with his wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan). Worse yet, Lenka has made Jakub's superiors know that even though she is pregnant with their first child, she plans on ending their marriage after years of estrangement. While Jakub is aware of his troubles with Lenka and does his best to stave off the heartbreak, an encounter in his ship with a giant alien spider, Hanuš (Paul Dano), forces the space traveler to confront his torments past and present. If he doesn't, Jakub faces the very real possibility of drifting away into oblivion.

In an exclusive interview with Xoop, Renck breaks down the vital components that make "Spaceman" soar, including crucial performances in the film by Sandler and Dano.

Renck knew Sandler was right for Spaceman after his work with Paul Thomas Anderson

Adam Sandler is obviously known for his comedy work, yet he's proven over the years that he's quite versatile as a dramatic actor in films like "Reign Over Me" and "Uncut Gems." Was there a particular role of his that made you think, "You know what, Adam has everything we need for him to play Jakub"?

There were two things. One was the fact that this film is very self-biographical, it's very much about my own experience, and if anybody would ask me, "If somebody's going to play you in a movie, who's it going to be?" it's going to be Adam Sandler because I'm a massive fan of his. So it was that, and the other aspect was actually "Punch-Drunk Love." It was this kind of awkwardness, this awkward guy trying to function, trying to make himself understood without really being able to do that in the face of the world, and so on and so forth. So, to me, it's his character from "Punch-Drunk Love" [20] years later — that version of him to some extent.

Renck was taken aback by Sandler's eyes

Even though you knew Adam Sandler was capable, did he still bring something to "Spaceman" that you didn't expect that completely surprised you during filming?

I have to say that I knew he's a great actor and all that, but the nuances of his eyes — this is very detailed now — is something that I just found myself putting the camera closer and closer to him because I wanted those subtle, the nuances of the reaction aspects of his eyes. I couldn't stop watching that, and literally I said to him, "How the f*** do you even do that?" and he said, "I don't know, man. I just do my stuff," and I was so compelled by it. I could not stop watching that and looking out for the subtleties in somebody like that. I've never seen anything like it. And he is incredible. He really is.

Dano's spider has remnants of sci-fi greats but is its own character

The eyes are the windows to Jakub's soul with Adam Sandler, but then you have a situation where Paul Dano has to rely solely on his voice. Paul is completely mesmerizing as Hanuš. In some ways, the vocal performance reminds me of HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Did you and Paul arrive at the interpretation of the character's voice together or is it something that he brought in himself?

No, no. I mean, it's interesting that you bring up HAL. There were a few things ... If you look upon it in a bigger sense of it, HAL and Hanuš come from the same well, you know what I mean? As does Yoda, to be honest, and a few other kinds of science fiction-like characters. And to some extent, it is like it's almost inevitable that you will find certain similarities because in my mind, if you have a 14-billion-year-old character, you would assume that there's almost a pitch-perfect Zen in that character. Somebody who's lived since the origin of the universe, whose approach to the universe is like the universe is as it should be, to just understand the concept of that requires a perfect Zen-ness. So, to some extent, it's like I definitely had no intention of it having a HAL-like likeness, but at the same time, I'm not going to let HAL corrupt who I need Hanuš to be.

So, for me, it was like I wanted a lot of Paul Dano in it, his kind of sort of cadence, apprehensiveness ... almost sort of shyness in there. We treated the voice [that way] a little bit because he's not human, he's a spider creature. So, there was a little bit of a treatment going on in some of the frequencies of the register to just give it slightly more an airy feel to it. But like always, it's a collaboration between me as a director and the actor in terms of what it is. But ultimately, I have to be happy with it because if I'm not happy with it, I don't know what I'm doing. So ultimately, I'm going to have these two in some aspects.

Renck relied on 'prosaic ways' of filming Spaceman's weightless scenes

The zero gravity scenes are so seamless now, but to get a feeling for it, were you tempted to go up into the reduced gravity aircraft, aka the "vomit comet"? Obviously, it's been used before in films just to give the filmmakers and actors a sense of what space is really all about when understanding weightlessness.

No. For personal reasons, I want to do it massively. And this production didn't facilitate that, and maybe one day I will. It was very early on determined that we would not be able to do that because there's so much zero gravity in this film. We will not be able to do all of that in the vomit comet, so to speak. So, we had to rely on more prosaic ways of achieving it through iWorks and so on and so forth. But I mean, I had the privilege of talking, having a Zoom call with astronauts on the ISS [International Space Station] in order to ask some questions and a bit about space. That's as close as I got to zero gravity. Maybe one day. If I win the lottery, I'm definitely going to do space tourists, 100%. I want to feel what that is like. So, we'll see. I'm going to just keep on scratching those tickets and see what happens.

"Spaceman," which also stars Isabella Rossellini, Lena Olin, and Kunal Nayyar, debuts on Netflix on March 1. This interview was edited for clarity.