TED Kjellsson’s debut feature Alone Is Space is a fun, visually impressive and thought-provoking family sci-fi that will rightly earn the Swedish director lofty comparisons.
Based on a play by Henrik Ståhl, the film follows young siblings Keaton (Dante Fleischanderl) and Gladys (Ella Rae Rappaport) as they travel alone in space. Yet with their giant spacecraft seemingly getting no nearer to its destination, the arrival of an alien presents the youngsters with another unexpected trial.
With Alone In Space’s screening at the BFI London Film Festival already sold-out, Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge chatted to Kjellsson about Swedish sci-fi, Spielberg, working with child actors and his brand of ‘kitchen sink fantasy’.
Q: It often feels like Hollywood has a monopoly on ambitious sci-fi films, so it is so refreshing to see ‘Alone In Space’ come out of Sweden. What did you want to bring to the genre that we might not have seen before?
A: Some heart and soul. Real kids with true emotions. Something I miss from the early days of Spielberg.
In Sweden it has been really hard to do genre movies, but something is starting to happen now – at least I hope so. Maybe the start of a new wave. I think that I, as a Swede, have a lot to offer to international genre films. Both Marvel and Star Wars could have use for some Swedish angst (smiles).
Q: I believe you worked on a sci-fi TV-series titled ‘Skrotarna’ in the past. Have you always been interested in high-concept, visual storytelling and working with special effects?
A: Since the Swedish feature film funding system was not made for me and my likes, I had to flee to the commercial industry for some years. They could see and use my directing skills and design talent. And I could try out some really crazy ideas with big brands for almost 10 years, working with sfx and vfx heavy stuff.
Then the ‘Skrotarna opportunity’ came along. That little sci-fi superhero TV-series for kids became my comeback. My way back.
Q: I was incredibly impressed by the visuals and special effects of ‘Alone In Space’. What were some of the biggest challenges of the project?
A: To squeeze everything in with a Swedish budget. But as a director, I like to take responsibility, I’m not a crazy demanding demon. I like to know the limitations and work with what we’ve got together with my producers. With that responsibility you can bargain and get great stuff out of it.
One of my key challenges was to shoot more than half the movie in chronological order, to get the most out of the kids. I like method acting and make belief, and apparently the kids did too.
Q: And what are you most proud of coming out of it?
A: The kids performances. It is, of course, much more challenging to make a movie where you can’t cut to grown ups once in a while. The kids are there 85% of the time so it is their movie. But I also love the look of it. It has a unique look and feel. I wanted to go for ‘Astrid Lindgren in space’ – and we really managed to pull that off.
Q: The story is based on Henrik Ståhl’s play ‘Vial’. What attracted you to this story and how did you change it for the big-screen?
A: The simple set up attracted me. Two kids alone in space. The darkness and the adventure. Every kid can relate to ‘being alone’, and space just adds another dimension to that.
Me and Henrik changed it together, but I tend to say that I “Spielbergificated” his play a bit. We made it less heavy to watch as a movie. Less angst and more adventure.
Q: It is hard not to think of Spielberg with this family-friendly sci-fi told from a child’s perspective. Why did you choose this route rather than a more ‘adult’ sci-fi?
A: I would love to do a more grown up story, but in a way I think we did a grown up story that doesn’t look down on kids. I see myself as a director and not a director of children’s movies, and that makes all the difference. I’m also a father of 5, so I have a lot to take from when it comes to children and their feelings.
Q: I was also fascinated to hear you mention ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ as an inspiration because that is a film that really surprised me emotionally. How important for you was it to have a real emotional depth to the film, particularly in the flashbacks to Earth and the mother?
A: The emotional depth was in the play and we wanted to keep that. We also wanted a mother hero with flaws. Not every parent is perfect. We do what we can, sometimes it doesn’t go as planned. Gladys’ journey to separate from her mom and become the hero was the route to explore for me.
We need more movies like Bridge to Terabithia. Kids deserve cool stories with depth. I like Elliott’s story in ET, Hit Girl’s story in Kick Ass, Ofelia’s story in Pan’s Labyrinth and all the kids in Stranger Things have got some lovely arcs to.
Q: Earlier you mentioned the brilliant performances you got from Ella Rae Rappaport and Dante Fleischanderl. Can you tell us about casting and working with them?
A: We found Ella quite early for the pilot we produced between 2015 and 2016. Then we needed to find her match for the brother. Not so easy, but we made it!
We worked with two of Sweden’s most prominent casting agencies and then when we had them I started to work closely with them. Ella was really mature as an actress. She wanted to take responsibility. She even started to share my passion for method acting when I explained what it was and how I wanted her to attack her part.
Dante was more of a ‘bomb’, a natural. The less he knew everyday the better he was. I used the fact that we shot a lot in chronological order here. When Dante meets Vojajer the alien for the first time in the movie, it is the first time for him in real-life too! The spaceship became both Ella and Dante’s home.
Q: Do you plan on staying in space for your future work?
A: I love space. I love superheroes. I love Swedish folklore mixed with fantasy elements. I think that we can enhance everyday problems in these fantasy settings. The problem-solving and the stories get so much more fun to watch then. But the key is to mix some Swedish angst to it.
I like to call my style ‘kitchen sink fantasy’. How about a kitchen sink Marvel – or Star Wars movie (smiles). But I would love to do more of my own stuff too.
Q: Finally, if you were sending Voyager into space with a golden record, what films would you put on it?
A: This is such a tricky question. Ok, let’s go for some 80s classics that made a huge impact on me as a kid: Willow, Big Trouble in Little China, The Golden Child, Gremlins, E.T, Back to the Future and round that of with Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.