“Space Station 76” Directed by Jack Plotnick Starring Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, Marisa Coughlan, Jerry O’Connell, Kylie Rogers Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi 93 Mins United States
The 1970s were an age of looking towards the stars. From Star Wars to Star Trek, it was a decade of endless possibilities, a time that saw instant dinners, laser weaponry and hovercrafts around every corner. It witnessed the culmination of the space race, the end of the Vietnam War, and the birth of a new unchartered epoch in the suburban trenches of Americana. Mimicking the uneasy blend of conservatism and forward-looking gung-ho-manship that defined the generation, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Jack Plotnick has made Space Station 76a soapy space opera; a smartly satirical smoothie of 70s manifest destiny – ripe with the impractical hopes of intergalactic expansionism – cut with the tedium of suburban ennui.
At the forefront of this final frontier are an unlikely cast of characters, each representative of the many uncertainties and insecurities of the era. There’s the boredom weary housewife, Misty (Marisa Coughlan), who spends her days slurping down Prosacs, “programing” the crew’s meal du jour, and occasionally sleeping around with Steve (Jerry O’Connell). When she’s not confessing her feelings to the on-board robotic psychiatrist, Dr. Bot – whose toy-sized presence and pre-programed wisdoms are always accompanied by fits of laughter – she mopes and gossips. An icon of post-50s feminine guile, her boozy, unscrupulous mannerisms are as sardonically iconic as her down-on-his-luck everyman husband, Ted, played by Matt Bomer.
Having never quite caught a break, and now sporting a clunky robotic arm – a perfectly retro-futuristic brand of low-budget prop – Ted is haunted by his lack of accomplishments, caught in a cycle of self-destructive lethargy lead by his penchant for illegal horticulture and unsure of his place in the world (er, universe). His emotional arc reflects the pathos of those who nervously straddled The Draft, haunted by the withering courage of a fresh faced soldier never to see a day in combat. He’s shaken but for all the wrong reasons.
Enter new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler) who is at her core representative of the shifting winds of the feminism movement, a firmly competent and confident substitute for a traditionally male role. Striking up an affectionate relationship with Ted’s daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers, who looks adorable in a nerdtastic pair of specs,) long-gone sparks of tenderness begin to rekindle the purpose in Ted’s life.
Jessica’s maternal instincts juxtaposed against her inhospitable womb is an example of the tragic irony that Plotnick hits on again and again, to such great effect. But it’s Patrick Wilson, who plays Captain Glenn with startling sensitivity, that is the most outstanding of the bunch and the pinnacle of Plotnick’s satirical heights. As the gruff but gay commander, Glenn’s sexuality is a thing of great shame, something he keeps deeply closeted. Glenn’s stern persona is encapsulated in Wilson’s patriarchal mustache, a metaphorical affront to shield others from the shame he buries, a mask to disguise his bleeding soul. The arrival of Jessica, who doggedly seeks the true reason behind Glenn’s last co-pilot (and secret lover’s) sudden reassignment, sets him on a crash course with his own inner demons…and some asteroids.
The stocky sets, “pew pew” sound design and clunky CGI – that look like crafted on a circa 1976 computer – are as kitschy as they come but the human relationships they serve to frame always feel universal and timeless. Through satire, Plotnick has stumbled upon some brave new world. Bold and esoteric, he’s shown that one doesn’t need to look at the future from behind the jaded lens of an iPhone 5, that things may well be all the more interesting if we rewind the clock and only then begin to look forward.
“Never give up, never surrender,” Alan Rickman famously peeped out in Galaxy Quest. “Live long and prosper,” the wise Spock gently reinforced. “The force is with you,” Ol’ Ben loved to chime in every now and then. But it’s the iconic words of a toy, “To infinity and beyond,” that have come to describe the sci-fi space explorer mantra: that there are no limitations, no furthest reaches. But what if you were content just floating around space? Not conquering anything, not plotting any universe-saving diplomatic truces, not battling off malevolent, oddly-shaped aliens? That’s the question Jack Plotnik asks in his endlessly funny Space Station 76 and the results are blisteringly good.
Though always quick with a joke, Plotnik’s film works so well because it seeks to understand rather than mock its motley crew of characters. From our review,
“At the forefront of this final frontier are an unlikely cast of characters, each representative of the many uncertainties and insecurities of the era. There’s the boredom weary housewife, Misty, who spends her days slurping down Prosacs, her down-on-his-luck everyman husband, Ted, new co-pilot Jessica who is at her core representative of the shifting winds of the feminism movement, and Captain Glenn (played by Patrick Wilson with startling sensitivity), the pinnacle of Plotnik’s satirical heights.”
Jack sat down to talk about the appeal of the 70s, the indefiniteness of space, the process of writing as a team, the challenges of making a low budget sci-fi flick, and whether he could ever reasonably see Space Station 76 as a TV program.
I think the most burning question here is where did this idea come from?
Jack Plotnik: To set a movie in the future, but imagined from the 70’s? Is that what you mean?
Yeah. The concept is wonderful but it’s so wacky. How did you cook it up?
JP: I came up with this idea. It was about eight years ago. I had wanted to write a play that would explore what it was like to grow up in the 70’s in the suburbs. I just thought it would be more interesting way to go about it, to set it in this future that we dreamed of that was never actually realized. It symbolized, for a lot of people, what it was like to grow up at that time where you thought things were going to be a certain way and they didn’t quite turn out that way. I’ve always been obsessed with this 70’s future. My family went to Disney World in the 70’s and I rode the monorail. I just thought, “We’re going to be on Moon colonies soon.” Everything was possible in the 70’s. Of course, now looking back, my parents divorced in the 80’s and I can see now the trials and tribulations they had in the suburbs. You look back and see things didn’t quite turn out the way you expected.
This film also seems like it would work really well as a series. What made you decide on the format of a feature film?
JP: Well it’s really easy to say, “Why don’t you do a series?” It’s actually really tough to get a show on the air. If you don’t have experience as a show runner, what tends to happen is you sell your ideas to somebody who has already created a TV show and then they run it. This was a very specific story that I wanted to tell, a very personal one. A lot of what was in my life as a kid was in this movie. So I wanted to tell this particular story, however, before a movie I was thinking of a show and I would love that to happen. I’ve already been thinking about what adjustments I would have to make to have this be a TV show. I love that you said that.
In the film, there’s all these kind of absurd, goofball, ridiculous concepts going on, but they frame some really potent issues. What for you was the launching pad of for going, “We’re going to make this futuristic, sci-fi, low-brow comedy, but at the same time bury these important issues within it?”
JP: That’s the type of artist I am. I love mixing genres, because I think the human condition is: life is really hard but it’s also really funny. Life can be painful and sometimes people can be mean. To me, my favorite kind of comedy comes with a pinch of sadness or devastation. Some of my favorite artists, their movies are uncomfortable comedy. They’re comic drama. I always have had an appreciation for that. In terms of the heavy messages going on, I can’t help that I want things to also be funny. There were some things I wanted to say about the pain of growing up in that time in the suburbs. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be a straight up drama, because I’m a pretty silly guy and I like to laugh. This seemed like a fun way to explore that without being too heavy.
Patrick Wilson in this film is absolutely brilliant. His character is hysterical and heartbreaking at the same time.
JP: Now that you say that, I think that’s a nice way to put the movie.
What was writing his character like, for you personally?, He’s dealing with this issue of coming out and concealing his homosexuality and it’s clearly not acceptable at the time. What kind of statement did you want to make with his character?
JP: To me, sometimes it’s just a matter of just showing, and that’s all the statement you need to make. We’re sort of examining what it was and what that would be like, for people who don’t know what that’s like to see it and have some empathy. I co-wrote this film and a lot of Glenn’s work came from one writer, Sam Pancake, and he did a beautiful job. Glenn’s more suicidal tendencies came from me. I thought that would be an interesting way to deal with the very real pain that people go through with that kind of self-hatred. So the idea is that Glenn wants to kill himself but the ship won’t let him.
That’s hysterical but it’s also so real at the same time.
JP: Patrick Wilson is just so not this guy. He just walked on set with this, I think, iconic character I’ve never seen him play, yet I feel like this character has always been around. I’ve never seen a character quite like this, yet you feel like, “Oh I know this guy.” I love what he did with it.
Let’s talk more about the writers, because you just mentioned that you worked with a whole team of writers. There were five of you credited with the film. What was that writing process like? Why so many writers? In the future, would you go with such a collaborative effort again, or would you rather just focus on your own project?
JP: Well I love working with other people. I’m a collaborative writer. I co-wrote and directed the off Broadway musical, Disaster, that we hope to bring to Broadway later this year. I just like to do it that way. What happened was that I came up with the idea for Space Station 76 and I just jabbered around my favorite actors at the moment – funny, funny, smart people. For three months, I would direct them and through improv they created these characters. I would record the sessions, type them out, and then I would sort of sift through it and pick the best stuff. Then I would try to give that back to the actors. So the scenes grew out of improv. Then, in order to turn it into a movie, we needed to open up the world, and I added some characters, and did some more work on it. I love writing with other people and creating as a group. At the same time, it was very important that I also look at it from the big picture and keep the focus, so it’s one work of art and not five. I do think it’s all very much one voice coming through that film.
I definitely agree with you. It actually kind of surprised me when I saw so many writers on it, because typically you would think it would be more jarring, but no not at all.
JP: I think everybody understood what I was going for and I handpicked people who are smart and funny and have the same sense of humor as I do. They nailed it and I just love those guys.
Speaking of that sense of humor, my favorite character in the film is Dr. Bot. That was such a hysterical role.
JP: He’s a very small android. He’s a robot therapist who lead characters can see, but only Misty, the frustrated housewife, tends to go to him. I’m glad you liked him.
Totally. He’s the cult character to pull from the film. With Dr. Bot, was there any kind of statement that you were trying to make about the mental health community, or is this more just playing it straight for comedy?
JP: Everything in this film is commenting on a specific time and place of what it was like in the 70’s and what people were doing, what they were up to. There’s a few things going on with Dr. Bot. One of the big things about this film is it’s really about people who can’t connect, in general how hard it is these days to connect with one another. I just find it interesting that this character who is a frustrated housewife in the unhappy marriage, the only person she connects to in the film is this tiny robot. And to really connect with him, she ends up having to turn him off. One thing I love about him is that the sound effects were done by Denny Bird at Skywalker Sound. His father did the sounds for the original Star Wars movies. Denny did an amazing job. He added so much to this film. One of the things he did is he added a wonderful sound of Dr. Bot thinking. Whenever someone said something to him, you hear this looping sound. I believe it’s the sound of an old fashioned printer from the 70’s or 80’s. It’s so fun to watch Dr. Bot think and to see how his brain works.
This being your directorial debut, at least on the big screen, can you tell me about a couple things that were surprisingly hard that caught you off guard by how difficult they were? And then other things that you thought were going to be really hard but ended up being surprisingly easy.
JP: In terms of how hard it is to make a feature, my friend Richard Day who wrote and directed Girls will be Girls that I produced and starred in, he said, “Doing this film is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life.” And then, “You’re going to want to immediately do it again.” He said it’s going to miserable and horrible and everything is going to look like all is lost. There’s definitely those moments. Specifically, there are just so many moving pieces. I had a great team around me, amazing producers and the whole crew. Actually shooting went fairly smoothly. The hardest part, I would say, was pre-production, getting everything ready. We had to build a spaceship on a soundstage in the valley. But the actual shooting went incredibly smoothly and I think the thing that surprised me was how they come and they’re just ready to play, if you get the right actors. It was just amazing to watch them show up on set and do what they do. It was just facilitating it. Especially that little girl, the girl Kylie Rogers played, she is a genius. She was just the one-take wonder. She somehow knew what every scene was about and would really get it in never more than two takes. She astounded me. That was a real joy to discover her and we were lucky to find her.
She was lovely in the film. Obviously, you were under budgetary constraints, this being a little independent feature that you’re then doing in space, the CG is not astounding. Would you want it any other way, though? Would you rather have had big production values on the asteroids and space station, or do you feel like this was kind of perfectly suiting for what it was?
JP: Well I would have loved to have millions of dollars, yes. A film like this it’s not quite the tone people are used to. You come to a spaceship, you tend to think, “I’m either going to get a goofball comedy like Spaceballs or a space-adventure comedy like Galaxy Quest.” People don’t quite expect to see a science fiction movie about suburban life in space. Hopefully people get that. Sometimes the characters can be mean to each other. You can also laugh at it all. I personally love comedies that are uncomfortable, like the British Office. In terms of the budget, we had enough money and also the mother of invention is necessity. So it was always exciting when we didn’t actually have the millions of dollars to build what we wanted to build. It was exciting to find the other way to do it and we always were able to. I’m just proud of what my set designer pulled off and the costumes. There’s really nothing I would change. The sets are gorgeous. I’m really thrilled. I mean maybe with a little extra money we could have been 3-D.
Earlier you mentioned that when you made this film, someone told you that it would be the hardest thing you’ll ever do but you would want to get right back on that horse. Have you already started thinking about a new project?
JP: Absolutely. I have several things. My immediate plan is to direct my musical, Disaster!. You can read about it at Disastermusical.com if you want to see it in New York. The plan is to direct that on Broadway in the fall. So I’ve got to do that. But then, yeah, again I love that you said Space Station as a TV series because we have already kind of been thinking about that and talking about it. And there’s a couple film scripts that I’m working with other people on.