Space Spiders And Adam Sandler: Welcome To The Love Story That Is Netflix’s SPACEMAN

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be weeping as Adam Sandler embraced a giant arachnid in space, I’d have rolled with it because that sounds amazing – and oh boy, it is. SPACEMAN landed on Netflix on March 1, 2024, and is based on the novel Spaceman Of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfa. It’s been adapted for the streaming platform by Johan Renck, director of the hit series Chernobyl, and it’s a trip unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Six months into a solitary research mission to the edge of the solar system, astronaut Jakub realizes his marriage could be in trouble. Determined to fix things, help arrives in the unlikely form of a spider-like ancient creature that’s been hiding in the bowels of his ship. Named Hanuš, and voiced by Paul Dano of The Riddler fame, the unusual pair team up to try and make sense of what went wrong and work out how to fix it.

What unfolds is a moving, interstellar love story with surprising insights into human connection, loss, and ancient arachnid-like aliens’ penchant for hazelnut spread. Having been blown away by the movie, it was a must to speak to its creator, so I sat down for a chat with Johan Renck about how you bring abstract characters to life, and what it’s like as a director to move from a factually-based science fiction to a love story set in space.

 

I didn’t expect to love Hanuš so much, how did you bring so much character to this six-eyed space traveler?

I thought that that was going to be one of the biggest challenges in the film, the visual representation. How are we going to be both repulsed and scared by this thing, but then also love him? I say him, does Hanuš have a gender? We don’t know.

It turns out that it’s way easier [than I thought]. You can take anything, even the most disgusting, monstrous thing ever – if you give it a heart and a beautiful soul, you’re going to love it. We are able to love anything, no matter what it looks like. So in that case, in some weird way, we can conclude that love actually is blind.

How did you build the image of Hanuš?

I worked with a concept artist called Carlos Huante and I just started collecting a number of images of spider faces. It was really remarkable that, if you Google “spider faces,” you’re blown away by how – I’m not going to say human – but you know, they properly have faces. I start sending all these to Carlos and say, “Look, I don’t know if we need to do so much in terms of humanizing the face.”

Hanuš is described in the book as a spider about the size of a Doberman, but then it kind of veers off into some really trippy, impressionist stuff. It says he had 100 eyes and Jakub could see the eyes of his grandfather and his mother and his grandson, and big plush red lips, so if you take it literally from the book it’s going to be absolutely absurd.

Three things you should know about Hanuš: he likes toilet tubes, hazelnut spreads, and sad skinny humans.
Image courtesy of Netflix 2023

The one thing I really wanted to keep from the book, and I sort of forced Carlos to implement, was that weird little human mouth. It’s not super prevalent throughout the film, during these moments when you see his weird little human mouth, with little square kiddy teeth. That, to me, was so effective. It was so cute.

How did you film Hanuš? Was it all CGI or are we going to get some amazing BTS of Paul Dano in a bizarre green suit?

Yeah, it was all CGI. I’m very much not that kind of filmmaker because I love in-camera, but what I realized was that if we have parts of Hanuš that are mocked up in some form of a puppet or something like that, we’re going to be tied to that appearance. There was no way we would have been able to scramble something together that would have been good enough when we shot the film. 

I was a little worried about how that would limit us in our creation, and I also had really good faith and trust in my own ability to supervise the creature being implemented into the film so that it would look believable and blend in. Because I always think that the more challenging aspect, when it comes to CGI, is the actual implementation into your world so that it doesn’t feel like we have a real world with a computer element in it.

It paid off, you very quickly just believe that Hanuš is real and his movements are so believable, even out in space.

Which is obviously a tremendous scientific cheat because space is a vacuum, there’s no way you can move about in space through your own movement [read: swimming with eight legs], but then what I’ve always said is well, Hanuš is from the beginning of time. The laws of physics are perpetually changing, and to me, it was like his composition, and the physics of him, are different. 

Trying to recreate space in a studio down on Earth comes with some curious solutions.
Image courtesy of Netflix 2023

You can almost think of him having quantum mechanic aspect to his manifestation and his presence in front of Jakub. Because Hanus is not a figment of your imagination, but what he is, as a creature, has nothing to do with the evolution that we can relate to on Earth, so there’s a little bit of freedom in how we interpret that. 

Speaking of scientific cheats, how did it feel moving from a project like Chernobyl where so much of the science is laid out in history, to working on a more abstract film with a science theme where there’s a lot of room to play?

The funny thing is, I always looked at Chernobyl as a science fiction story. SPACEMAN is not science fiction to me, at all. SPACEMAN is a love story that just happens to take place partly in space and there just happens to be a creature that we have not encountered before. The key to it all is that there’s a couple whose connection gets broken in some shape or form, and you want to place them as far from each other as humanly possible just to enhance that. 

The second aspect of it is that there’s something kind of iconic about this idea of being a solo astronaut in space. Even starting with David Bowie’s Major Tom, he’s up in space with some communication with ground control, but he’s so removed from Earth and that becomes really humbling because it’s that thing of, “I’m not on Earth anymore, and Earth continues to behave as if I never existed, because I’m so insignificant.” 

I think that’s an interesting thing because it puts Jakub in our film in a position of frustration. He thinks he’s so important and that his mission is so important in science, but nobody actually gives a shit.

If you look closely, you can just about see the teeth.
Image courtesy of Netflix 2023

What advice would you give to someone who wants to weave scientific themes into a non-science-fiction story like SPACEMAN?

Do whatever the hell you want. I mean, we invented a shit load of things in this film. We had to find a way for him to communicate with Earth, and if you’re 500 million miles away, those conversations would be impossible. So, we said, let’s invent a quantum mechanic phone.

That’s what we’re entitled to in our lyricism, to take the human condition and just turn up the volume on one of the notes on our mixing table to give a point to it all. That’s the beauty and the intention of making films, or music, or writing books, it’s to take the experience – take the audience – to a place it hasn’t been before. 

Right now, we’re living in a time where that’s being pushed aside a bit because everyone’s just being commissioned to deliver content, and we might think that it’s good enough for us, but it’s not. There will be an uprising in terms of like, “No, we’re humans. We want to experience a version of art, to feel like ‘Oh fuck, that shook me, I left the theater and this film was on my mind for hours’.”

That’s what it should be like. Essentially, have fun with it. Make up whatever shit you want.

Now there’s some creative writing advice we can get behind. SPACEMAN is streaming on Netflix now.

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