When Dr. Rudi Schmidt’s phone rang in his native Czech Republic early last summer, he didn’t expect the caller would be from Hollywood, once again asking for his input on a new blockbuster. Schmidt nonetheless assumed his role as science consultant with ease. His charge? Make the new science thriller Life, a film centered around a team of astronauts that discover a large, single-celled organism on Mars, as realistic as possible.
With 35 years of experience dealing with space under his belt, Schmidt was a natural fit and knowledgeable asset for the film crew. He took the time to share his story about being a science consultant on Life with Innovation & Tech Today in this exclusive interview.
From the ESA to Movie Sets
Schmidt admits that acting as a science consultant was a side job. After all, he had several other projects to manage at the European Space Agency (ESA). He recently retired, but at the time was wrapping up an illustrious career at the ESA that included time on the Mars Express mission and culminated with the honor of Inspector General. “I dealt with Mars, I dealt with the space station…I dealt with all kinds of things. The only thing is I’ve never been in space myself, but I know it from training sessions and working with the astronauts,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt first served as a science consultant on The Martian a little over a year prior to Life. At that time, space was Schmidt’s realm—not Hollywood—and the two seemed totally separate from one another. “Had you asked me a few days before The Martian I would have said it’s very unlikely that Hollywood would call me and say, ‘Do you have time to help us?’” Schmidt adds. He says the role was “quite extraordinary.”
Yet, his input on The Martian earned him a reputation in Hollywood, and he became sought after to help consult on other space films like Life. “I think the people from the Life production team heard about that and that’s why they called me,” Schmidt said.
Putting Science in Life
Schmidt shared his feedback with the Life production team in three different ways. First, he helped with the preparation team on-set in London. “They wanted to know, for instance, which colors, which panels, which equipment” are on board the ISS, Schmidt said. “Somebody wanted to know about space suits…what kind of code do they have on the computer screens. These kinds of things.”
After helping the art department prepare for the shoot, Schmidt returned to be on-hand while shooting actually took place. He estimates he was on-set eight to 10 days at three or four different times. “Sometimes I observed things I thought could be improved in terms of realism so I walked over to him [director Daniel Espinosa] and said, ‘Hey, maybe you could do this [to be] more realistic’ and then we’d have an exchange of opinions because he had an artistic view and I had a physics view. At the end it was his position [that mattered] because I only did science and he’s the artist and director so…we came up with a reasonable solution,” Schmidt explained.
Schmidt said being on set for long stretches of time “was intensive because you cannot imagine what kinds of questions people ask [about] space. They want to know how you move in space, how you cry in space. All kinds of things.”
Explaining those details is not always easy, but Schmidt is “always looking for examples to discuss how people move in space…Once you do that, it’s very easy to grasp and tell the extras how to move—how to behave to be almost a real astronaut.”
Finally, even when he wasn’t in London, Schmidt was reachable by phone to help with any “quick questions” that came up as the team finished production.
The Plausibility of Life
Schmidt says his knowledge of space doesn’t qualify him to “assess whether things really go like they do in this movie with…this biological monster.” The portrayal of space, though, he believes is “very real.”
“I think within the next ten years we will have a situation where people bring back samples from Mars,” Schmidt said. “We don’t really know yet how dangerous a sample that comes back from Mars is…so, like in the movie, you have to bring it back to the space station and analyze it there and, once you find it’s safe, then you bring it down to the Earth and you order further investigations of it.” Therefore, Schmidt says that Life’s treatment of the specimen and “all the surroundings in this movie” is “fairly realistic.”
The Importance of Realistic Portrayals of Space
Movies like Life could be set in the far-off future, or feature completely outlandish fictional technology. To Schmidt, though, the aspiration of realism is important.
“As somebody who was in space for a long time, and knows how interested the public is in space endeavors and space missions like landing on comets or landing on other planets, I think it’s time to prepare them for real, good advances in terms of what will be done with a human mission to Mars,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt hopes that Life viewers gain a better understanding of just how the ISS works—its tasks, logistics, organization, and more. He says the ISS is meant for “risky undertakings to protect mankind, to protect the Earth,” so it’s important for its funders, the taxpayers, to understand it. Films like Life, using scientist-approved depictions of the ISS, can help both generate interest and inform viewers.
“I think movies prepare the people to understand how dangerous it is, how risky it is. And I think when it’s real is when you can convince people,” he said.
Life, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, is coming to theaters March 24.