First time feature director Ruairi Robinson and producer Andrea Cornwell talk about Last Days On Mars, an ambitious sci fi drama set on Mars and starring Liev Schreiber and Romola Garai which has just wrapped shooting at Elstree Studios and in Jordan.

Synopsis: On one of the first man missions to Mars, the crew of the Aurora discover evidence of life on Mars..and it’s not friendly.

Director: Ruairi Robsinson, whose short film Fifty Percent Grey was nominated for an Oscar in 2001.

Writer: Screenplay by Clive Dawson based on the short story by Sydney J Bounds.

Producers: Michael Kuhn of Qwerty Films and independent producer Andrea Cornwell.

Cast: Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, Johnny Harris, Tom Cullen, Olivia Williams.

International Sales: Focus Features.

Finance: BFI Film Fund, Irish Film Board, Prescience, City National Bank.

Distributors: Universal for UK, Australia, Russia, Square One for Germany.

Locations: Jordan and Elstree Studios, UK.

Delivery: May 2013

On the origins of the project:

Andrea Cornwell: The movie is based on a short story called The Animators by a British sci fi writer which was discovered in an anthology by our screenwriter and earmarked as something he wanted to adapt. He came and pitched it to [Michael Kuhn] at Qwerty Films and I then came together with Michael to produce. Ruairi joined the project at the second draft stage and was heavily involved with the whole development phase.

On choosing Ruairi to direct:

AC: We didn’t want to go down a seen it before kind of direction. We wanted to bring a sensibility that would give it a unique and personal voice rooted in character as well as the natural spectacle of doing something in space. Ruairi comes from a VFX background so we knew that that was a world he was very familiar with. But his short films are not just about the effects, his short film BlinkyTM, for instance, is very emotional. That was exactly the tone we talked about for this.

On the attraction of the project:

Ruairi Robinson: I’m a big paranoia sci fi fan, movies like The Sting and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was a nice chance to do a kind of 70s paranoia movie but with modern toys. There hasn’t really been that kind of claustrophopic, characters at each others throats, densely packed movie in a while. I haven’t really seen it since the first Alien. What I loved was that it was set on Mars, in these tight spaces and that there is nowhere to hide. There is a whole planet but there are no hiding places.

On what makes it different from other “space” set films:

AC: I really liked the sense of looking at a group dyanmic at the end of a mission. You often see these people going out on a voyage of discovery. This starts at the point when they are packing up and leaving. They are an established group, they have been on Mars for six months, they are dreading the journey home and the dyanimcs are getting fractured.

It feels very different for a British project. There have been a few space projects like Moon and Sunshine, but nothing that recently. It has got a good strong script, an interesting breakthrough director and a strong ensemble cast with international profile so it made sense as a project.

On shooting in Jordan:

RR: Jordan is Mars with shrubbery, so we will need to do a lot of digital shrubbery removal! But it looks amazing. There are places in Jordan where you can point the camera 360 degrees and see now sign of civilisation. It’s pretty epic.

AC: By the end of our shoot it was 44 degrees in the desert. You are running round in space suits. The actors were really put through their paces. It’s not what you usually have to contend with on a British movie. But it was spectacular, and we felt priviledged to be out there making films in an environment like that. Jordan doesn’t have such an established industry as places like Morocco, but it’s been growing and getting busier. It’s quite a civilised place to make a film.

On getting the financing together:

AC: It financed relatively quickly for something of this scale. We had a really good reaction to the project generally. Universal were one of key pieces who came on early on, they picked up UK, Australia and Russia. The film was structured as a UK/Ireland co-production, Ruairi being from Ireland originally. We are doing most of our post production in Dublin at Screen Scene VFX. That brought on national tax credits and investment from the BFI Film Fund and Irish Film Board. Focus Features are selling. We are hoping to go out with a reel to markets in the autumn. At that point we will be looking to speak to US distributors.

On the cast:

RR: As a first time director to get to work with a cast of that calibre was amazing. Liev Schrieber worked his ass off all day every day until he almost collapsed. He is the kind of actor other actors want to work with.

I sort of picked cast members that never normally do this kind of film. They all do serious proper movies. I liked the idea of putting people who would never normally do sci fi stuff into a sci fi movie, because they are going to take it seriously then and people are going to take them seriously.

On film-making influences:

RR: There’s a bit of Paul Greengrass in there, Sergio Leone, Michael Mann maybe. A weird muddle of influences. It’s a movie that starts austere and stately and crumbles to handheld and panic. There is a shift in tone in the visuals that matches the characters’ journey.

On what’s next:

RR: I’ve still got to work on this until May. So this and this.
AC: I am producing a small budget film, Here Comes The Summer, shooting in the Autumn, directed by Ron Scalpello. And I am financing a film set in The Philippines, Invented Eden, with BBC Films. As a cinema lover I like going to see different types of films, as a fiilmmaker, it’s the same thing. I like to do a wide variety of projects.

On the lure of Hollywood:

RR: I’m a sci fi guy, that means scale. So yes, hopefully!