EXCLUSIVE: Last month Russian director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild became the first ever film crew to boldly go into outer space to shoot scenes for their upcoming project The Challenge. The duo blasted off to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz on October 5 along with Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov where they filmed more than 30 hours of footage across 12 days before returning to Earth on October 17. The project is the first feature film to be shot in space, beating Tom Cruise and Elon Musk’s upcoming $200M action adventure with NASA and Space X.
While budget is still being kept under wraps, The Challenge centers around a surgeon (Peresild) who is dispatched to the ISS to save a cosmonaut. It’s a joint project of the Roscosmos State Corporation for State Activities, Channel One Russia and the Yellow, Black and White Film Studio. Russia’s Central Parternship will distribute the film in the territory.
Shortly after their return to Earth, Shipenko, who most recently directed Russian historical space drama Salyut-7, and Peresild, who starred in Cannes-competition entry Petrov’s Flu, spoke with Deadline in an exclusive first interview about their experience shooting a feature film in this new frontier.
DEADLINE: This is such an ambitious feat to travel to space to shoot scenes for a feature film. What was the inspiration for this project and how did space travel become a reality for you?
KLIM SHIPENKO: It was my childhood dream. Many children in Russia dream about going to space and that’s because of the big space background Russia and USSR have had. I grew up in the 1980s and cosmonauts were huge stars when, unlike today, people knew them by their names so it was common among Russian kids to dream about space and becoming cosmonauts. When I was offered to direct Salyut-7 [a 2017 title based on the 1985 story of two Russian cosmonauts who attempt to rescue the Salyut-7 space station] and I started working on it in 2015, it wasn’t an option to shoot in space. We were thinking about how to do the scenes that were taking place in zero gravity and how to shoot them on stage and all of that.
Right before the premiere of that film our producer talked to the space agency and suggested sending me into space for the premiere where I would do a live stream on Zoom to the big screen and they were interested but there wasn’t really time to prepare me for it. But Salyut-7 did well with audiences and on the international festival circuit and Russian government officials really liked the film. A few years after that film, my producing partner and I were invited to meet with Konstantin Ernst [CEO of Russia’s Channel One] who had had a proposition from the Russian space agency Roscosmos about shooting a live action film in space. He said he’d been thinking about it for 20 years and asked me to write and direct it.
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration behind the story for The Challenge? How did you structure your story around space travel?
SHIPENKO: I knew I had to make the story very simple so everyone could relate to it. I came up with the idea of a person who had never dreamed of going into space and who gets called to go into space. What’s her reaction to it? How does she prepare? I wanted it to be very simple and I wanted to make a human connection right away so audiences could stay with her the whole time.
DEADLINE: Yulia, why did you want to take on this role?
YULIA PERESILD: I love setting challenges for myself and I realized that this offer to be engaged in space travel is something that only happens once in a lifetime. There wouldn’t be a second chance to do it. I had to go through a very rigid selection process but I felt inside me that this role was for me. When I finally found myself at the International Space Station, I realized I felt at home there. This is my place.
DEADLINE: You’re not cosmonauts so obviously this has its own huge set of challenges for you. Can you tell me a bit about the preparation you had to go through both physically and mentally?
PERESILD: As for the preparation, it would be unsuitable if I said it was hard or challenging. It was a fully-fledged Cosmos preparation training procedure in the Cosmos preparation center. And I have to say that what we’re doing, we’re doing it at the limit of human ability. Another thing is that we had great specialists and good quality training.
SHIPENKO: I had done a lot of research. I wrote the script with my co-writer Bakur Bakuradze before we prepped. It took Yulia and I four months to prepare not only for the flight but also to figure out how we were going to shoot the film up there by ourselves. The process combined regular physical preparation, knowledge of the technology that we were going to use and how to make a scene work up there. Where will the camera be? Where will the light be? Those things all together took a lot of time.
DEADLINE: I watched the launch and it was a huge event with loads of media attention. What was going through your mind at this point? Was there any kind of fear going through your head about what you were about to embark upon?
SHIPENKO: I really had no fear because I was thinking about the film I was going to shoot. That’s really what I was concentrating on and I was thinking, ‘OK, now I have a camera in the spacecraft and I’m going to take it out of its special packaging when I get up there.’ Those were my main thoughts. Plus, history has shown that take-off launches never really have any fatal accidents during launch and that made me feel more comfortable. The fact that relatives were there also made it more emotional , and we were saying goodbye to them. But I guess that’s kind of a part of sending people into space – crying and waving at relatives.
PERESILD: Well first and foremost, I was thinking about my daughters. I was thinking about them at the launch and before. But also, I’m a fatalist. I believe in fate and I think that space is very safe. It’s safer than planes and bikes and maybe even safer than just walking in the street. I always knew we were accompanied by true professionals. On the way there and back we had the commander Oleg Novitsky with us, so I felt safe.
DEADLINE: Klim, what were some of the challenges that came working the camera in space with no gravity?
SHIPENKO: It’s a whole different technique to operate a camera in zero gravity because there is no camera operator, so it basically took a lot of adjusting because you don’t really need to hold the camera in your hands. If you want the camera to move, you can just give it a little push and it flies. It’s a skill I had to learn very quickly which I couldn’t prepare for on the ground. I did a lot of shots with the flying camera, and I was just sort of looking at the viewfinder as I was flying near it to see if the framing was correct and if it wasn’t, I adjusted it as wide as it flew so that’s a whole different technique. I was working on pulling focus by myself, which is also something I don’t do on the ground as there is usually another person who does it with me. Plus, I had to work with the light because the light changes every 40 minutes up there – every 40 minutes there is another sunset and after that another sunrise, so you have 40 minutes of light to work with. So yeah, it was a big adjustment.
You don’t fully realize what it is until you get there because it completely changes your mindset – the ground becomes the ceiling and vice versa. It’s almost a four-dimensional world up there so there’s way more choice on how you position your actors. There are so many ways to do that, so your mind has to adjust to it as well. It made me realize what limitations there are when shooting on the ground, even with big budget films that can do a lot of stunts and wiring. In space, I had to switch my mind to this four-dimensional reality. I was directing kind of four-dimensionally.
DEADLINE: Yulia, what about as an actor? What effects did the lack of gravity have on your performance?
PERESILD: There were just the two of us in terms of crew and so Klim was a lot of things at once. He was the DOP and the director and he oversaw lighting. That meant I had extra responsibilities as well. I oversaw props, costumes and makeup and jointly we were somehow production designers there in space and we had to make sure everything went according to the script that we had. In space, it’s not that easy. Rule number one is that you must be very attentive – if you drop something somewhere, you’ll never find it again.
Another revelation was hair – as a woman I really liked this new feeling of my hair being raised and I truly didn’t want to tie it in or do something with it because it felt very convenient and comfortable. I applied minimal makeup. Here in Russia there’s this belief that space is not a proper place for women, and I would like to dispel this myth. It’s quite the other way around. When you’re in zero gravity, you feel this absolute love. You feel like you’re a fairy and you feel very calm. I really liked that feeling and I think this is what I’m going to miss a lot.
DEADLINE: Tell me about the crew up there and the role they played.
SHIPENKO: Well, they were actors in the film. That was another limitation – I knew I couldn’t bring any other actors up there other than Yulia, so I had to come up with a script that works with cosmonauts playing themselves. Anton Shkaplerov, for instance, was helping me with basically anything I asked him to help me with such as set designing because space modules needed to be freed up of some equipment for me to be able to fly through them or because it would look better if it was rearranged a little bit. So, he was helping me with all of that along with the other cosmonauts. Sometimes for the complicated shots we did, which involved a lot of other cosmonauts, one would hang back and make sure I didn’t hit my head or injure myself because I was flying backwards without seeing where I was going. So, they would protect me a little bit and make sure I didn’t hit anything.
PERESILD: One of the reasons I found it so sad to leave is because there was this great atmosphere at ISS and that’s because there’s this international community there. There are no borders and we understood that we are all one. I know they follow the news so if they read what’s being published here, I would like to say hi to everyone: to Mark and Megan and Shane. I hope we’ll have an opportunity to have a reunion of our space family. It really doesn’t matter what country in the world you come from.
DEADLINE: Significantly this is the first film to have been shot in space. Why is this important to you, if at all, that you’re the first film crew to have made it up there?
SHIPENKO: Well, it will be significant to me if the audience likes the film. You never know until the film is complete if you made a good film or not. But if it turns out that the film is good and audiences like it, then it’s something I would be very proud of, because ultimately the first goal is to make a good film.
DEADLINE: Is there a future from your point of view in making movies and even TV shows out in space? Or are these just random one-off opportunities?
SHIPENKO: Why not? If the story calls for it. It’s a huge shooting playground. Filmmakers explore new frontiers, and this is just another frontier to be explored. As I said before, there are many things that are just impossible to shoot on the ground in terms of the actual actors’ movements. Even if you watch $200M Hollywood films, they are not able to make this as believable as it is there because it’s natural there. But if the ISS station grows bigger and the flights become easier and more accessible for people, for filmmakers and for tourists, then that opens things. It really depends on if it will go hand in hand with the development of space technology.
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