How the Creators of 'Stowaway' Inadvertently Made the Ultimate COVID-19 Movie

J├╝rgen Olczyk
Director Joe Penna on the set of 'Stowaway'

Conceived and shot before the coronavirus outbreak, the sci-fi thriller starring Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Shamier Anderson and Daniel Dae Kim resonates with the post-pandemic world.

Almost exactly a year ago, in what seems now a distant universe — pre-novel coronavirus pandemic, pre-lockdown — I was crouched next to a monitor as Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim floated past me and above my head.

As I watch, director Joe Penna calls out to the wire technicians to adjust the cables — nearly invisible — that hold Kendrick and Kim dangling in their harnesses, 30 feet in the air.

"We're used to seeing weightlessness in space in a certain way but I think I've found a few new takes," Penna says. "Throughout the film the amount of gravity shifts, from 1 G all the way down to 0 G, or completely weightless. At each stage they're going to move differently, each stage will look different."

It's July 12, 2019 and we're on a soundstage at the MMC Studios in Cologne, Germany. Penna is in the home stretch shooting Stowaway, a space drama he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator, and editor, Ryan Morrison. They had the idea for the movie — a morality play set on a spaceship traveling to Mars — long before coronavirus. But with their story of a small group in isolation, cut off the rest of the world, and worried about the dangers that lurk just outside, the two may have inadvertently made the ultimate film for the pandemic.

"It's stranger than fiction," says Aram Tertazakian from XYZ Films, which produced Stowaway and, together with CAA Media Finance, is presenting it to buyers at the Virtual Cannes Market this week. "Joe and Ryan didn't predict the pandemic, but the themes of the movie have a particular resonance right now."

Actually, Joe and Ryan did predict the pandemic. At the Tribeca Film Festival last year they debuted a short web series, Release, about a deadly virus outbreak in the United States.

"It was scary how close we got to the real thing," says Morrison, speaking from his office in Los Angeles on June 10. "I actually had to visit a hospital at the peak of the outbreak and it looked exactly like the sets we designed for Release."

The web series won't be out for a while — "it's probably a bit too much for people to take right now," Penna says. But Stowaway could be coming soon to a recently-opened theater near you. The movie wrapped principle photography before the first COVID-19 wave and, despite the global lockdown, the production has kept on track. After the shoot—interior locations (inside the spaceship) were done in Bavaria Studios in Munich and exteriors in MMC Studios in Cologne—post-production was set up remotely. Penna and Morrison worked on the edit from L.A. and visual effects being handled by RISE Visual Effects Studios in Munich and Berlin. "We were always planning to do a lot of the post-production remotely but, with the lockdown, it became essential," says Ryan. "It's actually been wonderful doing it this way because when we would finish on a shot at night here, the Rise guys would take over in the morning. Someone was working on the movie 24 hours a day. It kept things moving forward."

Going into the Virtual Cannes Market, Stowaway is just a few weeks from final lock. "All we still have to do is the final color grade and the sound mix," says Penna. "Those are things we need everyone in the same place — socially distanced but in the same room — to do."

Joe and Ryan's new movie could arrive at exactly the right moment — when theaters are beginning to reopen and where there are few new movies available to put in them.

They didn't plan it this way. Stowaway is the duo's follow up to Arctic, a survivalist thriller starring Mads Mikkelsen as a bush pilot, stranded on the ice after a plane crash, who has to decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to set off on a treacherous journey to try and reach civilization.  

Penna, who directs and co-writes, and Morrison, who co-writes and edits, initially set Arctic on Mars. "But with the kind of budget we could get for a first film," says Morrison, "the Arctic made more sense." (They shot the film in Iceland.) Arctic was picked for Cannes Official Selection in 2018. It sold to Bleecker Street, who gave it a U.S. theatrical release, earning a very respectable $2.5 million. On the back of that success, Penna and Morrison secured the backing for their second film. Finally, they got to go to space.

"The setting is different but, like Arctic, Stowaway is a man-vs.-nature story," says Morrison. "Both of our films have nature as the bad guy.  That's the kind of story we want to tell."

The plot of the film revolves around an unintended stowaway (Shamier Anderson) on a spaceship on a six-month mission to Mars. When the unwanted visitor accidentally causes severe damage to the spaceship’s life support systems, the crew realize they do not have the resources to all survive the mission. The ship's commander (Toni Collette) and on-board botanist (Kim) debate with the crew's medical researcher (Kendrick) over whether they should sacrifice the new passenger or risk everyone dying.

"It's the trolly problem," says Kendrick, referring to the ethical thought experiment which poses the question: Is it better to do nothing and let several people die or to kill an innocent person to save the others? "How much are you willing to risk? Do you roll the dice on everyone dying to save one person?"

"I have done my fair share of sci-fi," says Kim, whose credits including Insurgent, Lost and The Andromeda Strain. "What  really appealed to me with this story is how grounded it was in the choices we as human beings have to make. It was less about the science fiction and more about the human drama."

Playing a doctor-astronaut was a change for Kendrick, best known for her turns in Up in the Air and the Pitch Perfect films. Physically, though, it wasn't much of a stretch to move from rom-coms to a space thriller.

"There wasn't any physical training, boot camp or anything like that, because there isn't a lot of running around in the film, it's more of a chamber play. Most of it was enduring the discomfort of the space suit and the harnesses for hours on end," she says. "There aren't any specially classes you can do to build up the flesh around your hips."

Ironically, Stowaway, shot before COVID-19, is a model for how to produce a movie in the aftermath of the outbreak. The contained thriller was shot entirely on easy-to-isolate soundstages with no location shots and minimal travel. XYZ Films' financing model, where the company partners with international co-producers (Germany's Augenschein Filmproduktion and Rise Pictures in this case) and shoots locally to access tax rebates and soft money, is also looking particularly attractive right now, as international territories open up for shooting ahead of the U.S..

As for Joe and Ryan, the lockdown has only been good news for their development slate. The duo have spent much of their enforced downtime writing.

"It's very weird, we know so many people in the industry, people we care about, who were terribly affected by the pandemic and the lockdown," says Morrison. "Joe and I have just been incredibly fortunate. Our movie is still on track and, because of the lockdown, we could really focus on developing projects that we really care about. As soon as things open up again, we'll be ready to go."