Interview: The Expanse executive director & creator, Mark Fergus

Interview: The Expanse executive director & creator, Mark Fergus

We talk about putting science into science fiction, and using virtual reality to help actors get to grips with SFX-heavy scenes.

Gotta say this right up front - The Expanse is just about my favourite science fiction on television at the moment, as well as being one of my favourite series of books. It's smart, it features characters that are as diverse as they are entertaining, and while it is, to a degree, unashamedly space operatic, it also sticks as close to real, hard science as much as possible. 

The show's first season recently hit Australian shelves on DVD and Blu-ray, and so I got the rather awesome opportunity to speak with one of the show's creators (who also happened to write Iron Man, so, you know, no biggie), Mark Fergus (on the left in the photo above) about keeping the science on the show real...

David: Hey Mark, thanks for giving us your time! I've not seen one in the credits, but do you have a science adviser as part of the crew, or is just everyone who works there a bit of a science geek?

Mark: Most people on the show are big science geeks - but I'm one of the lamest ones. I'm like, "Whatever is cool for the story". Naren Shankar (on the right, in the photo above), one of our executives - one of the top guys that we built the show with – he’s an engineer. He's extremely brilliant on all things scientific. Ty Franck, one of the authors who makes up James S. A. Corey, has a couple of science degrees. His wife has got her PhD in environmental engineering. You have a lot of incredibly smart people who know the nuts and bolts and details.

And we visited NASA. We've gone to the Jet Propulsion Lab. We've gone to Virgin Atlantic, to their headquarters. We go to everybody to  learn what they know and to test our knowledge against theirs. We have some really, really smart people in our writer's room, and in our process, that will call BS on something that doesn't make sense.

We got a lot of really smart people right there that if we don't know something, we'll call up an expert.

David: Now, with all of that science, all of that technical stuff going into the script, I understand that you actually have color-coded scripts coded to what the gravity is in that given location. Is that true?

Mark: Well, we did it a lot at the first year because, again, gravity was not intuitive like how gravity works in space, and when you're at rest; when you're at motion or acceleration and spin gravity. It became really hard for everyone to wrap their heads for the first season, so we did the color-coding. We did special slug lines in the script, to make sure. Because it affects whether or not people are going to be using wires and what the actors are going to be doing so, it’s just practical. Everybody has to know what the state of each scene is including the gravity, so we ended up using color and big, bold underline markers of what was the gravity status of each scene so that anybody could figure out.

After a season and a half, everybody knows now. They've all gotten very good at just at acting for any given gravity state, whether they’re using mag boots, or this that and the other. Now, the actors know, "Hey, if I'm in a simulated low G thing, they know how to pick up objects". They know how to sit in a chair. They know how to move their arms or all those tells that become lies in the scene if the actors don't know how to move right.

David: I've also read that you're trying to present space itself as a character. Are all those details, and getting the science right, a part of that process?

Mark: I'm a science fiction fan in that I like four or five films that are like holy grails for me, in sci-fi. But in general, I'm always frustrated with the genre because they take space out of the equation; because we see it much more like the railroads when they came to your country or my country. Like the way railroads change the entire face of everything – it’s a technology that changes the landscape, or like sailing ships over the oceans. It's that story. It's a complete frontier story. Most science fiction takes the space out of space travel. They just make it a location. I'm pleased to have fun stuff happen, but you don't use it as a character. We want to remind people that the temperature, the vast distance, the fact that space is a harsh brutal environment that wants to kill you in every way all the time. It's always like the human life up there is just not meant to be, so you have all the challenges of a frontier story. We wanted to really dig into that: where it did feel more like a new mode of transportation, how that changed life in our century over and over. This is just the next evolution of that.

The more we make space an obstacle and remind you of the vastness, remind you of the coldness and the harshness, and what gravity does to the body, how hard it is to accelerate or decelerate, then space becomes… it's woven into the story as, not just as a backdrop.

Our most popular scene is a breaking manoeuvre in the first episode, and the fans just went crazy about it. It was just a ship slowing down!

David: I know, right? But it’s a great scene, and sets up so much about how the show works, showing a ship actually turning over to decelerate.

Mark: It's weird how it had to slow down, how hard it was to flip and burn, so everybody got excited about it like, "Oh, cool". It's a real testament to the novels because that was the texture of the novels that really hooked me in. My writing partner Hawk only read them as we started and we realised this feels real. It feels like how things work; [the writers] care about the real life, grungy details of space, and most of the genre doesn't. This is how we knew we wanted to do the show.

David: Looking at the behind-the-scenes, I've seen a couple of really great photos. I think Cas Anvar, who plays Alex, the show’s pilot, posted on Twitter a picture of people using VR headsets for rehearsals. Can you tell me a little bit about that, if you can?

Mark: Yes, just, in general, they're just different environments so these guys can look on their headsets and see environments that are going to be created and imposed on their scenes, instead of just acting out the scene and imagining what things are going to look like…

Now, they get to swim in it a bit and feel them; the sets are so awe-inspiring, those things. It does help those guys get to… it brings the awe for their performance, where they realise just how incredible it looks, what the audience is going to see that you don't ever get to see as an actor, and now you get to experience it before the audience. It's a nice little extra trick to immerse them in and so they don't… it brings the senses alive when they get to see how incredible this is going to look instead of just always having to imagine it.

Cass, as the pilot of the ship has a lot of effects to work with; he has to stare at green screens a lot, and it's such an incredible thing. He does a great a job of it. But this just helps those guys to get a glimpse of what the audience is going to experience when the project's done.

David: One last question, what's your favourite little bit of science in the show? A bit of dialogue, or a scene, or your bit that you still say and go, "That's amazing. That's cool"?

Mark: I did mention the flip and burn is one of them. It's just one of those things: how the most boring thing, a ship slowing down can actually look like an action sequence, but it's always the little stuff. It's Detective Miller pouring whiskey at the core of the station where the Coriolis effect is the most pronounced, I love that.

It’s like the slums of series, where all the poor people live, where gravity is really slight, near the core I think, and so he goes down there to investigate something, and he pours this drink. You can see the alcohol spinning from the bottle to the glass. Little tiny stuff, that half the audience misses it. Naomi did that at the end of season one too, where she picked up some dust to see if they were going the right way. She just sprinkled it because she saw how pronounced the Coriolis effect was. Little stuff like that, if you get it, you love it. If you don't, no harm done.

We try to put those all over the show where people can, if you're really looking, see a lot of cool stuff like that. It's really fun, but I like the little touches like that, I would say because they speak to the story. You haven't seen them before - at least I haven't. I haven't seen anything like that in a visual medium.

I just think the booze into the glass is a pretty cool!

The Expanse Season 1 will be available in Australia on the 8th of November, on DVD and Blu-ray. 

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