There Will Be Blood: Morbius Director Daniel Espinosa on Green Screen and Gratitude

Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) in Columbia Pictures' MORBIUS.

Since the character’s 1971 introduction (in comic The Amazing Spider-Man #101), the vampire Morbius has been a Spider-Man universe staple, appearing in numerous comics, animated television series, and video games. Yet he’s never made the leap to film, until now.

In the upcoming dark action-adventure Morbius, Jared Leto stars as scientist Michael Morbius, who accidentally becomes a vampire after attempting to cure himself of a rare blood disease. Leto, who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Dallas Buyers Club (2013), previously starred as superhero villain Joker in Suicide Squad (2016).

Sony Pictures debuts the film exclusively in cinemas on Friday, April 1. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa helms the project, having previously directed 2017’s outer space thriller Life, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, and 2012’s action-drama Safe House, starring Denzel Washington.

Espinosa spoke to Boxoffice Pro about his life’s journey from teenage ex-convict to major Hollywood director, his long-standing love of Marvel Comics, and his selectively limited and judicious use of green screen.

You got your start at 18 by knocking on the door of a film production office and offering to make their coffee for free. Did you even have aspirations to become a director?

Not really. At the time, I was living in an elevator. I was homeless. After six months of that, I thought, “I might as well go somewhere where I can at least dream a bit.” Since I’m broke and living off food that I can steal, I at least want to be with people I can admire. So for the first two months in that production office, nobody knew where I lived. They just knew that here was this new guy making coffee for free.

But I worked my ass off. Slowly, I got a little pay. Then I could rent a sofa at a friend’s place. Off I went, becoming a grown-up.

Eventually you started directing European movies, but you once said in an interview that you never imagined working in the American film business. So how does it feel to be directing one of the most anticipated American tentpole movies of the entire year?

It’s absurd. It’s very strange when you look at it from that perspective. I think I’d never dreamed about American movies because they seemed so extremely far away. When you start off as a 16-year-old going to jail, then you come out and end up on the street for six months, then you get a job making coffee, the idea that you would be anything at all was almost impossible. The idea that you would become an American film director feels like a dream that is not even worthy of aspiring to, because it would just cloud you.

When I was on the set and directing my first scene with Jared, with his excellent preparation, and Stefania Cella—who is the production designer on [Marvel’s Disney Plus show] Moon Knight as well—who had built a beautiful set, I had to pinch myself. Gratitude, man. You have to exercise gratitude.

A person who really has reason to exercise gratitude is your father, who was tortured for four years by the Pinochet regime in his native Chile following a military coup. You’ve previously said that that personal connection made it emotionally difficult to film a torture sequence in Safe House. Were there any similarly triggering sequences in Morbius, or is this film too escapist and fantastical for that?

There were rough moments. This character is in a lot of pain. Jared has his way of stuffing himself into his characters. At times where he was really weak and fragile, it was really hard to see. But it was also filled with lots of joy, because I’ve been a big comic book reader my whole life. To stand there and see someone levitate? That’s a very joyful experience.

Jared Leto was attached to star before you signed on. He personally met with several director candidates, and you met with him in Germany while he was touring with his rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars. What was said at the meeting that landed you the job?

For me, Morbius is the ultimate Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. That’s always been a theme for the Marvel universe—in the Marvel Cinematic Universe too, but especially the [comics]. You have the Lizard, you have the Hulk, Wolverine in many ways. Morbius was a story that should only be about that: about this good man who has to fight for his own humanity.

So we just had an open, frank conversation about where we stood and what we thought. I thought that was very good for both of us, because we got a very honest perspective of each other.

Sony Pictures is releasing a series of stand-alone films based on Spider-Man universe villains. Venom (2018) and its sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) were first. Kraven the Hunter comes next year. Did you look to Venom as inspiration, or were you just trying to do your own thing?

I’m a big Marvel Comics buff. What I love is that they’re all connected to each other, even if they’re different genres. [Marvel Comics writers] Chris Claremont and Ed Brubaker have very little to do with each other, but it would be possible for them to write in the same universe, even though artistically they’re very far apart. On the other hand, if I read a comic book where the writer didn’t note that he was part of a universe that already existed, I would get pissed off.

So, I mean, you have to. It’s all part of the same universe. I loved Venom.

In that same vein, did you look to director Jon Watts’s current series of Spider-Man movies for inspiration, too?

Well, that’s a bit different, because we’re two very different movies! No Way Home cost about $200 million, or was it $300 million? My movie cost $70 million. [Laughs.] Our movie has to stand on its own by its originality, by its imagination, its power. It’s like comparing a smaller war movie to [1962’s famously high-budget] The Longest Day.

Do you have a favorite memory from production?

Having Jared Leto play a cripple, watching him go through the pain of just walking and arriving in front of my camera, truly showed his dedication to the role.

On your previous movie, Life, you refused to use any green screen. Did you try to continue that approach with Morbius, or was this film just too high-budget to avoid it?

I actually wanted to use green screen on this one, because I wanted his powers to be expressed. Michael Morbius gets added senses upon the senses you and I have. He has echolocation. How would that express itself on-screen? The only thing that can come close to it are psychedelic experiences. Once you get into that realm, you get into the realm where what you’re watching when you’re filming is not the final version.

Now, I still didn’t use much green screen. But lots of things were added to let us “become” Morbius and see the world through his eyes.

You’ve collaborated with composer Jon Ekstrand on most of your projects going back to your short-film days, first working together at Stockholm Film School when you were 19. Surely this was the largest music budget he’d ever had. Did he try to expand his musical horizons accordingly?

When you make a Marvel movie, you have to make a great theme. You’re competing with the greatest composers on the planet. In the same way that he took an enormous step from Child 44 to Life, he again took an enormous step from Life to this one. We know each other so well. Every time I’ve done a movie in the past, I’ve thought, “Now I’ve gotten to a new stage.” But because we live next door to each other, I’d go to his studio to have a coffee, I’d hear something he’s written and think, “Oh, he’s so much better than me.”

You’re from Sweden, but in a previous interview, you called Night of the Living Dead the greatest movie ending of all time. So, clearly, your influences are a combination of European and American. Would you say one influence is greater?

It’s a mixture of both. A lot of directors are. If you look at great directors like Alfonso Cuarón, he has a lot of Mexican tradition inside himself, but at the same time he has a very strong American tradition. Jacques Audiard, one of his first movies, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, was a remake of an American movie called Fingers.

I think this idea of foreign cinema versus American cinema has started to dissolve ever since this invasion of foreign directors that happened in the 2000s: Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The new director is a melting pot.

Sony Pictures is releasing this film exclusively in theaters. Why is it important for audiences to see this on the big screen?

The cinema experience is very important as a storytelling form, because we do it together—with a bunch of our friends, of course, but also a bunch of strangers. It’s a very exciting experience, sitting there with hundreds of other people. The first moments where I really saw “crowds” were in the movie theater. You went into the city, you got your movie ticket, you sat in the cinema, and there were kids from all over town that were sitting there. That would make me feel that I was part of something.

Sony took a stand on cinema. [Sony Pictures Entertainment Chair] Tom Rothman loves cinema. Whether you want to talk about cinema from the 1920s or ’30s or ’40s, or ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, he’s seen them all. Even the year before this pandemic happened, he got Quentin Tarantino, one of our biggest defenders of cinema among all directors. [After releasing all his prior films with Harvey Weinstein’s distributors Miramax or The Weinstein Company, Tarantino released 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood through Sony Pictures.] This is an extension of that idea, of what cinema should stand for.

AT THE MOVIES

What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?

A Swedish sci-fi movie called The Brothers Lionheart, which is about two brothers who die and end up in this afterlife where they have to fight this huge dragon. I was 6 years old, and I dreamed about that dragon for 10 years after that. You know the author Astrid Lindgren, who wrote Pippi Longstocking? She wrote it.

What is your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?

For me, it’s popcorn. I love popcorn. I hate the sound of it, but I love popcorn.

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