Amazon Studios Writer Q&A: Sci-Fi Movies, and the Intersection of Smart and Popcorn

Writer/director Omar Naim embraces the notion that science fiction allows us to observe present-day issues and human quandaries from an outsider perspective.

His award-winning 2004 film The Final Cut explored questions of memory and reality in a near-future world where people can have their babies implanted with chips that record every moment of their life.  Now he’s exploring the science fiction-thriller genre further, by rewriting the Amazon Studios Development Slate project Children of Others.

Children of Others is about a barren woman who miraculously conceives with the help of a mysterious fertility clinic, only to discover that she’s bearing an alien baby who may be the precursor to invasion – or the only hope for mankind. Veteran producer Edward Saxon (Silence of the Lambs, Adaptation) is attached to the project. 

We spoke to Omar about his inspirations, his own film, and the challenges and opportunities that come from working on a project created by another writer.

How did you get involved with Children of Others?

OMAR:  I pitched a couple of times and showed how passionate I was about the material as I put a lot of work into it and I think that we all sensed that we all wanted to make the same kind of movie, a smart popcorn movie. There are very few of those.  We are trying not to segregate smart and popcorn as there is no reason for that to happen.  They can and must co-exist which has been proven by people like James Cameron with the Terminator films and even more recently with a film like Rise of the Planet of the Apes which was well liked and was a big fun and smart science fiction adventure. 

What attracted you to the material?

OMAR:  I have always liked thrillers as they are always good at testing characters in a heightened way that still feels natural.  I also love science fiction and I believe there are a handful of human quandaries that the genre deals with really well.  The quandary of this film is pregnancy and parenthood and the responsibilities of a parent.  I feel that science fiction has never quite created a definite statement of it in terms of film, and with this script I felt it was a great opportunity to explore those ideas in an enjoyable way.

What are the challenges of coming in to re-write material from another writer?

OMAR:  When you write your own screenplay and re-write yourself a few times you do lose your perspective and your critical faculties of your own work.  With someone else’s work, it is really nice to look at something that will become mine and be able to determine what needs to be different.  Sometimes you just need that change in perspective. 

It is part of how things work.  I have not met the previous writer personally, but I did meet her through her script.  I was passionate enough about what she wrote to want to work on it.  There has to be a link between the writer and the re-writer, and it’s that hook that got you into the story in the first place while making room for your own ideas and what the demands of the studio are. 

Take for instance Casablanca, which was a script that was re-written by a different set of writers, each hired for their individual sets of skills and the seams don’t show at all.  A more recent example is Shakespeare in Love. Those two writers won an Oscar together and I don’t believe they met until the ceremony. 

It comes down to you doing whatever it takes to get the movie in the best creative shape possible. 

The Final Cut was your first movie as both writer and director.  How did the making of that inspire or connect with what you are doing now?

OMAR:  The Final Cut taught me that a good idea rooted in human needs can really connect with an audience. So with all my science fiction work, I try to start from the human gut and grow outward, never start with a “cool world” and then find the humans in it.

Who or what inspires you?

OMAR:  I am a fan of movies from directors like James Cameron and Terry Gilliam and during the last 15 years the Pixar movies have been inspirations for me.  They are so well structured in terms of character, story and subtext.

I like Kirk Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick and the comic book writer Grant Morrison.  All three of those writers took science fiction and turned it into memoir. I don’t mean literally. Rather, they took their perception of how the universe operates (or how it should operate) and created surreal, heady stories that defied the conventions of the genre and broadened it up. 

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five hit me hard in high school, the simplicity and playfulness of his language, the unpretentious exploration of big ideas. 

Morrison’s Doom Patrol exploded the superhero for me. I honestly can’t read “straight” superheroes anymore, they seem so Stone Age after Morrison had his fun with them. 

And Dick, well, he was a unique writer in many ways. What I love most about Dick, other than the compelling concepts for his books and stories, was who he chose to tell stories about. His writing was the anti-Star Wars (and I love Star Wars don’t get me wrong.) His heroes were never princes, kings, or destined to be anything special. Instead of the hero being the Starship pilot, he was the janitor on the sub-level who’s never even seen the cockpit. I like that. I’d never encountered that before. I want ordinary people to become heroes because they have to, not because fate forces their hand. I don’t believe in fate anyway so I can’t write that way.

What’s it like working with veteran producer Edward Saxon?

OMAR:  He’s one of those people whose resume just makes you say “I want to work with this guy”.  He’s also very smart and well-liked.  So he along with the Amazon team and myself are very happy that we have the same vision for this and I love that they are all about setting the bar higher instead of lowering it in terms of the creative process.  Some people like to lower it so it’s nice to have it raised so I can rise to the challenge.

- Sean Wicks