Showtime’s new series The Man Who Fell to Earth, created by Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, is a sequel to the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film of the same name, which stars David Bowie as an idealistic alien corrupted by human vices.
“We were just trying to honor [The Man Who Fell to Earth author Walter] Tevis and Bowie and Nicolas Roeg and the amazing storytellers that came before us, but we also exist in a continuum of science fiction storytelling,” Kurtzman says in Episode 513 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I want to believe that we can be at the vanguard of what science fiction is now, and of what it will become.”
The series stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as an alien from the planet Anthea who arrives on Earth 45 years after the events of the original film. Kurtzman and Ejiofor created a detailed backstory in order to portray a believably alien character. “We came up with the idea that their planet itself was so loud—just the winds and everything that was going on—the destruction of the planet was so loud that they evolved away from communicating verbally, and that they had to communicate nonverbally,” Kurtzman says. “We ended up building this whole sign language that they use to communicate, and a very particular way of moving together. So that’s just a process of lots and lots of rehearsals.”
In one memorable scene the alien is found naked, guzzling water from a garden hose that has been shoved several feet down his throat. “It’s really just a riff off what they did in the novel and the film, because he comes to Earth for water, because his planet is totally starved of water,” Kurtzman says. “I think we took the spirit of that idea and interpreted it in our own way, that if you came from a planet with no water but you needed water, if suddenly water was in abundance everywhere, you’d probably want to drink it all the time because you don’t take it for granted.”
Another major influence was the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, who was renowned for moving his body in unusual ways while keeping his face perfectly still. It wasn’t until after filming was complete that Kurtzman discovered he wasn’t alone in drawing inspiration from Keaton. “I found a set of photographs that had been taken on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth—the original film—and Bowie is sitting in his trailer, holding up an autobiography of Buster Keaton, with a big picture of Buster Keaton’s face on it, and he’s mimicking Buster Keaton’s face side-by-side,” Kurtzman says. “We hadn’t even seen that, and somehow, osmotically, we got that off of his performance, which was incredible.”
Listen to the complete interview with Alex Kurtzman in Episode 513 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Alex Kurtzman on characterization:
How many “alien comes to Earth and then the government tries to grab them” stories can you tell, particularly in an original way? We knew we needed the [Jimmi Simpson] character, but I think what Jenny and I didn’t want was to be writing this—hopefully—beautiful character story and then suddenly feel like when you cut to the CIA you’re in The Bourne Identity. There would just be massive tonal dissonance there, it just wouldn’t feel right. And so we were like, “How do we do this?” I think oftentimes the way to solve a problem like that is you say, “OK, forget about the fact that they’re in the CIA. What makes them interesting and compelling?” And we came to this idea that, “What if he’s just literally the meanest man in the world? What if he’s just both a total sadist and a total masochist, all at the same time?”
Alex Kurtzman on fandom:
There’s something interesting about what [the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”] says about fandom in general, not just for Star Trek, but fandom in general. Fandom of any kind is a place—particularly, I think, in our childhoods—where we escape to create an alternate reality for ourselves if our realities aren’t quite what we want them to be, and that’s why things like Star Trek or Marvel or Star Wars, that’s why people have such deep personal reactions, because there’s something very personal about one’s connection to a franchise that speaks to “this is where I felt safe when I was a kid.” And I guess there’s an inherent darkness to it, even though it’s also a wonderful, amazing thing, and there’s so much light to it as well. So it was kind of a perspective about what happens when it goes very, very wrong.
Alex Kurtzman on David Bowie:
There were a couple days where I would just do these really deep dives into Bowie interviews … As a young man he’s totally fearless, unbelievably fearless, and has both a confidence and an insecurity that are really quite extraordinary. He’s pushing every boundary there is, but you can see that there’s an incredible vulnerability in who he is. And then you go into the middle phase of his career, and he’s definitely calmed down more, but he’s still very unafraid to say the thing that needs to get said, and to provoke. And then by the time you get into his older years there’s the wisdom that comes with age, and a life lived the way that only David Bowie could live his life. So I like to think that he was defined by bravery.
Alex Kurtzman on science fiction:
I know that as an audience member I get excited when I see something that’s trying to do something different, that’s riffing on something that I love but it’s doing it in a different way. And that’s really what we set out to do with The Man Who Fell to Earth. And I think it’s really cathartic, I think it’s talking about things that are not just relevant now, they’re going to determine the future of whether or not we’re on this planet, but in a way that’s really entertaining. Great science fiction makes you think about your place in the universe, that’s the point. But it also entertains you, and it allows you to go to different worlds, and to envision things that you didn’t even think were possible, and you get transported into a whole universe, and I think that’s what the show does.