Sci-Fi Shorts: Payload Explores Life In A Dystopian Space Elevator Town

By David Wharton | 8 years ago

Welcome back to GFR’s Sci-Fi Shorts! With each installment, we highlight a new science fiction short film, and include a Q&A with some of the creative minds behind them. This time we’ve got a longer film than usual, but Payload is absolutely worth the extra time. Set in a blue-collar Australian town that has grown up around the base of a space elevator used to transport people and cargo into orbit, Payload takes a look at the harsh conditions of living in a place where right and wrong are often decided by money and violence. Amidst those harsh realities, one family attempts to keep their heads down and make due. But eventually those in power take notice, and they’re forced to make a horrible choice with no good answers.

The short is currently being developed into a feature, so don’t be surprised if you hear more from Payload in the future. You can learn more about Payload at the official website, and be sure to stick around after the movie for a Q&A with writer/director Stuart Willis!

What was the original inspiration for Payload, the core idea that got you thinking?

From a few photographs that were posted on author Warren Ellis’ blog. The key image for me was of two boys standing on top of a discarded rocket booster. After some research, I discovered that the photographs were from a larger series called “The Spaceship Junkyard” by Jonas Bendiksen / MAGNUM. They were taken in Baikonor, Kazakkhstan, where the local villagers scavenge the fallen debris from the nearby Cosmodome.

Those images really resonated with me. They seemed to be the people the future was leaving behind.

That seed of an idea then blended with my Australian cultural context: our dependency on mining, and the stories I’ve heard from, and about, our remote mining towns. As well as our internal debates over people smugglers and asylum seekers. The idea that Australia could become a “transit hub” for people smuggling had an appealing irony for me.

While I was thinking about the world I was also thinking about the characters that would live there there. For me, people are a product of their environment as much as our environment is a product of us. I knew early on that I wanted to focus on a sibling relationship — probably due to that inspirational image of the two boys! — to ground the story in something relatable, and that I wanted to tell a judas story, about a character who was forced to betray someone he loved to save another.

What ended up emerging was this dystopian world, but it grew very organically from that simple idea: “the people that the future has left behind”. I think every character in the film has been left by the future in some way.

I like that the space elevator serves an important purpose without really explaining or drawing attention to itself. It’s just part of the world and a very handy metaphor for class schisms. Did the themes of the short evolve from the idea of the space elevator, or did the space elevator evolve out of the themes of the story?

It was a bit of both. I had been thinking about how cinematic Space Elevators are, but hadn’t found an opportunity to use one yet. As I continued to develop Payload, I felt it was a perfect fit for the world that I was constructing. Space Elevators are just this brutal, utilitarian way of transporting goods and people into space. There isn’t anything romantic about them. Before there were cars and trucks, there were trains. It feels to me that when we industrialise space we will need we have our ‘trains’ before we have our MX5s. This is one of the reasons the film has such an industrial aesthetic.

And, as you say, the space elevator is very symbolic. It represents escape, class schism, but also a divide between heaven and hell. We designed the Elevator to have a diamond shape partly so in the final shot it would appear to be a star ascending to the heavens, so the film would end on a note of cautious optimism.


I love your world-building, the way you suggest different elements without spoon-feeding the viewer. Were there ever any temptations to make things more overt, such as why the brother was so eager to hide his sister’s gender and get her out of town?

Of course! We even considered having an opening title-card.

But what became clear from our “audience testing” (aka showing cuts to our friends and family) is that sci-fi literate audiences ‘got it’ pretty quickly. While we wanted to make it as clear as we could for the SF-illterate, we didn’t want to alienate or frustrate that core audience. After all, they’re the people who, we hoped, would love and support the film. But those who don’t love SF, even if they understand the film, are probably not going to love the film either. In other words, we made a SF film for SF watchers. Crazy, huh?

Did you first write a full script, then move on to designing things like the space elevator, or was it all unfolding more or less simultaneously?

I started writing some short one-page treatments for the idea. At first, it was mostly set on the elevator with the two brothers, with their childhood and father as a flashback. But I ended up deciding that I liked the flashback more than the narrative I was exploring, so it became the focus.

Due to time pressures, writing the script was done in parallel with the production. We were casting, location scouting, concept designing, storyboarding etc. all at the same time. It all fed into each other in surprising ways.

For example, when I saw Shane Nagle audition for the role of Adam, the father, I knew I had found the father. But he was a different father than was the on the page. So I worked with Shane in developing Adam on the page. We made him a capable man who was broken by the world, rather than a lost father figure.

As we found our locations, we wrote them into the script. The space elevator ‘base station’ was originally going to be inside a factory, but when we found the Chunky Move building — well, we simply rewrote what we had to make it work.

What is it about science fiction as a genre that appeals to you?

At its best, science-fiction combines great characters with compelling worlds, amazing visuals, interesting ideas and strong social commentary — and then makes it entertaining! What’s not to love? Its one of the few genres that can do and say so much.

And the community around SF is very passionate. Sure, it may mean they speak their mind with what they don’t like (Walking Dead, heh), but it also means they are very supportive of new voices they do like.

If you could pick anything, is there some sci-fi dream project that you’d love to make at some point down the line?

We’e got a feature-script for Payload, and we think it’s pretty great. It takes the world and ideas of the short, makes everything more dynamic, and turns it all up to eleven. Earth is in the final days of being evacuated. Simon Carter, the boy from the short, is now a corrupt people-smuggler working for Kate Henshaw. After he is betrayed by Kate, Simon must infiltrate the space elevator to rescue a young girl from slavery. We are pitching it as District 9 meets Die Hard.

Aside from my own ideas, I’d really love to do Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan as a kickass television series.