“Spaceman” Director Johan Renck on Guiding Adam Sandler Through the Cosmos

The vast expanse and harsh conditions of space can impose solitude or offer a fresh perspective. As astronaut Jakub Prochazka (Adam Sandler) is nearing the climax of a six-month interplanetary investigation, he sails farther from the problems he left behind on Earth in director Johan Renck’s Spaceman. With four young children, Renck understands the forces that pull at a working parent – especially a career that requires long stretches of separation.

“Our vocation, our job, whatever we do is important for several reasons, of course, but life is what happens when you’re busy doing other things,” Renck reflected. “It becomes evident. You grow up, wise up, and understand that you must make some choices.”

As Jakub investigates a Milky Way mystery, his wife (Carey Mulligan) reckons with his absence and the aftershocks of their personal turmoil. Just when their connection fails, an unexpected visitor boards Jakub’s craft. The creature has fearsome features that resemble Earth spiders and octopi, but they have a soulful connection.

SPACEMAN. Hanus (voice by Paul Dano) in Spaceman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

“It’s kind of beautiful to take the naïve and slightly pure ideal of the human meeting this sage-like creature who has this full-on understanding about boiling down the universe as it should be,” Renck said. “A lot of the things we as humans tend to worry about or get upset about that kind of goes down to one thing – it is what it is, and it is what it should be in any given situation.”

Jakub comes to address the ancient alien as Hanus (Paul Dano). Through their discussions, Jakub’s noble aspirations begin to tarnish in the light of wisdom. His selfless contributions to mankind seemingly derive from more personal motives.

“This very ethereal creature from the earliest universe encounters a human and becomes deprived of a lot of the tools that he has at his disposal because he’s dealing with an imbecile basically, which is us, humans,” Renck explained. “In terms of how we treat the planet, and we look upon ourselves and the priorities we make and our narcissism and egoism and all those sorts of primitive animalistic things that we are.”

SPACEMAN – BTS – (L to R) Carey Mulligan as Lenka and Johan Renck (Director) on the set of Spaceman. Cr. Larry Horricks/Netflix © 2023.

But is the encounter even real? The Earth-based crew never receives transmissions with proof of Hanus, and they begin questioning Jakub’s erratic behavior. Does the lonely astronaut’s guilty conscience produce hallucinatory visions of intelligent extraterrestrials? Renck answers a resounding no and points to the sneeze that proves it.

“I wanted a proper nonnegotiable moment with Hanus that solidifies [his existence],” Renck declared. “There’s no other way that he could get mucous on the visor of the helmet. There’s not some malfunctioning device in the spaceship that’s going to spray him. The residue of that moment is in the whole film on that space helmet. It’s very important that Hanus is 100% real for sure.”

SPACEMAN. Hanus (voice by Paul Dano) in Spaceman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

The script was adapted by Colby Day from the novel “Spaceman of Bohemia” by Czech author Jaroslav Kalfař. Although produced for an English-speaking audience, Renck resisted changing the characters’ nationality.

“For me, part of the specificity of this book and how we developed it into a script is there is an Eastern European trajectory,” Renck explained. “It’s subtly noted in the film how Jakub’s father was an informant for the party, and Jakub had a bit of inherited guilt there. I felt that the specificity of keeping it Czech is going to be way better than trying to translate it into some American or English landscape. There’s such specificity to the plight and trials and tribulations. The thing with being an informant in the Soviet Union was it’s either that or a bullet to your head. There’s no in-between.”

Don’t expect Sandler and Mulligan to flex their Czech accents, though. Renck is fiercely opposed to the practice.

“I hate accents in film. It’s the dumbest thing on the planet,” he humorously objected. “All we need to do is believe in how people talk to each other to some extent. For me, if we would have a film of all these people speaking with a Czech accent, number one, what does that even mean? If you’re Czech, you don’t have an accent if you’re speaking Czech.”

Renck’s work is consistently rooted in the human condition, yet technology has been central to his career in both subject matter and the tools he uses to tell stories. He took home the Emmy for directing Chernobyl about the 1986 nuclear disaster and has been driving trends in music videos for decades. Renck even served as executive producer of the buzzy virtual ABBA concert, ABBA Voyage. For Spaceman, he blended style and science to create an emotional space fantasy.

“It’s kind of retro-futuristic kind of thing,” Renck explained. “On one end, it’s very analog, but at the same time, we’ve invented this kind of technology for them to communicate. Because otherwise, if you’re speaking from Jupiter to Earth, it’s gonna take like several hours for that signal to reach Earth and several hours for the answer to come back, so we just devised this Czech Connect quantum technology because it’s theoretically possible to communicate at the near speed of light.”

SPACEMAN. (L to R) Sunny Sandler and Adam Sandler as Jakub in Spaceman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

On the practical side, Jakub spends the majority of the film floating in the spacecraft, and the visuals for Hanus were only realized in post-production. Sandler had to act the scenes alone under challenging conditions to appear as if he was floating and sharing the cabin with the alien.

SPACEMAN -BTS- Adam Sandler as Jakub on the set of Spaceman. Cr. Jon Pack/Netflix © 2023.

“I would say that Adam’s performance, given the fact that he was hanging in painful wires, subjected to the weight of your own body cutting in everywhere, acting a whole movie to a tennis ball because we didn’t have Hanus there, of course, I would say that his performance is pretty incredible based on that,” Renck praised. “But zero gravity is really tricky. You have to use everything. There are wires, there are various rigs, and there’s even CGI involved in terms of making that as believable as you can. It’s really tricky.”

Shooting the scenes on board the ship were so slow and painstaking that Renck felt Carey Mulligan’s Earth scenes were “too easy” at times. As for the challenge of zero gravity, Renck says he had enough.

“I’m never doing that again,” he laughed. “It’s terrible for everybody involved.”

SPACEMAN – BTS – Paul Dano (as the voice of Hanus) and Adam Sandler as Jakub with crew members on the set of Spaceman. Cr. Jon Pack/Netflix © 2023.

Renck surprisingly proclaimed that he is “useless with computers” and praised the smart crews he has surrounded himself with. He remembers sleeping at the postproduction houses early in his career to learn about the software.

“I’m tremendously interested in [tech] because, for me, various aspects of this is something that is used for my benefit in the job that I have,” he said. “I am really intrigued by anything that scares me. My favorite place to be is where I have no idea what I’m doing. I like to put myself in a situation where I’m working with stuff that’s daunting or overwhelming. That’s when I function at its best.”

Ultimately, all of the cutting-edge technology works to serve the story. Spaceman is an emotional reflection on our brief existence, albeit one in a stunning interplanetary setting.

“I just want people to plunge into the world and be embraced by it. Allow it to take you wherever it takes you without having to abide by some very pragmatic, boring rules. It’s a fantasy. That’s what it is. That’s the fun of making movies, isn’t it?”

Spaceman is now showing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.

Featured image: SPACEMAN. (L to R) Adam Sandler as Jakub and Hanus (voice by Paul Dano) in Spaceman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.



Kelle Long

Kelle has written about film and TV for The Credits since 2016. Follow her on Twitter @molaitdc for interviews with really cool film and TV artists and only occasional outbursts about Broadway, tennis, and country music. Please no talking or texting during the movie. Unless it is a musical, then sing along loudly.