“Space Cadet” Writer/Director Liz Garcia on Crafting Her Cosmic Comedy

It was an article about NASA’s first class of astronaut candidates in which women constituted half the participants that piqued Liz Garcia’s curiosity about the highly competitive candidacy process and ultimately prompted her to write about it. As the writer/director/producer (The Lifeguard, The Sinner) notes in her Director’s Statement,Once I learned how astonishingly competitive it is to even get to the point that you’re being considered, I knew I wanted to set a movie in that world, because it’s so extreme” — and, which she remarks below, lends itself to a comedic touch.

The result is Space Cadet, a fun, feel-good film starring Emma Roberts (We’re the Millers) as Tiffany “Rex” Simpson, a dreamer and “DIY engineer” who is accepted into NASA’s astronaut training program. Underestimated and nothing like her elite fellow trainees, she must depend on her unstoppable drive and down-to-earth smarts to make it into space. Reminiscent of Legally Blonde, Space Cadet also features Poppy Liu (Hacks), Tom Hopper (The Umbrella Academy), and Gabrielle Union (Bad Boys II).

Garcia chatted with The Credits about creating her heroine, casting Roberts, and shooting in “space.” Following are edited interview excerpts.


You’ve written that reading about NASA’s first class of astronaut candidates being 50% female inspired you to write Space Cadet. Tell me how the story developed from there.

I read that announcement, and I just got curious, not even from a moviemaking perspective, just as a person, about what it took to become one of those people. The basic research I started was how to apply to become an astronaut at NASA, and I realized that to get to the point where you’re even in the semi-finals, you have led a life of such accomplishment on multiple fronts that it’s almost hard to believe. It struck me as a great world for comedy, with people who are that extreme and intense and focused, and who I think, in order to reach that point, have to be so competitive, have such fire. And then they get there, they’re not only going through more trials, but they’re being asked to work as a team. [Laughs] It just struck me as very funny to ask about those types of personalities. I also was thinking about what I wanted to direct next, and I wanted to make a comedy with actresses. And then it was about building a protagonist you would root for, not the person who’s had all her ducks in a row since she was a kid.

Rex (Emma Roberts) in SPACE CADET Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz//Prime Video © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

It reminds me of Legally Blonde, which you mention in your Director’s Statement. Apart from being in the world of space, what distinguishes your heroine, Rex?

Well, I had to create someone who could plausibly succeed in this environment, but not because she had gone to the right college, had a higher degree, or presented herself in any sort of polished way. So I had to look at the skills that astronauts need to have that are accessible to people who don’t have privilege at all, and that became the “Florida girl,” meaning a person who was growing up outside in the natural world and is a DIY kind of engineer. But it was also very important to me that this be a person who, by virtue of specific feminine traits, would be underestimated. For Rex, it’s that she is incredibly warm, kind, and generous, and that would make her seem like a space cadet. But actually, her ability to bond with other people, communicate with them and see their strengths would be how she’s a good leader.

Captain Jack (Andrew Call), Dr. Stacy (Desi Lydic), Miriam (Josephine Huang), and Grace (Yasha Jackson) in SPACE CADET Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz//Prime Video

At what point was Emma Roberts cast?

I had been working with the production company, Stampede Ventures, and once we were all happy with the draft, it was time to find somebody. I’ve known Emma since she was 16, when I was trying to direct my first movie. We’d met and been sort of circling each other, trying to find something for a long time, and this was it. She’s incredibly warm, incredibly game, very, very funny. And she wanted to make a movie like Private Benjamin. She saw that she could be another one of these iconic movie blondes, and she was willing to go there and be incredibly goofy and free.

Logan (Tom Hopper) and Rex (Emma Roberts) in SPACE CADET Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz//Prime Video © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

Costume design, hair, and makeup are particularly critical to the character of Rex, who is colorful, creative, a dreamer, and generally upbeat and optimistic. Tell me about your team behind the clothing and cosmetics.

I’m so glad you asked that question because that’s a big passion of mine in making movies, particularly with this movie where Rex’s look was going to be distinctive and not influenced by the times. I had worked with Evren Catlin on my second film, One Percent More Humid. Evren has this incredible imagination, is really resourceful, always under budget, goes to every random thrift store, and she really embraced this idea that Rex would DIY her own clothes – in the same way that she’s building this series of gates for the manatees in the movie, she would build the clothes that she wanted. And so Evren and her incredible team did that. They got people to custom airbrush T-shirts, cut them up, and bedazzled them. And then, translating that to hair and makeup with Carla [Gentry Osorio], who did Emma’s hair, and Nick [London], who did her makeup. I didn’t want her hair to look like other people’s hair. I saw on Pinterest that people were adding adornments to their hair, so Carla bought all these charms and ribbons and wove them into Emma’s hair. And Nick made sure that her makeup, while natural and sort of low maintenance, was also expressive and fun.

Rex (Emma Roberts) in SPACE CADET Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz//Prime Video

Where did you film the space scenes, and what was involved in choreographing and shooting them? 

Our production designer built the exterior of the capsule that Rex takes to space, and then we had rented a set that was like a replica of the exterior of the space station, and then we were shooting against black. One of our VFX supervisors was on the set, because the intention was always to composite what was practical, what we had the actors and the stunt people actually touching, with elaborate VFX that created depth and space. We had a really brilliant VFX supervisor, Bernie Kimbacher, and he was very exacting about making sure that every vantage point was real: where’s the sun, where’s the moon, where’s Earth, and what would be realistically seen, what would the light be like. And working with our cinematographer, John Inwood, and his whole camera department, they really did it.

Rex (Emma Roberts) in SPACE CADET Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz//Prime Video

There are some great lines in the film that are so nuanced and grounded in real life. One in particular is when Rex’s father gives her a pep talk and ends it by saying, “The game is on,” and leaves to watch it. What’s your approach to writing dialogue that carries the story while entertaining the audience?

Actually, that was Sam [Robards], our actor. He improvised that line. It’s such a gift when you’ve given an actor enough information and you’ve cast the right person that then they can improv in character and it’s totally dead on. And really, all of the actors understood enough to add to their character in a convincing way. In terms of writing comedy, the way I always approach it is that characters are funny when they’re consistent, meaning the comedy comes from learning how a character behaves and sees the world, such that the audience starts to anticipate they’re probably going to react a certain way. So, something might be a funny one-liner, but if it doesn’t reflect the way the character actually sees the world, there’s no point.


Space Cadet is now streaming on Prime Video.

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Featured image: Emma Roberts (Rex) and Director Liz W. Garcia in SPACE CADET Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz//Prime Video