We recently chatted with director Bronwen Hughes, who gave us an idea of the sheer magnitude of Away, the Netflix original drama about an international space crew on the first mission to Mars. She also shared some behind-the-scenes details from the two episodes she worked on.
Away has been one of the streamer’s most ambitious productions to date. The stellar cast is led by two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Emma Green, an American astronaut heading up the mission. The storylines taking place on Earth are just as compelling as the ones happening in space.
Below, Bronwen shares some highlights from Episode 104 “Excellent Chariots” and Episode 105 “Space Dogs.” Plus, don’t forget to add Wiretap to Chrome so you can see exclusive comments by Bronwen while you watch her episodes of Away.
How did you prepare for the two episodes that you directed?
First was the character prep, because that’s what has to be the foundation of most decisions, especially for something like this which is deeply built on the human side of the science. The scripts were so well written, and immediately [had me asking], “What would I do in that moment of saying goodbye? How does that feel?” Goodbyes for long absences are painful enough, like working on a production overseas when you can’t just come back for any short visits. The idea that you launch to Mars not knowing if there’s a return and the risk is so high, that puts a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. So the character prep involved transporting myself into the shoes of these crew members — Emma Green in particular — for what [the mission] means and the question is massive.
Also, I had to learn what it’s like to be in space. I watched the documentary A Year in Space, and the Canadian super astronaut Chris Hadfield’s broadcasts, transmissions, and YouTube videos. My particular interest was how being in space affects basic things. The big Mission Control-type questions are interesting, but learning how everything works is even more interesting. Like how does the toilet work? How do you sleep? What does your hair do in space? So the first strain of my prep was to transport myself to what it would feel like and what I should viscerally translate that into, in filmmaking terms.
The second piece of prep was how to shoot this with zero gravity being the biggest challenge of all. The writers and producers had come up with their version of the rules of gravity on the Atlas ship. It was split between the central core and command modules having zero gravity, and a gravity-inducing rotating arm for the crew’s quarters. When we were preparing sequences for the crew’s quarters, we had to make these transitions from zero gravity to gravity, and that had to be built into the choreography, the shooting style, and whether there’s a horizon line. The actors’ performances are affected by those details. The biggest technical prep was everything that went down in the central core of the Atlas, including the common room where so much takes place. The design of the show is generous with space compared to a real-life ship, which is cramped and unfeasible for shooting. Although we felt like a crew that stepped on and fell over each other at every turn, we were actually taking some licence with how spacious the set was versus an actual ship.
In “Excellent Chariots,” you’re dealing with one of the astronauts, Ram, falling ill and how it puts the entire crew at risk. At the same time, Ram’s fever dream sequences are woven throughout. When you look back at that episode, what stands out in your mind?
If you get a virus in space — and don’t forget a virus is a living thing — it doesn’t have anywhere to go. Everybody’s at risk. It’s a major deal, terrible, risky, and dangerous. We wanted to give it weight so nobody feels like, “Oh, he’s going to get over his cold.” This is life or death. The script had a suggestion of Ram’s fever dream and that he was trying to get out of the airlock. But exactly what you see in the episode came to us during prep. We took the subjective experience of Ram in his fever dream and what he thinks he sees, but then the counterpoint of what’s actually happening in the ship. So the shots flipped between those two perspectives: Ram’s trippy fever dream version, and what the real world looks like. We had to design what it’s like when you’re in his head and when you’re not.
The other thing is we wanted was to flood the trippy-ness of the fever dream with Ram’s nostalgia for home, so we pieced together Ram’s memories through the filter of his fever dream, like a puzzle. The images of what he sees from his childhood come up as moments and impressions, but don’t add up until you spend a little more time in his head. At the start of the episode, the airlock extending into infinity needed to feel like it could be real. We couldn’t just slap fog filters on things to make it dreamy. We wanted a blurred line in the viewer’s mind between what is real and have a shift that makes you realize that’s the way Ram sees it.
The rules for protective equipment were another big part of pre-production on that episode, like when the crew would be allowed to remove their headgear while cleaning the ship.
In “Space Dogs,” there’s a beautiful scene where Misha (Mark Ivanir), the Russian cosmonaut, stages an elaborate puppet show for his grandchildren on Christmas Day. How did you bring that to life?
The detail that went into conceiving, rehearsing, and staging the puppet show was intense, especially because of the zero-gravity considerations. Plus, many of the actors were not only learning lines, but they were also working in specific accents for their characters. They had to perform in zero gravity harnesses and act like there wasn’t a harness, and then they had to learn to puppeteer. The props department had to invent puppets with armatures that would function in zero gravity, so no detail was overlooked. It took about two-thirds of a day to film the puppet show, but the rehearsal time was many days in advance.
“Space Dogs” also begins with a rather graphic scene where Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) is decorating the ship for Christmas and a piece of his foot falls off. Was that filmed using practical effects or visual effects?
All the medical things in Away were well researched and nothing was made up. That detail with Kwesi’s heel is true. Skin atrophies, especially those tough, callused bits. And with Misha, space blindness is a real thing. My favorite details when filming are the visceral ones that you don’t think of when you’re watching TV or reading the news. I was fascinated by what happens to the body in zero gravity for extended periods.
I’m a big fan of filming in a way that tricks the viewer and makes them ask whether it was real or fake. We had the special effects makeup team come up with prosthetic heel skin that they applied to Ato’s foot for when he pulled off the sock, and when he manipulated it close to the lens. When it floated through the air and he touched it, visual effects took over.
Were there challenges with filming so many powerful and emotional scenes between characters who are not in the same room together, whether they’re communicating over the phone or via video chat?
Knowing that screen communication was going to be such a big part of the show, we wanted the actors’ performances to be live, which never happens. Normally, you’d film somebody on their side of the conversation with somebody across the set reading the other character’s lines. Then you’d film the other side of the conversation in another location before the performance is produced in an editing room. On Away, production decided to build the sets on the same soundstage, with two crews shooting both ends of the conversation at the same time so the actors’ performances would be live. They were playing off each other, and that’s something you never get when you film phone or Skype conversations. That made the emotional sequences a big success, like in “Space Dogs” when Matt (Josh Charles) is playing the piano for Emma (Hilary Swank). That hit the heartstrings, and Hilary’s reaction was live and real.
Overall, the series feels like it takes place in the present, but we’re not at the point yet where humans can be sent on a mission to Mars. Did the writers give you an idea of when Away is supposed to take place?
The people at NASA and other space agencies were our advisors, so we had a wealth of knowledge. When we started working on it, we asked, “What period is this set in? It feels like the present, but we aren’t launching to Mars today.” The advisors answered that this would be the present if funding for the space program had continued without interruption. We would be capable of this launch to Mars if NASA hadn’t interrupted the Apollo program. If the space agencies had been fully committed since the start of Apollo, this would be our present.
For more exclusive, behind-the-scenes commentary from director Bronwen Hughes on her episodes of Away, add Wiretap to Chrome and start watching — or re-watching — now!