The Space Between Us follows Gardner (Asa Butterfield), the first child born in the East Texas colony on Mars. After being separated from all but a few astronauts for most of his life, Gardner meets tough orphan Tulsa (Britt Robertson) online and decides to risk life and limb to discover all the possibilities life on Earth holds for him. But today, he’ll just have to survive high school.
It’s a raw 50 degree day in the courtyard of Highland High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the crew is bundled up, but Britt Robertson rocks some short shorts without complaint, seemingly keeping herself heated by the fiery need for vengeance within her character, Tulsa.
In the scene in question, outcast Tulsa finds herself face-to-face with some class bullies. They’re trying to embarrass her with a superimposed shower scene video (that director Peter Chesholm jokingly refers to as his “finest work,”) but they’re the ones left with bruised egos before Tulsa pulls her hair up and speeds off on her motorcycle. Sometimes she manages to kickstart and ride the bike away, sometimes not so much. The actress says she’s had some training, but not enough to make her an expert.
“I’ve been riding a lot, sometimes with Asa on the back,” she explains. “It’s kind of a gong show.”
Later in the day, Robertson teams up with co-star Asa Butterfield for Tulsa’s first meeting with Gardner. The latter has big hopes after risking his life to meet Tulsa, but things don’t go exactly as he planned. It turns out you can’t just disappear on your online girlfriend for eight months while you secretly travel from Earth to Mars, after all.
Working in an in-session high school isn’t always the easiest, like when one of Britt’s motorcycle drives is scrapped due to a curious bystander poking his head down the alleyway and into the shot, but Peter Chesholm says it’s much more relaxing than filming a crop duster flyaway action take or space sequences at Elon Musk’s SpaceX, in biospheres, and on soundstages.
A near-future child born in space might seem like a wild concept crafted by Richard Barton Lewis and Allan Loeb, but after calling NASA and asking them what would happen if a female astronaut found out was she pregnant on a flight to Mars, Lewis got a surprising response.
“There was just silence on the end of the call. They said ‘Are you listening to our phone calls?’” As for the verdict on such a scenario, NASA admitted “It’s gonna happen and we don’t know what to do,” according to Lewis.
So Lewis spoke to more experts at NASA, Stanford “Mars czar” Scott Hubbard, and medical experts to figure out exactly how a child born under those circumstances would fare if he returned to Earth. The people he met along the way, including Virgin Galactic entrepreneur Richard Branson and astronauts who gave up personal lives to follow their dreams, inspired other characters in the script played by Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino.
With his screenplay in the works, Lewis began dreaming of casting Gardner. After working on August Rush, Lewis hoped to work with Freddie Highmore again, but quickly realized the actor would be too old for the role by the time production rolled around.
“Then I saw Hugo Cabret and The Boy In The Striped Pajamas and thought ‘Oh my god, this kid is fantastic.” So fantastic, in fact, that the script grew with Asa. “Originally the character was 13-years-old. But as he got older, we developed the story to make him an older character.”
Thankfully, Lewis’ dream actor was interested in the role, thanks to the film’s genuine nature.
“A lot of sci-fi films, you can’t really put yourself into that position because they’re just so far-fetched or insane,” said Butterfield. “It is set 16 or 17 years in the future, but it doesn’t feel like science fiction at all because of the actual content and ideas.”
With Asa on board, it was time to teach him how to be a space boy. First, with only 33% of Earth’s gravity on Mars, he had to develop what the director refers to as “a weird ass walk.”
“We strapped really heavy weights to his shoes and we put massive weights on his shoulders. You could literally say that’s what it would be like if you were accustomed to Mars gravity and you’d come to Earth,” said Chesholm.
From there, it was developing the aloof personality of a teen with almost no socialization. “I think he can be quite strange in his mannerisms; in the way he talks to people; in the way his experiences things; in the way he reacts to things,” Butterfield explained. Much of this is that Gardner know one point about Earth’s many wonders. At one point, he flips out upon seeing a horse for the first time. “You just have to be absolutely in awe of everything you see. Whether it’s a tree or a dog, everything’s interesting.”
Thankfully, Britt Robertson says it’s Gardner’s oddities that lead Tulsa to trust him. Her character has had a tough upbringing and isn’t to be messed with, but Gardner opens up her softer side.
“I think it’s important that she’s tough and defensive and she has this exterior that’s really different from how she is on the inside. In contrast to that, I think it’s important that she be vulnerable at moments as well,” Robertson said. “My character thinks he’s really bizarre but in a fun and naive sort of way, which is so endearing. There’s no harmful bone in his body.”
“He doesn’t quite know what’s appropriate or not, which I think is an interesting journey with a girl who’s quite alienated,” writer Richard Barton Lewis added. “So he’s an alien and she’s alienated.”
Despite the technicalities and a rooting in reality, the story is very dependent on the human element. Filled with hope and aspirations, audiences will fall for Gardener and Tulsa as they fall for each other.
“It’s a science fiction, but it’s a lot more than that with all the themes and the ideas,” Asa Butterfield said. “It’s very relatable just because it’s set in the future, but all the things we’re dealing with are very current. It’s about belonging and finding where you belong.”
“The protagonists deal with isolation, connection, and separation in their own way,” said Peter Chesholm.
Britt Robertson stressed the connection between the characters and the story’s universal nature underneath the sci-fi veneer. “You really get to meet these two people and invest emotion and time.”
Has the space element turned the stars into wanna Mars residents? Well, not quite.
“I’d like to go into space. I think Mars is a bit too far of a trip,” Asa Butterfield rationalized. “You go there and then it’s like ‘Oh shit. Now what? I have to go back to Earth and it’s like a nine-month journey.’”
Britt Robertson’s concerns were a little more earthly. “I feel like I couldn’t take my dogs,” she joked. “That would be complicated! Where do I buy dog food? Where do I find Mountain Dew there?”
The Space Between Us hits theaters on February 3, 2017.