With ‘Constellation,’ Michelle MacLaren Gives Us A Space Thriller We Can See

Within the first half hour of ConstellationApple TV+’s latest sci-fi series — you’ll think you have the show’s premise pegged. It’s a by-the-book space disaster complete with severed limbs, cosmic explosions, and freak accidents that force brilliant minds to make heroic sacrifices. But, in the waning minutes of its premiere, Constellation throws viewers a gravity-assisted curve ball that brings all of those preconceived notions crashing back down to Earth.

The show, created by Doctor Who writer Peter Harness and directed by Breaking Bad visionary Michelle MacLaren, isn’t really about what happens to astronauts in space at all. It’s about everything that goes wrong once they come home. With Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) playing Jo Ericsson – a scientist who survives a mission-ending tragedy aboard the International Space Station only to confront a sinister conspiracy when she re-enters Earth’s atmosphere – Constellation tells a timeline-hopping story about love, loss, and how we define what’s real.

Uproxx spoke with MacLaren about setting her sci-fi head-scratcher of a series apart from the rest of the streaming glut, the mysteries of space travel, and whether TV really is too dark these days.

From your first gig on The X-Files to this, what about the world of sci-fi is interesting to you as a director?

I would say that Constellation is actually a mix of genres, which I like. It’s a character-driven drama, first of all, and a psychological thriller. There’s action, there’s adventure, and there’s horror. It’s fun to mix those genres. In this one specifically, there are so many different elements going into it that I drew on a lot of my different experiences to bring to the table.

I love that, other than Jonathan Banks, there’s a tie-in between the show about a drug-dealing science teacher and the show about a space catastrophe.

On Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, I really got to play a lot, be very creative, and think out of the box. That taught me a lot about how to use the camera best to tell the story and where to put it. It’s wonderful to work in different genres and be able to experiment and try different things, and then when you do something like this where there’s a mixture you can draw on those experiences.

This show hits the gas within the first 20 minutes and it doesn’t let up after that. Why did you want to just throw the audience in the chaos from the jump?

Nowadays, you’re competing against so much. You want to grab ahold of your audience, you want to say, ‘Okay, here we go, we’re going to take you on a ride.’

We want to get to the catastrophe and put Jo in that situation where she’s by herself on the ISS, she’s in survival mode, and what she really wants is to get back to her daughter. That’s the core of the setup. So we wanted to get to that, I think, as quickly as possible. And then we wanted to give it time for you to sit with Jo and experience the terrifying survival instincts that she has to go through on the ISS — rebuilding the battery and the ticking clock, for you to feel the angst and her longing to want to be with her child.

This is a space story we don’t see often – what happens when someone comes back down to Earth? Did any of your research answer that question?

Well, one of the things that really fascinated me about this was the idea of what would happen if you woke up one day and your world looked familiar, but it changed. It didn’t seem quite right. It was off. How would you deal with that? Peter Harness, who created the show, did a lot of research and he too was drawn in by the various stories from the people who went to space and had odd experiences like whether they saw angels or light passing through their hands or heard voices, dogs barking, that kind of thing. And then, when they came back to Earth… there have been some astronauts who have been really challenged. Some go on to live wonderful, successful lives, but the ones who have gone awry, is it from traveling in space or is it from reaching the pinnacle of your career? Who knows?

But he talked a lot about the overview when you’re up there and the astronauts look down at this little blue dot and everything they know and love is down below and the kind of effect that it can have on you. Space travel is fascinating and I think that what it does to the mind, who knows when you go up there if you come back the way you left.

If you’ve never helmed a space movie before, it’s probably a bit of a learning curve learning how to shoot zero-gravity – and make it believable. How much of this show was just you, MacGyvering your way through it?

[laughs] Shooting the ISS was very challenging. We had to storyboard every piece of the spacewalk. It’s so expensive to shoot. So we had to create everything and get everything approved ahead of time. And then we still changed things in the execution. So having everything broken down to every specific shot was really important for everybody involved, especially the stunts and the special effects and the visual effects because in every shot the characters are floating — whether they’re miming it or whether they’re on wires or whether they’re on a seat that rolls or a platform that was built for them to be on their stomachs — they’re doing all this while acting. And then we had specific camera rigs that had a float to them, one we called the chicken cam because it had so much flexibility and we could move it in small places. I learned so much, it was all very new to me.

Did you get any input from actual astronauts on how to make those scenes look as authentic as possible?

Scott Kelly was our astronaut consultant and he really helped us with the authenticity. He came to Berlin and he showed us how you move and talked about how it felt and what to be careful of. If you move too fast in space and you hit something, there’s the ricochet effect and it can be deadly, which was in itself a challenge because here we are shooting an action sequence, but you can’t move quickly because you’ll kill yourself. So it’s like, ‘How do we keep that exciting?’ It was really challenging, but we really wanted to make it as grounded and realistic as possible.

There’s an ongoing discussion about the look of TV shows these days – how dark they are. This series is filled with night shots, scenes on frozen lakes, and tons of images that could easily be impossible to actually see. But they’re not. Where do you stand on the issue of too-dark TV shows?

Ah, that’s interesting. Well, first of all, I’ll just say that it was really important to us that we went to practical locations so that we could shoot 360. We did go to the Moroccan Desert, to Kazakhstan, and we did build most of the International Space Station. We were very fortunate that we got to do that because it was really important to me that you understand the scope, the vastness of space, the vastness of the desert, the vastness of the Arctic, and how small we are.

In Finland. The sun never rose. We were there in February, so the sky just glowed. So we were able to shoot in that twilight, which everybody loves shooting in, which you usually only get 15 or 20 minutes of. That was the majority of our day. So I’m glad you felt like you could see it. We wanted you to feel the immenseness of these locations, and of course, you have to see them to do that.

What good is having Jonathan Banks lose it on a large frozen lake if you can’t see him?

Jonathan is amazing. I mean, he’ll go anywhere and do anything. He was absolutely in the north. I’ll tell you a secret that I shouldn’t — Jonathan got sick and he couldn’t make it to Morocco. And Barbara [Sukowa] who plays the head of the Russian Space Station, she broke her ankle. Those actors were never in Morocco. So we actually shot all the wide shots on the runway with doubles, and then we shot their close-ups in a parking lot in Berlin. But those are the types of things that happen when you go to places.