Morgan Lariah

Morgan Lariah talks about her Trek-infused film 5th Passenger

Contributed by
Jul 27, 2018

5th Passenger is a sci-fi horror film with a seemingly familiar concept: a single survivor, a pregnant female officer, is found clinging to life inside an escape pod, and her rescuers must comb through her memories in order to find out what happened to the other occupants. But it's what happens after those memories are unearthed and we finally learn the truth that the story gets really interesting.

The film, which held a successful crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter in order to launch production, boasts an impressive number of Star Trek cast members both past and present, including The Next Generation's Marina Sirtis, Discovery's Doug Jones, Voyager's Tim Russ and Manu Intiraymi, and Deep Space Nine's Armin Shimerman and Hana Hatae.

For our ongoing Female Filmmaker Friday series, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to Morgan Lariah, who plays lead character Eve Miller and also served as co-writer and producer on 5th Passenger, about making the film surrounded by so many Trek legends, how her character's struggles wound up partially mirroring her own behind the camera, and what future sci-fi projects she's working on.

Were you a big fan of science fiction before working on this project, and were there any shows or movies in particular in the genre that you were really into growing up?

I grew up in the '80s and I was more into fantasy, to be honest, but sci-fi was always very much there. Star Wars was huge and my mother was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so that was always in our living room. But as a kid, I didn't necessarily think like, "Oh, this is science fiction." I just thought, "Oh, this is a very interesting show." Then we also had Dune at the house and lots of Marion Zimmer Bradley books, which are more fantastical than science fiction.

Of course, I've seen Alien and a lot of the big classic sci-fi, but then when Scott [Baker] approached me about the concept [of 5th Passenger] I really did start having more of a science fiction education. Somebody would say something to me like, "Oh, that reminds me of such-and-such or this reminds me of this episode of that TV show," so I would go out and start watching more and learning about this world and then also studying practical effects, 'cause I knew Scott really wanted to have a practical alien in the movie. So by really watching a lot of films that dealt with practical effects and studying movies like Moon and just trying to reacquaint myself with the world, I got more of an education. 

Then also knowing that we have these Star Trek actors in the movie, I wanted to be a part of the conversation, so I revisited the shows and watched things. Not the entire seasons and the entire series, but I would try to familiarize myself with the canon and these actors' particular work. I feel like that's so important to know who you're working with, and really respect them and to understand. As an artist, so many came before us so we're always just building and building and you want to add to the conversation. The thing about 5th Passenger is that we're clearly influenced by a lot and you take that all in, and you try to make something familiar that's also different.

It feels like you're paying homage, especially with these Star Trek cast members. It was really fun to see faces that you know from those shows popping up as new characters. Tim Russ plays somebody you would never confuse with his Trek character, but it's such a delight to see them inhabiting a science fiction space with these brand new roles.

Yeah. I think so too. Getting these Star Trek actors was ... first of all, it was incredible that they said yes to us and that they agreed to be in this movie, but I didn't really realize how much of a gift it would be. It happened organically, having all of them in there. Scott and I had been working on the script for so long and it's not something we actually planned, like, "Oh, let's go find a group of Star Trek actors." It just happened and unfolded. That was one of the gifts that presented itself.

You get to see Tim Russ be so strong and such a presence and he's so commanding in the movie. It was amazing to act across from him and to work with that. But then how exciting for his fans to see that he's such a great actor and he can really take on anything and really bring it to life. And then you've got Marina and Armin and Doug, especially Doug, 'cause he's so new to the Star Trek world. Even though they had been seeing each other at conventions for years and years, they hadn't necessarily been in a scene together or worked together.

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Your piece for Women & Hollywood was so excellent. I read it before I watched the movie and I'm glad I did, because it gave me a new appreciation for not just the story but for your involvement in making the film. How conscious were you of the fact that, to an extent, your character's experiences wound up mirroring your own journey behind the camera?

I was so unconscious about that, honestly. I had no idea because we've been working on the script for a really, really long time and I feel like I was like a totally different artist at that point. Going through this whole journey has taught me so much that I feel like a totally different person now. I was in the type of situation where these things were happening, but I wasn't really acknowledging it and I wasn't being honest about it.

It's also very confusing because as a white woman, I'd never really experienced that to this level. This was my first feature film and you always hear things about the industry but when you're in a room and it's happening, it's really confusing and you're like, "Am I making this up? Am I imagining this?" So, because I'd never really experienced it before, I didn't really have the words to give it a name and speak of it because it was just so new.

Then when we were editing it and watching this footage, [Miller] has all of that anger and you see it and you're like, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe ... Why did I do this?" There was no way to predict it. I honestly had no clue at all. [But] we have had a shift in our society as of last year. I feel like there's a lot more openness about women's circumstances, and I think we're really waking up to that fact. TV shows like The Handmaid's Tale taking what's really happening to women in countries and putting it in this dystopian future [though] everyone actually knows this is real, this is happening right now. I think it's really powerful.

So, I think that's part of the healing process. First, you present these ideas and show them, because if you're in denial about it there's really no way to change it. But my hope is, ten years down the line if people watch this film they think, "Oh, you know, that's terrible treatment. That's so long ago." I hope that we keep evolving and that the film does date itself.

In the context of the film, it was really interesting to watch the way Miller gets treated by the other survivors. It's not only that she's the only woman, but she's also someone who's considered a non-citizen, which gets brought up a lot in the story. How much of that treatment do you think has to do with her gender, and how much of it is the result of what is basically a class divide? Or do you think it's a little bit of both?

I think it's both. The way that we built the world, we didn't put it on a platter and serve it, [but] if the Yellowstone Caldera erupts ... I don't know how much you know about it, but the northern hemisphere of our world will basically be covered in ash and soot, and so crops will die. So the idea is that suddenly the axis of power has shifted, so everyone in the southern hemisphere is now on top of the world and they're the ones that have all the power.

Then someone like Doug Jones' character is the 1% who will always survive. He's our 1-percenter who was in the northern hemisphere and he's fine, but then that's why that world is what it is. So there's the fact that [Miller] is a non-citizen and then the fact that she's a woman, it plays out in that way too. 

I am curious about something that we learn early on, which is the story decision to make Miller pregnant, and how that comes about. Does the fact that she is expecting a baby more heavily influences her decision making once we learn the truth about what happened in the escape pod?

Yes. Absolutely. That's her motivation. She has to live and she has to protect this baby as best she can and do everything she can, to not only survive but to get to this planet and provide what she hopes is a better life. In the original script, it was just Scott's idea that she wanted to survive to have children, and then when we sat down with David Henri Martin, who helped us rewrite the script, he said, "Oh, no. No. She needs to be pregnant. This needs to be present now." He was absolutely right, like it had to be. That little person's in the room and Miller's fighting for her.

It was interesting because Armin had said, "It's not really my type of movie, but I really like this idea that life perseveres and life wants to live and life finds a way." As an actor, as an artist, you have to find something that you believe in in a script. I think that's what it was for him as well. Then he'd also said he's always cast as the mean guy and he wanted to see if he could be kind.

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You did wear a lot of hats making the movie. You star in the film and you worked on the script and you're a co-producer. Given that you were so involved in bringing the film to life, what's the biggest takeaway you learned from the process?

I have a lot. I feel like there's just so much I learned on all sorts of different levels. This is a bit mundane and a bit trite, but really I had this big epiphany on set in that you can not be a very nice person and you can have a really bad script and if you have a big pile of money, you can always make a movie. Which to me, was just kind of interesting because we were really lucky in that we got all these amazing crew to come on and the cast to come on, people that were really great at their craft who elevated the whole project, who are far more talented in whatever their particular field than I am, far and wide. You have this amazing DP, this great production designer, costume designer, et cetera, but you have to pay them. I know it's not really exciting but, just that idea that really, if you have money, you can make anything.

Then with that said, it's all a lot of work. So, hopefully, if you do have a lot of money you'll choose to make something that you love and speaks to you and is good, but at the same time, it doesn't necessarily even have to be good. I know it's not really profound, but that's what I learned, 'cause Scott and I had been working on the script for so long and then we were just trying to get it made for so long and no one wanted to give us money, and we believed in it so much, and how frustrating that was. It just doesn't really matter, you can have whatever script but it's not going to get made if you don't have the money. I think that's hard for a lot of artists. I think that's where everyone really gets stuck.

You also wrote and directed another sci-fi short prior to this movie. What do you think it is about science fiction that makes it a genre through which to tell some of these complex stories, especially for female characters?

I feel almost like there's so many rules the way our current society's constructed, and there's so many ideas of what we have to be and what we should be and what we should look like and how we have to act, and if we don't shave then we're disgusting. We have so many rules as women, and it's exhausting and it's such a heavyweight. I think in sci-fi because it is this new world, it's anything, it's magical. You can leave all of that behind and you can just be, and you can be this woman you actually are, and you don't have to worry about all that other stuff and you can almost get away with it. There's a freedom in this creativity there, and you're not tethered down to this world as you would be in a small indie drama or a small indie comedy.

You mentioned that you've been working on more sci-fi scripts since 5th Passenger. Can you share anything about those projects yet and what they're about?

Yeah, absolutely. The one I made the short film of was based off of a script called Colony One and it's about the first wave of colonists who go to Titan to set it up and establish a colony there. They think they're there for one reason and then they find out actually they're there for another. It follows this small group with female leads.

Full Take is the other feature film I've been writing and it's about surveillance in the future, how our nation has become the ultimate surveillance state, and a woman who works at a governmental department discovers that her girlfriend has gone missing. So she employs her girlfriend's brother to help find her and throughout this process, her eyes are opened. It's a really fun world to work in, and there's a little robot on it that I love.

Robot sidekicks are always welcome.

I know. Right? They're the best. Honestly, when people read the script, he's everyone's favorite.

5th Passenger is currently available on DVD and on demand everywhere.