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How 'Space Cadet' Writer Turns Headlines into Female-Centric Comedy

July 2, 2024
8 min read time

Space Cadet is a new coming-of-age comedy starring Emma Roberts as Rex, a spunky young woman who’s always dreamed about becoming an astronaut and going into space. Unfortunately, her trajectory is thwarted when her mother passes away. Feeling a deep sense of loss, Rex now works as a bartender in Florida, occasionally wrestling alligators and rescuing lost manatees. After finding inspiration to get back on track with her space goals at a high school reunion, Rex applies for NASA’s ultra-competitive astronaut training program.

What Rex doesn’t know is that her best friend Nadine (Poppy Liu), embellishes Rex’s application a wee bit. OK, she embellishes it a lot, but it gets Rex into the training program. Once there, however, NASA directors Pam (Gabrielle Union) and Logan (Tom Hopper), quickly suspect that Rex isn’t the accomplished mechanical engineer she claims to be. Desperate to complete the training and fulfill her dream, Rex has to use all her wit, self-taught mechanical skills, and courage if she wants to succeed and get to the stars. 

Best known for her films Purple Hearts and The Lifeguard, Space Cadet is written and directed by Liz W. Garcia, who sat down with me over Zoom to talk about the thrills and challenges of writing her latest film.  

Real-Life Inspiration

Garcia says she was looking to write a script set in a big comedy world when she came across a news article.

“Around 2014, NASA announced they had their first class of astronaut candidates that was 50% female, 50% male. When I read that, I spent the next few years researching what it took to get to the place where NASA would even consider you. The more I looked into this high stakes, very intense, very competitive world, the more I just fell in love with the idea of setting a comedy there and making very specific, particularly female roles that would give actresses a chance to depict high-achieving very competitive women,” says Garcia.

Though she never considered herself a high-concept writer, something about the story clicked for her.

“I loved Private Benjamin and Legally Blonde. Legally Blonde in particular had felt really subversive to me, so I just started to noodle around with this idea of the way to tell a story about a woman achieving something unexpected,” she says.

Read More: 'Moana' and Writing Realistic Female Adventurers

Rex (Emma Roberts) looking at a homemade solar system in 'Space Cadet,' How 'Space Cadet' Writer Turns Headlines into Female-Centric Comedy

Creating the On-Screen World of NASA

Even though the story is a comedy, it still requires a ton of research into the astrophysics of it all.

“It wasn't the type of writing that just flows out of you. I had to research not just what goes on in astronaut training, but what type of set pieces I would be building and how these people are speaking. What they're talking about. It's all very technical and science-based and I had to become familiar enough with that vernacular that I could then have romantic exchanges where people are talking about physics. I was really grinding gears. I think the script took about six months to write because there was just so much that I didn't know and it wasn't that easy to find,” Garcia says.

Garcia says she read a lot of memoirs by real astronauts, and while helpful, they didn’t exactly tell you the day-to-day vernacular.

“I was really cobbling things together. I had to write this whole sequence where [Rex] flies a jet and they're talking about what she has to do to get the jet in the air. It required watching many, many, many YouTube videos and sort of teaching myself,” she says.

The research paid off considering the world of the NASA training center feels believable but not overly technical and allows room for the comedy to take shape. Adding to the authenticity, several of the film’s NASA training sequences were shot on location at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Crafting a Relatable Protagonist

Going into space has been the subject of many news headlines lately, with several notable entrepreneurs building their own rockets and space capsules. But beyond being a timely topic, humans leaving Earth to go into outer space really ignites our imaginations, making for a very appealing story in multiple ways.

“What's nice about writing about someone who wants to be an astronaut is that it has a universal quality because a lot of kids think about wanting to be one. But also, it feels like a metaphor because it's a sort of symbol of any goal that is lofty. I think the journey that I wanted to depict was one of someone who, like many of us, once thought of themselves as being very capable. And then life comes along and really brings you to your knees. That can happen in ways that are dramatic or it can be sort of death by a thousand paper cuts,” she says.

In the case of Rex, losing her mother at a young age creates a roadblock, preventing her from achieving her goals. But it also creates the opportunity for her to be emotionally resilient. This sets up a clear character arc.

“I like to write about grief. I think that it's something many people experience. To have your life derailed by loss in different forms was something I wanted to depict. Someone who was capable but knocked off course because most of us don't just follow a clear path. It's just not how life works,” she says.

Read More: How to Write Realistic Character Flaws

Rex (Emma Roberts) and a group of candidates in a NASA program in 'Space Cadet'

Advice for Writing Spec Scripts

Garcia knows how to tell stories that are topical, funny, and have a strong emotional throughline, so I asked her advice on writing spec scripts that get writers noticed. 

“I think the way to attract attention is either with a noisy, splashy idea or with your very specific voice on the page,” she says. 

For people who want to write for TV, she recommends having two original TV pilots or one original pilot, a play, a short story, or a feature script. But she has these words of caution. 

“Don't write the thing that feels like it could be on TV. Because that's a version of imitating what's already out there,” she says and suggests writing about the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever experienced.

“The reason I say write something embarrassing is because you have to think about the big pile [of scripts], either literal or email pile that's going to be on a decider’s desk. They are looking for a voice. Maybe they're going to buy your spec but more likely they're going to be intrigued by your voice, your particular way that you see the world and they're going to want to meet with you and keep you in mind for other stuff. This is how careers are built,” she says.

For people who want to write feature films, she recommends having two full-length screenplays that are super personal to you.

“Put yourself on the page. If you don't know what that means to you, I think, start with developing a superhighway between your brain and the page. Journal. Write essays. Start to train yourself to create as fluid a relationship as you can between what you think and how you express it in words,” she says. 

Garcia also thinks writers shouldn’t try to chase what they think is commercial. “Write what comes from your heart as opposed to what's strategic because the chances of you selling a feature spec or a TV spec are low. What you're trying to do is build relationships and have people know what your voice is as a writer. Don't worry about things like, ‘Would this get made? Is the budget too high? Is the budget too low? Is it too obscure?’ Just learn to write well from the way that you see the world,” she says. 

Space Cadet is currently streaming on Prime.

Read More: How To Write a Winning Spec Script

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