Chris Pratt and Director Chris McKay on Tackling Time-Jumping Sci-Fi Action for ‘The Tomorrow War’

For Chris Pratt and director Chris McKay, making “The Tomorrow War” for Amazon Studios offered a chance to make something both familiar and fresh. Both have been renowned for visually striking adventures, full of humor and grand digital effects. Pratt is probably most famous for his role in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” as the trash-talking, mixtape-jamming Starlord. McKay’s work as a director and writer includes animated extravaganzas like “The Lego Batman Movie.” With “The Tomorrow War,” Pratt and McKay return to visually inventive action but on a pumped up, grittier sci-fi scale. 

Set in the near future, Pratt plays Dan Forester, a former soldier turned loving dad. The world is stunned when travelers from 30 years in the future interrupt a major sports event to announce that in a few years, an alien race will invade Earth and wipe out the human species. Fast forward to a few months later and humanity has banded together to draft people to go into the future and fight the alien menace in order to change time. While leading a platoon through smoke-filled streets, fighting the seemingly invincible alien creatures, Forester meets Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski), his own daughter now grown, who is a keen scientific mind attempting to find the right weapon to defeat the invaders. McKay and Pratt shared about the experience and challenges of crafting an original sci-fi adventure with Entertainment Voice.

“I read the script, which was originally called ‘Ghost Draft,’ and Chris was already attached to it over at Skydance, the studio,” said McKay. “You know, the movies I grew up with were a lot of comedies and animated movies. I was also a huge Steven Spielberg fan. I loved ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘E.T.,’ and also James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ and ‘Terminator.’ John Carpenter, George Miller and the ‘Mad Max’ movies, those were all the directors and movies that made me want to be a filmmaker. I read this script by Zach Dean and it had a lot of scope and scale to it but it also had a lot of heart. There was a story of fathers and families, husbands and daughters.”

For Pratt it was exciting to produce “The Tomorrow War” because it also marks McKay’s first foray into live-action filmmaking after making a name for himself in animation and post-production. “He’s been making films for years, and this is a big live-action movie, it was a massive step for him and for me coming on as a producer. I had so much to learn. I was grateful to be surrounded by really smart people,” said Pratt. “I was grateful to be working with Chris. He’s the kind of guy that is open to collaboration but also has a very clear vision. This is 100% his baby. I’ve worked with people who have transitioned from a writer into a director. Chris had cut his teeth mostly in the post-production process, if I’m correct, and then is working in being a director of animation and then a director of live-action. He’s got this thing, this personality, a great knowledge of film, but also just a really vibrant personality, an exciting aura about him when he’s on set. It’s really contagious.”

Like many major productions over the last year, “The Tomorrow War” also had to be finished amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In many ways the film now becomes even more resonant as a fantasy about humanity facing a major threat and uncertain future. “There’s a lot of existential metaphors you can now read into the aliens,” said McKay. “We finished the movie from a production standpoint in January 2020, so it was a few months before lockdown. Covid was just entering people’s radar as we shot the final scenes. We started cutting and then we were in lockdown. What was interesting about that is that we were very quickly able to get people home with their computers. So everyone started working from home. There’s this program called Evercast where we went back and forth with each other and looked over the edits. A rhythm was developed very fast. We figured it out. The team was totally dedicated to making it work at the highest level possible. I was just lucky everyone was so great to work it.” 

McKay also feels the idea of the future creeping up on humanity, the way the alien invasion shatters all peace in “The Tomorrow War,” has a new urgency. “I keep thinking about this lately, this idea that right now, today, I feel like for the first time in my life I don’t know what’s going to happen four months from now,” he said. “We used to think ‘Oh I can make plans for four months from now. Good things, mad things might happen, but I’ll be ready.’ But we didn’t have that thing of really not knowing what the future looks like. That’s what this movie is. As I get older I think more about how we’re going to leave the world as well. How can you leave the world better than when you came into it?”

Pratt has vivid memories of the experience of shooting a film that zig-zags from suburbia to urban battle zones to vast, icy expanses and jungles. “I remember being up on top of a glacier in Iceland. Chris is walking with sticks and a camera on his shoulder, trudging through the snow and looks at me, he’s like, ‘This is what I fuckingg got into this for, man. This is what I fucking got into this for.’ He does say the F-word a lot (laughs). I’m quoting him. He says, ‘We’re up on a fucking glacier making a fucking movie right now.’” Pratt also found it fun to again act in a terrain where the monsters, in this case snarling aliens, are added later in post. “It’s true that it’s more liberating when you don’t have a prop to work with because you basically force the animators to do whatever they have to do to make your choices work,” he said. “If you have a real tentacle, you’re moving it around like this, you’re limited to how you can move it, but if you have a fake one, you can be like, ‘Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa,’ like that. Then you just imagine an animator pulling their hair out being like, ‘Oh, great. I have to make that work somehow.’ It’s pretty fun. I’ve had my fair share of experience of running from and fighting against creatures that aren’t there. Yes, there’s certainly a craft to it. You could have a whole podcast episode about the way to achieve it, but it’s a combination of various things you’re going to look at, whether it will be a tennis ball or the guy named Troy who’s seven feet tall, a mountain of a man, and very scary.”

“You can’t ask for a better partner than Chris Pratt to make this,” said McKay. “He’s a great actor but also a very generous guy. He works hard and wants to create organic situations. He’s constantly inventing. On set with the action scenes, although you always need a lot of planning and pre-visualization, I also wanted the actors be able to move and run around without too many marks. I wanted to be a little loose. Sometimes I would say ‘Chris, you’re gonna run down this street and the camera operator will follow you, but I want you to improvise in a way where the camera has to react to you.’ I wanted that element of chaos and spontaneity.”

“You’re not trying to have an emotional relationship with one of these creatures, but in a close-up, you might be looking into the eyes of an actor,” added Pratt about filming with both real co-stars and phantom entities CGI will add later. “You can ask for something you can pull from, you can draw- they can draw something out of you. It really depends on what the shot is. It’s the most embarrassing acting you’ll ever do. Acting opposite something that’s not there and fighting something that’s not there is particularly embarrassing.” Pratt also hopes audiences who will be streaming the film on Amazon will have the same, grand escape as in a theater. “It’s like a great entertaining, vibrant, exciting blockbuster movie. There might be a little take away from it, but mostly it’s fun and exciting — and make sure you turn off your phone when you watch it. It’ll be just like being in a movie theater.”

The Tomorrow War” begins streaming July 2 on Amazon Prime Video.