Creators of epic new Netflix sci-fi series 3 Body Problem talk cut scenes and following up Game of Thrones

3 Body Problem
(Image credit: Netflix)

When HBO’s wildly popular Game of Thrones concluded in 2019, it left a fantasy-shaped hole in many people’s lives. But most of all, for the show’s creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. ‘We spent 13 wonderful years in the world of that show and wouldn’t trade them for anything,’ says Weiss, 52, speaking over Zoom from a rock-star looking room bedecked with electric guitars. ‘But we really wanted Netflix to do something that felt different in many, many ways.’

Among other projects, they considered entering the Star Wars universe with The First Jedi, a story about how the Jedi Order came to be – until Lucasfilm nixed it. Yet sci-fi was to remain central to the show they settled on: 3 Body Problem, a hugely ambitious, near-unclassifiable genre-hopping hybrid based on the Chinese trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past by author Liu Cixin. It came via the suggestions of Netflix exec Peter Friedlander, who met with Weiss and Benioff over the summer of 2019 as the pair were inking a reported $200 million multi-year deal with the streamer. By their own admission, neither was that familiar with Liu’s work. 

‘I think we were both dimly aware that Barack Obama had blurbed the first book, which seemed unusual that he would blurb a Chinese science-fiction novel,’ says a hoodie-sporting Benioff, 53. But the moment they read it, they were hooked, ‘which’, adds the showrunner, ‘is a big part of the reason we ended up at Netflix.’ Spreading out from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the present day and beyond, it’s an invasion story like no other. An alien race, facing its own annihilation, has set its sights on Earth. The twist? They won’t arrive for 400 years. 

‘If it takes them 400 years to get here, that means that for a long time the story isn’t nearly as much about them as it is about us and our reaction to them,’ says Weiss. ‘That I’d never really seen before. I don’t think any of us had. I love a lot of those stories, they’re really fun, but War of the Worlds… you’re walking down a street in Boston and a UFO pops out… and then it’s on. In Signs, they come from out of the sky, and then they’re here. It’s all about what do we do when they’re here. This is more about us than it is about them. At least initially.’ 

Joining Weiss and Benioff in this creative hive was Alexander Woo, a former writer-producer on True Blood. Adapting Liu’s physics-heavy trilogy – which begins with book one, The Three-Body Problem – was always going to be tough, he acknowledges. 

‘One of the things that makes it so challenging is that the timelines of the trilogy are pretty crazy. All three do start in the rough present day. And [the] second, third books certainly go far, far, far into the future. So for our show, it made a lot of sense to have characters who are contemporaneous with each other all be there in Season 1, because they all exist in the same time period.’

Researchers assemble

3 Body Problem

(Image credit: Netflix)

Central to the eight-episode first season is a group of physicists who come together under the command of a British intelligence chief named Wade (Liam Cunningham, who played Thrones’ Ser Davos Seaworth), as they brainstorm ways of defending Earth. Among them are Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), Will Downing (Alex Sharp) and Jack Rooney (John Bradley), who has just sold his crisps-and-snack company for millions.

‘Even though the majority of the cast are scientists, we are all not built in this cookie-cutter form of what a scientist is like, you know what I mean?’ says Adepo, who previously featured in another doomedhumanity tale, HBO drama The Leftovers. ‘We are all individuals, and we have our own backgrounds, our own personalities. And I think that you’re dealing with people having to come out of themselves as individuals in their day-to-day lives, having to come together to face this massive threat that we could never imagine facing.’ 

While Adepo calls his character ‘a regular guy [who] just happens to have a really, really extraordinary brain’, he’s not the only one. Talking up Jack Rooney, ‘He’s a working-class northern boy… like myself,’ explains Bradley, 35, who previously played fan favourite Samwell Tarly in Thrones. ‘He’s come from a council estate. And now he’s a physics graduate from Oxford University, super-intelligent, in an instinctive, streetwise way.’ Now, unlike his academic friends, he’s found entrepreneurial success. ‘So he’s living high on the hog. He’s loving his life… as a super-rich man-about-town.’ 

Although Benioff and Weiss did take inspiration from a character found in the books, they also based Rooney around Bradley. Not least the fact the character is named after former Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney – with Bradley an ardent fan of the club. ‘John Bradley is one of the smartest people we’ve ever met,’ says Weiss. ‘Wherever his intelligence comes from, it’s not books. I think the book that John has read the most by far would be Wayne Rooney’s My Decade in the Premier League, which I think he’s read 10 times. He would sometimes subject other actors on Game of Thrones to readings.’ 

Rather than make the Rooney character a Man U fan, however, the showrunners cheekily decided to make him a devotee of rival club, Manchester City. ‘I really had to do a lot of research into what it’s like to be that kind of scumbag!’ chuckles Bradley. ‘It doesn’t come naturally to me, that kind of attitude.’ Cruelly, Bradley was even made to drive around in a Rolls-Royce SUV, which was painted in Man City blue. Sadly, the scene got cut. ‘I’m glad that a lot of my Man United-supporting pals won’t get the chance to see it!’ he adds, clearly relieved. 

Bradley aside, 3 Body Problem gave Benioff and Weiss the chance to reunite with several key Thrones alumni. Not just Liam Cunningham and Jonathan Pryce, who played the High Sparrow in Thrones and here is a cult leader trying to commune with the aliens. Behind the camera, Thrones’ casting director Nina Gold, production designer Deborah Riley, cinematographer Jonathan Freeman and director Jeremy Podeswa, who helms the final two episodes here, all return. Newcomers, meanwhile, include Hong Kong director Derek Tsang (Better Days), who set the tone by calling the shots on the first two eps.

Keeping it unreal

3 Body Problem

(Image credit: Netflix)

With the first season largely set in the UK (with some scenes in China, Panama and the US), the show was primarily filmed in Britain – with Shepperton Studios acting as the base for all the green-screen work for its spectacular VR moments. As Rooney soon discovers, he has been left a headset by this advanced alien civilisation, which allows him and Jin into a fully immersive world set in Tudor England – as a way of communicating with the invading forces. 

Anyone else who tries it on is met with a swift blow to the neck with a sword and the phrase ‘You have not been invited’ bumping them out of this all-too-real landscape. It’s in the spectacular third episode where huge swathes of VR appear, all brilliantly marshalled by Andrew Stanton (the former Pixar stalwart who directed Finding Nemo and WALL·E). ‘He was the rare director who was not daunted by that,” says Woo, who was instrumental in securing the sought-after Stanton. ‘I was surprised [that we got him]. I mean, Finding Nemo was a movie that is going to be watched long after all of us are dead, as is WALL·E,’ says Weiss. ‘When he said he wanted to do the show, I was like, “Are you sure?” I just felt like he was just dropping a lottery ticket in our laps.’ 

Without spoiling, this episode also taps into Benioff’s irrational Thrones-inspired fear of horses. ‘By the time we got through the final season, I had grown terrified of horses. It was never a phobia I had in my childhood, but every time one of our actors was on one of those things, I was nervous,’ he says. ‘Honestly, by the end, I was just like, “I can’t get near these things.”’ Which might explain one remarkable, gravity-defying VFX sequence, when things go haywire in VR land. ‘The floating horse, which is shitting itself…’ laughs Benioff. ‘Hard to see. But if you frame through [the sequence] you’ll see...’ 

The episode also includes inspired cameos from ex-League of Gentlemen stars Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith. ‘One of the great opportunities of shooting in the UK… it was a chance to get all our favourite British comedic actors in the show,’ says Woo, who also geeked out by casting Taskmaster favourite Phil Wang. And then there’s the mighty Adrian Edmondson, famed for playing the punk Vyvyan in student comedy The Young Ones, who features here in one of the most menacing – and dramatic – roles of his career as a scheming tech boss. ‘In college, we wore out our video tape of The Young Ones,’ recalls Weiss, ‘because we watched every episode until we couldn’t really watch them any more, because they were too grainy. So to meet Ade and to see what Ade brought in terms of straightforward, subtle, menacing, dramatic acting… it was so hard to square with. I’ve logged many hours of Ade Edmondson viewing in my brain. And they had nothing to do with the excellent work that I was seeing on our set. They were of Vyvyan smashing his head through a wall!’

Higher learning

3 Body Problem

(Image credit: Netflix)

While Woo, Benioff and Weiss were getting their kicks from comedy, there was also serious work to be done. Keen to understand the physics behind the show, Adepo spoke to on-set consultants and even went to Oxford University to meet students of the discipline. ‘The brainpower just in a small classroom is incredible,’ he notes, admiringly. So did his understanding of this very taxing science improve at all? ‘Absolutely not!’ he laughs. ‘I could probably guess in a multiple-choice quiz certain aspects of high-level physics. But I dare not disrespect the students who put countless hours in studying to get their doctorates.’

The big fear was always whether you’d need a degree to unpick 3 Body Problem. ‘It’s not just sci-fi,’ Adepo says. ‘It’s not just drama. There is comedy in the show. It’s just complex storytelling.’ Bradley remembers when the teaser dropped last summer. ‘Mates were like, “I’ve never seen a trailer before where I know less about it now than I did before I saw the trailer.” Because there are parts in space [and] parts that seemed to be in the contemporary world. There’s 1960s China, there’s Tudor England, there’s Genghis Khan’s Mongolian dynasty. And a large part of that is the virtual-reality element of it. It just kicks the doors of possibility wide open.’ 

As Woo notes: ‘A lot of people did say, “Oh, I don’t know what this is about, but I really want to see it,” which was exactly the effect [we wanted].’ Indeed, one of the real pleasures of the show is just how unlike anything else around it is. ‘It was not immediately obvious how [the books] could be turned into a TV show,’ admits Benioff. ‘But we knew that it was different from anything else we’d encountered. Part of the attraction was like, “How the hell do we do this?” 

It was similar when we read [Thrones author] George R.R. Martin’s books for the first time, just thinking, “These books are incredible. But is it possible to do this as a TV series? Is it too big, too sprawling, too expensive?”’ Ask for references and Benioff admits they watched Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey ‘repeatedly’. But there were other influential sci-fi texts, too. ‘Danny Boyle did that movie Sunshine, which had moments of that awe-and-wonder feeling,’ adds Weiss. ‘It’s not just about a monster chasing you and you need to get away. It’s the feeling of wonder that comes with great science fiction.’ 

He also cites Tarkovsky’s Solaris. ‘That’s, in many ways, very different from this, but in terms of the feeling it gives you internally… for me that was something I would sometimes be thinking about with this.’ So are Benioff and Weiss expecting another Throneslike phenomenon? ‘I mean, the odds are it was a oncein-a-lifetime thing. It’d be insane to expect that again. And we didn’t expect it the first time, to be honest,’ shrugs Weiss. ‘I think the hope for us, more than specific numbers or anything else, is that we’re able to get to the end of the show. That we’re able to tell the whole story… that means doing well enough that Netflix decides it’s worth their time to keep paying for the show.’ Adepo concurs. ‘I think that there’s more story to be told,’ he says. ‘I’m curious to see how we continue to deal with this threat.’ Unlike Thrones, which remains an ongoing literary series as Martin continues to chip away at sixth book The Winds of Winter, Liu’s story has a definite endgame. ‘The ending did influence [us] a lot,’ says Woo. ‘It was so effective.’ As you can imagine – that alien threat will eventually materialise. Or to use a Thrones analogy: winter is coming. Weiss grins. ‘They’re faster than winter.’

This article appeared in Total Film magazine: buy here.

3 Body Problem is out on Netflix now. For more, check out our guides to 3 Body Problem season 2 and the 3 Body Problem ending explained.

Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.