Unlocking the ‘3 Body Problem’: Interview with the creators of Netflix’s sci-fi series 

D & D are back! The creators of Game of Thrones, David Benoiff and Daniel Weiss, have finally returned to the limelight after much speculation as to what their next project might be. This time, along with True Blood’s Alexander Woo, they take on the adaptation of Three Body Problem, the award-winning novel by author Liu Cixin. Set to premiere on Netflix, the show, 3 Body Problem, is a science-fiction thriller where the boundaries of reality are tested and the consequences of unraveling the mysteries of the universe become all too real. 

Fans of the books reiterate that it’s best to go in blind; Netflix’s synopsis is even more cryptic: “A young woman’s fateful decision in 1960s China reverberates across space and time into the present day. When the laws of nature inexplicably unravel before their eyes, a close-knit group of brilliant scientists join forces with an unorthodox detective to confront the greatest threat in humanity’s history.”

A still from ‘3 Body Problem’

A still from ‘3 Body Problem’

With an ensemble cast that includes the likes of Jovan Adepo, John Bradley, Rosalind Chao, Liam Cunningham, Eiza González, Benedict Wong and Jonathan Pryce among others, the show premieres this week. On a Zoom call, co-creators David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and Alexander Woo spoke about the challenges of translating the novel onto screen. 

Excerpts from an interview…

Fans of the novels will be eagerly awaiting to see how all the exposition in the books, and all the pages of lore have been translated onto screen. Since the story was considered ‘unfilmable’ for so many years, what were the biggest challenges?

Alexander Woo: The primary challenge is that it was written in a novel format, and we are telling the story in a television format, and the two are not the same. The flow and the pace are completely different. So we spent most of the pandemic doing this; we met at the end of February 2020, and then we didn’t see each other in person for another two years! But we saw each other on Zoom just like this every day and wrestled with all these challenges of how to tell a story that spans billions of years. No one’s ever tried this on television before; to tell a story with so much science. But I hope we found a way that’s enjoyable for everyone to watch.

David and Daniel, you guys gave us one of the biggest shows of all time earlier with Game of Thrones; how does your partnership work, and who does what during the collaboration? Now, with 3 Body Problem, there is a trio, so does the dynamic change?

David Benioff: I feel like people sometimes assume that we split up the duties; that one person is on set, the other person does most of the writing, and the third person is in charge of casting or something. But the truth is, it’s a lot sloppier than that, we all kind of just split up everything. 

3 Body Problem. (L to R) Executive Producer/Writer David Benioff, Executive Producer/Writer D. B. Weiss, Executive Producer/Writer Alexander Woo in 3 Body Problem. Cr. Austin Hargrave/Netflix © 2024

3 Body Problem. (L to R) Executive Producer/Writer David Benioff, Executive Producer/Writer D. B. Weiss, Executive Producer/Writer Alexander Woo in 3 Body Problem. Cr. Austin Hargrave/Netflix © 2024

So when Dan and I did Game of Thrones, we just did everything together. The only thing we don’t do together is the actual writing part! Say, if we’re writing an episode together, we decide ahead of time who gets the first half and who gets the second half. Every now and then, if there was like a big battle scene or some big kill on Game of Thrones, and we both wanted it, then arguments would arise on who got to write the last half of the episode. But other than that, once we finish writing the episodes, we pass them back and forth, and I’ll make notes on Dan’s half, and he’ll make notes on mine. When Alex joined us, we just kind of kept doing the same thing. 

Marlo Kelly as Tatiana, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar in ‘3 Body Problem’

Marlo Kelly as Tatiana, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar in ‘3 Body Problem’

If there’s a casting decision, we’re all watching the same casting videos, meeting the same actors, and then we have an argument about it. Sometimes we all agree and that’s easy. Sometimes we disagree and then we have to argue about it. One person normally is more passionate about the argument and the person with the most passion wins. 

Thinking about the various arguments we had… I remember one big one was at the very end of season one of GoT when Ned Stark is beheaded. We wanted to cut out of the scene right before you see his head fall off, but do you see the blade actually go into the neck or stop right before the neck?! That’s the kind of stuff we debate on!

Much has been made about how the video game scenes in the novels will be depicted in the show. I know Daniel is a huge video game buff and he’s tried to adapt games for television before.. so were these sequences a great opportunity to really experiment and play with? 

Daniel Weiss: Yes, for sure, I’d say along with the China sequences, the video game sequences were some of the earliest things that made us realise this wasn’t like other television shows. We had to figure out how to depict those sequences in a way that does justice to what’s in the books and what was in our heads. A very difficult challenge was in lighting a world that has three suns as you see in the game; this involved a very large array of interactive lighting that everyone put together. Then we had to design the look, because it’s historical and many scenes are set in periods of history… but they’re not our real history. They are a kind of a heightened and stylised version, so we had to conceptualise things in a way that made them exciting enough to be worthy of a video game, as well as compulsive and addictive to the people who play it. 

That was very important to us. It was made more important than the fact that in the show, unlike the books, one of the changes is that the video game sequences are indistinguishable from reality. So you’re transported with all five senses into this different world. 

Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar in ‘3 Body Problem’

Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar in ‘3 Body Problem’

Did the vision and budget behind a production of this magnitude overwhelm you at all at any point? 

Alexander: We have to justify it. The reader of the novel is imagining something of a scale unlike anything they’ve ever read before. So the viewer of the show also has to be treated to an experience that they’ve never seen before. If you’re going to actualise all the things that you’ve been imagining as a reader on a screen, it’s a big responsibility to do justice to what Liu Cixin wrote and an extraordinary challenge for us. Luckily, Netflix was very passionate about this particular project and were willing to realise it in the way that it deserves.

3 Body Problem is as much a philosophical novel as it is about science fiction and space and aliens; what about the author’s philosophy attracted you guys to take up the novel in the first place? And because there’s so much of science and math involved, did you have to brush up on your knowledge of these subjects before delving into the process? 

David: You’re absolutely right, this isn’t our forte at all! So we love the stories, but none of us are physicists. So we hired consultants like Matt Kenzie who used to work at the CERN, the particle accelerator. He was very good at explaining particle physics, because that’s a major part of the first season. And then the second one was “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowsi, who is well-known in America, because President Obama once referred to him like that! He is an actual real-life rocket scientist who is brilliant, and there’s a big rocket launch component to the first season. Not only was he our expert consultant, but we actually gave him a pretty big cameo towards the end of the season.

They were incredible in answering all our questions, like, making sure when the scientists were talking, the stuff they were saying actually made sense and was true. They also helped the actors figure out how to approach certain scenes. Sometimes we have things that are written on the chalkboard, and we want to make sure that is accurate. Since none of the three of us are scientists, we do what showrunners always do, which is turn to people who are really good at the stuff that you’re bad at!

It’s interesting, because hard science-fiction has never been my favourite genre; I’ve never been as in love with it, as I have, say, with fantasy. So it really wasn’t until Liu Cixin’s novels that I fell hard for them; it’s because the story is so much about life and about humanity trying to survive in a very cold, very dark universe. That, to me, kind of overpowered everything else. I wasn’t necessarily drawn to it because of physics, or I care that much about the interactions of particles colliding with each other. It was because I really fell in love with the human story. 

3 Body Problem premieres March 21 on Netflix. 

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