CLIPS "SURROGATES" VIRTUAL ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JONATHAN MOSTOW
by Roger Tennis
Q. Are there any sci-fi movies that were inspirational to the tone, look and feel you wanted to strike with Surrogates?
A. For the look and feel of this movie, I found inspiration in some black and white films from the 60s -- early works of John Frankenheimer -- plus the original Twilight Zone TV show. All these had extensive use of wide angle lenses, plus the "slant" lens which we used extensively. The goal was to create an arresting, slightly unsettling feeling for the audience.
Q. Do you prefer "old-school", handcrafted SFX or CGI creations?
A. I think if you scratch beneath the surface of most filmmakers (myself included); you will find a 12 year old kid who views movie-making akin to playing with a giant electric train set. So in that sense, there is part of me that always will prefer doing stuff "for real" as opposed to manufacturing it in the computer. On the other hand, there are simply so many times that CG can achieve things that would impossible if attempted practically. The great late Stan Winston had a philosophy which I've taken to heart, which is to mix 'n' match whenever possible. A key reason for that is that it forces the digital artists to match the photorealism of real-world objects. One thing I try to avoid in my films are effects that have a CG "look" to them. The challenge is never let the audience get distracted by thinking that they're watching something made in a computer.
Q. How close did you try to keep the film to the graphic novel?
A. We talk about that in one of the bonus features on the Blu-ray. The novel was interesting in that it was highly regarded, but not well-known outside a small community of graphic novel enthusiasts. So that meant that we weren't necessarily beholden to elements in the graphic novel in the way that one might be if adapting a world-renowned piece of literature. Even the author of Surrogates acknowledged that changes were necessary to adapt his novel to the needs of a feature film. Hopefully, we struck the right balance. Certainly, I believe we preserved the central idea -- which was to pose some interesting questions to the audience about how we can retain our humanity in this increasingly technological world.
Q. Are you afraid, that the future we see in the movie could be real someday soon?
A. Well, in a sense, we're already at that point. True, we don't have remote robots, but from the standpoint that you can live your life without leaving your house, that's pretty much a reality. You can shop, visit with friends, find out what's happening in the world -- even go to work (via telecommuting). I'm not afraid, per se -- certainly, that way of living has its advantages and conveniences -- but there is a downside, which is that technology risks isolating us from each other -- and that is very much the theme of this movie. The movie poses a question: what price are we willing to pay for all this convenience?
Q. Which aspect of the filmmaking process do you like the most? Directing the actors? Doing research? Editing?
A. Each phase has its appeal, but for me personally, I most enjoy post-production. For starters, the hours are civilized. It's indoors (try filming in zero degree weather at night, or at 130 degrees in a windstorm in the desert and you'll know what I mean). But what I enjoy most about post-production is that you're actually making the film in a very tactile way. You see, when you're finished shooting, you don't yet have the movie. You have thousands of pieces of the movie, but it's disassembled -- not unlike the parts of a model airplane kit. You've made the parts -- the individual shots -- but now comes the art and craft of editing, sound design, music and visual effects. Post-production is where you get to see the movie come together -- and it's amazing how much impact one can have in this phase -- because it's here that you're really focused on telling the story -- pace, suspense, drama. To me, that's the essence of the filmmaking experience.
Q. In terms of stunts, how much did Bruce do himself? He has said before that people think he’s “too old to do stunts”
A. Bruce is a very fit guy -- he's in great shape and works out every day. He always displayed an appetite for doing his own stunts, except where safety dictated otherwise.
Q. What was the most difficult element of the graphic novel to translate to the film?
A. The most difficult element to translate successfully would have been the distant future, which is why we decided not to do it. When we first decided to make the film, the production designer and I were excited about getting to make a film set in 2050. We planned flying cars, futuristic skyscapes -- the whole nine yards. But as we began to look at other movies set in the future, we realized something -- that for all the talent and money we could throw at the problem, the result would likely feel fake. Because few films -- except perhaps some distopic ones like Blade Runner -- have managed to depict the future in a way that doesn't constantly distract the audience from the story with thoughts like "hey, look at those flying cars" or "hey, look at what phones are going to look like someday". We wanted the audience thinking only about our core idea -- which was robotic surrogates -- so we decided to set the movie in a time that looked very much like our own, except for the presence of the surrogate technology.
Q. Do you supervise aspects (video transfer, extras or other elements) of the home video (DVD/Blu-ray) release for your films?
A. Yes. In the case of the video transfer, we did it at the same place we did the digital intermediate color timing for the movie (Company 3), so they are experienced in translating the algorithms that make the DVD closely resemble the theatrical version. I am deeply involved in that process, as is my cinematographer. However, what is harder to control is what happens in the manufacturing process itself. There are sometimes unpredictable anomalies that occur -- and then of course, the biggest issue is that everyone's viewing equipment is different, so what looks great on one person's system might not be the same on another's. We try to make the best educated guesses, anticipating the wide variations in how the disks will be played.
Q. This isn't your first time dealing with a high concept of man versus machine. Can you talk about why this concept intrigues you?
A. It's true that I've touched on this thematic material before -- in fact, I think all my films in some way have dealt with the relationship between man and technology, so apparently, it's an idea that fascinates me. I assume your question implies a relationship between the ideas in Terminator and Surrogates, so I'll answer accordingly... Whereas T3 posed technology as a direct threat to mankind, I see Surrogates more as a movie that poses a question about technology -- specifically, what does it cost us -- in human terms -- to be able to have all this advanced technology in our lives. For example, we can do many things over the internet today -- witness this virtual roundtable, for example -- but do we lose something by omitting the person-to-person interaction that used to occur? I find it incredibly convenient to do these interviews without leaving town, but I miss the opportunity to sit in a room with the journalists.
Q. You've worked with special effects a lot prior to Surrogates. Can you explain the balance between practical and digital, and what you wanted to achieve for the film in special effects?
A. My goal for the effects in this film was to make them invisible. There are over 800 vfx shots in Surrogates, but hopefully you'll be able to identify only a few of them. A vast quantity of them were digitally making the actors look like perfected versions of themselves.
Q. Is it ever daunting when making a "futuristic" film to avoid the traps of becoming dated too quickly? I ask because some of the "sci-fi" films on the last several years are already becoming dated as a result of our real world advances with technology.
A. A great question and one that hopefully we correctly anticipated before we started the movie. Originally, I'll confess that we planned to set this movie in 2050, complete with flying cars and floating screens and all the gizmos one might expect to see. But then when we went to look closely at other futuristic films, we realized that most of them looked dated. And there was a 'fakeness' factor to them that distracted from the story. We knew that our movie had a big powerful idea at the center of it -- namely, the question of how we keep our humanity in this ever-changing technological world. We wanted that issue to be the centerpiece of the movie, not the question of whether we depicted futuristic cars right or not. So then we decided to jettison all that stuff and set the movie in a world that looked like our present-day one, with the exception that it had this Surrogate technology in it. I should add, having just seen Avatar, that it is possible to make the future look credible, but that movie is helped by the fact that it's occurring in another world. Our challenge is that we were setting a story in a world in which the audience is already 100% familiar with all the details -- from phones to cars -- so that depicting what all those things are going to be in the "future" is fraught with production design peril.
Q. A lot of science fiction films have to balance being informative about their worlds while also not being pandering or relying to heavy on exposition, how do you walk that fine line?
A. That's a very insightful question -- you're right -- so often in sci fi films the pacing tends to collapse under the weight of the filmmakers feeling the need to convey a lot of exposition. A classic example is Blade Runner. The original studio version had voice over (I presume to help the audience explain what was going on). Ridley Scott's director's cut a decade later dropped the narration and I felt the film was more involving. In Surrogates, we initially didn't have any exposition. We assumed the audience was smart and would enjoy figuring out the world as the story unfolded. But when we showed the film to the studio for the first time, they had an interesting reaction -- they said "we don't want to be distracted by wondering who is a surrogate and who isn't, and what the rules of the world are", so we came up with the idea of the opening 3 minute piece that explains the world. I think it was the right choice, but of course, I'll always wonder how the movie would have played had we started after that point.
Q. Is this the real Jonathan Mostow, or am I interviewing... a surrogate?
A. I'm the real me. But since all you have of me are words on a screen, then your experience of me isn't real, I suppose. Ah, the irony of it all...
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