Piloting a Surrogate: An Interview with director Jonathan Mostowby Chief Justice Michael Stailey
We recently had the pleasure of participating in a virtual roundtable interview with Jonathan Mostow for his latest film Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, and Ving Rhames.
Q: Is this the real Jonathan Mostow, or are we interviewing a surrogate?
JM: 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...
Q: What's your recipe for creating a good action movie?
JM: I wish there was a recipe! It would make my life so much easier. Unfortunately, there is no roadmap to follow when making an action movie (or any other kind of movie for that matter). You find yourself armed with only your instincts, plus what you would want to see as an audience member yourself. The place I begin is with story. If the audience doesn't care about that, then it doesn't matter how amazing the spectacle is. My central philosophy is that people go to the movies to be told a story, not to see stuff blow up.
Q: Were there specific sci-fi movies you looked to as inspiration for the tone, look, and feel of Surrogates?
JM: 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: How close did you try to keep the film to the graphic novel?
JM: 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: What was the most difficult element of the graphic novel to translate to the screen?
JM: I'll give you a slightly different answer: 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: This isn't your first time dealing with a high concept of man versus machine. What is it about this concept that most intrigues you?
JM: 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: One of Surrogates themes is the fear of technology. What are some of your own fears about technology and the future?
JM: Some people have labeled this film as anti-technology. But I don't see it that way. In fact, I love technology. I love using computers and gadgets. I love strolling through Best Buy and the Apple Store to see what's new. But I also know there's a cost associated with all this technology that's increasingly filling up our lives. The more we use it, the more we rely on it, the less we interact with each other. Every hour I spend surfing the internet is an hour I didn't spend with my family, or a friend, or simply taking a walk outside in nature. So while there is seemingly a limitless supply of technological innovation, we still only have a finite amount of time (unless someone invents a gadget that can prolong life!) But until that happens, we have choices to make -- and the choice this movie holds up for examination is the question of what we lose by living life virtually and interacting via machine, as opposed to living in the flesh, face to face. I hope that's a conversation that will arise for people who watch Surrogates.
Q: On previous movies, you've done some rewrites during production. Was there anything in Surrogates you tweaked, or was it pretty much set by the time principal photography began?
JM: In the past, I've typically written my movies. Breakdown and U-571 were spec screenplays I wrote on my own and then subsequently sold, and then brought in collaborators once the films headed toward production. On T3 and Surrogates, I did not work as a writer; both movies were written by the team of John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Surrogates was interesting in that the script was finished only one day before the Writers Guild strike of 2008, so by the time we started filming (which was shortly after the strike ended), there had been far less rewriting than would typically have occurred on a movie by that point.
Q: When directing do you storyboard every angle, or do you like to get to the set and let the shots come organically?
JM: I'd say in between. Action needs to be carefully planned and boarded. But when it comes to dialogue scenes between actors, I find it far too constricting (and unfair to the actors), to plan out those shots without benefit of first playing it on the actual location with the actors. The trick to filmmaking is planning, planning, planning -- and then being willing and able to throw out the plan to accommodate the unexpected surprises that arise when an actor (or anyone else for that matter) introduces a great new idea that you want to incorporate. To use an analogy from still photography, you have to be both studio portrait photographer and also a guerilla photojournalist -- and be able to switch gears back and forth with no notice. At least, that's my approach. Others may work differently.
Q: Do you have any plans to shoot a film digitally in Hi-Def as opposed to using the traditional 35mm film approach?
JM: There is most certainly a digital revolution going on. Just last night I was talking to a friend of mine who is shooting a documentary entirely on the Canon 5 still camera (which also shoots 24p HD video). I've seen some of what he's done and the stuff looks gorgeous. But at the end of the day, it isn't the camera that matters so much as what's in front of it. Surrogates was shot in 35mm for a variety of technical reasons. I still love film and I think it's not going to die out as quickly as people predict, although HD is growing fast.
Q: Boston's mix of old architecture and new, sleek buildings works wonderfully well for Surrogates. Can you discuss the process of selecting a city and then scouting for specific locations?
JM: Boston is one of my favorite cities, so it was easy to pick it as a location for the film. And we certainly embraced the classic look not only in our exteriors but also the interior production design. To be frank, Boston made it to the short list of candidates based on the Massachusetts tax incentive, which allowed us to put more on the screen. Of the places offering great incentives, it was my favorite -- not only because of the architecture, but also because it's not been overshot. Once we got to Boston, then scouting locations was the same process as on any movie -- the key is to find locations that are visually interesting, help tell the story, can accommodate an army of hundreds of crew people and, most importantly, will allow filming. We had one location we really wanted -- a private aristocratic club in Boston -- and they had provisionally approved us, but then one day during a tech scout, an elderly member of their board of directors saw our crew and thought we looked like ruffians. Our permission was revoked and we had to find another location. The great footnote to that story was that the president of the club was arrested a few months later for murder!
Q: How did you do approach the surrogate look for Bruce Willis and what do you foresee as potential uses for this technique going forward? Will we have forever young actors or actors who can play a younger or older version of themselves without makeup?
JM: For Bruce, we approached his surrogate look with a combination of traditional and digital techniques. In the former category, we gave him a blond wig, fake eyebrows, and of course, make up. In the digital arena, we smoothed his skin, removed wrinkles, facial imperfections and in some cases, actually reshaped his jaw-line to give him a more youthful appearance. Could this be done for other actors? Sure. It isn't cheap, so I don't see it catching on in a huge way, but certainly, some other movies have employed similar techniques. Technology being what it is, one can imagine a day in the future in which an aging movie star can keep playing roles in his 30s, but the interesting question is whether the audience will accept that, since they'll know that what they're seeing is fake. In the case of Surrogates, we discovered with test audiences that if we went too far with Bruce's look, it was too distracting, so in certain cases, we had to pull back a bit.
Q: How did you direct your actors to have the surrogates effect?
JM: When I made Terminator 3, I learned something about directing actors to behave like robots. And one of the key things I learned is that if an actor tries to play a robot, he or she risks playing it mechanically in a way that makes the performance uninteresting. So how I approached the issue in that film and in Surrogates was instead to focus on erasing human idiosyncrasies and asymmetries in posture, facial expressions, and gait. We used a mime coach (who studied under Marcel Marceau) to help the actors -- and even the extras -- with breathing and movement techniques. The actors really enjoyed the challenge.
Q: With all of the advances in technology, do you think we are heading down the road to a version of human surrogacy?
JM: Do I believe that someday Surrogate robots will exist? Yes. Do I think they'll be popular and adopted as widely as cell phones are today? Perhaps. I think this movie presents an exaggerated version of a possible future, but under no circumstance do I see human interaction becoming extinct. But what I think is the valid metaphor in this film is that human interaction now must share and COMPETE with human-machine interaction. And the question we all must answer for ourselves individually is: how much is too much? No one has the answers... at least not yet. Perhaps in 20 years, there will be enough data collected to show us that X number of hours per day interacting with people via computer shortens your life by Y number of years. But for now, it's all unknown territory to us. All we can do is ask ourselves these questions. And at its core, that's what this movie is doing -- asking questions.
Q: Is it ever daunting when making a "futuristic" film to avoid the traps of becoming dated too quickly?
JM: 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?
JM: 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: What's the most rewarding thing you've taken from making this movie?
JM: Making this movie had made me much more conscious of how much time I spend on the computer. Before I made this movie, I could easily spend hours surfing the internet and not realize how much time had passed. Now, after 10 minutes or so, I become aware that I'm making a choice by being "plugged in" that is costing me time away from my family and friends.
Q: This world is tech-addicted; do you think it is a plague?
JM: Interesting question -- and I speak as someone who is addicted to technology. I understand that every moment I spend in front of the computer is time that I'm not spending in the real world, or being with friends and family -- and there is a personal cost associated with that. Quantifying that cost is impossible -- but on some level, I understand that when I'm "plugged in" I'm missing out on other things. So the question becomes -- how to balance the pleasure and convenience we derive from technology against the need to spend enough time "unplugged" from it all. I don't know the answer. And as a civilization, I think we're all struggling to figure it out. We're still in the infancy of the technological revolution. Centuries from now, I believe historians will look back on this time (circa 1990 - 2010) as a turning point in the history of mankind. Is it a plague? No. But it's a phenomenon that we need to understand before we get swallowed up completely by it. I don't want to sound like I'm over-hyping the importance of this movie, because after all, Surrogates is first and foremost intended to be a piece of entertainment, but I do think that movies can help play a role in helping society talk about these issues, even if sometimes only tangentially. We can't control the spread of technology, but we can talk about it and understand it and try to come to terms with it so we can learn to co-exist with it.
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