Exclusive Interview: Jonathan Mostow On Sci-Fi, Special Effects and "Surrogates"

1/21/2010 Posted by Admin

By our guest blogger, Rob Stammitti

Jonathan Mostow, director of the 2009 sci-fi thriller and upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release "Surrogates," started his career at the bottom, doing simple direct-to-DVD films such as "Beverly Hills Bodysnatchers" before he got his big break with the 1997 Kurt Russell thriller "Breakdown."

The following is an interview I recently had with Mostow and other journalists:

Mostow: "[T]hat was my purest and most satisfying creative experience. On that film, I worked totally from instinct. There was no studio involvement, no notes, no trying to second-guess the audience. I just made the movie I saw in my head. Looking back, I see how lucky I was to be able to work like that."

Mostow went on to direct the WWII submarine drama "U-571" and eventually got the opportunity to helm the sequel "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

With "Surrogates," Mostow goes further into the depths of science-fiction. The film stars Bruce Willis as an FBI agent in the near-future where nearly everyone lives through remote-controlled robotic machines called "surrogates." They are, in many ways, idealized humans. You can be as attractive as you want--as fit as you want--and you never have to leave your own home.

Mostow: "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."

"I think 10 years is too short a period to see anything that approaches what's in this film--I think that's 30 years away. 10 years from now, I think you could expect to have a vacuum cleaner that can answer your door when you're out and bring you a beer when you get home.

"Do I believe that someday Surrogate robots will exist? Yes. Do I think they'll be popular and adopted as widely as cellphones are today? Perhaps. I think this movie presents an exaggerated version of a possible future--and 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?[...]And at its core, that's what this movie is doing -- asking questions."

The film is based on a comic book miniseries by Robert Venditti. Mostow discusses the writer's involvement in the film:

Mostow: "Venditti was great. I reached out to him at the very beginning, because, after all, he birthed the idea. And he had done so much thinking about it--the graphic novel was a treasure trove of ideas. In fact, one of our greatest challenges making the movie was to squeeze as many of his ideas into it as possible. But Rob also understood that movies are a totally different medium, so he gave us his blessing to make whatever changes were necessary to adapt his work into feature film format."

To make the actors within the film appear as perfect as their surrogates are meant to look, some very subtle and extensive special effects had to be used. Of course, in this age of film visuals and the home viewing experience growing more and more based in high-definition, that was something the special effects crew had to take into consideration.

Mostow: "[C]ertainly Blu-Ray has raised the bar for make-up because high-def shows every facial imperfection, skin pore, etc. And in this movie, the bar was even higher because we had to create the illusion that many of theses actors were robots, so we had to erase any facial flaw that could distract from the illusion. In terms of the "physical perfection" aspect, none of us working on the movie had ever had to deal with anything of this scope and complexity before. By the end, we all felt simpatico with the plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills."

Even though Mostow has been exploring science-fiction as of late, the director claims he's more concerned with the raw purpose of the story than the genre itself.

Mostow: "More so than sci-fi, I'm interested in dramatic tension[...]I've tried to resist labels, because I don't want to be categorized into a box. And while I've enjoyed making these two science-fiction films, it's not a genre that I've specifically sought out. If I had to guess, I'd predict that my next film will be a thriller. That's the genre I've most enjoyed."

Mostow also discusses the dilemmas a filmmaker may face when attempting a sci-fi picture.

"[S]o 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 three-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."

On the possibility of a science fiction film quickly becoming dated:

Mostow: "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."

Mostow goes on to describe how he views science fiction as a genre.

Mostow: "[J]ust this year, there were so many [good sci-fi films]--"District 9," "Star Trek," "Avatar" were all standouts[...]when you think about it, the term "sci-fi" is a bit of a misnomer. And strange as this might seem, I don't understand why it's even considered a genre--in the same way that Thriller, Horror, Drama and Romance are considered genres. Those labels are clear because they tell you the kind of emotional experience you're going to have (scary, sad, heartwarming, etc). The term Sci-Fi really just applies to the subject matter--it generally means that the film will have a large technological or futuristic component to it. And then, so often, the labels get switched.  For example, is Woody Allen's "Sleeper" a sci-fi movie or a comedy? Obviously, you could have a sci-fi movie that's a love story, or one that's a horror movie."

The world of "Surrogates" is ripe for the picking, with new technologies, characters, and overall stories dying to be shown. Mostow, however, doesn't expect a sequel anytime soon.

Mostow: "I think that the concept of "Surrogates" offers a world that could lend itself to other stories. Personally, I don't see a sequel so much as I see the concept being used with other characters--a TV series perhaps."

With plenty of ideas for science fiction, thriller and drama films out there for him to choose from, Mostow remains on the rise, and let's hope he continues to make films that are, if anything, fun to watch while still managing a bit of intellectual power.

"Surrogates" will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 26.

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