DJ Caruso on Directing Disturbia

The pressures of being handpicked by Steven Spielberg for the job.

DJ Caruso knows how to push buttons; he especially did it in Taking Lives, still one of my favorite recent films.

Handpicked by Steven Spielberg, his newest film is the thriller, Disturbia, starring Shia Labeouf as a teen confined to his home during the summer on house arrest for hitting his teacher. With only his binoculars at his side, he starts spying on his neighbors - two in particular catch his eye. One is the new hot neighbor (Sarah Roemer); the other is the mysterious David Morse, who Shia believes is a serial killer. He, Sarah, and Aaron Yoo take on the task of finding out the truth.

Movieweb.com had the chance to speak with DJ about Disturbia; check out what we talked about:

You really had the idea to start with the story instead of going right into the thrill side to it.

DJ Caruso: Yeah, to me that was the challenge of the piece; you needed to balance that. I'm a sucker for these great 80's, John Hughes movies, and I was more interested in bringing that element into it rather than the thriller element. I wanted to develop the characters, because if you look at the movies today in this genre, they're necessarily not that good; I wanted to get a character that was real, you could grab onto, you could relate to him. Could he get the girl or not? He sees her private moments, he sees her pain, and there's that connection; once boy gets girl, kick in the thriller aspect and see if that can work. And that's what I'm most proud of that they allowed me to take it in that direction. To make this my movie, you had to become the lead character; it was important for me to do that, and see if you could blend the genres. Look, Shia is becoming a movie star; I feel good about, and I feel good that Paramount is showing people this movie.

What was it about Shia that attracted you?

DJ Caruso: Just when I first met him - I'm not the kind of director who's attracted to the pretty boy; Shia, to me, was a young John Cusack, a young Sean Penn. He has the most expressive eyes, and he's my favorite kind of actor because he makes it real; he has his own bullsh*t meter. It has to be organic; he's just endearing. The more time you spend with him, he becomes more attractive; he's such a smart kid. Kale is also a character - he's not your most edgy character, but he's not cookie cutter; he has some flaws. We wanted to plant some seeds of guilt from losing his father so that you would understand why he has those violent tendencies. Shia's also not Mr. Goodie Two Shoes; he's a little bit of a bad boy. He's the perfect fit; I couldn't have imagined doing this movie without him.

You and he really went over the script as well?

DJ Caruso: Yeah, I trusted him. I'm not great at teen speak, teen dialogue; he would always say, 'I wouldn't say it that way.' Shia was making it his, making it real, but also serving the story; that was something to have someone who has that ear. He was making the movie better, and that's the collaboration.

Did you work with David Morse on his look?

DJ Caruso: Yeah, and he has a very certain look; and he was very instrumental in wanting that earring. He's this gentle giant, who's very quiet; his creepiest quality is when you ask him a question. Instead of answering right away, he ponders it in his head; he's very quiet, and you can see the wheels turning. That's when he gives you this answer, very soft spoken and simple answer. He can play that shy guy, even though he's 6'6" and imposing figure. It's really creepy, and it's a great look; we wanted to go in the icy green look. Keep the style in the blue, and it was perfect. David is that perfect method actor, to the point that Shia would probably tell you - he came up to me and said, 'This guy hates my f*cking guts; he doesn't like me.' I said, 'No, he likes you; he doesn't like your character, and he doesn't want to talk to you because he associates you with your character.' And so it was very, very fun. He was also very instrumental with the long hair. I'm the kind of director who likes to give the character the freedom to choose his look; David wanted to make this guy shy. This kid was f*cking up his paradise, and he didn't like that. So he would go up to Kale's window when he wasn't shooting; he'd look outside the window and feed himself just to get into character.

How much Kale is in DJ?

DJ Caruso: I think there's a lot of Kale in DJ. As a director, you're a voyeur. I always think back to my childhood and I remember being back and watching everyone, watching their behavior. The very opening scene in the move with Matt Craven was with me and my father; it was loosely scripted, but I told Matt and Shia what direction I wanted to go in - a teenager who's drifting away from dad. Matt has a 17-year-old son and Shia had some issues with his father, and the dialogue was very natural. But that's what I wanted - to show what you can lose; life changes in one second. I wanted that to be as real and as shocking as possible, and that's the best way to tell the best story.

Where did you find the music in this?

DJ Caruso: System of a Down, this is the only time they've ever licensed a song away for a movie; I had to show them the movie. I thought they were going to say it was too soft, and they saw it, and loved it; they actually let them use the song in the commercials as well. I felt Kale's musical influence would be his dad's; characters like Kale would respect the music from the 60's and 70's. I wanted him to be a poet and appreciate the freedom of expression of the artists of those times.

Was Sarah comfortable with all the shots of her?

DJ Caruso: She was so new to it, but she understands it. She and Shia had such amazing chemistry. And she's the kind of girl who I would have fallen in love with as a teen; she's a little bit of a tomboy, she's got those expressive eyes, she's sexy, but at the same time, she can hang out with you and be your friend. She read with Shia, and they hit it off; he was so nervous. It's the only time when I was 400 feet away from the camera; I'm on the bullhorn saying, 'Ok, Sarah, jump in the pool again. Ok, get the string out of your ass.' You're talking out loud in front of the crew; but she's a model, she's just natural. She was never really bothered by being a piece of meat. I didn't want her just to be that; I wanted to give her this reverence.

What was it like to be handpicked by Steven Spielberg and then to be on set with him and Ivan Reitman?

DJ Caruso: Yeah, it's pretty interesting being in a table with both those guys; I think they worked quite well together. Steven's enthusiasm is so infectious; he's acting out the scenes in his office. He's got such a passion for making movies. Ivan is too, but Ivan's a lot more with thought; he's so good with comedy, but with the chemistry of Shia, it becomes pretty funny. They're both very supportive, but they're not pushing you; if you need them, they're there.

Disturbia is a must-see film; it opens in theaters April 13th, rated PG-13.