Director Jonathan Mostow wasn't necessarily looking to do another film about robots for his follow-up film to Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, but when he came across Surrogates, which hits theaters nationwide on September 25, it was a story he could obviously not pass up. The film takes place in a not-too-distant future where the "surrogate" technology has become as normal as cell phones are today. Surrogates are robots that humans can control from these "stim chairs" from the comfort of their own home, essentially letting the robot versions of themselves lead their lives. In Mostow's new film, Surrogates are a normal part of life and society, with these robots basically better-looking, enhanced versions of humans, with filters built in so that the human can feel no pain or even smell unpleasant odors. Of course, resistance to this way of life has mounted and there are designated areas where humans can live free of Surrogates and lead their lives for themselves and, when it's been discovered that Surrogates are starting to be murdered - which was not supposed to be possible in the first place - the drama rises and it's up to Agent Greer (Bruce Willis), who is skeptical of this technology, and his partner, Agent Peters (Rahda Mitchell) to crack the case.
I was one of a few selected press members invited to an edit bay visit, where we saw some selected footage from the film and talked to Mostow about his futuristic film endeavor. From the footage we were shown, it's clear that this film definitely has a lot of potential, at the very least. Mostow showed us an action scene where Willis' Greer was chasing a suspect through one of these non-Surrogate reservations, where Surrogates are strictly forbidden, and we get a glimpse of the technology that was used to take down these robots. We were also shown a scene that displays Greer's level of discomfort with these robots, as he tries to connect with his wife (Rosamund Pike), who won't even leave her Surrogate in the comfort of her own home, as she's entertaining guests. Here we also see the vast difference between the Surrogates and the actual humans that control them, as Pike's character looks vastly different from her dolled-up Surrogate.
After the footage was shown, Mostow was generous enough to answer our questions, despite still being under the gun in post-production. Here's what the director had to say.
Jonathan Mostow: Never heard of that one (Laughs).
I haven't heard of a movie that wants to address this subject as a drama. Do you want to, as a director, use the action beats of the movie as a way to bring people in, or do you think there's a way to have a two-hour movie about this subject that's just about people?
Jonathan Mostow: Oh, I think you could sustain a two-hour movie that's just about people. I don't know if people would want to go see it, you know. So, they don't call it "show business" for nothing. Don't take this the wrong way, because I'm not comparing this to Shakespeare whatsoever, but going back in time, going back to the Greeks, they understood that if you want to get people engaged and talking about profound ideas, you have to show somebody stabbing someone else in the back and another guy f*&%ing his mother and all sorts of other stuff (Laughs). I think that's just the nature of drama. We didn't set out to make some polemic about life in the digital age, I can only react emotionally to story ideas. You hear an idea and you go, 'That's cool. I can see spending a few years of my life working on that.' As a filmmaker, you approach it like, 'OK. They're going to give you all this money to make this movie. It's like an electric train set you get to play with.' So it's also about the train set. I think that's true as a filmmaker and as an audience. If I have a rare Saturday night when I can go out to see a movie, I look at the paper and I go, 'Hmm, what's the best medicine for my mind?' I'm going, 'What's the most escapist, fun entertainment I can go to?' So I think that's number one, first and foremost, because that's why I think people go to movies. It's a bonus that there's something real.
Can you just talk about the nature of these Surrogates? Like if someone wants a nose job or something like that, can that all be taken care of with these Surrogates? Is plastic surgery sort of obsolete because of these things?
Jonathan Mostow: His wife actually works in a beauty shop and a beauty shop is sort of a combination of a beauty shop and a Ferrari repair shop. You go in there and you're hearing pneumatic drills and one woman is in her chair getting her hair done and the next woman is doing something with a power drill going up the nose. So yeah, you can do anything you want. Unfortunately, because of the nature of a movie story is you have to keep charging forward and keep the audience with the story, there's so much of this world that we're only sort of able to make brush strokes at, and I wish that we could stop and take a look at what it really means to be inside these beauty shops? We're only able to put in a couple of gestures, because we have to keep the story going, but there are a lot of tips of the iceberg throughout. It's a film-noir detective story, but we use that as an excuse to be able to take us through this world. You're able to see the military, how they're fighting wars.
Can you talk a bit about the element of crime in the movie? I know in the trailer they said that crime has gone down, but you explored all that about jumping into a surrogate and having that level of anonymity, might that not pre-dispose you to commit crimes that you might not do?
Jonathan Mostow: Well, we don't go to far. Again, that's another really interesting subject arena that, if you look at the graphic novel, you have the story and then every few pages in the graphic novel, it stops for this stuff about magazine articles and this stuff that happens and how it all effects them, so we're not able to delve too deeply into it. If you want to get specific about it, it's hard to commit a crime because every surrogate has a serial number that can be traced. What it does do is, violent crime goes down because, essentially, murder is now a property crime. If you kill somebody else's surrogate, it's like you went and took a sledge hammer to their car.
So a crime against a surrogate is not considered a crime against a person?
Jonathan Mostow: No. In a sense, that's part of Bruce's character existential ennui, where his job is sort of meaningless because all he sort of does is investigate property crime. He can't connect to his wife. He uses his surrogate, but he knows that, on some level, it's making his life hollow. He's not even consciously aware of all that. He's just sort of in this stasis in the movie and, what happens in the movie is he comes out of that, and he comes to some sort of self-awareness of it. It's done in a nuanced way, but that's sort of what's going on with his character.
I understand why you would cast Bruce as Bruce's surrogate, but did you ever talk about the idea that Bruce Willis, in this world, might look like Leonardo DiCaprio?
Jonathan Mostow: Yeah, we did. That was one of the immediate things at the beginning, how do you represent the real him and his surrogate, doppelganger, whatever you want to call it. I decided it had to be the same actor because it's a very different thing when you're able to read something and see it in your mind, then to imagine it on screen. It's emotional transference that you don't have in literature that you have in movies. People invest in the person they see on the screen and they can't shift gears. There was, in fact, a scene in the movie that wound up not in the movie anymore where he needs to get to this location so he goes to a rental store that's like a Hertz agency. We never wound up shooting it, but he goes to this Hertz agency to rent a generic model. He walks in and gets in this chair and, 2,000 miles away, you see this guy -- this sort of featureless guy -- arrive at this location. Ultimately, though, we just felt that you weren't connecting with it at all. Intellectually, you're like, "yeah, that's supposed to be Bruce," but emotionally you don't get it. In the sequence [in the film] you see the younger Bruce running around and you see the bald Bruce in the chair. That connection works. It's just the interesting thing about filmmaking. The thing about the human face is that we're so genetically programmed to recognize differences in human faces that, when you're digitally affecting faces, you have to be the most careful because even the smallest adjustment and it feels like it just isn't him anymore. It felt fake or something so we just kept seeking that kind of balance.
Can Surrogates feel pain?
Jonathan Mostow: No. I mean you can. You can program it so that it will filter out whatever you want. But most people don't want to feel pain. You don't have to smell bad smells. Again, we don't go as deeply into all that stuff in the movie as I wish we had been able to. You can only put so much fertilizer in a five-pound bag.
So people can have more than one Surrogate?
Jonathan Mostow: That's in a interesting question. No, not really. Every Surrogate is assigned its own unique code. Everybody in the movie basically has one Surrogate, but there's one exception that I won't get into because I don't want to spoil the plot.
But you can rent temporary ones?
Jonathan Mostow: Yes, you can rent a temporary one. In fact, there's a scene in the movie where he gets out of the hospital and his partner takes him to this discounted electronics store that's like Crazy Eddie's. They've got the TV, the stereos and everything else. They've got these cheesy Surrogate models as well. She's telling him he should get one because just going up the street he's having a panic attack. He's not used to being out in the real world as himself. She takes him to this store and he tries out this very classically good-looking guy which is what they have in this place. He just can't take it and he gets up and takes off the headset and walks out. That's sort of his turning point in the movie. He realizes that he just can't do this. He's starting to push back against Surrogacy. But yes, we do include that.
Is there ever any worry that the Surrogates could have their own minds and take over?
Jonathan Mostow: No. In fact, that's what so cool about this movie. It's such a simple idea. There are many robot movies and I understand that someone may look at this and think, "Oh, this looks like 'I, Robot.'" "I, Robot" is a movie that -- and I made a robot movie, so I speak from experience -- that's about the subject. There's been a zillion robot movies, but they're all sentient. They're autonomous. They're individually thinking. They're artificial intelligence. These are puppets. They don't have any independence. They don't do anything you don't tell them to do. If you want your Surrogate to [move a hand] you have to yourself, in your mind [move your hand]. It won't do anything by itself. It's just a very, very simple idea. These literally are -- I guess you can call them avatars, but they're not quite. They really are just puppets. It's that simple. There's not anything else dangerous about a Surrogate.
You can save it for the sequel.
Jonathan Mostow: (laughs) Right. There's enough ideas in here for a few sequels, but maybe by sequel number four or five when we're really strapped for ideas we'll start having the Surrogates fight back. "Surrogates 5: Rise of the Surrogates."
Can you explain more about how the reservation works and the resistance?
Jonathan Mostow: Well, they go into it greater in the graphic novel than we have time to show. The backstory in the graphic novel is that there was an uprising a few years ago and, to make peace with everything, they made these reservations where people live without Surrogates they autonomously control and no Surrogates are allowed. It sort of keeps out law enforcement and everything else because law enforcement and military is all Surrogates. In fact, later in the movie there is a military invasion of a reservation where the real soldiers have to go in without their Surrogates because they have to recover this device. Their spiritual leader is played by Ving Rhames in a character called "The Prophet." Basically, they're just living life. They're farming for their own food. It's the American stock crowd. The Whole Foods/Trader Joes crowd. It's sort of that vibe. You might get the impression that they're sort of like hillbillies. They're not. He goes back to the reservation later and finds that they're real people just living life.
Why did you choose to shoot in Boston?
Jonathan Mostow: Two reasons: One, fantastic tax credit. Two, fantastic city. I mean, I love Boston. I spent part of my childhood there. A lot of my family's there. I don't know if you know Boston well, but it's probably my favorite city in the U.S. My family just had a great time. We spent most of the summer there. About a third of the movie is shot in downtown Boston proper. About a third is kind of in the surrounding suburbs and about a third is shot in what was essentially our own movie studio in a defunct manufacturing company. We built all our stages there. It was really fun. It was a movie studio we created for the single purpose of making one movie. It was great because it was just all in one shop. Once you enter the door, it was all "Surrogates" all the time. So that was great... The tax credit is so good that there were eight movies shooting there. The weird thing is that several of them are all coming out soon... We'd be shooting or scouting a location and we'd run into other productions. A movie scout is a very specific looking thing. There's always one guy who's the director and he's dressed a certain way and everyone else is following and writing down what he says. It looked like our own Surrogates coming towards us, but it was actually the Ricky Gervais people. One day I drove into the base camp and it was the wrong base camp. You ever see downtown L.A. during pilot season? They're shooting like 80 pilots and there's always multiple pilots shooting within a few-block radius. I did a pilot and did the same thing, went to the wrong base camp. Boston doesn't quite have the infrastructure yet. When we shot the movie, they basically only had enough people for one crew. There's eight movies so we had to basically fly in 32 carpenters from L.A. and give them all hotels and rental cars, per diems and everything else to build our sets. There were just no more carpenters. They'd all been taken by, I think, Shutter Island. They're still learning. We had a sequence where we had to shut down eight city blocks of downtown Boston. Boston is a huge tourist destination and that's a huge, huge thing. That's a major, major shutdown. We did it on a weekend, but it's still a big thing. At least the tourists are excited to see a Hollywood movie. Typically, it takes about thirty cops to do that. We wound up with three and they were like, "This is what you get." Stuff like that.
That's why you need Surrogates.
Jonathan Mostow: (Laughs) Oh, we used up all the jokes about Surrogates. They last about three or four days. We used them all up within the first week. But soon you guys will definitely be able to invent your own Surrogate jokes.
In the trailer, there's the "inhuman" Surrogates, with distorted faces and body parts. What's the story with those?
Jonathan Mostow: The one with the eyes on the side of the head is actually no longer in the movie. That's from a scene that has dropped out of the movie since the trailer was created. There's a spikey-headed girl. There's so much that you just only hint at these things, but there's a brief scene in the movie where Bruce is going home on the subway. The subway is basically just populated by people who are shut off because if you have to take your Surrogate from work back to your house, you can take subway, walk onto the subway, sit down and get out of your chair, go eat a bagel and just come back before your stop is ready and your Surrogates can reactivate. He's sitting in the subway with all these catatonic shutdown looking Surrogates. We see a bunch of Surrogatesand, among them, is this girl who decided to customize her look as bald with spikes embedded in her head and her boyfriend is some freaky-looking kind of guy. Those are just little indicators of sort of the world. The idea with the eye guy is that, if you were a bartender, wouldn't it be great to have eyes on either side of your head so you can see what all the customers want?
Looking ahead, are you already planning for these missing scenes to go back on the DVD?
Jonathan Mostow: I really don't think that far ahead going forward. It's really enough to just think about the movie right now. At this point, we're working such insane hours. We're in the middle of sound postproduction now. The only thing right now to mind for the DVD is that I'm such a packrat so I keep everything from preproduction: designs, illustrations, concept drawings. I make sure to keep everything so that, in the end, it may be interesting to put up on the DVD. I actually talked with a DVD producer last week and, even though there's all that stuff, the number one thing that consumers look for is the bloopers. That's the one thing I hate putting on. We have these high aspirations, thinking these people are film cineastes but really they just want to see Bruce Willis when he falls on his ass.
You can delve into this unique world of Surrogates when Jonathan Mostow's new film hits theaters on September 25.