Director Jonathan Mostow's latest film Surrogates, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on January 26, tells the tale of a world where technology has advanced to the point that humans no longer have to step out into the world, but can send out their Surrogates, robotic, enhanced versions of themseleves that people can control from their own home. While we might not be at that point yet, technologically, we're still at the point where we can join virtual roundtables with Mostow over the internet, and ask him questions about the film while watching some of the DVD/BD special features as well. What a world we live in. Here's what the director had to say about his new film.
How did you direct your actors to have the 'Surrogates' effect? What kind of suggestions would you give?
Jonathan Mostow: 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, gait, etc. 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.
Which other features can we find inside the Extras of the DVD and BD?
Jonathan Mostow: The DVD and Blu-ray both have my commentary and the music video by Breaking Benjamin. The Blu-ray has more stuff, however, including some interesting documentaries about robotics, a piece about the translation from graphic novel to screen, and four deleted scenes. (Plus, of course, the Blu-ray looks better!)
Do you believe your film made the audiences rethink some aspects of their lives?
Jonathan Mostow: I hope so. Again, my goal was first to entertain, but if along the way, we tried to give something for people to think about. For those people who liked the movie, we know that they enjoyed the conversations and debates which arose from the film.
Are there any sci-fi movies that were inspirational to the tone, look and feel you wanted to strike with Surrogates?
Jonathan Mostow: 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.
What's the most rewarding thing you've learned or taken from making this movie?
Jonathan Mostow: 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.
Did you read the comics before you started making the movie? If so, what did you like about them the most?
Jonathan Mostow: Yes, it was the graphic novel that inspired me to make the movie. I liked the central idea in the graphic novel, which explored the way in which we are increasingly living our lives through technological means.
This world is tech-addicted; do you think it is a plague? Should we could we control this?
Jonathan Mostow: 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.
In Surrogates every character in the frame looks perfect: was it a big technical problem for you? How did you find a solution?
Jonathan Mostow: I talk about that on the DVD commentary -- it was a big challenge. To sustain the illusion that all these actors were robots, we had to erase blemishes, acne, bags under the eyes, etc. In a sense, the actors were the visual effects. As a result, there are more VFX shots than non-VFX shots in the movie.
How close did you try to keep the film to the graphic novel?
Jonathan Mostow: 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.
Are you afraid, that the future we see in the movie could be real someday soon?
Jonathan Mostow: 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?
Are any of the props from Surrogates currently on display in your house?
Jonathan Mostow: That question makes me chuckle, because to the chagrin of my family, I'm a bit of a pack rat and I like collecting junk from my films. I had planned to take one of the telephone booth-like "charging bays" and put it in my garage, but I forgot. Thanks for reminding me -- I'll see if it's still lying around someplace!
What was the most difficult element of the graphic novel to translate to the film?
Jonathan Mostow: 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.
Boston's mix of old architecture and new, sleek buildings works wonderfully well for "Surrogates." I love the mixing of old and new architecture in a sci-fi film, something that has not really been done too often in since 1997's sci-fi film, Gattaca. Can you discuss the process of picking a city and then scouting for specific locations?
Jonathan Mostow: Thank you -- I talk about that in my DVD commentary. 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!
As far as I know in the movie there was some digital rejuvenation of Bruce Willis for his role as a robot. How did you do it and what do you foresee for this technique? Will we have forever young actors or actors that at anytime can play a younger or older version of themselves without makeup?
Jonathan Mostow: 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.
Can you explain the casting choices in Surrogates? Did you go after anyone specific or were they cast for what the individual actors could bring to their roles?
Jonathan Mostow: The interesting thing about casting this movie is that for the Surrogates, we needed terrific actors who also looked physically perfect. Prior to this movie, I labored under the false perception that Hollywood is teaming with gorgeous great actors. Not necessarily so. Yes, there are many wonderful actors. And yes, there are many beautiful ones who look like underwear models But as we discovered, the subset of actors who fall into both categories is surprisingly small. We were lucky to get folks like Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe -- and we were equally fortunate to find a number of talented day players to round out the smaller roles in the cast. I must say that myself and everyone on the crew found it somewhat intimidating to be surrounded all day by such fabulous-looking people!
The scene shot in downtown Boston was great and the fact that the city allowed it was pretty cool. But this was a very action-driven scene with Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell. Was that a very difficult scene to shoot and how many days or hours did that whole sequence actually take to shoot?
Jonathan Mostow: If you're referring to the chase with Bruce and Radha, here's a great irony -- that sequence was one of the few not shot in Boston -- in fact, it was shot almost entirely on the Paramount backlot (to my knowledge, it's the largest and most complex chase scene ever shot on their backlot, which if you saw it, you'd realize how tiny an amount of real estate it is, and so pulling off a chase of that scope was quite a tricky bit of business).
It is mentioned in the bonus features that the makeup effects and visual effects basically worked hand-in-hand in the smoothing look of the robotic surrogate characters; was this perfection that is seen in the final product more challenging than in past productions you have worked on, being that this film was coming to Blu-ray?
Jonathan Mostow: Well certainly 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 these 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.
Was there ever a plan for an alternate ending for the film?
Jonathan Mostow: The only other versions of the end we discussed involved the circumstances in which Bruce and Radha's characters were reunited.
The concept of what was featured in Surrogates is so fascinating. Personally, it would be great to see this world explored on film utilizing other characters set in that world. Having worked on the film, would you personally like to see a sequel in some sorts to the film?
Jonathan 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.
All your movies put their main characters in the edge, with a lot of action sequences and a plot holding some twists towards the end. Is this your signature or just a coincidence?
Jonathan Mostow: Personally, I enjoy movies that are visceral -- that provide an experience that can quicken your pulse and give you sweaty palms -- as opposed to movies that you sit back and watch in a more passive way. That said, while the story of Surrogates may not be as visceral as my other films, I still tried to inject my approach into it to a degree.
You can pick up Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates when it hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on January 26.