Jonathan Mostow Talks ‘Surrogates’
To celebrate this week’s release of Surrogates on DVD, director Jonathan Mostow sat down with the press for a virtual press conference and ComicMix was in attendance. Here are highlights from that conversation. Our review of the film and DVD ran yesterday.
ComicMix: Mr. Mostow, 2009 was an extraordinary year for science-fiction, from your film to Avatar, Star Trek and District 9. Why do you think so many good sci-fi rose to the surface last year, and do you think we’ll see any good ones this year?
Jonathan Mostow: First of all, thank you for mentioning our film in the same breath as those other movies — all of which I loved. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 2009 was a good year for sci-fi. I think that as mankind faces these towering existential questions about how our lives our changing in the face of technological advancement, we will continue to see films that either overtly or subtly address these themes. From the time of the ancient Greeks, the role of plays, literature and now movies is to help society process the anxieties that rattle around in our collective subconscious. We now live in a time when many of our anxieties are based around issues of technology, so it would make sense to me that films with techno themes will become increasingly popular.
CMIX: This isn’t your first time dealing with a high concept of man versus machine. Can you talk about why this concept intrigues you?
Mostow: 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 The Surrogates , so I’ll answer accordingly… Whereas T3 posed technology as a direct threat to mankind, I see The 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.
CMIX: I found the distinction between the surrogates and their human handlers interesting. Can you expound upon why such a drastic difference?
Mostow: The difference was logical. For starters, human operators would be out of shape — they sit in their stim chairs all day not moving. They’d also appear kinda shlumpy, since they don’t need to leave their homes (much less shower or dress), so who’s gonna care if they stay in their pajamas all day. On the surrogate side of the equation, we imagined that based on human nature, in most cases, people would opt to operate idealized versions of themselves — so if their surrogate looked in a mirror, for example, they’d see this fantastic-looking version of themselves. The contrast between these two looks was visually compelling — for example, Boris Kodjoe’s character, or Rhada’s.
CMIX: One of the deleted scenes shows the surrogates’ prejudice towards a human being among them. Why was this particular element cut?
Mostow: The scene you reference (Bruce and Radha in a bar) was cut, but the underlying idea is still in the movie — although admittedly not as strongly as had we kept the scene. (There are references in the movie to “meatbags” and other moments that indicate a hostility and prejudice toward those who reject the surrogate way of life.) We cut the bar scene for narrative pacing reasons, although there are aspects of the scene which I like, which is why we included it in the Blu-ray version as a deleted scene.
CMIX: I imagine that before writing and creating the world of The Surrogates you studied the topic. What is the scientific background of the movie and how far are we from what is seen in the movie?
Mostow: I did a fair amount of research for the movie, but really, what I discovered is that the best research was simply being a member of society in 2009. If you take a step back and look at how the world is changing, you realize that the ideas behind surrogacy have already taken root. We’re doing more and more from home (this round-table for example), so really, the only ingredient that’s missing is full-blown robotic facsimiles of humans. Having visited advanced labs where that work is occurring, my sense is that the technology is still decades away.
CMIX: Can you explain the casting choices in The Surrogates? Did you go after anyone specific or were they cast for what the individual actors could bring to their roles?
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!
CMIX: 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?
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.
CMIX:You’ve worked with special effects a lot prior to The Surrogates. Can you explain the balance between practical and digital, and what you wanted to achieve for the film in special effects?
Mostow: My goal for the effects in this film was to make them invisible. There are over 800 vfx shots in Surrogates, but hopefully you’ll be able to identify only a few of them. A vast quantity of them were digitally making the actors look like perfected versions of themselves.
CMIX: On the movie’s you’ve directed, you have done some rewrites. Was there anything in Surrogates you polished up on, or was it pretty much set by the time pre-production got under way?
Mostow: 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.
CMIX:Boston’s mix of old architecture and new, sleek buildings works wonderfully well for The 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?
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!
CMIX: I really enjoyed listening to your audio commentary on the DVD. Talk about your approach to it. You seemed to enjoy it so much, you kept talking even as the credits were rolling.
Mostow: Thanks for the compliment. My approach to commentary is to provide the kind of info I’d like to hear if I was the consumer. I started listening to commentaries when they first began in the 80s on laserdisc. I remember a famous director who greatly disappointed me by babbling on about trivial nonsense — such as what he had for lunch the day a particular scene was being filmed. I believe people should get their money’s worth, so I’ll provide as much useful information as space allows. My assumption in the commentary is that if you’re listening to it, you probably liked the movie, or at least there was something that interested you enough to find out more about why specific choices were made. So I try to tailor my comments for that audience. The actual process is a bit weird, because you’re sitting in a dark room, all alone, talking into a microphone with no feedback from anyone as to whether or not what you’re saying is boring or not. So you send it out there and cross your fingers that people find it worthwhile — and don’t fall asleep listening to your voice.