You hear people saying that a film set is a boring place to be. If you’re like me, you’ve never quite believed this – how could the place where the magic was happening be boring? How could you, for one moment, be bored amidst the cameras and the lights and the scurrying crew, the architects of the screen images you pony up for gladly every weekend?
I don’t know how it is, but I can tell you how long it takes to go from complete awe to stunning boredom – something like 10 minutes. That’s not to say that the people or set for Paramount’s Aeon Flux were in any way boring or low on energy or unfriendly. It just turns out that through a series of events that were nobody’s fault the press who had been flown in to amazing Berlin, Germany (I am considering taking money from their tourism bureau, the way I talk the place up) couldn’t see the big fight scene intended for our eyes. And then, because of the complexities of eyelines and the acting process, we had to watch the scene that was being filmed during our visit – one involving walking around a library and a green screen (which meant the same actions would have to be repeated again and again) – from a monitor. It was sort of like watching it on TV. (It’s really important to note that star Charlize Theron took time during all of this to come and talk to us while we were huddled around a monitor. She was kind and funny and still dressed in her black, skintight Aeon Flux outfit, so that will give me something to talk about at parties for years to come).
Thank God for Phil Hay, co-writer of the film (along with partner Matt Manfredi, who wasn’t on set). Phil found himself in a position not many writers get to be in – on set as his script came to life. And he spent a lot of the day hanging out with the Internet press as we watched that monitor. Phil’s a very cool guy, a very funny guy and a true geek, in the best sense of the word. Looking at his resume you may not guess it – he wrote crazy/beautiful – but the sci-fi genre is close to Phil’s heart. And at least one member of the international internet press who covered the event assured me that he’s very cute.
I don’t have a transcript of Phil hanging out and bullshitting with us here, but we did get a good chance to sit down with Phil and producer David Gale (I think I was the only guy making Life of… jokes) for an extended interview.
Q: What are you working on (with your partner) besides this?
Phil: We’re working on another kind of science fiction movie for Warner Bros called Market Forces. It’s based on a British science fiction novel by Richard Morgan [click here to order it from CHUD.com!] . It’s kind of a near future – 20 or 30 years in the future – when everything has become like Iraq. It’s a very political novel. It’s about a world run by Halliburton or Bechtel. It’s kind of almost a science fiction version of The Firm, where someone who is in one of these companies, the golden boy who has risen through the ranks, basically gets a conscience and starts to realize that people are trading off of misery and war and conflict.
Q: Are you worried about being typecast as a sci-fi guy?
Phil: I would love to be typecast as a sci-fi guy! I’m a sci-fi film fan, so it’s appropriate.
Q: With Aeon Flux how much is based on the cartoon and how much is new?
Phil: I would say that in terms of specifics – plot specifics and the architecture of the actual story – not very much [is based on the cartoon], but what we tried to do is really inspired by the show. The reason we got involved is that Matt and I are fans of the show. That’s one of the reasons that David and these guys brought us in to work on it. I think it’s important for the fans to recognize images; there are action beats that are versions, takes on specific stuff that happened on the show. A lot of the character dynamic. The architecture of what the show’s about is all there. The show, as you know, is built on a kind of an anti-narrative. It’s about questioning straightforward narrative. So what we talked about with Peter – Peter Chung was here for a set visit recently. We didn’t talk to him during the process but Karyn [Kusama, the director] and David talked to him for years now about this, where our ideal is that these two things exist as parallel worlds to each other. For us we’re really conscious of the responsibility you have when you try to adapt something that’s very special. The show itself is very special. A way to protect it is to do your own thing that tries to do justice to the thought and the feeling of the original, but you take it in such a new direction that the two things can exist on their own. The movie isn’t a bastardized version of the show. The movie is its own thing.
Q: David, how did Charlize get involved with this? It seems like an odd follow-up to Monster.
David: I think that because we had such a strong script it started getting around Hollywood, and we had many actresses coming after us to do the movie. It’s very rare to have a smart, strong female character that’s engaged in action but isn’t just a 2-dimensional action hero. The really interesting aspects of the cartoon did, I think, make it into the script. But at the same time it’s a really compelling story. It’s very much a sci-fi story, it’s got a love story and it’s got a kind of a combination of factors that got actresses interested in it.
We did approach Charlize before she won the Academy Award. She was really intrigued by the script and what I think cemented it is when she met with Karyn, and Karyn gave her the vision that she has for the movie, which is very unique, not at all like any action movie that you’ve seen. So you’re right, in some ways it would initially seem odd that somebody of Charlize’s acting caliber would want to do an action movie – but it’s not an action movie, it’s a really intelligent sci-fi movie.
Q: David, the cartoon was on TV well over a decade ago. Why now with the film?
David: Why now? Hollywood takes a long time sometimes to go from the initial idea to actual production. I started at MTV nine and a half years ago and Aeon had just started its run as a full-length half hour on MTV. It had had this great life as a short and had developed a cult status. When the show was first airing we loved what it was and said, let’s develop a movie. It took a really long time to get something that paid enough tribute and built in enough of what the show was but still allowed us to make a pretty significantly big movie that an audience – a broader audience than the initial fan base – would like, while still holding on to the initial fan base. It took a really long time. Phil and Matt were the ones who really clinched it for us.
Q: Was there a point when you were considering making it a feature length cartoon, or was it always going to be live action?
David: You know, feature length cartoons in America for adults don’t have a particularly strong history. It’s just not something audiences have responded to. We thought about it, we thought it would be very cool, but it just didn’t make sense. At some point we would love to do a full-length animated adult cartoon that’s not based on an animated TV show.
Q: The film has themes that resonate with us today. Could it be viewed as a cautionary tale?
Phil: I think that in a way, as we’ve worked on the script it’s changed. Matt and I have worked on the script almost four years now, and a year and a half of that with Karyn. All of us – as our world changes the world of the movie changes. Some of the things that were in the subtext have come to the surface because of the way the world is, but the core things of this movie are like, how do you retain your humanity and all the great things that make you human in the face of all the strife in the world and in the face of technology that tries to dehumanize you. It’s the battle to save what is human in everybody. There is a lot of stuff, in science and politics where people ask what is it to be safe? Can you trust what everybody tells you? Whose side are you really on – governments and rebels and how they can turn over and change. Today’s good guy is tomorrow’s bad guy.
Q: There’s a lot of subtext about weird sexuality and bondage in the cartoon. Is that in the film as well?
Phil: Tastefully done! I think Aeon’s sexuality is a big part of the appeal of the show and what we hope of the movie, but it’s more – I venture to say that it comes more out of her character, out of stuff that is happening to her and Trevor Goodchilde. It’s less stylized, not as aggressively stylized as the show. But we hope to make a very sexy movie.
Q: Aiming for a PG-13?
David: We are. The great thing about the film, I think, is that the story makes it more universally appealing than a lot of writers would have done with it. It’s got the great love story, it’s got the action, it’s got the science fiction. To undermine that with an R-rating and to take the 14, 15 and 16 years out of the equation was difficult. We weren’t going to make a compromised movie at the same time. So what Matt and Phil did, they knew the restrictions of the rating and they wrote with that in mind. So instead of saying, We’re making an R-rated movie, let’s figure out how to scale it back, we did it this way and you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.
You have to be careful. The Matrix did a great job, and it was an R-rated movie, but so often you do leave out a big part of the audience.
Q: Karyn isn’t the first person you would think of to direct a science fiction action film. What does she bring to this?
David: I kind of like to tell the story about when Karyn’s agent suggested that we meet with her for this movie and I was like, Why? This doesn’t make any sense to me because there was nothing in her background that I had seen that would make her appropriate. She came in so prepared, though – she had a world that she had created pictorially, going through imagery that she had found in different parts of the world, and different ideas. She had so thoroughly thought this movie out and she had a visual presentation and then she came with an intelligence that was so much more evolved than the other directors we had met with. So we had to decide to take that chance, which you sometimes do, to believe in the vision and that she can execute it. We put her on the movie and she started working with [Phil and Matt] and the script became so much better and each step along the way she passed the hurdle. In a movie like this you’re waiting for them – you say, OK she was great at that stage, but can she get to the point where we let her make the movie. She kept getting past those hurdles and showed that she was a great director.
Q: How would you sum up the vision?
David: I think she has a photographer’s eye. She’s got a visual perspective on the world. Then she combines that with a really deep intelligence so that every scene she’s composing has a meaning. She’s not just slapping together action sequences and love sequences. The script is so complex on so many levels because you keep shifting realities. The scene you saw being film today has a reality shift. It takes a really special director to have their eye on what they’re shooting at that moment and what the scene is ultimately going to become. It’s all Aeon’s point of view so you have to see the world through a particular person’s viewpoint, so it was really challenging to find someone who could do that.
Q: You say that the film is going to be less stylized than the series. One of the things that made the series so popular was that it was kind of opaque – you had to watch the episodes a couple of times. Are you abandoning that?
Phil: I think it’s actually not that we’re less stylized, we’re differently stylized. I think there is continuity between them because what we want to maintain from the show is the sense of mystery, that somewhere there’s a dream logic where everything makes sense, even though in the show it’s very buried. If you watch the show 400 times over and over again like Matt and I have it starts to work on you, you start to see that. There’s a coherent intelligence behind the whole thing. What we tried to do is take what we discovered spending all this time with the source material and try to turn it into something more understandable on a story level. Twists and turns of the story and revelations at certain points make it so that you watch the movie and at a certain point say, Wait a second, now I understand. We tried to turn that into a more understandable thing but maintain a sense of mystery, which the show has. We talked to Peter Chung about this too, is that we see our characters have the show as their dream world. Our characters in the movie operate in a more realistic world.
Q: Speaking of Peter Chung, what kind of feedback did you get from him?
Phil: I think David can confirm this – with us he seemed to take himself a step back and wait and see what happens. It’s clear to him the difference, and it’s important to him to maintain the difference, between the two mediums. I can’t speak for him, but I think that’s’ something he’s interested in, how different mediums work and how things change, from a novel to an animated series, from his own animated series from the shorts without dialogue, basically silent movies, to the half hour versions that are very different.
We didn’t have a ton of interaction with him up to more recently because it seems like he wanted to let it be what it was and focus on his own stuff. Recently when he came to the set it was really great because I think he did really get attached to what was going on here.
David: He was involved, but as Phil said, it became apparent at the beginning of the movie that in order to make it what we wanted it to be, which is a movie that could appeal to a mass audience while keeping what made the show great, you need an experienced screenwriter. What we have is a bible of information and material that these guys studied, which were the episodes and shorts themselves. That is really rich in what this is. There’s a logic to it.
Peter gave these guys a tremendous amount of notes and background. He was involved.
Q: David, when Charlize got hurt did you think that might be the end of the production?
David: I don’t think we ever got to that place. It took a week before we knew the extent of her injury, and fortunately it turned out it was an injury that would heal and the question was, how quickly. The doctors thought it was the most remarkably quick healing process ever. We didn’t have time to get terrible despondent. She was able to get stronger and get back to doing physically what she was planning to do, most of the major stunts having been shot. She still does running and fighting and things that are important.
Q: How did it happen?
David: She was doing a stunt. She was doing most of her own stunts in this movie, and she was doing a somersault – what’s really amazing is how great Charlize is at this stuff – and she was doing a series of flips. It was a rehearsal and we were kind of sorry that we didn’t have the camera rolling because what she did was so great we didn’t even know she was injured. She didn’t look injured.
Phil: She’s so great at the stunts that it’s really difficult to find stunt doubles as good as she is.
Q: How did you feel when it happened?
David: Personally terrible. My only concern was that she was going to be OK. Neck injuries can be serious so until we heard from the doctors that she was OK it was really scary. Who cares about the movie, it’s not something you think about. You gotta shut the movie down, shut the movie down. You don’t take a chance. But she was like, Don’t let them do that stunt without me! As she’s being taken out!
Q: There are some nods to the original show in the movie. How hard is it to fit those in? Where is the line you draw?
Phil: There are little visual moments. There’s a signature thing on the show, it’s on the cover of every video box, where she captures a fly in her eyelashes. We do that. To me that’s like the heart of the show. That image is the weirdness and the mystery of the show. It’s going to be really great in the movie. Things like that, details that fit into what we’re doing, but true fans will say, Oh that’s in A Last Time For Everything. The characters themselves, while they’ve evolved and are different in some ways, many of the characters are inventions, they’re not part of the show but we always thought they would have fit in some way – there’s a lot of character stuff, the constant tension between these two characters, Aeon and Trevor, who love and hate each other. They are enemies but who clearly love each other in some way, these two battling forces. That’s what the show is about, these battling forces, one which represents science and order and learning and the other is chaos and anarchy.
Q: Are there aspects of the script that are exactly like the show? And what aspects are completely different?
Phil: I think the basic relationship between Aeon and Trevor is very much like the show. A lot of the look – her hair is a great example of what has been done. One of the signature images of the show is that she has this insane hairstyle that’s like ram horns, this thing which you could never put in a film, it would look ridiculous. Or the costumes, which in the show are skimpier than any human could possibly wear and look right in. The idea is to take the adventurousness of the costumes, and the hairstyle particularly, and they’ve created is what I think is a great vision of it. The hair in the movie has lines that recall the original hair, but it’s the kind of hair that a real future person could wear. Maybe not today’s person, but in the future you could wear it!
Q: David, you’ve been developing this from the beginning, and Phil, you came on four years ago. Can you describe the process?
David: It’s just a typical Hollywood process of taking a really long time to do virtually nothing. I say that somewhat facetiously. It takes a long time to find writers who understand the material, so you do a lot of interviewing and you get a lot pitching. We started with one writer and that didn’t feel like it worked, but Phil was just the second writer.
Q: Was there a concern about losing the built in audience?
David: The built in audience that was there I think is still there. The people who are fans of the show – when they hear about it, it didn’t age. It’s one of these things that they remember and now that they hear there’s a movie it’s kind of cool. What we’re going to do is build a new fanbase and bring back the original episodes, put them on DVD. We’re talking to Peter about creating some new stuff. What he loves about the process in many ways is the revival of Aeon Flux. That’s really great is to be able to say to him that while we have a parallel thing going on we want to get people interested in the show.
Q: Do you envision this as a franchise? Is Charlize signed for more than one film?
David: She is.
Q: How many is she signed to?
David: I honestly don’t remember.
Q: Phil, what is the difference between your take that got you the job and the scripts that came before?
Phil: It was more of an idea of approach. It was seen as an unadaptable property, frankly. People would look at it and say, How are we going to turn this into a feature film? Probably the concept that was out there was to turn it into this 80s action movie. This big, traditional, thudding, all these explosions – very, very linear thing. Basically making an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie with a woman called Aeon Flux but nothing else about the show or the world of the show. What we saw when we looked at it as fans of the show, we thought, How do we do this? It’s like adapting Rauschenberg or something, more than it is adapting a comic book or a novel. The way that we originally came in and talked about it was to look for inspiration from movies like Run Lola Run, for example, which I consider a science fiction movie. I think of a lot of movies as science fiction movies that a lot of people don’t because something like that has the energy of its ideas and its concept, in seeing something play out and turn in on itself and become more and more complex.
We approached it saying let’s bring an energy to it that has nothing to do with the blockbuster mentality of the 80s, something that will be a new thing. Something that has all the action you want, all the set pieces you want, but that comes out of some chaotic and truly weird characters. We’re trying to approach it as something that’s about momentum and energy and actual questioning. Our biggest hope is that it’s a big, mainstream movie – those are our favorite movies – but it’s about trying to find interesting stuff for everybody but still deliver on inventive action.
Q: You mention Run Lola Run, which plays with time and narrative. The series does that as well. Do you approach that in the film?
Phil: A little bit. Let me put it this way – there’s a very, very long amount of time the full story takes place over. In the opening narration there’s a world set up and the idea is that you learn more and more about this world and it’s sketched to you as you go along. There are a lot of visions and stuff that takes place outside of the strong, straightforward narrative. A lot of the stuff is visions and alternate realities and parallel worlds that the characters jump into and come back out of and move around within. We talk about it in terms of frequencies – things vibrate at certain frequencies and we just don’t realize it. This room is vibrating at a certain frequency and there’s another room with the exact same contours behind it, and if you can get behind it you can go there.
Q: How much thought are you giving to the fans? Are you following the online reaction?
Phil: We hope that the movie will satisfy them. I will confess to you guys that I spend a ton of time on all of your websites, actually. I’m the kind of person who spends a ton of time reading about stuff – I’m just interested. I’m a science fiction and horror fan. I’m aware of the landscape, too. Matt and I are always talking about, Look, we have to do our best and realize that there will always be a subset of people who will flame it and hate it. It doesn’t matter what we put up there. There’s also going to be a subset that will come to its defense, I think, if they see that it’s something made by people who take it seriously, and we’re not just trying to make a science fiction movie because there’s a lot science fiction movies that make money. We are fans, so we know both sides of it – unfairly hating something and unfairly loving it.
Q: Most writers don’t get to be on set.
Phil: Yeah, it’s great. The script has been pretty much locked into place since the beginning of production, but there are little things that come up. Karyn has found it helpful that occasionally we’ll talk something out with the actors, or if there’s a little tiny blip, something that’s wrong, we’ll fix it. It’s been great to be here. Me and Matt are really grateful that David and the studio want us here.
David: What’s really been great about Phil being here and his involvement is that there’s so much more to this movie than what’s on the page. People aren’t just satisfied knowing the script and the story, they want to know that there’s more history, that if you scratch the surface of a particular scene that there’s lots more you could learn about it, that it’s not just two dimensional. I think that if you were to ask Phil any question about a specific scene in the movie there is a history and a background. That, from the science fiction standpoint, is really important, because everything in the script should hold up from a storytelling and narrative level but also from an intellectual level. Especially for science fiction fans that’s crucial – they want to know you didn’t just make something up one day because it’s a cool looking device.
Q: Phil, let’s establish some geek cred for you. What are your favorite sci fi films, and what besides Run Lola Run influenced you when writing this script?
Phil: I’ll give you all the real answers as opposed to what I perceive to be the right answers. My real favorites include Alien and Aliens. Alien is what got me – well, first Star Wars of course, but that goes without saying. Maybe I can establish my geek cred on this movie by saying that I spent a lot of time focusing on the so-called minor characters because my favorite character in Star Wars is Wedge. Matt and I are focused on having every character having their own world, even if they’re not the lead.
Road Warrior. I love The Terminator. I’ll just give you examples of movies like, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Silent Running. Blade Runner, of course. The Matrix I love – the first Matrix, like everybody. Ralph Bakshi animation, like Wizards. I’ve seen Flash Gordon like 12 times. Tried to introduce Karyn to it.
Q: The serials?
Phil: I’m talking about the movie with Sam J Jones. Movies that I think have some connection, movies that are not science fiction but have the values, movies like Memento and Pi. Stuff like that has the kind of values of the movies I gravitate to.
Coming next time: Director Karyn Kusama!