Aeon Flux did not do well in theaters – it earned back less than half its budget in domestic release and the reviews were overwhelmingly negative. Hollywood generally has a way of dealing with a film that performs like this… they walk away and don’t talk about it much. But the DVD release of Aeon Flux has offered an interesting opportunity to take a look at what worked and didn’t work with the film, and screenwriter Phil Hay agreed to discuss that with me.
I first met Phil on the Berlin set of Aeon Flux back in 2004 (click here to read my original interview with Phil). He and I kept in touch in the time since, and when the opportunity to have a Flux post-mortem with him came up, I jumped at it. Phil’s a smart guy with one of those brains that’s always juggling a number of ideas and projects. He and his writing partner Matt Manfredi seem to always half a half dozen things cooking at any given time.
The Aeon Flux DVD hits stores this week. There’s a commentary by Phil and Matt, as well as one with Charlize Theron and producer Gale Anne Hurd (but I guess none with director Karyn Kusama, which is too bad, because she’s smart as hell). You can buy Aeon Flux from CHUD by clicking here.
Q: The last time we talked on the record was on the set in Berlin, back in 2004. You said it had been one of the best experiences you had ever had. What’s your take on that now?
Hay: I think that in many ways it’s still one of the best experiences I have had, even though it was so tumultuous and changing all the time as we progressed through many, many different obstacles and insane developments that throw a spin on things. It was a huge lesson in making movies, basically. So that I’m pleased with, and I’m pleased that we were able to stay involved the entire time. More the way the movie was put out was the difficult experience.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Hay: Something surprising was to learn how deeply complicated… I kind of was aware of how complicated the process of post and moving into the whole realm of marketing and distribution and publicity and that stuff was, but in our case it was tremendously complicated. What’s surprising was how many twists and turns that part of the story took.
Q: Can you walk us through some of that?
Hay: For me something interesting and dismaying that happened was that for whatever reason a lot of the advertising – all of the advertising, actually – and all of the distribution efforts were kind of describing a movie that the movie wasn’t. It was creating a context that wasn’t representative of what the movie was. It was kind of a lesson in how much an effect things like the context a movie is put out in [has], what they’re telling you a movie is – which in our case was action, action, action, action. Our movie has a lot of action in it, but I think that kind of advertising doesn’t reach or embrace the audience that might embrace and love this movie, which might be a more serious science-fiction audience.
Q: Where did they get the action, action, action thing from? Was it something where the marketing people walked in one day and just decided to sell it as a big action picture? How does that happen?
Hay: The goal is towards making the most commercially viable strategy. People disagree on what that is, but everybody is trying to do that. I think at some point they decided through their research that the only audience for this movie was going to be an action audience, whatever that is. And that the only way to promote the movie was through making it seem very much like a comic book type of movie, or like an action extravaganza, re-inventing the wheel of action. The movie went through many changes during the process of post that also made its nature veer around in a very interesting way, but to the people I always thought would be interested in this movie, the people I hoped would check it out on DVD, are the true science fiction people. The people who are going to be looking at the movie for its ideas, and who are looking at the movie for its future world, which I don’t think was evident from the way it was framed. I think that kind of translated into a general reception of the movie that was fairly dismissive, certainly critically. And I don’t think it had to be that way.
Q: Did you guys talk to the marketing people at all, letting them know that this isn’t a slam bang action picture, that’s it’s a real science fiction movie?
Hay: I think there was a lot of conversation about that. I wasn’t privy to it in my role as a writer, but I know that the director and the producer and the studio – many people were arguing for many different things. It wasn’t that there were battle lines drawn very clearly, it was an evolving thing. Originally the plan was to market it as more of a serious science fiction movie, and I think that the web site reflects that strategy pretty well. But at some point they decided the action movie was the way to go.
Q: It’s interesting that they moved the picture’s release date around a bit. I thought that when they settled on December it meant they were going to sell it as more serious, but I guess they decided to sell it as counterprogramming to the Oscar stuff.
Hay: Right. That’s kind of what I thought too. Again, I think that anybody involved will tell you that everybody involved is doing what they think will best serve the movie. I have no way of knowing what the best strategy ultimately is, simply because we don’t have a parallel universe generator to see such things, but it seems like that that was the idea. I think it’s interesting that a lot of things that were sold as action recently don’t really perform the way they could if some of the more esoteric elements of them were emphasized more.
Q: The critics were not kind.
Hay: They weren’t?
Q: Sorry to break the news to you. How do you deal with that? When you see that you have 12% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, how do you as a creative person deal with that?
Hay: Part of you doesn’t really care and part of you does care. Obviously you want everybody to love everything you do, but in this case I take solace in that the way that it was framed… I was disappointing in reading many of the reviews were focused on how the studio didn’t provide a review [screening] for them. Much of the text was about the disappointment and the anger of a movie critic sitting in a movie theater on a weekend, watching it with other people. That doesn’t really teach me much about the filmmaking process.
For me, I know what the movie is to myself, and I really do love the movie. I think the director’s cut of the movie would have been a totally different ballgame in terms of the reception critically and the reception by people. It’s a very, very different movie, so there’s a disappointment that that movie didn’t get released, as it’s quite different. What it comes down to is that when you’re in our position, what you’re hoping is that you’re going to be able to put your best foot forward and people are going to be able to see it. If they don’t like it, you take your lumps and if they love it you feel good about it. But frequently it’s more complicated than that.
Q: Do you read the reviews?
Hay: Selectively. But in the long run I get around to reading most of them. I’m interested in the context of movie criticism right now; I think there’s a crisis in movie criticism right now. I gravitate to the people who write an essay when they’re writing about film, as opposed to a restaurant review or something, which is what I think the vast majority of movie criticism is recently.
Q: I have to agree with that. I hate when you read a review and you realize that all you’re getting is Consumer Reports and you’re not getting any thought about the movie.
Hay: Of the movies we’ve worked on, the [reviews] I’ve most loved are the ones that get the movie, whether they like it or not. I think you can write an interesting essay about culture, about a movie that you may have problems with, but you can use it to talk about culture.
As a writer it’s tough because, as you know, things are so mobile and changeable in a movie script. You have people pointing out and critiquing certain voiceovers or lines of dialogue that they didn’t like, and you’re like, ‘That was written by an editorial assistant!’ The ADR process creates a lot of interesting opportunities for the continuity of something to be disrupted.
Q: That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from writing about movies for a couple of years now – it’s hard for me to say when a script is good or bad, because very often what a writer hands in has little relationship to what ends up onscreen.
Hay: It’s kind of amazing and it’s really true. I speak about it to my writer friends all the time; in a way in the filmmaking culture we live in it’s irrelevant for a reviewer to talk about the script as an entity unless they’ve read the script. That would be interesting, if a reviewer would read a script and then watch the movie and have something to say about the difference between the two of them. In some ways, unless it’s a writer/director that you’re dealing with where you can be more sure that it’ll be closer to what that person is looking to do in the script, it’s really hard to pinpoint and be specific in your critique. Again, Karyn’s director’s cut was a very close rendition of the script, and that was a very positive feeling. Again I’ll say that the cut that’s out there now is a direct representation of the script, but subtleties and context and tone changes can make a huge difference in how something is perceived.
Q: How big of a difference is there between the director’s cut and the film that’s being released on DVD?
Hay: In a way there are many big differences, which I can talk a little bit about. The basic storyline is very much the same. It’s more of a case of emphasis, tone, mood and pace. The director’s cut is about twenty five minutes longer and contains more backstory of secondary characters, a lot more political discussion of the situation of the world, it’s elucidated more clearly and complexly. Relationships have more room to breathe. It’s a matter of mood – the cutting style is very, for lack of a better term, more serious. It’s a much more serious-minded epic tone, as opposed to the more pop tone – which I think often works – in the theatrical cut. It’s just a fascinating thing to see them as two different enemies.
For example, the action – the way that Karyn planned the action was in much more the balletic world of Crouching Tiger or something, as opposed to the very quick cut traditional action style that ended up in the final cut. The way that we always envisioned the tone of the movie, and the tone that’s in the director’s cut, is more of a samurai film. That was always the tone all along. We were trying to make basically a samurai film in the future. There are certain conventions and tonal, operatic stuff that work more properly if given the room to breathe and you’re allowed to feel your way into the characters and into the very heightened style of everything. I think people often have a difficult time with anything that isn’t naturalism in terms of performance style or tone, and this movie, the interesting thing, is that we’re not dealing with naturalism. There’s a much more theatrical, operatic thing going on. Again, I think that in the director’s cut you see the spaces and silences and quiet moments. We had the benefit of so many actors who were great at internal moments, being able to act from within and being able to hold the scene with that stuff.
Q: How late in the process did Karyn’s director’s cut become something different, and how involved was she in the final cut?
Hay: She was involved the whole time. There are a lot of different forces at play, and everybody’s operating from their own sense of good will. It becomes a matter of taste, really, and everyone has a very valid – to them – and coherent reason for doing what they wanted to do. As with every studio movie it’s the battle between art and commerce, what people think is going to be the thing that’s going to be the most popular.
Q: What I don’t understand about this is that you didn’t hand in a fake script, and Karyn didn’t lie about the kind of movie she was going to make. What made them change their minds about a film that they had, up until that point, paid for and supported.
Hay: Its’ a very simple and classic answer: the studio turned over almost one hundred percent in its leadership in the time we were filming the movie. The people who signed on to the movie and the artistic take were gone by the time we finished filming. With the exception of our main point person, who was a great ally throughout the entire thing. When you have situation like that you’re in a precarious position because everyone has such different taste in movies and everyone has such different ideas, especially about genre movies and what they’re meant to do and what they’re meant to accomplish. So when new leadership comes in who in this case didn’t exactly agree with that take it became a process of trying to find something everyone could get behind.
Q: The director’s cut exists – will we ever get a chance to see it?
Hay: I do hope so. It seems fairly common these days that you get a director’s cut down the line. We’re all trying really hard for that to happen; honestly I think it would be a very fascinating thing for people who are interested in film to look at and see how the context is different. I hope that it has a chance to come out, and that could happen if people go out and get the DVD with the theatrical cut.
What I find interesting is that if you watch the theatrical cut with a little bit of this information, and a little bit of an intuitive application of imagination you can see through the cracks to some of the directions it was yearning to go, and get a glimpse of it.
Q: How has the experience of this film changed the way you work, changed the way you’re approaching your future projects?
Hay: I don’t know yet. This movie that Matt and I are writing together to direct is smaller in scale but is still a big genre concept, which I think might be an answer for us in some ways. We’re also working on a very big kind of comedy science fiction movie for Universal, which I’m excited about. We have a director aboard, David Dobkin, who’s great, and to have him and the producers and Universal on the same page from minute one is a very nice thing.
Q: But does it make you more gun shy? You have a great director and everybody is excited at Universal, but what happens when everybody at Universal gets fired next week?
Hay: I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot, and the only way to be in this business and to do good work is to go gung ho every time and try to be worldly wise about the realities of commercial filmmaking, but to always put your heart out there and be willing to go through pain and agony if necessary. In a way you have to keep throwing yourself at it and keep being willing for 13 year old people on the internet to call you a hack and an idiot, and go, ‘But I have a master’s degree from an accredited institution! I’m not an idiot.’
But that’s the way we look at it. Every different movie is a completely different context and situation, and you have to approach it with your heart on your sleeve and be as bold as you can and fight as hard as you can. You can’t control the way a movie comes out, but you hope that there will be an opportunity for people to reevaluate it. Time can be your ally as well.
Q: The internet is the flip side of legitimate criticism. I was talking to James Gunn recently, and he was saying that when he wrote the Dawn of the Dead remake he was getting death threats pretty regularly. Do you check the message boards to see what people are saying? And how do you deal with that?
Hay: I do check those things. I can’t help myself, I guess. But they’re very amusing, and they help you separate your work from yourself. Draco42 doesn’t really know much about me, but I can’t take what he has to say very seriously.
But in terms of Aeon Flux there’s this great fan board called Monican Spies, which was about the TV show and expanded to be about the movie. Some of the most beautifully written and interesting reviews of the movie – loving it, hating it, being in the middle – were written by the fans at this site, the kinds of great essays you hope someone in film school would be writing. Like I was saying earlier, when people are that engaged with the ideas, wherever they come out on the film, that’s very gratifying.
Q: Do you interact with people on the boards? Do you sign on as yourself or is there a secret name you use, which you won’t disclose?
Hay: It’s Devin Faraci. No, on the Aeon Flux boards I identify myself because I think it’s very specific. But I never get involved on the Talk Backs and other things. I just read and enjoy.
Q: You’re working on a horror film you’re going to direct. Can you talk about that?
Hay: I can say that it’s an adult horror film, and by that I do not mean XXX in rating. It’s more along the lines of Rosemary’s Baby or something like that. Without talking about the plot, because it’s meant to be in the genre of the “shocker”-
Q: Not the Wes Craven movie.
Hay: Not the Wes Craven movie. But there’s nothing wrong with that. The best way to describe it is as two thirds of something like Rope, a suspense thriller, and one third a total freakout bloodbath. That type of a structure. It’s very exciting and I think it’s going to be really interesting.
Q: What about Parasyte, which IMDB tells me Takashi Shimizu is directing?
Hay: I hear that as well. We haven’t been involved in the project for a while and I know there have been other drafts and things, so I’m not sure what direction he’s going with it, but I think it could be a cool movie. The version we wrote is definitely in the Tremors vibe, in a way. Definitely a horror comedy, but I’m not sure if that’s the direction they’re going.
Q: And what’s the film with David Dobkin?
Hay: It’s called RIPD, and it’s based on a comic book. It’s about a spectral police force, it’s very much a Ghostbusters and Men in Black vibe.
Q: So it’s a comedic thing.
Hay: Action comedy, but very heavy on the comedy. Again, that process has been really great. I think it’s going to be a good movie, and Dobkin is great with this stuff.
Q: Is there a targeted release date?
Hay: We are working as fast as we can! I don’t know anything officially, but we’re all excited about it.
Q: When you and Matt direct will you be both directing or will you be taking turns? How will it work?
Hay: We did this movie Bug, an independent film, so we have one film under our belt that we directed together. We just do everything – we’re like two of the same guy walking around. We’ve worked together for so long that we can be a unified entity. It’s both of us sitting on the set, both of us giving notes to the actors, both of us talking to the DP. It’s remarkable that we don’t have more conflicts, but we save those for the sanctity of the editing room. Where we actually, physically fight with each other.
Q: I’m looking at the IMDB listing for Bug and you have a great cast. How did you get future Oscar nominee Grant Heslov in a bug suit?
Hay: [laughs] The man is an actor first. We got Grant to do it because we knew him and his wife is the producer of Bug. We had someone drop out at the last minute. When we were making the movie it was interesting because it was right before the rumblings of the big strike that never happened, so we would cast people and they would bail out to take a huge movie that was getting going or they bailed out to take a TV show because they genuinely needed to sock away some money in case there was a strike. Grant was very busy at the time, otherwise we would have wanted him from the beginning, but he nobly stepped into the bug suit. He’s kind of the emotional center of the movie in a way. It’s a quite part but a good one. And he’s doing well these days!
Q: He could be doing worse.
Every time I talk to you, you have so much on your plate. Do you have more projects lined up for the future?
Hay: There’s that movie I talked to you about before, called Market Forces. That’s an adaptation of a British science fiction novel for Warner Bros, and they’re looking for directors, so that’s exciting. And on our own we’re writing another movie for Karyn to direct. It’s a war movie, basically.
Q: There’s been talk that maybe the best step for Karyn might be to return to indie, character based films after Aeon Flux. So she wants to keep going big?
Hay: I think she’s interested in it all. She’s got a million things she generated herself and coming at her from other people, and it’s funny because some of them are intimate movies and some are bigger movies. I think it’s just going to be what situation feels right for her. The one we’re doing for her is a war movie, but it’s a very intimate scale. It’s a weird combination of Guns of Navarrone with the Fast Runner. It’s something that could be done at any budget level, basically.
Q: What war is that going to be?
Hay: A future, unnamed war. But not too far in the future.
Q: Are you going to keep writing screenplays for other directors, or is it going to be about transitioning into directing for you?
Hay: We love [writing]. We love the process of doing it, and we’re interested when we see something like Market Forces or RIPD that doesn’t come from us. There’s something invigorating about jumping in on something like that and give it your all. Our ideal thing would to be constantly working. We love big genre movies, and they need to be done at a certain budget level, and we think we’re good at that. But there’s another part of us that will always be focused on creating our own ideas and directing them at a reasonable budget and being able to maintain control over it.