30 minutes with 'Dark City' writer-director Alex Proyas
Few directors are considered influential or visionary after making only one or two pictures.
There are of course notable, high-profile exceptions like Orson Welles or Quentin Tarantino who are lauded with considerable fanfare then spend their lives trying to live up to the hype.
But once in a while a young filmmaker flies in under the radar and leaves a lasting mark without becoming a recognized name. Alex Proyas may be such a filmmaker.
In 1993 he directed "The Crow," a dark, furious action movie mixing mythology and violence to create an urban revenge fantasy that added an cerebral and emotional edge to a seemingly stale genre. An instant cult favorite, it was an action flick for the art house set.
On February 27, his latest film, "Dark City," opened nationwide and again Proyas' dusky vision is the centerpiece of a labyrinthine re-working of familiar flavors. Combining a Kafkaesque storyline -- about a man with no memory being hunted through a constantly morphing city -- with elements of "Metropolis" and "City of Lost Children," Proyas' pet project (he wrote and directed) is like a high-gloss Terry Gilliam ("Brazil") picture -- ominous, Gothic and wonderfully complex.
I met Proyas for breakfast in San Francisco last month. He ordered waffles and fruit, and somehow managed to eat his whole meal without my ever seeing him take a bite. A mysterious fellow, to be sure.
An imposing figure, he is rather stoic with a constant contemplative expression, like he has much more on his mind that just the conversation. But his serious face occasionally breaks into a cherubic smile, when you amuse him.
Q: I want to hear the pitch you gave for this movie when you went before the studio heads.
A: It's actually an interesting story. I used to pitch it differently each time. I guess I was looking for the correct one. There were all kinds of conflicting theories in Hollywood about what the story was actually about. I kind of get sick of movies being mundane and predictable, and I kind of set out to come up with something that was complex enough to keep my interest as an audience member. Because I love those convoluted ideas, you know? And as long as it all makes sense in the end, it's fine. I just want to have some fun along the way. I want to play a few games and takes some risks.
Q: So you gave a different version to different people as you were trying to sell the story?
A: It wasn't like any perverse intention to confuse people in Hollywood. It's just that you can see the story from different perspectives. It's not linear, you can see it from various character's perspectives.
Q: I understand it started out as a detective story, or at least from the detective's point of view and you decided that the Rufus Sewell character was a more interesting character.
A: Not so much a more interesting character, but a more emotive point of view to tell the story. The detective's version was great, I liked it, but it was a bit analytical. I just felt like I wanted it to be from the perspective of the guy being chased.
Q: Are you a fan of the, I don't know what to call it -- dark future-type genre? The film seemed to have not only a lot of Kafka elements to it, but also "Brazil" and "Naked Lunch" and "Metropolis"...
A: Sure. I mean, I like those films. If anything we tried to go right back to "Metropolis" rather than emulate any more modern movies. That was really the origin of this kind of movie making anyway. So yeah, we were visually inspired by "Metropolis" and I like that. I can't say I was directly influenced. I mean I was really trying to do kind of a Raymond Chandler story but with a science fiction twist. I thought those were two intriguing things to kind of combine. That's where it all kind of came from, rather than being inspired by a style of movie.
It was also inspired by the science fiction I used to read as a kid. There were always these stories about people who were in a world they assumed was real, but it turns out it's some kind of artificial creation -- like they realize they're inside a computer program or something like this. I always loved that kind of story, so I combined a few of those things together. The sources really come more from writing than from movies.
Q: Tell me about the transition from the detective story to the John Murdoch story.
A: The first draft that I wrote was from the detective's perspective...
Q: How long ago was that?
A: Oh, 1990 I started. A long time ago. Way before I made "The Crow."
Anyway, I started off with this idea of a detective who was on a case that didn't make any logical sense and because he was an incredibly logical man he started going nuts. He thought he was going insane because the facts were just not adding up and they were pointing to some larger mystery that his brain just couldn't deal with.
Q: Kind of like the first detective in the story, the one that William Hurt inherits the case from...
A: Exactly. It was kind of more like that guy originally in the story. He was pursuing the Murdoch character. But when I looked at it from different perspectives, I guess I just liked the Murdoch character more. He has a greater stake in trying to get at the truth. The detective has more a cerebral approach to the whole thing. But the Murdoch character from the very beginning has very high emotional stakes in finding out the truth.
I think the great thing about the film, the thing I tried to do, was that you can see it from almost any of the character's perspectives. It's a multi-strand story in that respect. Movies used to be like that, you know. Movies more and more have become about one character because that one character is a movie star who insists that it be about them. Whereas I always loved older movies, particularly film noir of the '40s and '50s, they always jumped around. There was always the one guy that you knew it was mainly about him, but you knew a lot more about the other characters, about their motivations. They weren't just sketches. They had some depth to them.
Q: William Hurt is the kind of actor who would take a supporting role because he liked a script or he liked a character. Now I read an interview with him where he pretty much 'fessed up to being a complete oddball. Do you have any stories about William Hurt being strange of the set?
A: (Laughs) I do, but I'm not going to go into them, quite frankly. I really like him very much. In all honesty, William is a very demanding actor for a director to work with. To me he was personally quite intimidating because he is such a great actors. He is an amazingly smart guy. I mean, he is frighteningly intelligent. He thinks a lot and it was great to have him involved with this project because he really understood the intricacies of it all. He understood the intricacies better than I did most of the time.
Q: He probably brought a lot of ideas to the set.
A: Yeah, he did.
Q: Last week I interviewed Catherine McCormack who is in "Dangerous Beauty" with Rufus Sewell and we were talking about him and how he has this odd appeal. She called him "dead sexy," but she also admitted he's a little weird looking and bug-eyed.
A: (big laugh)
Q: What's your take on his appeal? What do you think it is about Rufus Sewell?
A: He's a good actor. That's always my basic parameters for why I want to work with someone.
Q: How did he get involved in the film?
A: I'd seen him in some English television productions and also a London stage show, and I was just overwhelmed by his energy and vitality. I like the fact that he has a sense of humor. The fact that he is a handsome man, but he has this more idiosyncratic thing about his looks and he knows it. I remember he referred to himself as more of a Czechoslovakian hunch of Notre Dame rather than a leading man. He's the first to put himself down, and I like that aspect about him. But he does have this appealing quality to women as well. I don't quite know how he balances that.
Q: After this and "Dangerous Beauty" I suspect he's going to be getting more leading roles. I mean he plays a romantic lead in "Dangerous Beauty" and in this film he's front and center, and it's the kind of film that could start small and really take off, like "The Crow" did...
A: Right. I haven't seen "Dangerous Beauty," but the trailer seems to be full of Rufus kissing people.
Q: It's sort of a Harlequin novel masquerading as Shakespeare.
Now, Jennifer Connelly. I've been crazy about Jennifer Connelly since we were both about 13 and I saw her in "Labyrinth." I hated the movie, but I loved her. Now, do you think at this point she's just destined to play '40s and '50s vamps? Because that's all she's done for the past couple years.
A: I don't know, I don't know. I mean she definitely has that look. She looks like she stepped out of a movie from the '40s.
Q: She's like a Vargas painting come to life.
A: Yeah! Yeah! Which, quite honestly, is one of the appealing things about her. But she also has a very lyrical quality that I liked for that character. I think she did a great job in the film, and she's got stuff in there we haven't seen. She's capable of more than she's had a chance to demonstrate.
Q: Sticking with actors for a moment here -- Richard O'Brien. Haven't seen that guy in like 20 years and he show up here. Did the fact that you cast him have any influence on the way the Strangers were presented?
A: No, it was kind of the other way around in fact. When I first started working on the script and thinking about the Strangers, I had Richard in my mind for some reason. I think I'd seen him interviewed on English television. And visually I think he just had sort of the right look and also a certain kind of quality about him. He was always sort of in the back of my mind. I had no idea if he could play that sort of character. The only thing I had seen him in, of course, was "Rocky Horror," with that wacky, over-the-top character. Well, I guess I'd seen him in the odd movie over the years --"Revolution" and "Flash Gordon." But those were always tiny, eccentric roles. So I had no idea if he would work.
Then I met him and he was terrific. So he was really the instigator in some ways. Then I tried to find people who could match his kind of special quality for all the other Strangers, which was not an easy thing to do.
Q: No kidding! That's why I asked that question. Because all the Strangers have seem to have these Richard O'Brien whispering voices and can't-quite-place-it accents.
A: Well, Richard gave inspiration to the Strangers generally. He was the linchpin and every other actor that came in tried to latch in to his style. We had long discussions and as a director I tried to give them all kinds of deep, meaningful approaches to their characters -- but at the end of the day, I'd go, "Just be like Richard!"
Q: Kiefer Sutherland. The role seemed to be...what I wrote in my notes was "Kiefer Sutherland in the Donald Pleasance role."
A: That character was written as an older guy and it was kind of an unexpected twist in the casting process to even talk to Kiefer about that because I had always had this vision of, oh, I don't know, Ben Kingsly or someone like that. But I grabbed a hold of (the change in the character's age) because I thought it was such an intriguing way to go and it made the character more tragic, because if he's an old guy you think, well he's lived his life and now he under the control of these aliens, but he probably had a nice life when he was younger.
But with Kiefer, he's still got his whole potential career ahead of him and it's going to be ruled by the Strangers. He's got more of a reason to try to break way from their control.
Q: One of the things that popped into my head, when the Strangers' head were cracked open and the sort of beings came out of the bodies, I thought about the Daleks from "Dr. Who."
A: Oh, yes. It was a little like that, wasn't it?
Q: Some unconscious inspiration there perhaps?
A: Maybe so, yeah. I mean, I tend to be inspired by a lot of things I'm not even aware of, I suppose. Like when the Ian Richardson character dies at the end, the chief Stranger, Mr. Book, someone said to me it's just like in "Nosferatu" when the vampire dies he goes into exactly the same position...OK. You got me. I didn't plan that.
Q: When you started working on this script, when did the morphing city come into it? I mean, if it weren't for CGI it would be pretty much impossible to do that.
A: That's true. We couldn't have done this 10 years ago.
I remember exactly when I got the idea. I was standing on the set of "The Crow" and we had built this roof-top set because we didn't have a great budget we just build these one-third scale buildings that we moved around on wheels so after we did a shot, we'd move them all around so we could make the background look different so we could shoot different scenes and you wouldn't see the same building in the background all the time.
I remember standing there on the set and watching these buildings just move, because you couldn't see the guys moving them, so all you could see was just the building sliding across the set. And I just remember thinking that was really cool and I'd have to use that in some way. So I stuck it into this movie.
Q: When you started thinking about that in the "Dark City" script, were you thinking of the logistics of it, or did you just imagine you'd figure it out later?
A: Well, of course I figured it would be simple because I was on the set and I thought we'd just do it the same way. And then we get into stairs growing and buildings twisting and, you know, these ideas always kind of elaborate themselves and you go "My god, how are we going to do this now?
Q: When I saw the stairs stretch what went though my mind was that it was an Escher painting come to life.
A: It is a bit like that. I loved a city where you could open a door and there wouldn't be a building on the other side.
Q: That was fantastically executed, by the way, the way the city morphed. That was a great, great effect.
A: Oh, thank you!
Q: Who did you work with on the effects?
A: It was actually a company in Australia. This whole film was shot in Sydney, Australia. We kind of got a small (effects) company going, which is now continuing and doing other things. This was their first project. We brought in a lot of people from overseas, from here and from London.
Q: What were the origins of Alex Proyas, the filmmaker? What was your inspiration for getting into this field?
A: Well, I remember seeing "Lawrence of Arabia" when I was about 8, and the whole experience just blew me away. I saw it on the big Cinerama screen and I was sitting quite close and it just overwhelmed me. I think at that stage was when I thought this would be a great thing to do. I got into making films around about 10, in fact. It took two years to convince my dad to buy me a camera -- two years of whining. Eventually he succumbed and bought me this second hand camera and I started making these little movies with my friends.
Q: And now he's glad he did.
A: I guess he is. I guess it was a good investment for him. But for a while there he thought I'd gone quite insane because he didn't really see it as a rational career choice. Maybe like a doctor or something would be more sensible.
Q: Play with your little camera, but go to college, right?
A: Exactly. But it all worked out in the end. Sometimes I doubt my career choice now, but he doesn't. (laughs)
Q: You grew up in Australia?
A: Yeah, I grew up in Australia. I was actually born in Egypt. My parents are Greek and I was born in Egypt and I grew up in Sydney.
Q: You still live in Australia?
A: Yes. I lived in LA for a while, but I like Sydney very much.
Q: Do you prefer to be away from the Hollywood machine?
A: Yeah. Although it's not so much the machine. It's more the place. I'm not a big fan of LA. I was saying to Bill (the publicist) as we were driving in from the airport yesterday, if the studios were based in San Francisco I'd probably live here because it's such a great place. I've been here many times. In fact if the studios were anywhere other than Los Angeles, I might be living there. It's just the city itself I'm not a big fan of. I don't like driving, I actually like to use my legs occasionally.
Q: The last time I was in LA, I went to this nightclub that was like, everything that's wrong with LA. It was a outdoor, patio-like club and it looked like someone had flown over in a helicopter and shaken copies of Cosmopolitan and GQ until all the models fell out.
A: (big laugh)
Q: Everywhere I looked it was plastic boobs and square-jawed guys with five o'clock shadows -- they were porno guys. That's what they were.
It seems to me that a lot of stories that are set out-of-time, not in any particular time, all seem to draw from the '40s and '50s. What do you think it is about that era that is so attractive?
A: I don't know. I never really thought of that before, but I guess you're right.
Well, for movies it's a really cool era. There's no question. I like it because it had a certain glamour to it. Even just the way actors were photographed. These days it's all about as many pimples and pours as possible. In those days it was about glamorizing people, and that is something I love about that era. There was a sense of style. I just always wanted to do a film with guys in trench coats and hats.
Q: And women with a wave in their hair...
A: Yeah, yeah. But actually, it's not strictly that (in this film), I mean we tried to use that to mess with things a little bit. There are a lot of anachronisms in the movie. I mean, suddenly a car from the 1980s will drive through. I did that very specifically. I chose that concept, that visual, not so much because it would look cool, but because there was a dramatic reason for it. The city was designed based on (the inhabitants') memories, so the retro feel to it was very strong because they used elements from all different ages of memory and blended them together.
Q: Throughout the drafts, did you always have the ending as it happens in the film? During the movie I was wondering if we were going to see an ironic ending or a upbeat ending.
A: Well, the first draft had a fairly bleak end to the film, where the bad guys won at the end, but I just didn't like it. As I explored the story more and more it was about the individual's triumph in this world where individuality is being suppressed. Once I got into that mode there was no question that Murdoch had to win in the end and kind of wrest the power away from the strangers.
Q: Did you have a lot of creative freedom or did you have the studio people looking over your shoulder the whole time?
A: There was a little bit of that, but essentially no. I've kind of been spoiled because both on "The Crow" and this film, I was given a fair amount of creative freedom. It's pretty much the story I wanted to tell. There are a few things that maybe I would have done differently, but overall I was allowed to make those decisions without to much interference.
A: It's very rare in Hollywood. I don't know why they let me do it, but the did.
Q: Are you working on anything now?
A: I'm working on a bunch of stuff. I work on several things at the same time because I never know what's going to work and what I'm going to be happy with.
Q: Do you have a next project?
A: Not exactly. There are about three things that are potentially the next project. I'm not the sort of person who jumps into things very quickly. Actually I don't mind the concept of having a bit of a break after something a grueling as making a movie.
A: Actually this is fun. I've never done this before.
But now I'm working on something that's very different. People think I'm joking, but I'm actually writing a comedy at the moment, which, if it makes anyone laugh when they read the script, I will consider doing next.
A: It's basically about the world's worst rock 'n' roll band -- which I was actually a member of when I was younger. It's set in the punk era. "Spinal Tap" in the punk era, someone described it as, which I guess is pretty accurate.
Q: I've just got to say this: One of the things that I'm sure popped into your head at some point but -- the Strangers with the long coats and the hats, with the big collar, and just floating in the air through town -- I was waiting for one of them to pop open an umbrella. I was seeing this "Mary Poppins" thing going on.
A: (Laughs) It was very "Mary Poppins." In fact, Richard O'Brien was determined to turn the movie into a musical.
A: And as serious as he is in the film, he's very unlike that on the set, and actually made up some great songs just off the top of his head. He was often being very Mary Poppins-like.