DVDTalks with Jonathan Mostow
by Jack Giroux
If you happened to enjoy Surrogates, then you'll be more than happy to know that the blu-ray release is rather impressive. The transfer is excellent and there's a fair amount of worth while special features. If you are a fan of Jonathan Mostow's latest then I recommend picking up the blu-ray. Anyway, I got to participate in a virtual roundtable with Mostow and here's a few of the questions that were asked. Surrogates is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
A lot of science fiction films have to balance being informative about their worlds while also not being pandering or relying to heavy on exposition, how do you walk that fine line?
Jonathan Mostow: That's a very insightful question -- you're right -- so often in sci fi films the pacing tends to collapse under the weight of the filmmakers feeling the need to convey a lot of exposition. A classic example is Blade Runner. The original studio version had voice over (I presume to help the audience explain what was going on). Ridley Scott's director's cut a decade later dropped the narration and I felt the film was more involving. In Surrogates, we initially didn't have any exposition. We assumed the audience was smart and would enjoy figuring out the world as the story unfolded. But when we showed the film to the studio for the first time, they had an interesting reaction -- they said "we don't want to be distracted by wondering who is a surrogate and who isn't, and what the rules of the world are", so we came up with the idea of the opening three minute piece that explains the world. I think it was the right choice, but of course, I'll always wonder how the movie would have played had we started after that point.
There's this very surreal feeling to the world and your direction with all the dutch angles add even more to that sense. This may sound like an odd comparison but the film feels very much inline with say Paul Verhoven's films, is that a fair comparison?
Jonathan Mostow: It's true that we did apply a heavy style to underline the oddness of the world and give the film a different, arresting feel -- but I'll leave the comparisons to others. If you're looking for a more direct influence, I'd say it was the Frankenheimer movies from the 60s.
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.
Does the rapid technological evolution help making sci-fi movies easier, or harder, because the standards are higher and higher?
Jonathan Mostow: From a practical standpoint, it makes it easier because the digital/CG revolution makes it possible to realize almost anything you can imagine. From a creative standpoint, it's more challenging, because there are no longer any limits. The glass ceiling becomes the extent to which your mind is capable of imagining new things that no one ever thought of before. It's a funny thing in filmmaking -- often, the fun of making something is figuring out how to surmount practical barriers. As those barriers get erased, then those challenges disappear.
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 skyscrapers -- 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 distopian 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.
How involved was KNB Effects? What did they bring, if anything, to the films effects designs?
Jonathan Mostow: KNB is a top-flight company that specializes in prosthetic devices for movies and creature design. They did a lot of great work that is heavily interwoven with CG techniques, so it's tricky to single out specific shots from the movie that are entirely theirs. They were great to work with.
This isn't your first time dealing with a high concept of man versus machine. Can you talk about why this concept intrigues you?
Jonathan 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 Surrogates, so I'll answer accordingly... Whereas T3 posed technology as a direct threat to mankind, I see 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.
How involved was Robert Venditti with the film? Did he tell you any key themes that absolutely had to be in the film?
Jonathan Mostow: Venditti was great. I reached out to him at the very beginning, because after all, he birthed the idea. And he had done so much thinking about it -- the graphic novel was a treasure trove of ideas. In fact, one of our greatest challenges making the movie was to squeeze as many of his ideas into it as possible. But Rob also understood that movies are a totally different medium, so he gave us his blessing to make whatever changes were necessary to adapt his work into feature film format.
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