Since he hit the mainstream with good reviews for 1997’s Kurt Russell road thriller Breakdown, Jonathan Mostow has gotten the rep of being that rare director who can fluidly mix action and intelligence. His follow-up to Breakdown was 2000’s U-571, a WWII adventure starring Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel and Bill Paxton. In 2003, he was handed the reins to The Temrinator franchise, delivering Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which offered dazzling special effects and a complex storyline, not to mention a cast that included Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a last pre-political career role. In addition, Mostow has producer credits on David Fincher ’s The Game, which showcased Michael Douglas, and Peter Berg’s Hancock, the Will Smith starrer.
Mostow’s latest directing foray is Surrogates, another venture into the sci-fi realm. The film is set in the year 2017, where people commonly become recluses and employ lifelike surrogate robots to live their lives for them. When the son of the creator of the surrogates is murdered, FBI agent Bruce Willis—or at least his surrogate– is called on to investigate the case.
Set in and around Boston, the film is based on a popular graphic novel and has some visual and thematic similarities to such films as Blade Runner, I, Robot and the Terminator series. But Mostow has made the project his own, with a cool look, well-staged action scenes and a top-notch supporting cast that includes James Cromwell as the surrogate creator, Radha Mitchell as Willis’s partner on the case, Ving Rhames as a rebel called “The Prophet” and Rosamund Pike as Willis’ wife.
Moviefanfare.com recently talked to director Mostow about the film and his career. The 49-year-old Harvard-educated filmmaker was loquacious, discussing both the technical and human side of the film, as well as its production history and his take on making genre pictures. Surrogates was recently issued on DVD and Blu-ray, a format of which Mostow is a big fan.
MFF: Is there a balance you have to find between mayhem and story in an action movie?
JM: I wish there was a recipe! It would make my life so much easier. Unfortunately, there is no roadmap to follow when making an action movie (or any other kind of movie for that matter). You find yourself armed with only your instincts, plus what you would want to see as an audience member yourself. The place I begin is with story. If the audience doesn’t care about that, then it doesn’t matter how amazing the spectacle is. My central philosophy is that people go to the movies to be told a story, not to see stuff blow up.
MFF: How close did you try to keep the film to the graphic novel?
JM: 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.
MFF: What was the most difficult element of the graphic novel to translate to the film?
JM: 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 skyscapes — 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 dystopic 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.
MFF: You’ve worked with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kurt Russell and now Bruce Willis. Does your directing change based on who is in the lead?
JM: I’ve been very lucky to work with some great movie stars of our time. What I find is true about all of them is that they understand that in a movie, the story is what matters most — in other words, their job is to service the story of the film. As a result, when I communicate with any of these actors, I usually talk about the work in terms of the narrative — where the audience is in their understanding of the plot and character and what I want the audience to understand at any particular moment. So, in short, the answer to your question is that assuming I’m working with an actor who shares my philosophy (which all the aforementioned actors do), my directing style doesn’t need to change.
MFF: Which aspect of the filmmaking process interests you the most?
JM: Each phase has its appeal, but for me personally, I most enjoy post-production. For starters, the hours are civilized. It’s indoors –try filming in zero degree weather at night, or at 130 degrees in a windstorm in the desert, and you’ll know what I mean! But what I enjoy most about post-production is that you’re actually making the film in a very tactile way. You see, when you’re finished shooting, you don’t yet have the movie. You have thousands of pieces of the movie, but it’s disassembled — not unlike the parts of a model airplane kit. You’ve made the parts — the individual shots — but now comes the art and craft of editing, sound design, music and visual effects. Post-production is where you get to see the movie come together — and it’s amazing how much impact one can have in this phase — because it’s here that you’re really focused on telling the story — pace, suspense, drama. To me, that’s the essence of the filmmaking experience.
MFF: With Surrogates and Terminator 3, you’re dealing with the concept of man versus machine. Can you talk about why this concept intrigues you?
JM: 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.
MFF: Although you’ve of course directed thrillers (Breakdown) and WWII dramas (U-571), you’ve now helmed two sci-fi movies. Does this mean that there’s a danger of you being seen as a science-fiction-only director, or is this something that you perhaps welcome?
JM: I’ve tried to resist labels, because I don’t want to be categorized into a box. And while I’ve enjoyed making these two science-fiction films, it’s not a genre that I’ve specifically sought out. If I had to guess, I’d predict that my next film will be a thriller. That’s the genre I’ve most enjoyed.
(Note: While nothing is concrete, Mostow’s name has been attached to such upcoming project as a new Walt Disney Studio interpretation of Swiss Family Robinson, a big-screen version of the comic book hero Sub-Mariner, and an Escape from New York reboot.)