Australian director Alex Proyas has made some of cinema’s most stylish works, including such seminal classics as “The Crow” and “Dark City”, the latter of which is about to be released on Blu-Ray as a Director’s Cut.
Next year, fans of the director will be able to see his latest work, “Knowing”, which recently wrapped shooting in Melbourne, Australia. The film revolves around a teacher (Nicolas Cage) who opens a time capsule that has been dug up at his son’s elementary school; in it are some chilling predictions — some that have already occurred and others that are about to — that lead him to believe his family plays a role in the events that are about to unfold.
The film co-stars Aussie actress Rose Byrne and is slated for a spring 2009 release. But in San Diego for this year’s recent Comic Con, Proyas talked to Paul Fischer about the film as well as his impending Dracula project.
Question: What was your attraction to “Knowing”?
Proyas: Just, it’s a cool, original, and I think unique story. I think we’ve made a movie that is quite different. It’s a very interesting mix of things, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this combination on film before.
Question: Different from things we’ve seen, or different from things that you’ve made before?
Proyas: Well, hopefully both. You know? Hopefully both. But everyone has to be the judge of that. It’s really hard to talk about this movie at such an early stage. I’ve literally just finished shooting. But so far, it’s doing what I wanted it to do.
Question: When you have a thriller about forecasting and preventing disaster, is there a metaphor there for what’s going on now?
Proyas: Well, the reason I like science fiction is because I always see it as being hugely relevant to the times that we live in, you know? In that it’s always talking about stuff that, I hope, people are concerned with right now. And so yeah, I hope so. I mean, I think it’s – you know, all the concerns that we have, and the ideas that we have about the direction we are heading right now, I think that’s all gonna be there, because I’m living in the same time, you know? If that makes sense.
Question: What have you learned from the “I, Robot” experience? It seemed to be a lot bigger than it was ever supposed to be. Doing something like this, do you learn by those kinds of experiences?
Proyas: Well, it was not bigger than it was supposed to be. It pretty much was what I thought it would end up being. Look, it’s – you know, I’m very happy with the experience that I’ve had with this film. The studio that I’m working with right now is fantastic, because they’re hugely supportive of the process. And we have the correct budget, and the correct parameters to make the movie in the best possible way. And that’s always the case. It doesn’t matter what level the budget is. You just want to have the ingredients to make it really good, you know? So whether it’s a $150 million budget, or a $10 million budget – and I’ve done both – I don’t really mind, as long as I’ve got the resources to make it great, for what it is. You know, what it needs. So I’ve been privileged on this occasion that all the aspects of the production work to make the best possible movie.
Question: But isn’t it true that as your budget increases, your level of control as a director decreases, and you get less control?
Proyas: Well, that’s a truism, but it shouldn’t be the case, and it’s not always the case. You know, it really depends on how the people you’re working with as a filmmaker, which is the studio, generally – the people who are paying the bills – how trusting they are in you being a responsible guy, and making the best film you can make. Quite frankly, the most pressure on me as a filmmaker to make the best possible movie is me. I don’t need any more. I’ve got plenty of pressure just on my own. I torment myself about making the best possible film, and I agonize over every decision that I make. So I don’t need some shmuck in the studio saying to me, you know, “Well, what about this?” I’m doing it already. Just leave me the – leave the whatever alone to do my job. And that’s really the key, you know? And the smart people, the smart studios, understand that, and leave you. As long as you’re not going over budget, or you haven’t gone insane or something, and you’re doing really – they’re seeing good stuff, they’ll let you do your job. And that’s all any director can ask for, you know?
Question: So, you’ve learned to navigate studio politics quite effectively over the last several years, I take it.
Proyas: Well, it’s hard, because every situation is different. Every movie’s different. All the parameters are – it’s a constantly shifting landscape. But you’re gonna run a marathon every time, and one thing you know you don’t want is someone throwing chairs under you as you run the marathon. You just want the road to be clear, so you can run it, you know? So, you live and learn a little bit, I suppose.
Question: What sort of visual aesthetic did you create for this movie?
Proyas: It’s a very low key aesthetic. It’s quite different to my more stylized work. Its about reality and it is quite viscerally visual, but in a very different way to what I’ve done before.
Question: What’s in the trailer, with the plane coming down, is pretty exciting.
Proyas: Yeah and that doesn’t really give you an impression. Because that scene, for example, is – there’s one continuous shot where Nick sees the plane crash, and then he runs into the field and he sees all those people on fire and stuff, and fuselages blowing up, and all sorts of stuff. And it’s one continuous three minute chart. So it’s all done, basically, in one shot. Which took us two days to set up, and two days to shoot.
Question: Has working on this film in any way shaped or changed the way you look at inevitability? Fate?
Proyas: Well, I’m exploring these issues along with everyone else, and that’s part of what the film is. The film is a philosophical exploration, as much as anything else. So we asked a lot of questions. We don’t fully know the answers to a lot of the questions we’re asking. But it’s a complex question, but it certainly does – you know, I’m a student. I’m not a particularly religious guy, but I’m sort of a student of religion. And I really – I want to know why we’re here, as much as anyone. And the film kind of explores those issues.
Question: The director’s cut of “Dark City” is coming out on DVD. How gratifying is that? And what differences will we notice?
Proyas: It’s extremely gratifying. It reminded me of the movie that I actually set out to make. When I went back to the Director’s Cut to look at it, and put in the extra pieces that we’d dispensed with, I was quite surprised, actually, by how different it was, you know? So it’s great to go back after all this time, and put this stuff back in. You know, I’ve already had a few people who have seen it who have already started to come up to me and say – it’s the first input I’ve had, who love it. They love the new version, so I’m excited, because it’s a dangerous thing. Because even though I was dissatisfied with that version of the movie – there was a bit of interference going on there, and I had to maybe do certain things that I didn’t want to do – people have now – there are a lot of fans for that movie, and people have ownership of the film, you know? And so you don’t want to sort of come up with something that’s gonna really piss people off. But this is truly the version of the movie that I made, as opposed to just doing it for economic reasons, or whatever happens sometimes. You know? So I hope people like it.
Question: It seems that HD is very much a technology that suits your style of filmmaking.
Question: How gratifying was it not only to see the director’s cut of Dark City, but to see it in that format?
Proyas: Oh, well, it’s amazing. I mean, we shot “Knowing” on these cameras, or these red cameras, these 4K digital cameras – the first time I actually shot digital. And it was great. I mean, they really are – the look of the film is fabulous. I was very excited by that. But, you know, it’s terrific that we can – in our own homes now, we can play something that – off Blu-Ray, or whatever – that really closely approximates what the film actually – the quality of the film that was made.
Question: It’s almost duplicated.
Proyas: Yeah, exactly. So it’s terrific, because then you go, “Well,” something like Dark City. Dark City’s a great case, because it had such a bad initial release. No-one saw it on its original release and everyone who’s seen it has subsequently seen it on a video format. And so now, people are hopefully going to see it formatted for the first time in the way that it was designed to be shown.
Question: Was it a budgetary decision?
Proyas: It wasn’t, no. I mean, I kind of – we pretended that it was. But in fact, it probably actually cost us a little more when it was all said and done, because the shooting is obviously – you don’t have film stock to pay for, but the editorial pipeline and the effects pipeline is so much more complicated. Because we’re still working it all out. That the level of complexity built in, and the extra people that we’ve needed to make it all work, probably in the long run was a wash, you know? But it’s the way. I mean, we have to solve these problems, because it is the way it’s all going. So it’s just the way we do it. So we decided to bite the bullet and go for it.
Question: Do you enjoy shooting digitally or do you prefer shooting with conventional?
Proyas: Well, for a start, I’m on the set with a monitor, where I can actually for the first time see the quality of what I’m shooting. I can see all the detail, rather than some sort of grainy image that I’m used to working with. It’s – it can be faster. It needs less lighting. Anything that simplifies the process, so you can focus more specifically on the important stuff, is a really good thing. So I’m embracing that technology, as I think everyone will eventually do as well.
Question: Do you know what you want to do next? Do you want to do something different, stylistically?
Proyas: My next movie’s gonna be this film called “Dracula Year Zero”, which is about the origins of Dracula.
Question: How different will that be from previous Dracula incarnations?
Proyas: Well, it’s a medieval epic. So, substantially different, I hope.
Question: Vlad the Impaler’s life story?
Proyas: Exactly. Well, it’s actually a composite of that, of the origins of the legend, and the Bram Stoker. You could see it as a prequel to Bram Stoker’s novel, in some ways. All the cool bits out of Francis Coppola’s “Dracula”. You can see it that way as well.