Roughly six weeks ago, with “Surrogates” still deep in post-production, director Jonathan Mostow took a brief pause to screen an assortment of clips for reporters.
The pause was so brief, in fact, that this reporter and a friendly online colleague were able to chat with Mostow only temporarily before he had to rush back to the editing bay, very politely assuring us that every minute away from the footage was, well, a minute away from the footage.
What footage we saw established the premise for the movie and left me with many, many intriguing questions that probably won’t be answered until “Surrogates” opens on Friday (Sept. 25).
“Surrogates” takes place in a not-so-distance future (or possibly even an alternate present) in which humans rarely leave their houses and, instead are hooked up to machines that allow lifelike replicas, surrogates, to live their lives and transmit their feelings back to the user. So that means that Bruce Willis, playing a cop, can operate in the real world as a fresh-faced younger Bruce Willis, with hair, while Movie Star Bruce Willis, with his bald head and goatee is jacked in back home. But things get complicated when surrogates begin dying and their hosts being dying too.
Reporters saw clips of technologically enhanced chases and human-on-robot violence, but we also got quieter scenes that showcased just how amuck the technology in the world of “Surrogates” has run.
“The idea is so simple,” Mostow explains. “We’ve all seen robot movies, but this idea, essentially it’s metaphorically taking the experience we’re all having now with the Internet and bringing it into a form where you can dramatize it. So, some people are familiar with Second Life, but this is Second Life as if it were real. But everybody seems to connect with this movie on some different level. Anybody who uses a computer or a gadget like that feels either empowered by technology, but also shackled by it. I love e-mail, but I know I spent way too much time every day doing e-mails. I think that’s the appeal that people who watch the movie see in it, is that they see these characters using this technology, which makes them theoretically more connected than ever, but also feeling disconnected.”
“Surrogates” is based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti, a rough mystery about technological addiction. Mostow and writers Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato only used the graphic novel as a starting point, though.
“The first thing we said was ‘Let’s not go with the film noir narrative. Let’s go with something different,'” Mostow explains. “And we spent months exploring all sorts of really very different, far-out-there narrative structures and at the end of the day, we realized, ‘You know what? They’re not servicing the idea.’ The idea here is a real simple one, which is ‘What if everybody lived their lives this way?’ So we realized, ultimately, that the best thing would be to have the spine of this thing be a police procedural, which is a recognizable thing that everybody can understand and then that takes us into this world. We get to see, how does the military fight wars? What happens when you want to go buy a surrogate, what’s that experience like? All of the different permutations, as many of them as we could fit into a feature film, we tried to touch on. We found that the police procedural was a great way to take us into all these different worlds.”
While Hollywood is in the midst of a turn-every-comic-into-a-movie binge, Mostow knew he had an advantage working with “Surrogates.”
“It’s not that well known. It’s more well known now, because it was turned into a Hollywood movie, but when we acquired it, it was sort of a niche graphic novel. People who were familiar with graphic novel knew it because it had gotten some acclaim, but it wasn’t a widespread thing,” Mostow notes. “That’s fantastic, because I’ve done the movie where everybody knows the mythology. Or if you do ‘Watchmen,’ the whole question is ‘How is it different from the novel?’ and this and that. And as a filmmaker, you just have this giant set of 100 million eyes looking over your eyes, ‘Well how did you reinterpret it?’ Here, we had the creative freedom. We took the idea and went back to the spine of the narrative and then went back and adapted it to the needs of a movie.”
When Mostow refers to “the movie where everybody knows the mythology,” he’s talking about “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” which made more than $430 million worldwide when it was release in 2003. Before introducing the clips, he said that he didn’t approach “Surrogates” as a robot movie, since he’d already made his robot movie, a concern I brought up again with him later.
“I don’t think that way. I think one movie at a time. I made that movie, finished it, done and this thing was just its own thing,” he insists. “I don’t want to become the guy who, when the studio boss shouts out to his secretary, ‘Get me the guy who does the robot movies’ she knows who to call. It’s just a coincidence that they both happen to be robot films. But I like that this is very much a robot movie about people. It’s talking about a big idea that effects all of us in a Hollywood entertainment form.”
But isn’t “Terminator 3,” like “Surrogates” a movie about what happens when the technology we develop to make our lives better takes over?
“I guess ‘Terminator’ would be a movie that’s essentially saying ‘Be very afraid of technology.’ This is a movie that’s saying, ‘How do you stay human in a world that’s just more technological every day'” Mostow considers. “It’s a different question that’s asked.”
“Surrogates” opens everywhere on Friday, Sept. 25.