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An Interview with Jonathan Mostow: Surrogates Virtual Roundtable
DVDizzy.com Presents: An Interview with "Surrogates" director Jonathan Mostow

Machines rise again for director Jonathan Mostow in Surrogates

By Aaron Wallace

As a writer and director, Jonathan Mostow has made a name for himself in the big budget action genre, even with only a handful of credits. Though he began directing in the mid-1980s, it was 1997's Breakdown that put him on the map. While the Kurt Russell vehicle made a rather modest splash, it opened to generally favorable reviews and paved the way for Mostow's next major action film: 2000's World War II drama U-571.
Critics largely responded favorably again and this time, box office receipts were a bit higher. In 2003, Mostow stepped into James Cameron's oft-empty shoes to direct the highly anticipated Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The franchise film brought the director further critical acclaim and handily became his highest grossing title.

Last year, Mostow returned to theaters with his fourth major movie: Surrogates. Based on a series of graphic novels and starring Bruce Willis, the film finds Mostow returning to the sci-fi realm. Set in 2017, Surrogates explores a world in which people stay inside their homes and use high-tech surrogate robots to live their daily lives. Tepid reviews and dismal box office performance put this movie at odds with the directors' previous efforts, but fans of the film will nevertheless be pleased to find the DVD and Blu-ray release on store shelves this Tuesday, January 26.

Mostow recently sat down at his computer for a virtual chat with DVDizzy.com and other news outlets. The director discussed his newest film at length, pausing to reflect on his other movies and industry trends along the way. He remained tight-lipped about his future plans, which should include Disney's repeatedly delayed Swiss Family Robinson remake (our request for an update went ignored, as did all of our other questions), but stressed that he would prefer to work on a thriller next, moving on from sci-fi.

Q: What do you think the Surrogates Blu-ray experience can offer viewers as opposed to the standard DVD format?

Jonathan Mostow: Blu-ray is obviously higher quality and I'm glad to see that consumers are adopting it rapidly. The Blu-ray also has additional features.

Q: All your movies put their main characters in the edge, with a lot of action sequences and a plot holding some twists towards the end. Is this your signature or just a coincidence?

Jonathan Mostow: Personally, I enjoy movies that are visceral -- that provide an experience that can quicken your pulse and give you sweaty palms -- as opposed to movies that you sit back and watch in a more passive way. That said, while the story of Surrogates may not be as visceral as my other films, I still tried to inject my approach into it to a degree.

Agents Peters (Radha Mitchell) and Greer (Bruce Willis) take a purposeful stroll through surrogate manufacturer Virtual Self Industries' sleek lobby in Jonathan Mostow's "Surrogates."

Q: The concept featured in Surrogates is so fascinating. Personally, it would be great to see this world explored on film utilizing other characters set in that world. Having worked on the film, would you personally like to see a sequel of some sorts to the film?

Jonathan Mostow: I think that the concept of Surrogates offers a world that could lend itself to other stories. Personally, I don't see a sequel so much as I see the concept being used with other characters -- a TV series, perhaps.

Q: Curious, was there ever a plan for an alternate ending for the film?

Jonathan Mostow: The only other versions of the ending we discussed involved the circumstances
in which Bruce [Willis] and Radha [Mitchell]'s characters were reunited.

Q: In your opinion, what should we expect to see from robot technology in the next ten years?

Jonathan Mostow: I think 10 years is too short a period to see anything that approaches what's in this film -- I think that's 30 years away. 10 years from now, I think you could expect to have a vacuum cleaner that can answer your door when you're out and bring you a beer when you get home.

Q: In terms of stunts, how much did Bruce do himself? He has said before that people think he's "too old to do stunts."

Jonathan Mostow: Bruce is a very fit guy -- he's in great shape and works out every day. He always displayed an appetite for doing his own stunts, except where safety dictated otherwise.

Q: 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, Jonathan?

Jonathan Mostow: 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.

Q: A lot of science fiction films have to balance being informative about their worlds while also not pandering or relying too heavily 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 filmmaker's feeling the need to convey a lot of exposition. A classic example is Blade Runner. The original studio version had voice-over (I presume [that was] 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 3-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.

Q: Hi Jonathan. You seem to have a strong connection (or should I say gift) when it comes to sci-fi. I feel like you really "get" that realm. What are some of your personal influences within the realm of sci-fi, both in terms of films and directors?

Jonathan Mostow: More so than sci-fi, I'm interested in dramatic tension, so the filmmakers who influence me most are the ones who are masters at creating suspense and tension...
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Hitchcock, Spielberg and Frankenheimer are three that come to mind.

Q: What's a good sci-fi film that you'd recommend to someone who says, "I hate sci-fi"?

Jonathan Mostow: Well, just this year there were so many.... District 9, Star Trek, and Avatar were all standouts. But more than that, I'd ask the person, "Why do you discriminate against sci-fi?" Because, when you think about it, the term "sci-fi" is a bit of a misnomer. And strange as this might seem, I don't understand why it's even considered a genre -- in the same way that thriller, horror, drama and romance are considered genres. Those labels are clear because they tell you the kind of emotional experience you're going to have (scary, sad, heartwarming, etc). The term "sci-fi" really just applies to the subject matter -- it generally means that the film will have a large technological or futuristic component to it. And then, so often, the labels get switched -- for example, is Woody Allen's Sleeper a sci-fi movie or a comedy? Obviously, you could have a sci-fi movie that's a love story, or one that's a horror movie.

At a beautician's cosmetic shop, a surrogate's face peels right off to reveal the robotic skeleton below.

Q: It is mentioned in the bonus features that the makeup and visual effects basically worked hand in hand in the smoothing look of the robotic surrogate characters. Was this perfection that is seen in the final product more challenging than in past productions you have worked on, given that this film was coming to Blu-ray?

Jonathan Mostow: Well, certainly, Blu-ray has raised the bar for makeup because high-def shows every facial imperfection, skin pore, etc. And in this movie, the bar was even higher because we had to create the illusion that many of theses actors were robots, so we had to erase any facial flaw that could distract from the illusion. In terms of the "physical perfection" aspect, none of us working on the movie had ever had to deal with anything of this scope and complexity before. By the end, we all felt simpatico with the plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills.

Excerpt from Blu-ray-exclusive bonus feature "A More Perfect You: The Science of Surrogates":

Q: Is it ever daunting when making a "futuristic" film to avoid the traps of becoming dated too quickly? I ask because some of the "sci-fi" films of the last several years are already becoming dated as a result of our real world advances with technology.

Jonathan Mostow: A great question and one that hopefully we correctly anticipated before we started the movie. Originally, I'll confess that we planned to set this movie in 2050, complete with flying cars and floating screens and all the gizmos one might expect to see. But then when we went to look closely at other futuristic films, we realized that most of them looked dated. And there was a 'fakeness' factor to them that distracted from the story. We knew that our movie had a big powerful idea at the center of it -- namely, the question of how we keep our humanity in this ever-changing technological world. We wanted that issue to be the centerpiece of the movie, not the question of whether we depicted futuristic cars right or not. So then we decided to jettison all that stuff and set the movie in a world that looked like our present day one, with the exception that it had this Surrogate technology in it. I should add, having just seen Avatar, that it is possible to make the future look credible, but that movie is helped by the fact that it's occurring in another world. Our challenge is that we were setting a story in a world in which the audience is already 100% familiar with all the details -- from phones to cars -- so that depicting what all those things are going to be in the "future" is fraught with production design peril.

Q: Do you have a favorite filmmaking technique that you like to use in your films?

Jonathan Mostow: I have a few little signature tricks, but really, I try not to impose any signature style on a movie, because ultimately, I believe that the story is king, and everything must serve the king.
So, if you've seen Surrogates and my other films, you'll see that that the style of Surrogates, which is very formalistic and slightly arch, is much different than any feature I've done previously.

Q: Some directors describe their films like children, and they love them all, so this is a difficult question: If only one film you've made was able to be preserved in a time capsule, which would you choose to include?

Jonathan Mostow: In some aspect or another, I've enjoyed making all my films, but my personal favorite remains Breakdown because that was my purest and most satisfying creative experience. On that film, I worked totally from instinct. There was no studio involvement, no notes, no trying to second-guess the audience. I just made the movie I saw in my head. Looking back, I see how lucky I was to be able to work like that.

Q: How involved was [graphic novel author] 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.

Q: Ever have any plans to shoot a film digitally in hi-def as opposed to using the traditional 35mm film approach? Namely, what do you think about the Red One camera?

Jonathan Mostow: Although I've never used it, from what I understand, the Red is a great camera -- although, like anything it has its plusses and minuses, which are too technical to get into here. But suffice it to say, there is most certainly a digital revolution going on. Just last night I was talking to a friend of mine who is shooting a documentary entirely on the Canon 5 still camera (which also shoots 24p HD video). I've seen some of what he's done and the stuff looks gorgeous. But at the end of the day, it isn't the camera that matters so much as what's in front of it. Surrogates was shot in 35mm for a variety of technical reasons. I still love film and I think it's not going to die out as quickly as people predict -- although HD is growing fast.

Q: Is doing an audio commentary a painful experience where you spot errors or 'what might have beens' or is it an interesting trip down memory lane, where each shot conjures up a day on the set?

Jonathan Mostow: Very much the latter. Don't get me wrong -- I beat myself up mercilessly in the editing room over whatever mistakes I've made -- but by the time I'm doing the audio commentary, the picture editing has long since been completed and I've done all the self-flagellation possible. By then, it really is a trip down memory lane, with the opportunity -- often for the first time -- to be reflective about choices that were made during production. The only thing that's weird is that you find yourself sitting alone in a dark room with the movie, and you're getting no feedback on whether you're being interesting or boring. So I hope people like the commentary. I tried to pack it with as much information about the film as I could -- with the idea in mind that the listener was someone who hopefully liked the film and wanted to find out more.

Q: Is this the real Jonathan Mostow, or am I interviewing... a surrogate?

Jonathan Mostow: I'm the real me. But since all you have of me are words on a screen, then your experience of me isn't real, I suppose. Ah, the irony of it all...

Dutch angles abound in "Surrogates", as in this early shot revealing the real Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) stopping in his dead son's room.

Q: There's this very surreal feeling to the world and your direction, with all the Dutch angles, adds even more to that sense. This may sound like an odd comparison, but the film feels very much inline with say Paul Verhoeven'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.

Q: Do you think we are heading down the road to a version of human surrogacy with the advances in technology, or do you think direct human-to-human interaction will always be a part of life?

Jonathan Mostow: Do I believe that someday Surrogate robots will exist? Yes. Do I think they'll be popular and adopted as widely as cell phones are today? Perhaps. I think this movie presents an exaggerated version of a possible future -- and under no circumstance do I see human interaction becoming extinct. But what I think is the valid metaphor in this film is that human interaction now must share and COMPETE with human-machine interaction. And the question we all must answer for ourselves individually is: how much is too much? No one has the answers... at least yet. Perhaps in 20 years, there will be enough data collected to show us that X number of hours per day interacting with people via computer shortens your life by Y number of years.
But for now, it's all unknown territory to us. All we can do is ask ourselves these questions. And at its core, that's what this movie is doing -- asking questions.

Q: Could you tell me something about the experience of having obtained an Academy Award for your movie, U-571?

Jonathan Mostow: The Oscar we received for U-571 was for sound editing (we were also nominated for sound mixing). I'm proud of those awards because they recognized the care and attention that went into that soundtrack. I employed the same sound editing team on Surrogates, and so I hope the DVD and Blu-ray audience who have good 5.1 sound systems will enjoy the fruits of our labors. So many times on the mixing stage, I would tell everyone -- this has gotta sound great in people's home theaters!

Q: When looking for scripts to direct, what absolutely needs to be in there for you to say, "This is a story I want to tell?"

Jonathan Mostow: For me, the story must compel me and have dramatic tension. As you know from watching movies, that's hard to find.

Q: The scene shot in downtown Boston was great and the fact that the city allowed it was pretty cool. But this was a very action-driven scene with Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell. Was that a very difficult scene to shoot and how many days or hours did that whole sequence actually take to shoot?

Jonathan Mostow: If you're referring to the chase with Bruce and Radha, here's a great irony -- that sequence was one of the few not shot in Boston -- in fact, it was shot almost entirely on the Paramount backlot (to my knowledge, it's the largest and most complex chase scene ever shot on their backlot --which, if you saw it, you'd realize how tiny an amount of real estate it is -- and so puling off a chase of that scope was quite a tricky bit of business).

Q: When directing, do you take the approach of Hitchcock and storyboard every angle, or do you like to get to the set and let the shots come organically? Maybe in between?

Jonathan Mostow: I'd say in between. Action needs to be carefully planned and boarded. But when it comes to dialogue scenes between actors, I find it far too constricting (and unfair to the actors) to plan out those shots without the benefit of first playing it on the actual location with the actors. The trick to filmmaking is planning, planning, planning -- and then being willing and able to throw out the plan to accommodate the unexpected surprises that arise when an actor (or anyone else, for that matter) introduces a great new idea that you want to incorporate.
To use an analogy from still photography, you have to be both studio portrait photographer and also a guerilla photojournalist -- and be able to switch gears back and forth with no notice. At least, that's my approach. Others may work differently.

Q: One of your film's themes is the fears of technology. What are some of your own fears about technology and the future?

Jonathan Mostow: Some people have labeled this film as anti-technology. But I don't see it that way. In fact, I love technology. I love using computers and gadgets. I love strolling through Best Buy and the Apple Store to see what's new. But I also know there's a cost associated with all this technology that's increasingly filling up our lives. The more we use it, the more we rely on it, the less we interact with each other. Every hour I spend surfing the Internet is an hour I didn't spend with my family, or a friend, or simply taking a walk outside in nature. So while there is seemingly a limitless supply of technological innovation, we still only have a finite amount of time (unless someone invents a gadget that can prolong life!) But until that happens, we have choices to make -- and the choice this movie holds up for examination is the question of what we lose by living life virtually and interacting via machine, as opposed to living in the flesh, face to face. I hope that's a conversation that will arise for people who watch Surrogates.

Thanks for the great questions. It was a pleasure "speaking" with you today and while I'm sorry I wasn't able to get to all the questions, I hope you got sufficient material.
With appreciation,

Surrogates DVD cover art
Surrogates comes to DVD and Blu-ray January 26th.
Read our review. Buy it from Amazon.com: DVD / Blu-ray
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Published January 25, 2010.