Sky is the Limit!
by Philip Wise
TheForce.Net's Interview with Kerry Conran, writer and director of 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow'.
Last year when I first heard of Sky Captain, I immediately took to the look of the film. The more I read about it, the more I began to build hope it would end up as a film that equaled my anticipation. Not something that happens as often as many of us would like. At San Diego Comic-Con I got to see the first showing of it on film with a small group in a large theater downtown. I was completely blown away. I have since seen it again, and other than the sound being set too low, it was just as enjoyable. I wasn’t very far into the film when it dawned on me Kerry Conran, creator, writer and director, had to be a big Star Wars fan, and due to that I set out to talk to him about that. Comingsoon.net, where you can read a lot more about Sky Captain, was able to hook me up with him and this is how it went down:
Philip: Hi Kerry. As you know, I’m from TheForce.net and as you can probably guess, I'm a huge Star Wars fan. I was 23 when the first Star Wars movie came out. How old are you?
Kerry: I’m 38.
Philip: Just getting my bearings, so that would put you at 10 or 11 in 1977, a perfect age for Star Wars.
Philip: Having seen your film twice now, it's clear to me you must be a Star Wars fan. Is that right?
Kerry: Yes, probably more than any other movie, Star Wars is the one that made me want to make films. You couldn't help but just be swept into it and it sort of just changes just where you want to go in life, so it had a huge, huge effect on me.
Philip: Are you a just a Star Wars fan or a fan of other George Lucas work as well?
Kerry: When I first discovered Star Wars myself, I think as just a fan you kind of want to learn more about how this did this person come up with that, how did they conceive of that and then you kind of investigate them. You learn about their student film they made and turned into a feature film. I'm also a huge fan of American Graffiti, it's just a great, great movie itself. So yeah, no doubt about it, this film wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Star Wars and even Raiders, not just from the films themselves, but what they did in developing the tools at ILM and everything that's sort of been extrapolated from that. I'm a great beneficiary of all of that.
Philip: As you probably know, THX-1138 and the original Star Wars trilogy are being released this month on DVD. It's no secret that George Lucas has been tinkering with this movie, changing some of the content, as well as updating the film with today's technology. How do you feel about a director continuing to change his movies in this manner?
Kerry: I feel it's the director's right to make these changes, though I fall on both sides of this. As somebody that's just finished a film I can see where there are going to be things in that film that irk me till I die. There are things in the film that I wish I had the time to finish. They are not the way I wanted them. But by the same token, that's the film and it's part of just the experience of it. You get to the point where you just have to stop. Sometimes those mistakes and those things not being complete even perhaps add to the film in a way that you can't appreciate as the person that made it and then it's not necessary to go back and make it different and in your mind better. So, I know where it's coming from, particularly where the technology is now and where it's come from back then when he originally made Star Wars. So I see both sides of it. It doesn't destroy my life one way or the other if that's what he chooses to do. I think it would be great to have the original movies intact, but I have copies of them and so long as there's not some federal order to gather up all the original copies and burn them I think we're safe and we can always go back and look at the original and you can also go and look at the additions and changes he made, which he obviously feels strongly about. I think it's fine they both co-exist this way.
Philip: Due to his age, I understand why George Lucas was heavily influenced by Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and matinee serials of the day, but considering your much younger age, how did you come by your apparent intense interest in doing a film dated 1939 with such a vintage look, feel and influence?
Kerry: I grew up watching the films of the 30s and 40s in addition to being a fan of the comics of that period as well, and just really developed a taste for them in terms of preferring them over more contemporary films and sort of recognize them for being the films that are responsible for everything we make now. They're the template for what exists in modern film. They had a tremendous influence on me growing up so I look to them more so than a modern film.
Philip: I’ve read you spent over three years working in your apartment on the first six minutes of the film. Did you write the screenplay before you started building it on your computer?
Kerry: Well, it was sort of a chicken and the egg kind of thing. I sort of did them in a way, concurrent. I was sort of developing and experimenting with the techniques that we later used on the feature when creating sort of a short film and at the time I was doing that I probably had only generated sort of a treatment, an outline of it, but had only written the first chapter or something like that but I was eager to sort of eager to kind of start testing out how I'd go about creating this. It was after the short film was created that I started working in earnest on the screenplay.
Philip: Are you a computer geek, or was the computer just a tool to achieve your goal?
Kerry: It was more of a means to an end. I've always had sort of a hobbyist interest in them that I just sort of like have, but first and foremost I always wanted to make a film and at some point in time I recognized the capability of the computer as sort of enabling that and aiding filmmaking.
Philip: Are you a Mac guy? Windows, Linux?
Kerry: Laughs. I'm a 100% card-carrying Mac guy.
Philip: We had a short discussion on Apple's good and sometimes angering decisions and how it affects Mac users. I got the impression he knows his way around a Mac for sure.
Philip: Besides yourself, is there any one person that you feel enabled you to get this film made?
Kerry: I wouldn't put it on just one person as there were several people responsible. Obviously my brother Kevin was certainly a big part of getting it made and certainly Jon Avnet took a big, big gamble on the film, and then equally Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow and to some extent there are others, because I'm sure there are people that would say "but don't you remember that I'm the one that did that for you?"…
Philip: I didn't know if it went back as far as co-producer Marsha Oglesby, who I know arranged to show your work to Jon Avnet?
Kerry: Yeah, that's just it, there are steps along the way and they were all very important.
Philip: Did your brother know Marsha?
Kerry: He did because his wife went to school with her, but there had never been any discussion about what she did, which at the time she was working for Jon Avnet and it just sort of came up. I had been working on this film for so long, and Kevin just sort of suggested we show it to somebody just to get an opinion and Marsha came up as somebody that was loosely in the business that we sort of knew and once she saw it she wanted to take it to Jon to see.
Philip: This was the six minutes you created on your computer?
Kerry: Yes, the six minute piece is roughly the first ten minutes of the movie now, from the Zeppelin opening, Polly typing at her desk and the robots coming through downtown.
Philip: Considering essentially the entire movie was done in front of blue screen, was there a reason you used blue instead of green screen?
Kerry: Laughing, yes there was a reason and it was just this technical… We thought blue would be more aesthetically pleasing to be ensconced in for a long period of time. That was our great scientific reason for deciding on blue.
Philip: With your imaginative style, innovative film process, massive use of blue screen, great telling of a fabulous story, and influences from many of the same influences as George Lucas, you're bound to be compared to him in his early days. How do you feel about that?
Kerry: Kerry stumbled quite a while at this question, obviously uncomfortable with discussion on this point, finally settling on a very humble response: This has a long way to go before you could even begin to ask those kind of questions.
Philip: Normally, actors working in front of a blue screen complain about how hard it is for them because they have nothing to work with. Yet, Jude has said time and again the process was "freeing". Was this because unlike most films, you could show them the "virtual sets" rather than the normal "there's a car over there" kind of process most films use with blue or green screen?
Kerry: Yes, I think that's a very big part of it. Our planning that went into it really helped them. The other thing Jude's been saying and I've repeated a thousand times, which is significant in the way the actors prepared themselves, is they sort of went into the whole process thinking about it like it were a stage play and not so much like a traditional film where you expect to see these sets and you expect to have this feedback and interaction. They treated it sort of like they were in a one-act play in a very minimalist setting and they had to bring much more to it themselves. With theater it really does fall on the actor to kind of create that world and to tell the story so I think they were a little bit more focused. They also knew very well what they were getting into at the beginning.
Philip: At what point did you create the backgrounds.
Kerry: A little happened during the process where 10 months before we shot the film we actually created the animated version, the Animatics for the film. Some of it was done then. Some of the models that were created for the Animatics were the real models and then after we shot the film for a year and a half after, that's when the bulk of the work was done.
Philip: Was almost everything except the character shots created in-computer?
Kerry: Yeah, almost exclusively. I mean, if it wasn't created in the computer, it was introduced there, so for instance, we'd take some still photograph of buildings or clouds or something, and those were layered in and that sort of thing. The environments were almost in totality put in the computer.
Philip: Any idea on the number of computer hours spent on the film?
Kerry: Laughing: Oh, gazillions. Pretty much at the end we were working seven days a week, coming in at 7:00 and leaving at 2 and 3 in the morning, often actually spending the night.
Philip: Was the 2004 San Diego Comic-Con invitation only screening always a target for the first screening on film?
Kerry: No, I think it just worked out that way. We were racing to the finish line and when that showed up on our radar we did sort of try to move towards that a little bit and it was literally the day before it was screened there that it was finished. The print was almost literally still wet.
Philip: What did you think when you first saw it on that big screen in that great theater?
Kerry: Pretty amazing! It was the first time I'd seen it projected on film, let alone with an audience. It was the first time I felt that I'd made a film.
Philip: As you know, the theater really had the sound turned up and when the robots come through downtown the effect was quite amazing.
Kerry: Yes, it kind of blew you back a little. It was great fun.
Philip: What about sequels, any plans?
Kerry: We are all talking about it now. Obviously we just finished this one. I know Jude, Gwyneth and Angelina would all like to kinda go back and visit this world again. I think if we had that chance we'd all love to take another shot at it.
Philip: Well, I'm sure Star Wars fans worldwide are going to want to see this movie…
Kerry: Well, I hope so. I think it's born of the same cloth in a way, but hopefully it's its own beast. I hope they find the same sort of quality that they got in Star Wars.
Philip: I have since seen the movie again at a really fantastic screening event Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News organized last Saturday night in Austin, Texas. Kerry and his brother Kevin were in attendance and took questions from the audience, as well as hung out before and after the show. I can’t recall having had so much fun at a movie in years and I already want to see it a fourth time.
My very short review and why I think you should go see this movie:
Nostalgia with science fiction, all wrapped up with a terrific look and fun story to boot is what makes Sky Captain an unusual and fun trip to the movies. The first thing you’ll notice is the colorized black and white film is different looking, and very interestingly composed. Gwyneth Paltrow looks amazing in every single frame she’s in. From the first entry of the Hindenburg III docking with the Empire State building, to the giant robots marching through New York, to “Calling Sky Captain…”, the beginning of the movie will get your attention and make you wonder just what’s next when Joe (Jude Law) and Polly (Gwyneth) head off in search of Dr. Totenkopf. Keep your fingers crossed the theater you see it in likes to screen movies on the loud side, because as mentioned in the interview with Kerry, there’s a big payoff with the robots at the beginning.
Take your kids and take your parents, I think both will love it as much as you will.
See the trailer on-line at skycaptain.com.