Interview With Jonathan Mostow, Surrogates Director
January 25, 2010

The Surrogates DVD comes out tomorrow, and to promote it, the studio made director Jonathan Mostow available for online interview questions. Mostow previously directed Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, so he’s known for his science fiction action. He also wrote and directed U-571, which won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing.

Director Jonathan Mostow

This piece consists of excerpts from the resulting transcript, rearranged by subject matter.

The Graphic Novel Inspiration

Q: Did you read the comics before you started making the movie? If so, what did you like about them the most?

Jonathan Mostow: Yes, it was the graphic novel that inspired me to make the movie. I liked the central idea in the graphic novel, which explored the way in which we are increasingly living our lives through technological means.

Q: How close did you try to keep the film to the graphic novel?

Jonathan Mostow: 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.

Q: How involved was 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: What was the most difficult element of the graphic novel to translate to the film?

Jonathan Mostow: 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 distopic 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 — 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.

Working in the Action Genre in Boston

Q: What’s your recipe for creating a good action movie?

Jonathan Mostow: 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.

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 pulling off a chase of that scope was quite a tricky bit of business.

Radha Mitchell working with Mostow

Q: Boston’s mix of old architecture and new, sleek buildings works wonderfully well for Surrogates. I love the mixing of old and new architecture in a sci-fi film, something that has not really been done too often since 1997’s Gattaca. Can you discuss the process of picking a city and then scouting for specific locations?

Jonathan Mostow: Thank you — I talk about that in my DVD commentary. Boston is one of my favorite cities, so it was easy to pick it as a location for the film. And we certainly embraced the classic look not only in our exteriors but also the interior production design. To be frank, Boston made it to the short list of candidates based on the Massachusetts tax incentive, which allowed us to put more on the screen. Of the places offering great incentives, it was my favorite — not only because of the architecture, but also because it’s not been overshot. Once we got to Boston, then scouting locations was the same process as on any movie. The key is to find locations that are visually interesting, help tell the story, can accommodate an army of hundreds of crew people and, most importantly, will allow filming.

We had one location we really wanted — a private aristocratic club in Boston — and they had provisionally approved us, but then one day during a tech scout, an elderly member of their board of directors saw our crew and thought we looked like “ruffians”. Our permission was revoked and we had to find another location. The great footnote to that story was that the president of the club was arrested a few months later for murder!

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.

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 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.

The Perfect Special Effects

Q: How did you direct your actors to have the ‘surrogates’ effect? What kind of suggestions would you give?

Jonathan Mostow: When I made Terminator 3, I learned something about directing actors to behave like robots. And one of the key things I learned is that if an actor tries to play a robot, he or she risks playing it mechanically in a way that makes the performance uninteresting. So how I approached the issue in that film and in Surrogates was instead to focus on erasing human idiosyncrasies and asymmetries, in posture, facial expressions, gait, etc. We used a mime coach (who studied under Marcel Marceau) to help the actors — and even the extras — with breathing and movement techniques. The actors really enjoyed the challenge.

Q: Every character in the frame looks perfect: was it a big technical problem for you? How did you find a solution?

Jonathan Mostow: I talk about that on the DVD commentary — it was a big challenge. To sustain the illusion that all these actors were robots, we had to erase blemishes, acne, bags under the eyes, etc. In a sense, the actors were the visual effects. As a result, there are more VFX shots than non-VFX shots in the movie.

Q: There was some digital rejuvenation of Bruce Willis for his role as a robot. How did you do it and what do you foresee for this technique? Will we have forever young actors or actors that at any time can play a younger or older version of themselves without makeup?

Jonathan Mostow: For Bruce, we approached his surrogate look with a combination of traditional and digital techniques. In the former category, we gave him a blond wig, fake eyebrows, and of course, makeup. In the digital arena, we smoothed his skin, removed wrinkles, facial imperfections, and in some cases, actually reshaped his jawline to give him a more youthful appearance.

Could this be done for other actors? Sure. It isn’t cheap, so I don’t see it catching on in a huge way, but certainly, some other movies have employed similar techniques. Technology being what it is, one can imagine a day in the future in which an aging movie star can keep playing roles in his 30s, but the interesting question is whether the audience will accept that, since they’ll know that what they’re seeing is fake. In the case of Surrogates, we discovered with test audiences that if we went too far with Bruce’s look, it was too distracting, so in certain cases, we had to pull back a bit.

Q: Can you explain the casting choices in Surrogates? Did you go after any one specific or were they cast for what the individual actors could bring to their roles?

Jonathan Mostow: The interesting thing about casting this movie is that for the surrogates, we needed terrific actors who also looked physically perfect. Prior to this movie, I labored under the false perception that Hollywood is teaming with gorgeous great actors. Not necessarily so. Yes, there are many wonderful actors. And yes, there are many beautiful ones who look like underwear models. But as we discovered, the subset of actors who fall into both categories is surprisingly small. We were lucky to get folks like Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe — and we were equally fortunate to find a number of talented day players to round out the smaller roles in the cast. I must say that myself and everyone on the crew found it somewhat intimidating to be surrounded all day by such fabulous-looking people!

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

Jonathan Mostow: 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 these 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 sympatico with the plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills.

Our Culture and the Implications of Technology

Q: I imagine that before creating the world of Surrogates you studied the topic. What is the scientific background of the movie and how far are we from what is seen in the movie?

Jonathan Mostow: I did a fair amount of research for the movie, but really, what I discovered is that the best research was simply being a member of society in 2009. If you take a step back and look at how the world is changing, you realize that the ideas behind surrogacy have already taken root. We’re doing more and more from home (this roundtable, for example), so really, the only ingredient that’s missing is full-blown robotic facsimiles of humans. Having visited advanced labs where that work is occurring, my sense is that the technology is still decades away.

Q: The plot revolves around an important issue in the current times — the growing need of anonymity and increasing loss of real human contact. Do you think we’re going the way you’ve portrayed in Surrogates?

Jonathan Mostow: I think I answered this question earlier, but I’m re-addressing it here because I like your reference to the “growing need of anonymity”. That’s a big sub textual theme in Surrogates and also a pretty fascinating aspect of the internet. Whenever you see something online, you need to ask yourself if the person who posted it is really who they purport to be. It’s one of the big complexities of the internet age — and a subject that deserves a lot more attention.

Q: Does rapid technological evolution help make sci-fi movies easier or harder, because the standards are higher and higher?

Jonathan Mostow: From a practical standpoint, it makes it easier because the digital/CG revolution makes it possible to realize almost anything you can imagine. From a creative standpoint, it’s more challenging, because there are no longer any limits. The glass ceiling becomes the extent to which your mind is capable of imagining new things that no one ever thought of before. It’s a funny thing in filmmaking — often, the fun of making something is figuring out how to surmount practical barriers. As those barriers get erased, then those challenges disappear.

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: What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve learned or taken from making this movie?

Jonathan Mostow: Making this movie had made me much more conscious of how much time I spend on the computer. Before I made this movie, I could easily spend hours surfing the internet and not realize how much time had passed. Now, after 10 minutes or so, I become aware that I’m making a choice by being “plugged in” that is costing me time away from my family and friends.

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