by David Giammarco
Keanu Reeves is Gibson's cyberhero in Johnny Mnemonic.
It is deep in the 21st Century, where life is controlled by information and the flick of a computer switch. Bits and Bytes have replaced thoughts and emotions, and human memories are bought and sold on computer software.
But for the moment, we're in 1994 Toronto and Johnny Mnemonic director Robert Longo is having a hard time adjusting to the medieval concept of gainful employment. "I'm not used to getting up every day and going to work," sighs the celebrated New York artist turned filmmaker. "I'm terribly stressed out." Fair enough. This $30 million cyberpunk thriller is a heavy download on a first time director, facing "a million questions" and trying to "control every one of the 120,000 single images in the film."
"The problem is that I try to deal with all this like I'm making a piece of artwork and it makes me go nuts," adds Longo. "I'm used to flexibility as an artist, where I'm my own boss."
Based on cyberpunk author William Gibson's short story and screenplay, Johnny Mnemonic stars Keanu Reeves as Johnny, the bio-enhanced silicon chip-implanted information courier.
For a price, Johnny offers the ultimate in confidentiality, transporting valuable information by loading it directly into his head through a wet-wire interface with his brain, into his computer-enhanced memory cells. In his world, it's not who you know that brings you power, but what you know; everyone, it seems, is 'on-line.'
When Johnny is contacted by two defecting scientists from Pharmakon Industries to deliver their priceless stolen data, he realizes that his storage capacity is inadequate. Unwilling to lose the job, or the large deposit to his Swiss bank account, Johnny injects himself with a memory upgrade, and accepts the information. But the massive gigabyte upload is too big, and Johnny realizes that he must download quickly - or die.
But members of the Armani-clad Yakuza international crime organization - the most sinister group stalking the 21st Century - have been hired to hunt for the mnemonic courier carrying the stolen data, but Yakuza sector-chief Tukamashi (Japanese actor/director Takeshi Kitano), mistrustful of his own men, secretly contacts the ruthless bounty hunter 'Street Preacher' (Dolph Lundgren) to deliver Johnny's head - cryogenically preserved. Johnny realizes the danger he is in and runs for his life, not knowing the contents of the massive file he is carrying nor unable to download without the secret access codes.
Betrayed by his new agent, Ralphi (Udo Keir), and weakening by the second, Johnny slowly realizes that Jane (Dina Meyer, Beverly Hills 90210), a tough, software-enhanced street samurai bodyguard is the only one he can trust. Jane takes him to 'Heaven,' the headquarters of J-Bone (Ice-T) and his outcast group of anarchists, the Loteks, hidden high in the understructure of an abandoned bridge trestle. Heaven is an impregnable fortress, a hornets' nest in an oak tree where the Loteks monitor dozens of worldwide newscasts and feed only the "true" information, via their private satellite channel, to an info-controlled, brain-washed North America.
With the Loteks' help, Johnny must race against time to track down Spider (Henry Rollins), the renegade doctor who can save his life by unlocking the powerful secret that will change the world forever.
Longo has been working on Johnny Mnemonic since he first met William Gibson in 1989. Longo had directed a few rock videos for R.E.M. and Megadeath, then tried to get a movie project going with screenwriter Richard Price and performance artist Eric Bogosian. When that fell through, Longo pursued Gibson about a film adaptation and began working on the screenplay.
"Working with William was very collaborative," says Longo, who has long admired the author.
"I wrote the first draft of the script with a lot of his involvement. We took this short story and amplified it. But getting this movie made has been a long, difficult journey. It's a weird mutant in many aspects, from its financing to its casting, to the way it's shot - it's just a very odd combination of things.
"I think this movie should be subtitled 'Trust Robert', because it's my first movie and William's first movie and he put his complete trust in me. This is quite special for us."
Keanu Reeves decked out in a dark grey suit and tie, says that, "working with Robert, I've gotten to work a lot of shapes and the emotion contained within shape."
"I started off as a man who is very angular - very much like his 'Men in the Cities' portrait, in that type of suit. And I play this man who doesn't have an altruistic bone in his body. He's very self-interested, self-centered, doing his work - all 'angle.'
"But by the end," Reeves continues, "he gets through situations of duress and he becomes 'round.' It's fun to work with Robert's view of cinema and to come up with the emotions that I feel using the idea of shapes."
From the outside, this universe is just a standard, nondescript warehouse in a north Toronto industrial wasteland. But inside, countless hydraulic lifts, vans, trucks, transports, enough scaffolding for several high-rises, more teams of carpenters and electricians than any suburban development would need and dozens of people communicating across the enormous structure on walkie-talkies and cellular phones.
"This is the biggest space around," explains production manager Ian McDougall of the abandoned World War II battery factory. "We needed enormous height for this set. We've got 90,000 square feet - 240 feet long and 80 feet high. It's the size of a football field."
The Heaven set itself is accessible by rickety but secure stairs, and for the cameras, actors and crew, via hydraulic lift. It's a series of tiny, dark interiors, linked by narrow walkways, and formed by mock corrugated steel boxes, industrial trash containers, a rectangular greenhouse with prop vegetables and flowers, and a trashed school bus filled with a damaged computer console, bilious green leatherette seats, school books and discarded play toys.
Two rusted out VW Beatles hang menacingly, tied together by rope, waiting to be dropped on intruders.
At the center of all this is an open space dominated by a glass-encased cage for a cybernetic dolphin - operated off-camera by computer-generated animations - and the looming tree of TV sets. From open spaces where windows should be is a night view of a waterfront city skyline. In fact it's a huge mounted backdrop illuminated from the inside. The cityscape photo is actually of Montreal - where the production shot exteriors for a week - but in the film it will masquerade as Newark, New Jersey, where most of Johnny Mnemonic takes place.
"The thing about this movie is that it's set in the future, but not in a vague future as cliched as Total Recall - the technology is a bit more casual, not that 'WOWie, ZOWie, look-at-that-amazing-device' stuff,'" explains Longo, displaying the passport disc he designed for the film used by Johnny in his travels.
"Look at movies like Things To Come or 2001 - the future's already here and gone," says Longo. "The reason we're not having this conversation on the Moon is because there's not enough money for a space program.
"This movie is a critical view of today, seen from the short distance of our future," he adds. As one of the most celebrated artists of the '80s, whose paintings, drawings, and sculptures are exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide, Longo says he is "totally obsessed" with the idea of human values. Whether on canvas or on film, Longo says that in his work he wants to "pose certain questions about society, and the pressures of living today.
"An artist," he says, "can't hide in his studio. He has to have a strong awareness of what's happening in the world. We all have to be very careful not to lose ourselves and our humanity in this age of information and speed."
Producer Don Carmody - who in his 20-year career has produced films such as Porky's and Porky's II, Switching Channels, Physical Evidence, Guilty as Sin, and Space Hunter: Adventures in The Forbidden Zone - says Longo's lack of film experience has worked to the film's advantage.
"He's got this incredible eye and sense of design that most seasoned directors don't have," says Carmody. "This film is just filled with images and visuals and has a really odd way of looking at things."
"My work has always been about meditations on power and violence and society, so this film isn't so different for me, it's just more linear," offers Longo. "I've wanted to smash styles, not have one heavy-handed style. We don't want one long Chanel commercial or an MTV video - we wanted this film to be very fragmented stylistically.
"It's just that all these f---ing decisions that are killing me!"