IT'S JUST ART ON THE BIG SCREEN
How did a New York artist land $27 million and star Keanu Reeves to make his very first Hollywood movie? Robert Longo says it's just that he always wanted to direct.
by Kristine McKenna
When New York artist Robert Longo befriended writer William Gibson six years ago, it was to prove a fortuitous turn of events. The grand pooh-bah of cyberpunk, a recently minted genre of fiction that combines elements of the pulp detective thriller, punk, Existentialism and the high-tech end of science fiction, Gibson has turned out several vividly cinematic novels tailor-made for the movie screen. It seemed only a matter of time before the film industry, ever on the prowl for new talent to plunder, discovered Gibson.
That a controversial visual artist with no movie-making experience and only the most tenuous ties to Hollywood will be the first to translate one of Gibson's stories into film -- Longo's adaptation of Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" opens Friday -- is surprising. That he somehow secured a budget of $27 million and convinced Keanu Reeves to play the lead puts another spin on what could prove to be a directorial debut worth watching.
That Longo is at the helm of a major motion picture may surprise Hollywood, but it won't be big news to art-world insiders. Surrounded by assistants of every stripe, Longo has always approached art-making as if he were running a movie studio and has been repeatedly lambasted for the grandiose streak of Barnum & Bailey showmanship that has colored both his work and the way he has handled his career.
Coincidentally or not, two of Longo's colleagues from the high-rolling '80s art world -- New York painters David Salle and Julian Schnabel -- are also making first films, but neither has a budget close to Longo's. Salle's "Search and Destroy," made for $1 million, opened recently to mixed reviews, while Schnabel's bio-pic of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is slated to be shot for $5 million.
There are those who say the three are tackling movies because the art-world money dried up, and several critics have commented that Longo, in particular, had lost his way as a visual artist by the mid-'80s. Dubbed "Robert Long Ago" by New York Times critic Roberta Smith, Longo was the subject of a major retrospective organized by LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] in 1989 that was roundly trounced by the art intelligentsia.
Longo, however, says that he hasn't abandoned visual art in despair but that it has always been his intention to direct. A veteran of performance art who has been in punk rock bands, Longo did costumes and sets for the Mozart Festival's "Lucio Silla" (a production that has been presented several times over the past four years at theaters in Salzburg and Frankfurt). The 42-year-old artist has also directed rock videos, a short film titled "Arena Brains" and an episode of "Tales From the Crypt." Investing everything he has done with a larger-than- life theatricality that even he describes as bombastic, Longo's an obsessive moviegoer who has based much of his art on film stills. He believes he has been heading toward "Johnny Mnemonic" all his life.
"I've never liked the idea of the artist as this guy who's marooned in a studio, and I always wanted to make work that competes with the things that influence me -- like movies," Longo says. "Moreover, art and movies aren't separate for me. The process of editing, for instance, was central to a lot of the art produced in the '80s, so this film isn't about putting art on the back burner, and I don't consider it a sellout. I'm not trying to make 'Last Year at Marienbad,' but I'm not making 'City Slickers' either."
"Johnny Mnemonic" also stars Dolph Lundgren, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Takeshi Kitano, Dina Meyer and Barbara Sukowa (who was featured in several films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and is also Longo's wife). The film was shot last year on locations in Toronto and Montreal.
Reeves plays Johnny, a courier whose clients pay him to load data into his computer-enhanced memory cells. Longo describes the character as "a low-grade 007" and those familiar with his art will recognize that the look of Reeves' character -- sharp suit, tie and slick haircut -- was first hammered out by Longo in the early '80s in a series of drawings titled "Men in the Cities."
Reeves, who has worked with such prestigious directors as Francis Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci and Kenneth Branagh, knew nothing of either Longo or his art before "Johnny Mnemonic." So why did he sign on?
"Because Johnny's a great character and I trusted Robert," he flatly declares. "I looked at some of his artwork, and on meeting him it was immediately apparent to me that he's a creative man. He's directed opera and performance art and been in a band, so he has a feeling for how a creative community works.
"When we were in pre-production Robert gave me a list of about 40 films he thought related to what we were going to do -- things like 'Alphaville,' 'Sweet Smell of Success,' 'Touch of Evil' and 'The Hustler' -- and he also showed me work by Kasimir Malevich, and some extreme Japanese cartoons," Reeves continues. "The thing that played the biggest role in shaping my understanding of the film though was looking at Robert's artwork, at Nilo Rodis' designs for the sets and at the way the film was lit -- the lighting is very Japanese in terms of the shapes and sharp edges it creates."
Though he often farms his visual art out to others for fabrication, Longo describes himself as a control freak, so one would imagine he had a hard time handling the responsibility for the look of his film over to production designer Rodis. Such, however, was not the case. "Nilo became so familiar with my work that he was able to create sets that were absolutely in sync with my aesthetic," Longo says. "The stuff he came up with is amazing."
Thus far, Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" has been the unparalleled high-water mark for cyberpunk on film, and one of Rodis' challenges was to create sets representing Newark, N.J. and Beijing in the 21st Century that read as cyberpunk but don't look like "Blade Runner."
Rodis apparently took the challenge in stride, but Gibson, a genteel, well-spoken man who writes his books on an extremely un-high-tech manual typewriter, acknowledges that Scott's film was something he had to work to get past.
"'Blade Runner' came out when I was halfway through my first novel, 'Neuromancer,' and I nearly abandoned the book because of it," says Gibson, who was on the set of "Johnny Mnemonic" throughout the shoot. "Ridley's movie looked exactly like the inside of my head, only much better, and I actually fled the theater when I saw it -- I was just crushed, because I'd thought I had this unique vision, but Ridley had it too.
"I had more of a hand in the look of this movie than I imagine most screenwriters do," Gibson adds, "because I struck up an early and wonderful friendship with Nilo. Before Nilo and I met, Robert kept telling me he was a genius, and he was right -- there's never been anything that looks like this movie. I don't really have the vocabulary to describe it, but the best I can do is say it's a strange take on the near future that's visually very information-rich. I know I sound like a trekkie for my own movie," he says with a laugh, "but this is much closer than I imagined was possible in getting what I wanted to see on the screen."
This isn't to say, however, that Longo's "Johnny Mnemonic" is a dead-ringer for Gibson's story. "'Johnny Mnemonic' was the second story William ever wrote, and it's sort of like the William Gibson primer because the roots of all his subsequent work are there," Longo says. "William's vision has changed since those early stories though, and I think they feel a bit dated to him, so I gave myself the liberty -- and took the risk -- of updating them. There's a post-industrial bar in the story, for instance, that I transplanted to an old opera house where an opera singer is performing. It gave the film a touch of Fellini -- in fact, at times this film feels like 'Blade Runner' directed by Fellini."
In addition to modifying the look of Johnny's world, Longo also overhauled several of the characters in the story -- the Street Preacher, played by Dolph Lundgren, being an extreme case in point.
"Originally, the character I play was a heavy-metal biker who was a preacher, but Robert and I reinvented him as a Christ figure with flowing robes, long hair and a beard, who speaks in biblical language," Lundgren says. "We wanted him to play off ideas most people have from childhood about Christ and biblical imagery, which is something both Robert and William know a lot about, William being from the South and Robert being a Catholic. We then tossed in a little Albrecht Durer and Caravaggio to add another dimension to him."
Adds Longo with a laugh: "Dolph's character is on the verge of tears in every scene -- he's insanely over the top."
Clearly, Longo's "Johnny Mnemonic" isn't Gibson cyberpunk in the purist sense -- and this is exactly why Henry Rollins wanted to be in it.
"I'm not a fan of cyberpunk -- it doesn't interest me at all because I lika terra firma human dramas," says Rollins with typical candor. "I like the things that go on in this movie though, and I wanted to work with Robert because I like his art. "His art is about confrontation and is a product of the streets -- it's very New York and is about human compression and people living on top of each other," Rollins adds. "It's intense and so is Robert -- he didn't seem overwhelmed by the fact that he was directing this huge movie, and he knew what he wanted in every shot. He was just hangin' in there and kicking it -- he's got a thick skin and is New York all the way."
By all reports, Longo came through like a champ during the shoot. Says Gibson, "I had no idea what directors did when we started this, and as I saw the job taking shape, I just thought, 'Wow, I hope Robert's ready for this' -- and he was. Robert's fortunate in that he's a tough Italian guy with the calm and gravitas to be there for 300 people, with eight cellular phones jacked permanently into his neck. I'm really very proud of him."
Longo himself sounds simultaneously relieved and surprised to have the shoot behind him.
"The first scene we shot was a night scene in the street involving 400 extras -- we had one night to get the scene, and there were subzero temperatures in Toronto that night. This has definitely been a trial by fire for me," he says, "but I think my background in various aspects of performance, along with the fact that I knew the script so well, gave me something to stand on. Initially I think the producer [Peter Hoffman] and TriStar had some totally justifiable apprehension as to whether I could really do this, but after that first day when things started rockin' they left me alone.
"Actually, the most overwhelming thing about this was having to go to work every day," adds Longo, whose first child, Joe, was born three weeks before the first day of shooting. "The director can't call in sick, and by about Day 33 I began to wake up with this feeling I had in high school when I wanted to cut school. The only way I could've not gone to the set, of course, was if I was dead."
The film presented a comparable challenge to Reeves, who's in nearly every scene and is counted on to carry the picture.
"This is a tough character to pull off because Johnny's memory is erased so he has no back story, and that's like throwing an actor out there without a net," Longo says. "Even more complex is the fact that this is a movie about the inside of Johnny's head. We get to see his internal movie -- the dreams he has, the virtual reality space he travels in -- and we enter his landscape of collected information. It's sort of like walking into somebody else's personal computer. Obviously, Keanu had a lot to do in this film, and he really delivered."
Longo's description of the psychological space Johnny lives in, along with the fact that this is, after all, a cyberpunk film suggest that fairly sophisticated special effects are in order, but Longo says such is not the case.
"We built the technology into this film in a very casual way and there's no wowie-zowie stuff. There are tricks and special effects, but they're very offhand and precise," he says.
"The film doesn't try to create an impression of the future," he adds, "because I think for children of the '50s, the future already happened. The future is an idea that's come to seem obsolete, and I'm already nostalgic for the future. So for me, science ficton is a vehicle for critiquing the present."
For now, the present is being pretty good to Longo. He and Gibson are at work on another script, he loves being a father and he has several exhibitions of his art slated to open this year in the United States and Europe. He's obviously on a roll at the moment, but that doesn't mean he's taking his $27-million movie in stride, nor has he forgotten the six years of relentless effort it took to line up the money to make it.
"At first we were looking for $2 million to make a black-and-white movie, but nobody was interested in funding what in effect would've been a giant student film," Gibson recalls. "We shifted from art movie to big movie because that was the kind of money we were able to get."
Adds Longo: "Everybody turned us down because they were afraid it was going to be an arty movie, which was never our intention. I don't need to make arty movies -- I make arty movies with my art."