SET VISIT: Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly Prepare Us for The Day the Earth Stood Still!
by Paulington James Christensen III
Keanu Reeves is one of the coolest cats on the planet. He always comes with an infectious smile and a handshake, mixing his unfiltered goofy persona with the seriousness of a sly intellect. One moment you might find him talking eloquently about the latest books he's read, and the next, he will be pacing around in a circle, delivering a pitch perfect impersonation of Cedric the Entertainer (one of his Street Kings costars). He never quite lets his guard down, and there is a grand mystery constantly reeling behind those dark eyes. For almost his entire career, audiences have accepted this gentle yet tense soul as the savior of all mankind. It's a role that he seems to relish, and it fits him like a glove.
Reeves first came to our attention as the new age messiah Ted "Theodore" Logan in the time travel comedy Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. He then embodied Lama Dorje in Little Buddha. He was a fallen angel battling Lucifer in The Devil's Advocate. And, in probably his most famous role to date, Keanu starred as Neo, a superhuman being with messianic overtones, in the The Matrix trilogy. Now, he steps into the skin of another Christ-like entity. The actor will be playing Klaatu in a remake of the classic 1951 sci-fi epic The Day the Earth Stood Still. And he is bringing with him a sense of style that we've never quite seen in a space alien before.
Last February, we were invited to Vancouver for a behind the scenes look at this modern day masterpiece in the making. Directed by Scott Derrickson, the film not only stars Reeves but also acts as a showcase for Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, and John Cleese. The screenplay by David Scrapa will hew closely to that of the original story by Edmund H. North. Only this time, the overall themes will tie into our ongoing environmental issues as opposed to the Cold War and nuclear annihilation. Reeves' Klaatu arrives as a messenger from outer space, decked out in an Armani suit. He's brought Gort along, and it has been confirmed that he will be saying the iconic line, "Klaatu, Barada, Nikto". This new version will be a more intense experience than the dated original, and it is definitely gearing up to be the go-to film of our holiday season.
When we arrived on set, Keanu was fitted in blue hospital scrubs. We watched as he was placed inside a decontamination unit in what looked to be an Army research facility. Jennifer Connelly, playing microbiologist Helen Benson, and Jon Hamm, as NASA official Dr. Granier, have come into this blocked off area to check on Klaatu's status. Benson looked inside the cloth tube at Klaatu and remarked, "It's dreaming!"
On this verbal cue, Keanu began kicking at his cloth prison, "Help!" Dr. Granier was quick to realize that Klaatu had become familiar with Benson, "It recognizes you. Speak to it!"
Jennifer leaned in for a closer look, "My name is Helen Benson. You have nothing to fear from us." Keanu took in each word, speaking very slowly in turn, "Fear...From...Us!" And with that line, cut was called. It then took the camera crew a very long time to reset. A complaint came down from the director, "It is awfully noisy in here." One of the PAs was quick to point out, "Well, there are two cameras rolling." This observation was met with, "It's not that type of noise." After figuring out the problem, the cast ran through the scene a good three or four more times before wrapping. Its take five that makes the cut. Sadly, Keanu's hand is in the wrong place, and they have to shoot it all over again.
After watching this short scene play out, we were invited into one of the sound stages for a lengthy Q&A with the cast and director. On hand were Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Director Scott Derrickson, and producer Erwin Stoff. They seemed to love what they were making, and shared some of that enthusiasm with us:
Why did you think right now would be a good time to bring this movie back?
Scott Derrickson: Well, I am a big fan of the original. I had the chance to meet Robert Wise before he passed away at a film festival when I was still a film student. I talked to him about this film and The Haunting. The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Haunting are my two favorite films of his. In the case of The Day the Earth Stood Still, I felt it was pretty self-explanatory. It was one of the first films that brought intelligence and legitimacy to science fiction. It came out at a time when Sci-Fi was less respected and less intelligent. The other thing is that it was a film of its time period and reflected on the events of the time. It was such a fantastic statement on the global situation. Looking at it just as a film fan, the whole notion of Gort and Klaatu coming out of the spaceship in spacesuits was something that appealed to me. I loved how it was really an alien presence yet it was on our world. You had these three things that belonged to each other and not the rest of the world. Klaatu, and the ship he comes in, and Gort, are so unreal to this world. And they are so tightly bound to each other. When I think about that film, the trinity of the ship, and Klaatu, and Gort always comes to my mind. Lastly, I like the interplay of it being both a drama and a thriller. It has thrills to it, yet it also has some vary serious character work.
Erwin Stoff: One of the things that is so beloved about it, aside from the innovative visuals, is that it wasn't fear mongering in its themes and conceptions. Most, or rather all, of the science fiction movies of that time existed to make us afraid of something. They wanted to make us afraid of all the places science was exploring at the time. They all existed as warnings. This was really the only movie that challenged mankind to be the best version of itself. That is thematically unique for this movie, as well as the cinematic innovations you see in the film.
Keanu Reeves: I think what you guys are talking about is what made this film a classic of its time. It was classic, yet it attempted to transcend that. And that's where I came onto it in terms of wanting to take that classic and remake it for our times. We all have the same ambitions and hopes. That is why I was attracted to it.
Jennifer Connelly: I don't have anything nearly as heady to say about the whole thing. I just thought it was a great idea to do it. I love the original film. I think in terms of performances, Patricia Neal was so fabulous. I loved seeing this science fiction film that everyone was so committed to. Everyone took it very seriously, and it was really effective as a drama. I thought it was a beautifully made film. At the same time, it is really fun. It has all of these different elements going on. And I love how Scott and Irwin have contemporized it. I love how it became relevant to us today. I found that very interesting and intriguing.
Jon Hamm: I basically second what Scott was talking about in terms of looking at that first film. Science Fiction is very much a niche discipline. It managed to bring that much more to a mass audience. And it demonstrated, in my opinion, science fiction as an important niche. It enables the artist to be subversive in a way that they aren't really able to be if they are just laying it into a normal story. By couching it into aliens coming to our world, you can tell stories that aren't as approachable. You can certainly take that into account with the fifties. We had the red scare, the war, and all of the societal problems we where going through then. We couldn't just come out and say that America is this sole super power. That maybe isn't the best way. There is a different way we can go about doing this, and that is by couching it in the science fiction aspect. It wasn't us having this perspective, it was the aliens. And that made it more palatable for everybody. Our version gets to that as well. It is a little bit easier to be critical, or less politically correct, when you couch it in that genre as well.
Who's idea was it to make this film?
Scott Derrickson: I don't think it was the idea of anybody sitting here. It was a Fox property. I think they struggled for years to find a way to make this work.
Erwin Stoff: The antidote of this is: In making this version of it, the energy behind it came solely from Tom Roth. He was the person that really felt a responsibility to it. He really felt that he had to try and remake this. And he took it on as a great personal interest. And that preceded all of us working on it.
Scott Derrickson: On that note, one of the things that was very pleasing for me as a director to observe firsthand is his respect for the story and his respect for the film. It is unusually that someone would be so concerned about the overall production of it. He understands that this comes with a certain "treading on sacred ground". This is a 20th Century Fox classic. For me, as a filmmaker, it has been great to have someone at the top of the food chain that has that much respect for the film that we are making.
How difficult has it been to make this film fresh?
Scott Derrickson: It has been difficult. There were a lot of conversations about what we wouldn't do. We had to take a lot of the familiar science fiction staples and a lot of the technological ideas and remove them. We couldn't do certain things, so we had to ask our selves, "What would we do instead?" I do think we came up with some really fresh and innovative ideas. The film doesn't feel like it belongs...I think if we do this the way we are doing it, it will feel connected to the original. But it is not going to feel very connected to the films that were inspired by the original. Because it is definitely a retelling of that story. But in terms of the science fiction itself, there are a lot of changes.
Erwin Stoff: The movie will one hundred percent be recognizable in terms of the original film. But I think it has been reimagined for today.
We were told that the film would be green in color as well as scope. That this film has a real ecological statement about the environment. Can you talk about the challenges of bringing that sort of theme to it?
Erwin Stoff: The truth is that hasn't really affected our lives. I was called into a meeting when we had just started preproduction. The company has a mandate to be a green company by 2012. Whether it happened thematically, or it just happened to be timing, there were a number of things production wise that we were asked to do on a day to day basis. It really hasn't affected our lives. There were people that were aware of it around us. They would tell us to use different kinds of generators, or to use different kinds of lights. As far as the movie goes, it hasn't really affected it.
Do you know what kind of rating this will have?
Erwin Stoff: NC-17.
Scott Derrickson: NC-17? Yeah. We have a very strange Klaatu/Helen thing going on in this movie, boy. You will be shocked. To be honest, the subject hasn't really come up about this script. I would say that it is PG-13. The real sexual tension between Helen and Klaatu isn't in this version. We are saving that for the sequel. In all honesty, the subject hasn't ever come up. But you can tell that it will be PG-13 just by reading the script.
Does Klaatu get to say his three famous words? And will we be hearing him speak in his native language at all?
Keanu Reeves: Yes-ish. Yeah. The context is a little inverted, but yes. That was actually something that wasn't in the script, and I said, "You've got to have that."
Scott Derrickson: I actually don't think that was there in the draft of the script when Keanu came on. Keanu was the one that said, "You've got to have that in there." And we agreed. You do have to have that in there. It's the line. Yeah.
Did you study the original film at all?
Keanu Reeves: Yeah. I watched it a couple of times. In the original, Klaatu is the nice guy that carried a big stick. I am not such a nice guy. Well, I am a nice guy. But I am more sinister.
Scott Derrickson: He is more complex. Which I like.
Keanu Reeves: Klaatu had this wonderful sort of ease about him. He had this quality to him. You believed his naturalistic bemusement. And also his frustrations. Look at that scene where everyone is around the saucer. And they are interviewing everybody. He says, "What do you think? Aren't you afraid?" And the guy goes off and his eyes cloud over. It's another example of the film being subversive. The media only wants fear, and he wants this rational answer about that.
Do you feel any responsibility to honoring these great roles? The original contains some of the best performances in a science fiction film.
Jennifer Connelly: Oh, absolutely. She did such marvelous work. I really loved what Patricia Neal did. I don't want to sound bad, but I am a little off the hook. My character has been reconfigured so much. In terms of my vocation and what I do, I have a very different job in this version of it. To me, she feels quite different from Patricia Neal's character. It is really a departure. But at the same time, I aspire not to disappoint people. I have much respect for what she did.
The original film was a Christ allegory. To what degree is that apparent in this new film?
Scott Derrickson: Well, it is built into the narrative so inexplicably. To the degree that it is in the original, it is in ours. It probably isn't as direct or as obvious. There are some metaphors in the original that we don't have in this one. Of course, Keanu has done that before.
Keanu Reeves: You could call it Christian. But I am not Christ. I am not a carpenter.
Scott Derrickson: It is in there in the same narrative fashion as it was in the original. Which is one of the appealing things about it. You can look at it in the lines of these other films that have that Christ-myth narrative. It is a strong storytelling technique.
Can you talk about filming with John Cleese?
Scott Derrickson: It was fantastic. We shot with him last week. We wrapped with him on Friday. He was really fantastic. It was quite a thing to have such an amazing guy come to the set. Everybody loved him. People were sad when he left. He is so funny, and so full of life. The character that he plays is quite serious. I think he liked that he was fiercely intelligent. I think he liked that opportunity to give it straight. To show what he could do as an actor.
Erwin Stoff: It was a difficult role to cast. We struggled with that for months.
Scott Derrickson: He was the first person that we offered it too. We just couldn't figure out who else could do it.
Erwin Stoff: It was genuinely the most difficult role to cast. But who would you rather have make the argument for mankind than John Cleese?
Jennifer, what was it like working with Jaden Smith.
Jennifer Connelly: I loved it. I think that was a really difficult part. Our little story within the story is about a mother and son that are in conflict. They have a little bit of turbulence in their relationship. And it has come to a crisis point. Something has to shift. Something has to move. We have a lot of scenes that are filled with tension, and they resolve a difficult thing. You want to hope that they will work it out. And that there will be a transition. It is a difficult balance to hit. To have a kid that can create that. To have a kid that isn't getting along with his mom, and he throws the occasional fit, but to also like this kid. And to have trust in him. Jaden is so charming. And so interesting. And so beautiful. You really want to root for him, and you really want to like him. He has that beautiful quality to him. He is a huge asset. You just love him. And he is fun. He comes to the set, and he is a real kid. Which I love.
Jon, can you tell us about your character?
Jon Hamm: Sure. I play Michael. It used to be Michel. My character was originally French. I assemble the team that tries to figure out this issue that has descended upon the earth. As it stands, there seems to be some sort of back-story between Helen and I. Which plays out a little bit throughout the film. For the most part, I am reacting to the things that happen in the film. And I am trying to make sense out of them. I am standing in place of the audience. I am reacting to a lot of this for them. It has been interesting. I haven't spent much time on set so far. I have mostly been on airplanes, going back and forth. The experience so far has been pretty amazing. I love the people I get to work with. Jaden included. I can second what Jen said about Jaden. The kid is truly astonishing for a nine year old. It was great to work with all of these people.
Scott, how did you go about choosing this film?
Scott Derrickson: I had something very simple in mind for what I wanted to follow-up "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" with. I wanted to do something that wasn't in neither the fully commercial realm or fully the independent realm. I didn't want to go the moneymaking commercial route. Or this personal artistic route. I wanted to make something that people might perceive as commercial, but would also have this creative and artistic merit to it. That is what I tried to put together. Everything I have worked on since has been that. This film really held true to that. It does seem like a commercial film, and people will want to see it. But, when I read the script, I saw that the general message was about some pretty important things. I don't think there is any greater argument for remaking the original than the fact that the original was such a product of its time. We are in a different time. Retelling this story and updating it for this time period is really a worthy venture. The combination of both the meaning of it, the esthetic and cinematic possibilities of it, were so rich. At the same time, we have a big movie here that people are going to go see. It has a certain arc, and it is satisfying. It was not a hard choice to do it.
Do you look at other recent remakes that have failed, like "The Invasion", and try to learn from their mistakes?
Scott Derrickson: I couldn't take any lessons from that movie because I didn't see it.
Erwin Stoff: I didn't see "The Invasion" either. But one of the things you want to be sure of, and this is true of any movie, is that you are not simply building a house. You have to have a strong foundation. This rests on a foundation that is solid and has a reason for existing. Those movies that are built on weak ground, they don't come out well. The lesson, period, is to know why you are making a movie. On a difficult day, there is something to go back to. You can always go back to the reason that got you to do it in the first place. And that is the reason that always gets you out of a difficult day.
Scott Derrickson: It is interesting that you bring up "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". I didn't see the new "Invasion". But one of the things I remember saying is that a fairly good target for doing this remake was Philip Kaufman's remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" from 1979. I hadn't seen the original until after I saw the remake, which I saw at the drive-in. It had a huge impact on me. It was a very strange movie for the time it came out. I really thought that the Kaufman film was a great update. It is an original film in terms of taking the same story and turning it towards its time. I had that updating in mind as a comparison for this film.
Jennifer, we heard you giving input on the script in the other room, when you were shooting your scene. Is that something you do a lot?
Jennifer Connelly: Well, usually just when it pertains to me trying to understand what I am doing. My goal is to always convince myself, so that I can have a leg up on being "hopefully" convincing. In that instance today, there are things that are fully articulated in the script. It was an issue of time lapse. I didn't know what they had planned between that scene and the next. Sometimes things change. I just wanted to check and see what we would be cutting to. I wanted to know what I would be walking into in the next scene. I think we are all pretty collaborative. I do get obsessive when I start working. And I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop reading the script. I do often come up with thoughts. Sometimes they are horrible. Some of them are "hopefully" constructive. I try to look at everything from my character's point of view. Sometimes I will read it a different way than Scott. Scott has been really marvelous in entertaining those thoughts.
Erwin Stoff: In addendum to that, one of the things that have made this a real fun and less stressful experience than usual is the collaboration. The stress of taking on a big movie is that sometimes when you begin filming, the script isn't done. It is completely counterintuitive. It seems like the more the wheel spins on you, the more flux the script is in, and more is being written on the fly. For a number of reason: A) a great job was done on the script. And B) Because of the impending writer's strike, we were dealing with an excellent deadline. We had an excellent, finished, locked, done script. For a movie of this size, it is completely counterintuitive. But again, for a movie of this size, that is a very unusual thing. Since the script was done, it freed up everyone, and allowed them to ask a lot of questions. They were able to ask more questions because they were working under the framework of a structure that was on a full plate.
How much have you relied on current technology in the film?
Scott Derrickson: I did want to avoid making a movie about technology. I think that science fiction, certainly for the last number of decades, has been focused on that. It doesn't all have to be hi-tech. We didn't want to take our current technology and carry it to the furthest lengths of our imagination. We went in the direction that we should take technology seriously, and biologically, and ecologically. We had to think of it in more realistic terms, yet apply it to a more advanced civilization. We moved beyond hard wear. I think that spawned a lot of interesting concepts in the film. That is where this film, as a science fiction film, has its most uniqueness. We are saying something those other films might not have said.
The Day the Earth Stood Still crash lands on Planet Earth December 18th, 2008.