Interview: Day the Earth Stood Still Director Scott Derrickson
by Alex Billington
Over this past weekend I was given the opportunity to interview Scott Derrickson, the director of the upcoming The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. Ever since I saw the very first trailer for this, I knew I eventually wanted to talk to Derrickson, as it seemed he would have a lot to say and potentially a lot of good answers to all of my questions. Indeed that was the case, as the ten minutes of time that I did get with him felt much too short. Even though endless debates will rage on over the film itself, Derrickson certainly seems to have grasp on both the concepts of the original and his ambitious objectives for this remake.
Considering I've already controversially voiced my opinion on the remake, I don't have much more to add at the moment. However, I do still think it's a fairly good movie and suggest that everyone give it a chance, especially after hearing what Derrickson has to say about it in this interview. I was considerably impressed to hear his thoughts on the designs of the new spacecraft and general considerations for this remake, as it is a monumental task for any director to take on. Read on for the full interview.
When you take on a project like this, that's a remake of such a big classic, where do you begin in terms of stepping into it as the director?
Derrickson: Because it's a remake of a classic, where I began was going — well I'll say this; I began by getting a script from 20th Century Fox. They wanted to do the remake and they sent it to me. And when I agreed to do it, the first thing I did is I went back and watched the original a few times. And I tried to figure out why it worked, and I tried to figure out what it was about it that made it so special and made it so loved. And then, from there, went back into the screenplay, and worked on the screenplay for quite a while with the studio and then with Keanu.
Since you'd written The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but were directing from David Scarpa's on this, was it not as easy for you to work because you didn't have the freedom of writing it yourself from scratch? Or how much actual involvement did you have?
Derrickson: I had plenty of involvement in the screenplay. It brings up an interesting issue — the difference between directing something that you've written and something that you haven't. And nobody's asked me about this, interestingly enough. I felt fine all through the process with my accessibility to the writer, and he was very open, and he knew that I was directing the movie, and he always wanted to make sure that he found a way to give me what I was looking for; but he was also a guy with a point of view. And myself and him and Keanu, we spent six weeks alone in a room, working on the script. And that was a really arduous process. But we all worked until we got the script where we liked it, where the three of us thought it was really working well. And that was an enjoyable process; I mean, it was hard work but it was enjoyable.
Interestingly enough, there is a really different dynamic when you're directing something that somebody else has written, compared to when you're directing something that you've written. And there's a good and a bad side to it. I think the bad side is that you never feel the same level of connection to the material — you just don't. There was a personal feeling — I have a personal feeling about The Exorcism of Emily Rose that I don't have about this movie, that has to do with the fact that I wrote it. Because I did all that research. I wrote those lines, I got to see Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson say those lines. And there's a feeling of — I don't know, maybe it's the difference between having an adopted child and a natural child. I don't know if that's a good analogy?
That actually seems accurate.
Derrickson: But there's a very good side to this though, when it comes to not being the writer, because I think that when you're not the writer, you see the screenplay much more objectively, and you see the material much more objectively. And on this project, that was really important because there were a lot of moving parts on it. There were budget restrictions. There were actors who had very strong ideas about their characters that I wanted to work into the movie. And so the screenplay had a lot of development, throughout pre-production. But the great thing was that once we started shooting there was a writer's strike. And so then the script was kind of locked. And then that's the movie we made. And I mean that — I think that was good for us, because nobody wanted to keep messing with the screenplay while we were shooting; which is always helpful for a filmmaker.
And it sounds like Keanu Reeves was attached very early on. Right?
Derrickson: No, I got involved first.
Okay, so you were involved first?
Derrickson: I was involved, and then I wanted Keanu in the movie and the studio thought that was a good decision. And then I had met with Keanu four times, I think, before he agreed to do the movie.
And it sounds like, as you were saying, that he also was very involved with the development of it. Was that because he had a lot of passion for the original as well?
Derrickson: He did have a passion for the original. He knew the original pretty well. I was surprised when I met him that he knew what he was talking about; and certainly knows science fiction really well and is well-read in science fiction literature. And during those meetings that we had when I was trying to convince him to do the movie, I was really impressed with his storytelling sensibility, and I was impressed with his general perception of what the pitfalls of the movie were, and what was going to work and what wasn't going to work. And so the result was that once he agreed to come onboard, I really invited him into the process, probably more than most actors would be invited into the process. Just having to do with what I felt was the uniqueness of his point of view, and what I thought he would contribute to it. And he really did contribute a lot.
And you felt that in the end that his contributions were beneficial to the outcome of the film?
Derrickson: Yeah, most definitely. I believe the polygraphing scene was his idea. It's one of the coolest scenes in the movie, and became one of the keystones of the marketing campaign. And what was interesting about it was that he, during that time — I had brought him into the process because I thought he was going to be so helpful for his character and the character of Klaatu. And he really wasn't very fixated on himself, in that stage of working on the script. He really was looking at it objectively. And what I think he did more than anything else was he — we developed the phrase "cheese danger", and he said, "We just got to get rid of the cheese; we can't do this, this has some big cheese danger." And there was a lot of stuff that would've been cheesy, that we got rid of in the movie.
He also really pushed me to make sure that all the science in the movie was very credible — that was important to him. And I'm so glad that we hired a science advisor. And even once we had hired a science advisor, he wanted to know what the science was — he wanted to know what that equation meant exactly, that they were working out. And it's interesting because I never fully understood what the big deal was. It's a movie. And now that we've made it, it's amazing how many science magazines and people who know science have appreciated that the science in the movie is real. It's not just jargon, it's not just Hollywood bullshit, it has a root in real science. And it really makes a difference to that segment of the population.
I heard you guys did a lot of research into the design of the spheres and the spaceships and Gort and everything. Was that due to pressure to stay true to the classic? Or were you going down that realm to stick to the scientific aspect?
Derrickson: That was 100% my instinct for doing the remake. I do really love the original. And I think that there's something kind of hard to describe about the original film, in the way that Gort and the spaceship and the space suit were clearly alien; they didn't belong to the world, but they just really belonged to each other. Like there was an interesting kind of symmetry between them. There was something about that aspect that I loved, in the original. And so the challenge was to update it so that the ship was something interesting. Did I talk about the ecological thing?
When I re-watched it, here's what occurred to me, is I got to have a ship, and I got to have a space suit, and I got to have Gort, and they've got to really belong to each other and feel alien — they've got to have some kind of a relationship to each other. But the big kind of revelation that I had — and it's, in terms of science fiction cinema, it's one of the few things that I feel really proud of having come up with in the movie, in terms of visual design. I mean, I think the movie looks great, and I'm saying things that went beyond the original. When I saw the original again I realized, oh my god, this movie, in 1951, set a precedent that has not been changed in the whole history of science fiction cinema, in the science fiction cinema across the board — Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001, the Terminator films, the Matrix movies, all of them, represent alien technology as metallic built, metal-based, engine-driven machinery. And that's a projection of our industrial civilization's technology, and that's all a projection of our own technology.
So I thought, well this is a movie that's basically talking about how that industrial civilization and that industrial technology of ours has gotten us into a big, big problem here, and it's gotten us into a bind, that we're destroying the planet that keeps us alive. And so I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if this alien technology came from a totally different trajectory, and it came from a totally different history, and it was a technology that was somehow developed much more in harmony with its own biological and ecological environment? And so it has it all. It has a biological feel and an ecological feel to it. Even Gort, being the nanotechnology of the aphids — they still have a real insect, a real live kind of biological element to them. And I am proud of that, because I felt like not only is that original, it feels like it reflects some of the themes of the movie. And it's still somehow staying faithful to the original.
Yea, that's actually quite fascinating. It actually makes me appreciate it more, now that you've said that, how you approached that. As a follow-up, if everything was organic, why was Gort still metallic and robotic looking?
Derrickson: Gort appears metallic, but he is not exactly metallic — he is reflective. He is made of tiny reflective aphids that are a form of bio-nanotechnology. These aphids were conceived as life forms that have a bio-electric quality, as well as a kind of metallic quality, because they were designed by Klaatu's species to consume human civilization — they were designed to destroy humanity by converting everything human and man-made into more aphids. That is why each bomb attack and each thing the mass of aphids eats makes the mass of aphids larger. The light source that serves as Gort's eye was patterned after the same organic internal light sources as the spheres — that was done so there would be some inter-connectedness between the technology of the spheres and Gort himself.
Was the robotic design done to reference the original Gort?
Derrickson: Yes - the robotic physical design was absolutely done to reference the original Gort.
I wanted to touch on Paradise Lost just a little bit, because I've heard about it and I was very curious, since I know it's based on Milton's poem — is it going to be set in modern times or how is it going to work?
Derrickson: No, it's not going to be set– there is no time in Paradise Lost. It's sort of pre-time, and it is the beginning of human civilization. It's Milton and Milton — I'll say this much — that I don't want to make it feel like a medieval movie. Lord of the Rings was written with medieval sensibilities, and Peter Jackson, I think, succeeded in turning that into cinema by making a movie that really felt like it was set in medieval times with these fantastical elements. And I'm going to try to do Paradise Lost in a way that's not modern or futuristic or sci-fi or anything like that, but is not rooted in, certainly not in medieval weaponry and technology and that kind of thing. Because it was — Milton was much later than that, a seventeenth century writer. But I like the idea of trying to come up with a vision that is essentially timeless. And there will be still, I think, an organic root to the weapons that are used in the war in heaven and that sort of thing. It's not going to be laser blasters or gunfire or anything like that.
Right, of course.
Derrickson: But again, the challenge being how can I come up with something original and something new — that's the trick with that — and still tell that story? Because the screenplay adaptation is brilliant. The writer's a British writer named Stuart Hazeldine, who just wrote Knowing for Alex Proyas. And he wrote a fantastic script and I'm really excited about it.
Is that supposed to go into production soon then?
Derrickson: I'm working on the movie now with Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers. And that's the most exciting place in Hollywood right now, with the Batman films and Zack Snyder's films. And they're really looking to do progressive, interesting cinema now. And yeah, I'm working for them right now, and we're working on the movie.
Thanks to Scott Derrickson and Fox for putting together the interview. Derrickson's The Day the Earth Stood Still remake hits both IMAX and regular theaters this upcoming weekend.