MoviesOnline (Ca), December 2008
Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly Interview
by Sheila Roberts
Klaatu Barada Nikto The martians are coming and they are not friendly little green men! MoviesOnline sat down with Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”), Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”), and director Scott Derrickson to talk about their new movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” a contemporary reinvention of the 1951 science fiction classic. The film’s award-winning cast also includes Kathy Bates, John Cleese, and Jaden Smith.
Renowned scientist Dr. Helen Benson (Connelly) finds herself face to face with an alien called Klaatu (Reeves), who travels across the universe to warn of an impending global crisis. When forces beyond Helen’s control treat the extraterrestrial as a hostile and deny his request to address the world’s leaders, she and her estranged stepson Jacob (Smith) quickly discover the deadly ramifications of Klaatu’s claim that he is a friend to Earth.
As reconceived by screenwriter David Scarpa and director Scott Derrickson, the premise for the 2008 version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is rooted not in man’s violence against man, but in mankind’s destruction of the Earth’s environment. “I’m a tremendous fan of the original film,” Derrickson says. “It was so interesting and original and progressive for its time – in the visual effects, in the way it commented on the Cold War tensions of that era, in the idea of seeing humanity from an outsider’s perspective. It’s a truly great film, but most modern audiences haven’t seen it. I feel like people deserve to know this story, and this was a fantastic opportunity to retell it in a way that addresses the issues and conflicts that are affecting us now.”
Here’s what Keanu, Jennifer, Jon and Scott had to tell us:
MoviesOnline: Can you talk about the decision to take a sci fi classic and bring it into the 21st century?
Jon: (laughs) That was probably directed at me, Scott.
Scott: You're welcome to it. Yeah, 20th Century Fox wanted to do a re-make. I was the first of the people here to sign on to doing it. When I was given the script, I was a bit skeptical. I do love the original very much. It's one of my two favorite Robert Wise films. The other one is The Haunting. Picking two from his forty I think is quite a thing. For me, it was really this, the screenplay certainly still needed work when I read it, but I was struck by the idea that updating this movie had tremendous value because of the original being so rooted in the social issues of its time. It was such an intelligent and interesting, self-reflective commentary, coming from an American studio and an American filmmaker, on the Cold War and the fear of the atomic bomb and the struggle to establish the U.N. and things that were controversial and divisive. I loved the idea of being able to tell, basically, the same story but bring in these new social issues that we have now, these new, interesting messes that we've gotten ourselves into now in the world. That alone, seemed to have value to it and made sense.
I think the other thing was, it's been 57 years since the first one and you'd better have a good reason to re-make a classic film. I do think there is something different about this film as opposed to other classics which are so much more known by the general movie-going audience, and I think that there is value to telling this story to the general movie-going population that, for the most part, won't have seen the original and won't know that story. That was the motivation and the approach was to try to respect that original and also respect the fan base and the fact that it is a sacred movie to a lot of people.
Keanu: I had the same question you had and then I heard that answer (laughter) and I went okay. I knew it would be fun to play an alien and it's a worthwhile story and that's when I came onboard.
MoviesOnline: But he's not fully alien?
Keanu: That's correct. Part of the interesting side of the role was that it starts alien and becomes quite human.
Scott: It became an interesting conversation that Keanu and I had quite a bit during the making of the movie, is to what degree is he human? He says his body is human but where does the body end and the mind begin and vice-versa. We had to work out at least an understanding for ourselves where and how him becoming human was really occurring and that was part of what was fun and interesting about the process of working on that character.
MoviesOnline: The movie is about saving the Earth. For the actors, what are you doing in your personal lives to help the planet?
Keanu: All I can. I recycle, have a couple of solar panels and do some rainforest conservation. Jennifer: Similar. We drive a Prius. We recycle, we turn off the light switches when we can and my husband is better at it than I am.
MoviesOnline: Wasn’t this done as a Green production?
Keanu: Oh yeah, and make this movie.
Jon: There’s that too.
Scott: This was Fox’s first show that was a Green production.
MoviesOnline: In what way?
Scott: Well, the generators that were used. I honestly don’t know all the ins and outs of it. I do know there was a lot of effort that went into making a true Green show. The only effect it had on me personally was that it was paperless and, for a director, storyboards became very complicated because they were all digital and so I never knew who had what and there was no notebook to carry around. That became confusing.
I’ll join in [on the actor’s comments]. We got rid of our SUV and got a hybrid but I also believe those contributions are important but aren't, in the end, going to solve the problems. I really like Thomas Friedman, who writes for the New York Times, and his perspective on these issues and I love his statement "Don't change the light bulbs, change your leaders." I think the larger solutions are going to come from larger places.
MoviesOnline: Keanu, your performance reminded me of Rod Serling in his introductions to "The Twilight Zone" because he was kind of unworldly. What did you base your character on?
Keanu: It really came to me through the obligations of the character in the story. It was in the script. That's really where I worked from. The character has certain cues, you know, when he's born and the first time he starts to speak, he tries to drink a glass of water and says his body is going to take some getting used to. It was just the concept of the separation of his consciousness and his body. And what else? I just approached it like any other role. What does it want?
MoviesOnline: So you didn't think of Rod Serling?
MoviesOnline: Jennifer, your character has everything on her shoulders. She is basically the human prototype by which Klaatu is going to decide whether we live or die on Earth. Did you feel like playing this character was a huge responsibility?
Jennifer: Yes. It felt like a huge responsibility but I think it's really clever what Scott did. It's not just Helen. It's not just on my shoulders in reality. I think the relationship between Helen and Jacob is employed in a different way than it is in the original film. It really functions like a little microcosm of human nature; how we are treating each other. They're sort of in conflict and then there's a bit of a crisis and then there's a reconciliation and they each take responsibility and there's a movement towards a resolution and Klaatu observes this. So there is that dynamic. There is also the Barnhardt scene and other encounters that he has, that help to shape it so that was a little bit of a relief that it wasn't just me.
I wanted people to be able to identify with her and I thought it was important that she, herself be aware of the task and the enormity of that task and that position so I like that she has a moment with Barnhardt where she says "What do I do? Tell me what to do." She's aware what the stakes are and what she's found herself involved in.
I liked Patricia Neal's character in the original. She is open-minded and she's a very strong, free-thinking individual. I thought that was important to carry over; that bravery. I thought as qualities, to be a woman, a human without prejudice, without bias, was really essential, that she be able to communicate and that she be really making you feel the depths of her love. I thought those were all really important things.
MoviesOnline: How was it working with Jaden?
Jennifer: Working with Jaden was fantastic. I think it's really clear that he has a lot to offer. I think he did a great job. As I mentioned, it was a complex relationship and I think that's a lot of nuance to ask of someone his age. I think he did it beautifully and he even seemed to have a good time doing it, which was a relief.
MoviesOnline: Scott, what was it like to walk that fine line between having a happy ending and not focusing so much on the negative impact of what happens at the end?
Scott: It was something I thought a lot about. I think the ideas of this movie and, certainly, what I think the movie is ultimately saying....I don't think it's really a message movie. I'm not trying to tell anybody to do anything in particular, just trying to be entertaining, tell an entertaining story and represent the world where it's at right now, but I liked the idea that the solutions to the problems that we're creating in our world right now.... I love the line when she says to Klaatu, “We can change” and “Can you stop this?” and he says “It would come at a price to you and your way of life” and so I wanted to find some way, at the end, to not just have everything wrap up perfectly and be inconsequential. There is a price. But, I decided not to try to dissect exactly what that price would be because I don't know what it's going to be but I know that it's that thinking that matters. It's that idea that the messes that we've gotten ourselves into as Americans and as a species of the human race, the solutions to these will come at a price and we have to be willing to pay that price so I liked the idea of being able to put it out there for the audience to manage in their own mind what they think that price is and what the consequences of this would be ending the story there. There is an open-endedness to it. There is both a closure to the story and an open-endedness to what comes next and what just happened that I like. I appreciate that, sometimes, in movies that they leave me having to decide for myself what I think just happened and what it means. I like that.
MoviesOnline: Jon, how would Don Draper (of "Mad Men") sell this movie (laughter)?
Jon: Don Draper would sell it probably poorly. I don't know. That's not necessarily his forte, the modern science fiction epic. He'd rather stick to products in his own time.
MoviesOnline: Scott, why no cool flying saucer for Klaatu?
Scott: I watched the original quite a few times when just starting pre-production on the movie and I think, like I was saying earlier, you need to respect the original film and try to figure out what made it great and what can you take from the original to a modern audience that will work for them. In watching the flying saucer, from the original, land in Washington, D.C. I think it was the second time I was watching the film through again, what really hit me was the precedent that that set for spacecrafts represented in Science Fiction cinema. That, really, from that point forward, space ships all the way through 2001 and Star Wars and the Terminator films, the Matrix movies, they have all been represented in a similar fashion which is that they are metallic-constructed machines that are engine-driven and those are projections of our industrial age technology like our cars, our airplanes, these things that are starting to get us in trouble in the big picture and so I loved the idea of trying to develop an alien technology that came from a completely different trajectory altogether and came from a completely different tradition and this was something I had discussed with the art department and everybody. The idea was that this was a species that had a technology that was essentially more ecologically and biologically-based and that's why the ship looks the way that it does.
MoviesOnline: Keanu, is there something special about the sci-fi genre that attracts you or do you approach a film like this as you would any other movie?
Keanu: Well, I love the genre and I approach it like any other film, I guess is the short answer. I think Science Fiction provides great storytelling opportunities. I've just, in the past, had the fortune to be part of good stories in Science Fiction genre films.
MoviesOnline: Jon, how did you come onboard for this film? Was it after the first season of "Mad Men"? And, can you talk generally about what the last couple of years have been like for you professionally and personally?
Jon: I did come on after we wrapped the first season of "Mad Men." I think [it was] about September and then...
Scott: But only a few episodes had been on the air.
Jon: They hadn’t really all aired.
Scott: If there had been like five more episodes on the air, we wouldn't have been able to afford him (laughter). That's true.
Jon: I came on relatively late to the project. It was already going and I came kind of into the scene where I basically explain what's about to happen. It was a three-page long monologue about astronomy and trajectories. I basically got off a plane, got fitted and then thrown onto the set which was a little bit nerve-wracking but just the opportunity to be involved in something like this is amazing for me. I'm still relatively new to all of this. So, that gets into the next part of the question.
The last couple of years (of my life) have been bizarre to say the least. It's still kind of a weird thing to wake up and come to this and sit next to these people and talk about things like this so it's new and weird and terrifying and all of that stuff but still very exciting. It's an opportunity for me to do something that I've wanted to do since I was a little kid, to get to do something like this and work with not just Jennifer and Keanu and Scott but David Tattersall, the director of photography who shot Star Wars is cool I guess. That's pretty nice. So, it's fun which is the overriding feeling of what this career should be at the end of the day. It’s an opportunity to have fun and do cool stuff and this is pretty cool.
MoviesOnline: Jon, did you ever expect a cable TV show that deals with chain-smoking advertising executives to take off like it has? What is it about that show that appeals to popular culture today?
Jon: I think the larger issues of the show; one of the big themes of the show is change and that's been kind of a significant watchword in recent culture as well and I think that when you're looking at a time when there's a huge paradigm shift in the social vibe that was the 1960's, we explore the beginning of that and we're now moving through the rest of that. There are a lot of parallels to right now. It's not lost on some of the themes in this film. It's sort of like “Look,” as Scott was saying earlier, “Take a look at where we are and what we're doing and maybe there's a better way to figure it out.” So, I think those things resonate in the culture. Yes, it's a small cable show that nobody really watches but yet it resonates larger than what it is and I think that is why the show has struck a chord.
MoviesOnline: What, if any part, did the politics of America in the last eight years play in your approach to the making this movie?
Scott: When we were making the movie, I knew what the release date was going to be. I knew that it was going to be released in December 2008 and at the time I didn’t know who the candidates would be, let alone the President. But I think that I felt the way most Americans felt which was we had slipped off track in a number of ways and, like I said, gotten ourselves into some real jams, serious ones. I had I think also the same feeling the majority of Americans had which was not one of cynical pessimism. I just really didn’t feel that way about it. I felt good about the fact that if felt like the collective community of America that I lived in was recognizing its mistakes and that was really encouraging to see and to be a part of. I even looked back at the election and the way it was conducted and I feel like there was something uncynical about what’s gone on in America in the last year. I knew that this movie would be coming out when that President, whoever it was going to be, was going to be elected and before he would have taken office.
I just had faith and hope that it would be a time of optimism and it would be a time of expectation that there would be some significant changes in this country. That’s not a partisan statement. That’s just a statement of fact that we all know we made some mistakes. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve made some misjudgments, and everybody I think is ready to admit it and correct them and represent ourselves better, not just domestically but as part of a global community.
I love the idea of making a big, entertaining popcorn movie that had some of that uncynical point of view. It’s an admission of serious mistakes and serious problems that we have and recognizing those things. That’s again where I was trying to respect the original film because for a Cold War film, it’s surprisingly introspective. It’s surprisingly turning the lens back on America as opposed to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” where it’s about the Red Scare. So, that was for me very much in mind.
MoviesOnline: This movie is about humans needing to change. Keanu, is there something in you that you would like to change?
Keanu: No, I'm perfect (laughter).
MoviesOnline: Do you see any possibility of sequels?
Scott: Six months after the night following the day the Earth stood still. I haven't heard any discussion about that.
MoviesOnline: Is it something that you would want to do?
Scott: Probably not.
MoviesOnline: I thought it was interesting to have John Cleese as a brilliant mathematician. When Klaatu and John Cleese's character were writing formulas on the chalk board, it almost had the musical quality of a duet. Was that intentional?
Keanu: That was intentional. We were thinking about it as a kind of dance and conversation.
Scott: It's a real math equation about a real significant high physics theory about the universe and we tried to be truthful to the scientific aspects. I just did an interview with Discover and the interviewer was really surprised at little things in the movie but that being the biggest one and we had an astrophysicist who worked with Keanu and John and I still remember watching them for quite a long time in a room working out the back and forth of that and we added material to make it longer at one point to get that kind of flow and rhythm to it. I didn't have that much to do with that. I'm just remembering because it was really Keanu and the math guy; the theoretical physicist and John Cleese and the three of them just figured that out and, when I saw it, I thought it was fantastic.
MoviesOnline: Gort is one of the most well-known science fiction robots of all time. Can you talk about the look for Gort and why you wanted to use nano-technology with the robot?
Scott: The nano-technology element was in the script which I thought was interesting so that was already there when I got involved with the project, but there was no real description of him in the screenplay and we started down the wrong path, honestly. I looked at the original and tried to figure out what things could I bring from the original to a modern movie that audiences who don't know this film will still appreciate? I just couldn't quite make sense of why this thing would be in human form and it certainly can't look like this tin robot from the original. So, we spent a lot of time designing fantastic, alien monster creature things that got increasingly ridiculous. It got to the point where I remember sitting in a room with these two pieces of artwork that were like the current versions and just saying “This looks like something that should be in a museum of modern art or in a park as a piece of modern art.” I didn't even know what I was looking at. Jeff Okun, our Visual Effects Supervisor, I’ll never forget it. He was just standing in the doorway and this was like after three or four months of doing this, he said “Why aren't we just making it look like Gort?” And I remember it was one of those moments where I just looked at him and I was like “Oh, God.” I didn't want to acknowledge how dumb I felt when he said that (laughter). It was like “Okay, you're right. Let's get rid of all of these. We need to make it look and feel like the original somehow, but it needs to have the impact and the scale and the magnitude that a modern audience will find satisfying.” So, we basically tried to find the best blend of that. How we could most keep it looking like the original without it falling short of what our modern audience standards are for a sci-fi robot thingy. It was really that. That was the basic process. Then, the nano-technology aspect of it, I did think it was interesting. That is an interesting aspect to Science Fiction storytelling and certainly a major part of Science Fiction literature right now and I liked the idea of that playing a role in it, and also helping to justify why Gort is in human form. It's not that he was built that way. He chose that shape to present himself. So, that started to make rational sense to me also.
MoviesOnline: Keanu, is there anyone in history you might like to go back and be friends with?
Keanu: (English accent) I'm going to take the thespian route and say William Shakespeare.
MoviesOnline: Do you know what you're doing next?
Keanu: I don't. I've been working on working.
MoviesOnline: Are you taking a break?
Keanu: No, I’m just trying to find a good film and role.
MoviesOnline: You’ve done a lot of films that could be sequels. Is there one that you’d really like to return to?
Keanu: I wouldn’t mind doing another Constantine.
MoviesOnline: That could happen, right?
Keanu: I don't know.
MoviesOnline: Did you have to learn Chinese at all for this?
Keanu: No, I just had to learn the dialogue phonetically.
MoviesOnline: Why didn't you say the classic line "Klaatu Barada Nikto"? (Note: Patricia Neal's character said it to Gort in the original. In this film, Klaatu says it after he emerges from the spaceship in Central Park.)
Keanu: I do. It basically means “stand down.” It’s an order to relax.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” opens in theaters on December 12th