Ever wondered what it might be like to feel everything during surgery?
Something strange happened on the way to the release of filmmaker Joby Harold’s directorial debut Awake. He already had a production company backing the movie and Harvey Weinstein was ready to release it with his new company, but after filming it, the movie went into a long gestation period akin to post-production hell as Harold fine-tuned it in editing and FX. Finally, after two years, it’s seeing the light of day, being “awoken” if you like, and the world will find out if it’s ready for a thriller based around the medical phenomenon known as “anesthetic awareness.”
The film stars Hayden Christensen (you may know him as Analkin Skywalker) playing a young, wealthy stock investor about to undergo a heart transplant operation. When he’s put under via anesthesia, he learns to his horror that he can sense everything around him and feel every painful slice into his body. This real-life horror concept of “anesthetic awareness” is only one part of the movie, though, as he has a romance with Jessica Alba despite the disapproval of his mother (Lena Olin), and there’s a plot by a couple of doctors, including one played by Terrence Howard, to kill the young man during the operation for reasons you can only learn by seeing the movie.
Harold is a British ex-pat now living in New York City, where he filmed the entire movie, and after a brief discussion about how the miserable rainy weather normally found in London has taken over New York, we got right into the interview, which got so technical at times that we wondered whether we should be referring to him as Dr. Joby Harold.
ShockTillYouDop.com: I remember hearing about this movie either last year or even earlier. When did you actually shoot the movie?
Joby Harold: We shot 38 days in December of 2005.
Shock: Oh, it was that long ago. I interviewed Jessica Alba for “Into the Blue” two years ago and I remember her talking about the movie. I wasn’t sure if she had shot it at that point.
Harold: Yeah, that was before us, I think, she was getting ready at that point.
Shock: So I guess the question is how come you just finished the movie now if it was shot so long ago?
Harold: Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t shelved or anything. We were working on it; we never finished it. We had an enormous amount of post to do it, and it took on a lot of different versions through post, just because the script was so complicated. It was extremely dense, and we sort of worked very hard to streamline it, and get it into tip-top shape, and that just took a really, really long time. We had these fascinated editors who worked on the movie. It was a whole ânothing film school just watching some of the editors who go to work on it, and it was for the good of the film, I think. I think the film has benefited from the amount of time and care that we were able to put into it, and it’s a credit to the producers that they were willing to commit that time to making it right.
Shock: I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are a lot of plot twists, and anyone going in expecting a simple premise might be surprised. Did the plot change a lot from the original ideas in the first draft?
Harold: The twists and turns were all there right from the beginning. It was more about streamlining the language and reconciling just how much of a genre film it was going to be vs. too indie in its sensibilities and a little too quirky for its own good. We were just trying to sort of balance out those two sides, to make sure that the way we were telling the story was the right way, from an audience point of view, so they could enjoy it as well as they can possibly enjoy it.
Shock: I thought I read in the notes that the original idea for the movie came from when you had an operation and then you heard about it while in the hospital?
Harold: (laughs) No, what happened was I had a kidney stone–which is no good and I don’t recommend it for anyone–but I was in hospital and I was laying on a hospital bed screaming a lot–I don’t know if you’ve had a kidney stone but it’s a very painful thing. They’d pumped me full of morphine and the morphine wasn’t working, and I was screaming to high heaven, and my wife was running around trying to get doctors to give more pain-killers because it wasn’t working. I got so bored of yelling that I had to get used to the fact that this was only going to continue, and I was going to be in pain for the next two or three or four hours, according to their estimates, so I started thinking about other things. I started thinking about my wife and my childhood and my work and anything I could to distract myself. While thinking about that, I started thinking about the possibilitiesâ¦ I’d already known about anesthesia awareness. I started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to be in a man’s mind while that’s happening? When he’s in extreme pain, like what do you do? Where do you go to escape from that? What deep dark recesses of your mind can you go into to get away from something that’s so awful?” The worst version of that is what Hayden’s character goes through in the movie.
Shock: You read about this phenomenon somewhere?
Harold: Yeah, it was out there as part of the popular culture. It’s something that I’d heard about a few times. At first, I actually got into it through an article about the execution of Timothy McVeigh that alleged he had a tear when he was being killed and that possibly when killed by lethal injection, he’d actually feel something, which is not what’s supposed to happen. As a reader reading that, I started to feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for somebody I hadn’t had sympathy for before, and it really started me to thinking what an awful thing that would be, just as a reader, and then, it was only when I was in the hospital myself and having a very different experience, but an experience to do with pain, that those two things came together.
Shock: What kind of research did you do yourself? Did you meet anybody who’d been through it and find out what it was like? Did you spend a lot of time in hospitals?
Harold: I have, yeah. I met people who it’s happened to and obviously did a lot of research. The film itself is not to do with post-traumatic stress or anything that happens after this occurs. I wanted to investigate the actual experience the subject had experienced going through it and that’s harder to research, but I did spend time in hospital actually being in actual heart procedures or heart transplants, to be in the room in scrubs, next to the patient, and be able to lean over and see a beating heart, not 18″ away from my face. And the actors got to do that, too, and it was very important to me that as many people as possible involved in the key areas of the film could actually be in there and understand what that is like. It’s a fairly humbling experience to be able to do that, to see that right up close.
Shock: I personally get squeamish when I watch operations, so was that the case with any of the actors?
Harold: The weirdest thing about actually doing that, and being in those rooms, and you expect that. You go in and you think, “Oh, this is going to be dodgy. I’m not sure if I can handle this.” And you make sure you haven’t eaten too much beforehand, but you keep yourself together and think, “Well, it’s part of my job.” For me, I thought I had to do this, and I told the actors they have to. I went in with Terrence and as soon as I was in there, all of that faded away. It was the weirdest thing, and I think all the actors felt the same way. You just feel very very beautiful. You’re seeing a beating heart in front of it, and it doesn’t seem gory and it in no way feels like you’re watching something that’s objectionable. It’s like watching something that feels very natural. Several of the actors came up to me in the production office and thanked us for the experience of just getting to have done that. People don’t get to do that sort of thing. It’s quite a sight to behold.
Shock: You mentioned that you talked to people who went through this, so were they able to explain to you how it felt? I can’t even imagine what it might feel like to have an organ ripped out of me, being able to feel it and not being able to do or say anything about it.
Harold: There are so many different levels of awareness. I mean, there really are, ranging from just having memories of having heard things all the way through to the worst case scenario, which is what happens to Hayden’s character. I think generally speaking, for those people to have gone through absolute pain, you can’t imagineâ¦ I don’t think anybody could imagine what that would be like. It probably ends up being a very personal experience, simply because it is so awful, it depends on the individual how you respond to that. For me, what’s interesting from the storytelling point of view, is it gets away of all the artifice and pretence of the character and says, “Right, what is this person made of? When they’re in a worst-case scenario, what do they do? Where do they go? Are they strong? Do they fall apart? Do they stand up? Do they fight back? How far can you take your character when you put them through something so awful? How far can you take the character into places we haven’t seen before?”
Shock: There’s an interesting disclaimer on the notes–I don’t know if you saw Hayden on “The View” but Barbara Walters mentioned it also–it’s pretty jarring. It says, “This film depicts a horrifying true-life surgical event known as âanesthetic awareness.” âAwake’ may not be suitable for those about to undergo anesthesia for surgery.” Did you see this?
Harold: Yeah, I saw that. (chuckles)
Shock: So whose idea was that? Was that just legal precautions or something to put those who read it–in this case, critics–more on edge?
Harold: Yeah, I’m not responsible for that stuff, but I understand where it’s coming from. If you were to see this right before going into surgeryâ¦ surgery is alarming enough as it is, and it’s something certainly that everybody has to go through at one point or another and it’s never a pleasant experience, and you probably wouldn’t want to add to the discomfort of that experience by watching this right before you went in. That wouldn’t be very sensible I would say.
Shock: You mentioned the discussions about how much of a genre to make this, and I’ve debated with my editor whether this would be considered a “horror movie” or not. A disclaimer like that would freak me out even more if I were going to see the movie and I saw that on the poster, but I’d also go in expecting more gore.
Harold: I don’t think it’s a straight-up horror movie. There are straight-up horror movies obviously that would take this subject matter into places that would, if they became too genre, it might just feel too sadistic. From a filmmaker point of view, it feels like a torture movie and I didn’t want to make a torture movie. It’s too easy to do that with this subject matter, and when you’re doing that to a character that quite simply can’t fight back because they’re incapacitated by a phenomenon, there’s no fun to that. As an audience member, it’s not interesting for me to see, and as a filmmaker, it feels one-note, so it was very important to me that while this is an awful situation, and certainly horrific, and conceptually, just terrifying, which it really is. It still freaks me out and I’ve been working on this film for a long time. Beyond all that, if you could tell a story that as well as being horrific, was entertaining, had a love story element that at the end of the day was probably best described as a thriller and could appeal to more people than just the hardcore horror audience. It’s really interesting the way it plays with an audience of people. Women over 25 at one point were our biggest fans because of some of the things that were happening in the movie, just as men under 25 became our biggest fans for some of the things that are happening in the movie. What’s interesting about the film is that it really covers a lot of those bases, I think.
Shock: I know this is a weird question to ask during an interview, but how much do you think people should really know about the movie before going in? I went into the movie expecting one thing and was surprised what a layered story it was, so much more than just a guy on a table being cut open and screaming a lot.
Harold: Again, I can answer best as an audience member, because I think that’s the best way to make movies. I most enjoy seeing a film when I know very little about it, âcause then you’re sitting down and you’re most authentically in the middle of the ride, and you’re more susceptible to whatever the film is doing. Now if it’s a surprise movie or a reveal movie, you get to really be swept away with it. I think that if you’re going in looking for something about anesthesia awareness and the condition and the experience, then you’re going to get that, and you won’t be disappointed about that, but on top of that, you’re going to get things that are more than advertised. As soon as you deal with things like that then it becomes to me just a more interesting story. I’m getting more than I bargained for, and that gives me more of a reason to go home and tell my mates about it and have them go see it.
Shock: What was involved with Hayden’s performance in the movie? It seems like he had to do a lot of acting in voice-over, plus a lot he had to do without knowing how it would look after special FX. I assume that everything was just prepared in a way that you could do a lot of stuff in post?
Harold: As you said, there’s lots of different things he had to do in the film, some of which we did during production, just to give us as much to work with as possible while we were in the cutting process and some of which he did in post. There’s also some effects in the movie where you get to see two Haydens, as you say, looking back at himself and remembering himself and two Haydens interacting, and obviously, those were visual FX stuff that had to be done in post. He was definitely more than up for the challenge of it not being a conventional leading man role and he would be having out of body experiences and those sorts of things. I think he really did a good job executing what he had to do.
Shock: I saw in your bio that you had a few other projects in the works including an adaptation of the graphic novel “Outlaw.” What’s been happening with that?
Harold: Yes, “Outlaw” was a while ago. It’s actually a lot of fun, it’s based on a graphic novel and that was for New Line, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on with that. That was before “Awake” and I’ve been so concentrated on “Awake” that I’m not quite sure where that is. Since we’ve had a longer post period on “Awake,” I’ve been able to do some other studio stuff, which is very different from “Awake,” it’s more sort of high budget sci-fi or action-horror or those bigger budget things where I can let my imagination run wild and not be the one who is going to be culpably responsible as the director to have to execute it. It’s not only a nice way to spend a day, it’s very gratifying from the point of view of just wanting to let your imagination run wild. I got to work with Zack Snyder* recently in that capacity, and I’ve got a couple things in the pipeline, which when this strike finally ends, I’ll hopefully be able to get to.
Shock: Have you had a chance to go out and picket somewhere yet?
Joby Harold: I just delivered the movie on Saturday, so it’s been absolutely crazy here with the director hat here on, but I know I’m going to have to go out and do all that stuff. Gotta be a good card-carrying member of the WGA, gotta support my guild!
Awake opens nationwide on Friday, November 30.
Source: Edward Douglas