At the press junket for his latest Liam Neeson action vehicle Non-Stop–the second after Unknown and before next year’s Run All Night–director Jaume Collet-Serra gave us the skinny on his much-buzzed-about remake of Akira for Warner Bros. In 2011 he was all set to helm the live-action adaptation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s beloved manga and cult 1988 anime, with Garrett Hedlund in the frame as biker gang leader Kaneda, before the studio decided $90 million was too big a gamble for an admittedly oddball project with subversive political undertones and heady sci-fi concepts galore.
A year after dropping out, Collet-Serra got back on the Akira bandwagon and is currently pursuing a more scaled-down version that will allow audiences a passport into Otomo’s futuristic cyberpunk world while setting the stage for sequels. He talked to us exclusively in New York about his philosophical approach to the material, and even made some (no-doubt controversial) statements on the characters. He clearly respects the material, but is definitely not approaching this from a wholly reverent place
ComingSoon.net: When you were working on “Akira”
Collet-Serra: I’m still working on “Akira,” so that’s part of my life. (laughs)
CS: That’s great that you’re sticking with it despite the bumps in the road.
Collet-Serra: It’s great that they’re waiting for me. It’s different, because you have to be respectful of the source material. Otomo adapted his own work from a manga into an anime and both things are completely different and genius. The only way to do a live version of “Akira” is to take the spirit and adapt it. It will be as different as the anime was from the manga.
CS: What worries myself and a lot of the other fans of the property is you have elements that are commercial and sexy, like the motorbikes or the jaw-dropping futuristic backdrop, but for the most part it’s a very cerebral work. How do you maintain the essence of that without diluting it into essentially “Blade Runner: Mark 2″?
Collet-Serra: I think you cannot make a movie about “Akira” and hope that everyone understands it. Like everything else, you have to make three or four movies in one where there’s the essence somewhere. If you’re a fan, you already know what it’s about and you’ll see it’s part of the same world, but trying to oversimplify it would be a mistake. I think if at some point a character tries to explain it to the audience at the end of the second act, that’s a problem. It’s more like an existential opera. It’s something that can only be explained in the manga, and even in the anime it’s hard to follow.
CS: And we all have that original anime, it’s there, nothing can sully it, so if you were going to do it in live-action one would hope you would bring something new to the table. What is it you are bringing specifically that is going to make it yours?
Collet-Serra: I hope that I can bring strong characters. In the original source material, I don’t think the main characters are the protagonists. What I’m hoping is to bring characters.
CS: That’s true. It’s one of those strange stories where you literally never see the main character that is the namesake of the film!
Collet-Serra: Nobody’s interesting. Tetsuo’s interesting because weird sh*t happens to him, and Kaneda is so two-dimensional. That’s part of the Japanese culture, they never have strong characters. They’re used as a way to move the other philosophy forward.
CS: They’re ciphers.
Collet-Serra: Yeah. So hopefully in my version that will be strong, and you’ll have a story that happens in that world that will show you a little bit of the mystery. Then, if you’re interested, they’ll make “Akira 2 & 3″ then you can get deeper into it. I love the world, a lot of people love that world, so why wouldn’t we indulge in it a little bit and see how it would be if it was real? Like you say I don’t have to explain everything, but wouldn’t you like to spend two-hours in a world of “Akira” and follow a character and be like, “that’s cool”? That’s all I want to offer, is two-hours in a world you can actually feel. We’re working on it.
Non-Stop opens in theaters on February 28. Look for our full interviews with Jaume Collet-Serra and producer Joel Silver soon!