From his early days as a television director, culminating with a stint on the debut season of the groundbreaking FX police drama “The Shield,” to his drug-addled debut The Salton Sea, director D.J. Caruso has never done what’s expected of him. Although his two studio films, the thriller Taking Lives and the sports betting movie Two for the Money, were met with very little support despite their name star casts, his latest movie Disturbia, for better or worse, is his own baby.
At first glance Disturbia is Rear Window meets The Girl Next Door (really, you can pick any of the dozen movies with that title), but it’s the way the two very different genres are meshed together that makes it such a unique and fulfilling experience. Shia LaBeouf plays Kale, an angry teen put under house arrest for the summer for hitting his teacher, who uses the time to spy on the community, including neighboring hottie Ashley, played by newcomer Sarah Roehmer, and his creepy neighbor Robert Turner (David Morse) who Kale suspects is responsible for the disappearance of a number of area women.
ComingSoon.net spoke to Caruso about how his latest project came together in this exclusive interview.
ComingSoon.net: How did you find this script or how did it find you?
D.J. Caruso: I had read the script, DreamWorks had sent it to me and said, “Look we want to make the movie, we want it to come out in the Fall. Would you consider directing it?” I read it and I liked it but I felt like as a filmmaker, I wouldn’t be breaking new ground. Then basically, a couple days later, Spielberg called and said, “Look, I love this movie. I’ve been a big proponent of this and pushing it inside DreamWorks and I’d love for you to do this. What would it take for you to do this? Come in next week and tell me what you want to do.” Then that’s when I decided that the whole voyeuristic sort of “Rear Window” element was nice, but at the same time, I was more interested in a character piece about a guy who falls in love with the girl next door. I wanted to bring this Cameron Crowe “Say Anything” vibe to the movie, so that we could combine these two genres and make it work. Once I came in and pitched that, Steven and the guys just loved it, and they said, “Great, let’s make that version of the movie.” Then I felt like it was a more personal film for me, rather then just another thriller.
CS: How long ago did Mr. Spielberg contact you to do this?
Caruso: It was just at the beginning of 2006. I was just finishing the season premiere of “The Shield.” I was directing the premiere episode where we were introducing Forest Whitaker’s character, and the phone rang, and I have one buddy named Jack who f*cks with me all the time, like “Hey, it’s Jon Bon Jovi on Line 1!” When they said, “It’s Steven Spielberg calling for D.J. Caruso” I was like “Yeah, right, give me a break.” And it ended up being “The Great One” so I was lucky.
CS: I understand you’re originally from Connecticut, so did you have any suburban experiences you were able to bring to this?
Caruso: Yeah, I’m from Norwalk, Connecticut and I do have some experience in the suburbs, particularly with falling in love with the girl next door, a girl from London named Mandy West who moved in and had this beautiful red hair. I was always looking through the trees, and even a week before she moved in, I was so pumped that we were going to have a 16-year-old girl moving next door. Unfortunately, I was a little shy. I think I talked to her at the bus stop, that’s about as far as we ever got. I definitely had a voyeuristic relationship with her.
CS: You mentioned the “Rear Window” thing so besides adding the character stuff, how did you work on getting away from that?
Caruso: You don’t get away from the main idea of a guy whose in house arrest looking out on his neighbors, but outside of that, I was telling everybody, the movie we watched the most for Shia was really “The Conversation” with Hackman. I kept saying to him, “Look at the way that he’s reacting, because everything he’s hearing he’s putting together in his head and it’s all about his imagination. And look how beautifully understated his performance is.” It was really more of an inspiration in a way than “Rear Window.” The “Rear Window” idea is a jumping off point of a guy who’s stuck and has to watch. Obviously, we have all the technology that we use with the celphones and the camera you can now buy at “Best Buy” that when you go to digital zoom, has a 750 mm lens in there. It was fun to use that technology to expand on the idea and also to introduce the concept of the voyeuristic to a younger audience who’s not that familiar with a movie like “Rear Window.”
CS: I was curious about that idea of tapping into a teen market and wondered how you go about doing this. Did you talk to Shia and the young actors to get their opinion on stuff?
Caruso: Yeah, Shia was a great help in teen speak, and he helped sort of cultivate or shape the dialogue to fit what would be real for him. The gift of having to direct someone like Shia is that everything he does has to be real, so if a dialogue thing sounds bullsh*tty, he’ll be the first person to say, “God, that’s bullsh*t, that doesn’t work.” He polices himself and also I gave him the freedom to make it work in teen speak. Also for me, I’ve never made a movie for this audience, so it was a lot of fun, and it made me realize that the movies growing up that I loved like “Say Anything” and “Ferris Bueller” and “The Breakfast Club,” even a movie like “Lucas,” which is one of my favorite little movies, I haven’t actually made a movie for an audience like that like the ones that I used to enjoy when I was their age. So how can I do that and still fit it into the thriller genre and deal with that. Shia and Sarah were a great help, because you’re dealing with two 20-year-old kids and Aaron Yo has a great sense of what’s cool and what’s not cool. I kind of trust their instincts on things that don’t work.
CS: Sarah Roehmer’s quite a find. Was she just found through casting and the audition process?
Caruso: Yeah, she was casting and audition process. I read a bunch of girls and literally got it down to the final three. I fell in love with Sarah and everything about her. She was the girl next door that I would have fallen in love with, so when I actually read her with Shia, the chemistry was just so good. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him be really nervous, which I thought was great. She basically sensed how nervous he was and she used it as a key to her empowerment. It empowered her in a way, and I loved the way they worked together, so when they read together, it was quite obvious to me that she was the one. It’s interesting, because you’ve got David Morse, you have Shia, you have Carrie-Anne [Moss] and Aaron’s more theatre-experienced, but very experienced actors. So Sarah’s coming into a pretty tough situation with trained professionals doing their tenth movie and here she is doing her first movie.
CS: Did she have anything to say to you about all the T ‘n’ A shots you have of her in the movie? I felt kind of dirty watching them.
Caruso: (laughs) It’s supposed to be a guilty pleasure. The good news about Sarah was she’s a model first and foremost, so that was all very natural to her. To her, it was just kind of like a photo shoot for a perverted guy with a 300 millimeter lens and then a house next door basically, so she was fine with that.
CS: Can you talk about casting David Morse as the presumed serial killer next door?
Caruso: I met David Morse on “The Green Mile” set, but I’d always been a big fan of his since “St. Elsewhere,” one of the early TV shows he was on that I fell in love with. So always been a big fan and always wanted to work with him. He’s just always so good and I think the great thing about David, what makes him work so well, is he could be the next door neighbor who really cares about you or he could be the neighbor next door who wants to beat the sh*t out of you.
CS: He’s played a lot of bad guys, but there’s something about his intensity in this that’s really scary. Did you have to push him a bit to get that out of him?
Caruso: No, what David does is that he’s the kind of actor that once we have our initial conversation and decide on things, he locks in and when he’s locked in, he’s just got it. Directing David is more about, “You got what you need, DJ?” “Yeah, yeah .” “Do you mind if I try this?” He’s more about that. He wouldn’t want to give you the same thing twice if you already have it once, and as a director, you really appreciate having those choices.
CS: The scene between him and Sarah in the car is one of the creepiest and most tense scenes. Did you end up doing a lot of takes of that and just letting him go?
Caruso: No, what happened was after one take, and that was David’s first day. After one take, I was like, “Wow, this guy is so gifted” and then we just played with ratcheting up certain points in the scene about “how shy? Are you really shy or are you playing shy?” And then director-actor conversations and having him play with it. When you’re sitting back there and you’re doing Take 1 and the camera settles in and he starts doing his thing, you just go, “Boy, this was such a great choice. He’s going to make my job so f*cking easy.”
CS: How was it going from movies where you had Al Pacino and Angelina Jolie to something like this? Was the set a big calmer by working with the cast you had?
Caruso: Those guys are great, but for me what was interesting on this film is that it’s probably the first time that this was really my movie. I was the leader and the heartbeart of the movie, as opposed to maybe the lead actor. Really, Shia was coming up and stepping up into a big genre movie and doing his thing. I just felt like it was the one time where I was in total control, not from an egotistical standpoint, but I didn’t have to worry about someone coming out of their trailer. I didn’t have to worry about someone doing an interview for “The Today Show” on their next movie so could you change the schedule? It was really a primary focus, and it was really a director’s piece, which I liked about this movie. Directing Al Pacino is an honor, and Angie’s the most directable actress I’ve ever worked with, so that was all good and a challenge, but there wasn’t the movie star element in the movie that sometimes defocuses you. The emphasis was really about how to make the movie every day.
CS: I think you could tell that the vibe on the set really carried over to the movie.
Caruso: It’s good that you picked it up because it was one of those sets where it’s almost like the last day of a really good college semester. I got really depressed when wrapped, which is always a good sign that you really enjoyed being there and working on the stuff you wanted to do.
CS: Where did you end up shooting the movie?
Caruso: The exterior front yard and side yard where Kale’s house and Ashley’s house were in Wittier, California, which is off the 605 freeway and then basically, the back yard, with Kale looking at Turner’s house was in Pasadena. Anything shot on the bottom floor except for the kitchen were shot in Wittier, and then everything else like Kale’s bedroom was shot on Stage 18 at Paramount.
CS: I’m always impressed when I hear things like that, because when you have action scenes like the one at the end where they’re running all around, you don’t even realize that it’s all being done with editing.
Caruso: Yeah, and I’m quite proud of that, too, because there’s just a lot of scenes like for example, Kale might be looking at Ashley, eating popcorn, while she’s doing yoga, and you’re basically on three different sets in three different cities by the time the scene’s over. I think it worked really seamlessly, and as she comes over and they’re watching Turner, the camera’s out in Pasadena, kind of passes through the window, lands on them in this little set piece in Pasadena and then we’re on Stage 18. It also makes you appreciate Shia as an actor when you realize that a lot of what he’s reacting to is either me or he’s looking at green tape imagining the scenario in his head, because you can’t show him that stuff live. A lot of what works is a tribute to his gift to have a great imagination.
CS: As far as directing a movie where you have Spielberg as the studio and Ivan Reitman producing, how much space do they give you to make the movie?
Caruso: The good news is because they’re both directors, obviously they understand the directorial process, and they both gave me a lot of freedom and they were always there to help with an opinion or certain aspect of things. Obviously, in the casting of Shia, I got them both on board because Shia’s so damn good. Now everyone loves him, but at the time, you’re kind of going against type. Everyone wants the good-looking quarterback to be the lead in your movie and Shia to me had this great John Cusack-Tom Hanks-Sean Penn quality, that he’s not the greatest looking guy but he becomes a great looking guy the more time you spend with him. He could be the guy you drink beers with, and at the same time, he’s got a little bit of a dangerous side to him. I just loved it, and they were very instrumental in helping me to convince everybody that a guy like Shia would be right. Ivan’s so good with frickin’ comedy and Steven’s so good with infusing you with enthusiasm that they were always there when I needed them, but they gave you the freedom as a director to do your thing. Just like “Salton Sea” being done by Rob Reiner’s company Castle Rock. I likened this experience to that because when you have a director or filmmaker running a company, there’s a whole different vibe than that studio vibe. If I was at Warner Bros., and you changed “hello” to “hi”, there’d be four memos that went around trying to get approval for the director to change “hello” to “hi.” I mean, give me a break!
CS: Was the movie always going to be a PG-13?
Caruso: Yeah, I promised them I’d give them a PG-13 movie, and they were always a little worried that I wouldn’t because of my history. It was hard, but we got rated-R a few times and had to go in and make a few changes. I’m not sure why they made it an R from a PG-13, but we kind of went in and did our appeal and won it and ended up getting a PG-13. I think we got around it, because we didn’t hang on things long. I had to trim some frames and stuff. I think it’s a movie that tries not to be exploitive in that way. It just tries to be a little real and scary. The thing I ran into was the ratings board are a lot more lenient on movies that are supernatural-based. Like in “The Grudge,” they can rip someone’s jaw off and throw it on the floor and you’d be okay, but in our movie, because it was based a little bit more in reality and this situation really happened, they were a little tougher on policing it.
CS: Incidentally, I caught you using one of the same corpse pictures from “Taking Lives.” That was pretty funny.
Caruso: Very good catch, I appreciate that.
CS: I think I’m the only person who will openly admit liking that movie.
Caruso: Oh, thank you. I dunno. People were kinda cruel to that movie, but you get thick skin and you kind of get over it. Actually, you know that’s the movie Spielberg loved that made him come to me.
CS: You returned to “The Shield” last season, so are you going to be doing any more episodes?
Caruso: I’m basically going to start doing, not the new season, I’m going to start directing the season that’s going to be their final season, so it’s one that will probably start airing next January. They still have seven more of this new season they’re going to be airing, and Forest [Whitaker] is basically going to be in the next two and then something explosive’s going to happen, but those are in the can already. They asked me to come back to shoot the premiere of their next season, which is going to be their final season.
CS: It’s great to see you back, since that was one of the first places I saw your work.
Caruso: Oh, thank you. You know, I enjoy that. It’s really a fun exercise, and as you know, that show has such a great shooting style. It’s a lot of fun to direct.
CS: So are you able to bring some of that stuff onto the movie set to get things done faster?
Caruso: You definitely have to be on your toes, and your storytelling instincts really have to kick in on “The Shield” because what you decide and what you do is what you get. You learn a lot, and you’re really shooting from the hip. It does help, particularly if you get in trouble on the film sets in what’s the minimum stuff that you need. It’s interesting because Frank Darabont is taking that crewI introduced them to the guys on “The Shield”with that shooting style and he’s doing “The Mist” now, so it will be really interesting to see how much freedom they have in “The Shield” form, or if Frank polices that a little bit in the cinematic form so it kind of has that style but not too much. I’m really curious to see that. It’s pretty exciting to see how that’s going to translate on the big screen.
CS: And do you have any other movies in the planning stages?
Caruso: I’ve got a deal over at DreamWorks and we’re kind of looking. I think hopefully by the time I finish that “Shield” episode, I’ll be working on preparing a new movie.