With less than a month to go before Surrogates hits theaters nationwide, director Jonathan Mostow has been working long and hard to get the final cut of the film just right and recently invited ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! to take a peek behind the editing process as he fine-tunes his look at the not-too-distant future.
You might not suspect, looking at Mostow, whose soft charisma evokes an everyday father type, that he’s the man responsible for some major Hollywood blockbusters like U-571 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Clearly a devotee of the source material, a 2006 comic book series by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, Mostow’s biggest concern right now seems to be just how much he can pack into his sci-fi universe.
In the world of Surrogates, people have the ability to live most of their lives through idealized robot versions of themselves. From the safety of their own homes, people can actually experience everything through their Surrogate bodies and never risk injury or death. When someone turns up dead, murdered with unheard of technology through their Surrogate, a police investigation is launched under Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner, Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell).
With the original graphic novel similar in layout to “Watchmen,” “Surrogates” features back pages devoted to fictionalized documents from the series’ universe. Some issues have fake news articles and others fake advertisements (something that the film has taken to heart in its own real-world advertising).
Mostow is quick to point out that his vision for the film is to treat the future more like present with the Surrogates being the only new technology. The opening credits, screened by Mostow in the edit bay, show off the evolution of Surrogate technology, mixing actual news footage with fictionalized accounts in a montage history of robotic evolution.
One major action scene has Bruce Willis (in his Surrogate body) chasing a suspect in a special reservation for non-Surrogates. Because of the desire of some people to live life without Surrogate technology, special areas have been created where Surrogates are forbidden. Willis takes a serious beating, even losing limbs in the chase, but very nearly catches his man, only to be brought down by a shotgun blast from one of the reservationists. Opening his eyes unharmed in his real body, Willis is now forced to leave the house for the first time in years, a human in a world of robotic duplicates.
Another scene involved Greer coming home (in his human body), to find his wife (Rosamund Pike) hosting a party in his absence (as her own Surrogate). Here, the unnaturally beautiful guests are seen giving their Surrogates electric shocks, akin to some form of Surrogate drug use. Greer is furious and tries to get his wife to leave her Surrogate behind and talk to him as a person. She refuses, and he winds up hitting one of her guests, literally smashing his face apart and revealing the robotic parts underneath.
After the footage, Mostow chatted about the film and what sorts of ideas he wants to bring about with Surrogates:
Q: Was there ever a thought to having another actor play Bruce Willis’ Surrogate?
Jonathan Mostow: The question was, how do you represent both him and his Surrogate doppelganger? I decided on having the same actor because it’s a very different thing to think about something or to imagine it in your mind and see it on the screen. There’s an emotional transference that you have in literature that you can’t have in movies. People invest in the person they see on the screen and they can’t shift gears. There was, in fact, a scene in the movie that wound up not in the movie anymore where he needs to get to this location so he goes to a rental store that’s like a Hertz agency. We never wound up shooting it, but he goes to this Hertz agency to rent a generic model. He walks in and gets in this chair and, 2,000 miles away, you see this guy — this sort of featureless guy — arrive at this location. Ultimately, though, we just felt that you weren’t connecting with it at all. Intellectually, you’re like, “yeah, that’s supposed to be Bruce,” but emotionally you don’t get it. In the sequence [in the film] you see the younger Bruce running around and you see the bald Bruce in the chair. That connection works. It’s just the interesting thing about filmmaking. The thing about the human face is that we’re so genetically programmed to recognize differences in human faces that, when you’re digitally affecting faces, you have to be the most careful because even the smallest adjustment and it feels like it just isn’t him anymore. It felt fake or something so we just kept seeking that kind of balance.
Q: Can Surrogates feel pain?
Mostow: No. I mean you can. You can program it so that it will filter out whatever you want. But most people don’t want to feel pain. You don’t have to smell bad smells. Again, we don’t go as deeply into all that stuff in the movie as I wish we had been able to. You can only put so much fertilizer in a five-pound bag.
Q: So people can have more than one Surrogate?
Mostow: That’s in a interesting question. No, not really. Every Surrogate is assigned its own unique code. Everybody in the movie basically has one Surrogate, but there’s one exception that I won’t get into because I don’t want to spoil the plot.
Q: But you can rent temporary ones?
Mostow: Yes, you can rent a temporary one. In fact, there’s a scene in the movie where he gets out of the hospital and his partner takes him to this discounted electronics store that’s like Crazy Eddie’s. They’ve got the TV, the stereos and everything else. They’ve got these cheesy Surrogate models as well. She’s telling him he should get one because just going up the street he’s having a panic attack. He’s not used to being out in the real world as himself. She takes him to this store and he tries out this very classically good-looking guy which is what they have in this place. He just can’t take it and he gets up and takes off the headset and walks out. That’s sort of his turning point in the movie. He realizes that he just can’t do this. He’s starting to push back against Surrogacy. But yes, we do include that.
Q: Is there ever any worry that the Surrogates could have their own minds and take over?
Mostow: No. In fact, that’s what so cool about this movie. It’s such a simple idea. There are many robot movies and I understand that someone may look at this and think, “Oh, this looks like ‘I, Robot.’” “I, Robot” is a movie that — and I made a robot movie, so I speak from experience — that’s about the subject. There’s been a zillion robot movies, but they’re all sentient. They’re autonomous. They’re individually thinking. They’re artificial intelligence. These are puppets. They don’t have any independence. They don’t do anything you don’t tell them to do. If you want your Surrogate to [move a hand] you have to yourself, in your mind [move your hand]. It won’t do anything by itself. It’s just a very, very simple idea. These literally are — I guess you can call them avatars, but they’re not quite. They really are just puppets. It’s that simple. There’s not anything else dangerous about a Surrogate.
Q: You can save it for the sequel.
Mostow: (laughs) Right. There’s enough ideas in here for a few sequels, but maybe by sequel number four or five when we’re really strapped for ideas we’ll start having the Surrogates fight back. “Surrogates 5: Rise of the Surrogates.”
Q: Can you explain more about how the reservation works?
Mostow: Well, they go into it greater in the graphic novel than we have time to show. The backstory in the graphic novel is that there was an uprising a few years ago and, to make peace with everything, they made these reservations where people live without Surrogates they autonomously control and no Surrogates are allowed. It sort of keeps out law enforcement and everything else because law enforcement and military is all Surrogates. In fact, later in the movie there is a military invasion of a reservation where the real soldiers have to go in without their Surrogates because they have to recover this device. Their spiritual leader is played by Ving Rhames in a character called “The Prophet.” Basically, they’re just living life. They’re farming for their own food. It’s the American stock crowd. The Whole Foods/Trader Joes crowd. It’s sort of that vibe. You might get the impression that they’re sort of like hillbillies. They’re not. He goes back to the reservation later and finds that they’re real people just living life.
Q: Why did you choose to shoot in Boston?
Mostow: Two reasons: One, fantastic tax credit. Two, fantastic city. I mean, I love Boston. I spent part of my childhood there. A lot of my family’s there. I don’t know if you know Boston well, but it’s probably my favorite city in the U.S. My family just had a great time. We spent most of the summer there. About a third of the movie is shot in downtown Boston proper. About a third is kind of in the surrounding suburbs and about a third is shot in what was essentially our own movie studio in a defunct manufacturing company. We built all our stages there. It was really fun. It was a movie studio we created for the single purpose of making one movie. It was great because it was just all in one shop. Once you enter the door, it was all “Surrogates” all the time. So that was great… The tax credit is so good that there were eight movies shooting there. The weird thing is that several of them are all coming out soon… We’d be shooting or scouting a location and we’d run into other productions. A movie scout is a very specific looking thing. There’s always one guy who’s the director and he’s dressed a certain way and everyone else is following and writing down what he says. It looked like our own Surrogates coming towards us, but it was actually the Ricky Gervais people. One day I drove into the base camp and it was the wrong base camp. You ever see downtown L.A. during pilot season? They’re shooting like 80 pilots and there’s always multiple pilots shooting within a few-block radius. I did a pilot and did the same thing, went to the wrong base camp. Boston doesn’t quite have the infrastructure yet. When we shot the movie, they basically only had enough people for one crew. There’s eight movies so we had to basically fly in 32 carpenters from L.A. and give them all hotels and rental cars, per diems and everything else to build our sets. There were just no more carpenters. They’d all been taken by, I think, “Shutter Island.” They’re still learning. We had a sequence where we had to shut down eight city blocks of downtown Boston. Boston is a huge tourist destination and that’s a huge, huge thing. That’s a major, major shutdown. We did it on a weekend, but it’s still a big thing. At least the tourists are excited to see a Hollywood movie. Typically, it takes about thirty cops to do that. We wound up with three and they were like, “This is what you get.” Stuff like that.
Q: That’s why you need Surrogates.
Mostow: (Laughs) Oh, we used up all the jokes about Surrogates. They last about three or four days. We used them all up within the first week. But soon you guys will definitely be able to invent your own Surrogate jokes.
Q: In the trailer, there’s the “inhuman” Surrogates, with distorted faces and body parts. What’s the story with those?
Mostow: The one with the eyes on the side of the head is actually no longer in the movie. That’s from a scene that has dropped out of the movie since the trailer was created. There’s a spikey-headed girl. There’s so much that you just only hint at these things, but there’s a brief scene in the movie where Bruce is going home on the subway. The subway is basically just populated by people who are shut off because if you have to take your Surrogate from work back to your house, you can take subway, walk onto the subway, sit down and get out of your chair, go eat a bagel and just come back before your stop is ready and your Surrogate can reactivate. He’s sitting in the subway with all these catatonic shutdown looking Surrogates. We see a bunch of Surrogates and, among them, is this girl who decided to customize her look as bald with spikes embedded in her head and her boyfriend is some freaky-looking kind of guy. Those are just little indicators of sort of the world. The idea with the eye guy is that, if you were a bartender, wouldn’t it be great to have eyes on either side of your head so you can see what all the customers want?
Q: Looking ahead, are you already planning for these missing scenes to go back on the DVD?
Mostow: I really don’t think that far ahead going forward. It’s really enough to just think about the movie right now. At this point, we’re working such insane hours. We’re in the middle of sound postproduction now. The only thing right now to mind for the DVD is that I’m such a packrat so I keep everything from preproduction: designs, illustrations, concept drawings. I make sure to keep everything so that, in the end, it may be interesting to put up on the DVD. I actually talked with a DVD producer last week and, even though there’s all that stuff, the number one thing that consumers look for is the bloopers. That’s the one thing I hate putting on. We have these high aspirations, thinking these people are film cineastes but really they just want to see Bruce Willis when he falls on his ass.