Interviews

I Am Number Four: D.J. Caruso

Source: Edward Douglas
October 11, 2010

Q: How did you get involved with this? Obviously, you already had the association with DreamWorks, but did you get the manuscript back when they were first optioning the book?
D.J. Caruso: What happened was I remember reading that they had bought this manuscript for Michael Bay and just thought, "Oh, that sounds like a really good idea," and then when "Transformers 3" was definitely going to happen, Steven (Spielberg) called me and said, "Would you read this? We really want to make this movie and Michael can't, Michael doesn't have enough time," and I read the manuscript for the book and liked the concept, read the screenplay and thought it needs some work but dove into it and started working on it for about five or six months and got it into good shape and started making the movie. I love DreamWorks. For me, there's no other place where I'd rather work.

Q: Since Michael was originally going to direct it, can we expect it's going to have that level of action?
Caruso: Yeah, well there's a lot of talking in this movie, so I dunno, but we have a very specific kind of action and it's not mainly an action movie, but Michael's producing and he's actually been very helpful in planning some of the action scenes, so it's been good. It's worked out really well for me. It's interesting to have Steven and Michael as your producers, it's kind of diverse.

Q: Did the action stuff change when Michael decided he wasn't going to do it?
Caruso: I think the first screenplay I read was the first screenplay Michael read, so by the time it was even getting into screenplay form, he knew he wasn't going to direct it. He at least was going to produce it, so I don't think he ever really thought about directing it when it was going into screenplay form, because it wasn't a possibility for him.

Q: So this isn't like a huge action movie is what you're saying?
Caruso: No, no, there is a third act action sequence that's fairly big. There's little sequences in and out. As he gains more power, he's starting to learn how to master and how to use it and it all comes into fruition at the end of the movie. Act 3 is actually a big action piece.

Q: So this is mostly a set-up for these characters, do we get a lot of their history?
Caruso: You know what? This is interesting. In the book, you'll get a lot more of the history of Lorien and where he came from. In the screenplay, we deal with it on kind of a level where there's a lot of mystery, so I think God willing Movie 2 is going to be the second half of this book in a weird way, because there's a lot more of the history of where he came from and how he got there. I was more interested in him trying to figure out who he was. Who he wants to be and who he ultimately is two different people and I think that was sort of the dramatic conflict that I liked. This is a kid who really thinks he wants to stay in a small town and fall in love with this girl but at the same time, his destiny and what he's supposed to do are not going to allow him to do that.

Q: Will we find out more about the people who are after him?
Caruso: We find out a lot more about the people that are after him, The Mogadorians, which is a fun fun group and Kevin Durand is playing the commander, it's just fantastic. It's fun. It's a movie that has a lot of different genres sort of mixed in but at the end of the day, it's really about a kid who is trying to figure out who he is and who he thinks he wants to be isn't who he can become, and I really liked that.

At this point, the buzzsaw of the construction workers building the set got to be a bit too much and we moved our interviews into D.J.'s trailer.

Q: Would you say the tone of this is more adult science fiction or somewhere along the lines of "Twilight" i.e. for teens or somewhere in between?
Caruso: No, I think it plays younger. I don't think it's Łber-adult and I think we have a little bit more fun than "Twilight." Kevin Durand, our Mogadorian commander, is a really bizarre... imagine Christopher Walken as an alien. So he's a lot of fun. I think our tone is a little bit more... I think we have a little bit more fun in our action sequences, designed by Brad Allen. I don't know if you guys saw "Kick-Ass," but he designed a lot of the action in "Kick-Ass," which I just loved, so our action sequences have... I don't want to say a sense of humor but we really have fun with the powers these kids have in a different way.

Q: Like what kind of powers? Like what makes them different?
Caruso: What happens is that each one of these nine acquire different powers. #4, he discovers he has this "lumen" power, this sort of light and energy that comes out of his hands. He has no idea what he's supposed to do with it or how to use it. He also has a little bit of telekinetic things are happening. At the same time, he's got a little bit extra strength and speed. #6 comes in and she's sort of... in the book, she disappears. We kind of made it more of a teleportation and that's how she uses her fights and uses that to get away and do some things. She's also, I don't want to say... and she has incredible speed, so all of the nine have different elements and different things and if you put these nine together, even the three that have already been killed, you'd sort of...

Q: They'd form a giant robot?
Caruso: Yes, they become a perfect fighting machine, exactly.

Q: How did you come to choose Alex?
Caruso: You know what I liked about Alex was that there was this sort of good-looking dynamic quality that he had but at the same time, he was really vulnerable and that was really important to me because as a person, he appears to be outwardly really confident but there's definitely something in there that makes him... I don't want to say he lacks confidence but there's a vulnerability in there and I always think that if you can find that combination, that he also has a great physical prowess with the vulnerability, that was really important for me. So we read a lot of guys but he ended up being the guy that was the best.

Q: I don't think you've done an adaptation before and it's a little strange to do an adaptation before the book actually comes out and people have read it. Do you just make the movie with the assumption the book and the movie will be separate?
Caruso: Actually, it is weird. I just thought selfishly that you really have to be really as loyal as you can but you have to make a great movie. My job is to make a great movie, TRY to make a great movie, and what I was trying to do is to figure out the characters and adaptation and worked with a lot of different screenwriters, and we're fairly true to it. It's not like we dove off the deep end, but what's interesting too, when you know this is the first book, and the second book's already halfway done and they've outlined the third, some of the character decisions you're making in the first one might not blend with something that's going to happen later. But that's why I think... we kind of dealt a lot less with the history of where he came from and how he got here and dealt more with his life now on earth and I think if this is ever fortunate enough to continue on as a movie series, they're probably going to have to go back and be a little more history of who he is and how he got here.

Q: Is there anything you're doing for the movie that they've wanted to bring over to the books?
Caruso: No, it didn't seem that way but it was interesting in talking and trying to figure things out, and some of the ideas we had were interesting, because they started to plot the plots for the next book and we spawned some good ideas for them to follow. But there wasn't anything... you know, there's certain elements or certain physical elements. There's this great box that came from Lorien and it does certain things and it sort of opens up and gives you a history when Alex is trying to figure out who he is and where he came from, it does something like that. There's certain weaponry that kind of came from Lorien and the Mogadorians have these certain blasters and there's an ashing to when a Mogadorian or Lorien dies here on earth with bodies sort of eviscerate and there's some cool things, and that's all sort of in the book and keeping with all of that mythology, it's been kind of fun.

Q: Getting back to John and Henri's relationship, when we find them they're already on earth, so how long have they been on earth?
Caruso: They've been on earth, I think it's been almost 11 years.

Q: Timothy said there's a father/son relationship even though he's the guardian and he even went so far as to say that it's almost like a father/coach relationship which is a little more difficult. Do we see some of that?
Caruso: I think it's kind of interesting because ultimately John is looking for a father figure and Henri is not quite that guy. He's not mature enough, so Henri is trying to be the father but we kind of came up with the coach relationship, about trying to sort of be a teacher, to really be a teacher and to do it in a way that's sort of... you have to remember that there's ways they deal with each other and the way they deal down here on earth are not quite as normal, but it's basically keeping him focused and understanding... and part of Timothy's frustration as a character is that he's been told that you have to take this kid down, you have to guard this kid, and none of his Legacies have kicked in in these 11 years he's been down there, and finally, when the movie takes place, the first Legacy kicks in, so some of his frustrations are released.

Q: You said this wasn't a big movie and I remembered when you did "Eagle Eye," it was really big for you to do all these big action scenes so why do you feel like you want to step back and do something smaller?
Caruso: You know, it wasn't really a step back, it just was the way the movie kind of fell into place. It's a tough movie to make, but I wanted to make a cool science fiction movie with a character that I really liked and it was a movie about identity, so I never really thought about "bigger" (or) "smaller." "Eagle Eye" ended up being a big movie, it was just a big movie and I knew it was a big movie. This one, I say "smaller"... in the mid-50s of a budget is not a small movie, but nowadays, for a movie and the expectations of the movie, it's not a huge movie. But I never really look at size or scope, it's just if I'm moved by the story. For me, if I love the main character, then I'm going to be interested.

Q: I know Michael Bay has said he wants to make a smaller movie, but it's hard to see that happening, because you figure it would be hard to go back.
Caruso: Well, I think it would be hard. I think "Eagle Eye" was the first time I might have bordered on spectacle, like the action element, and I thought we were making this great sort of video game that once you hopped on, you couldn't get off, but I don't know, it would be interesting to see. I think there's a certain kind of film. I mean, Michael Bay does spectacle so well. I don't know if this is true or not but there was a rumor... remember years ago when Joel Schumacher made the movie "Phone Booth"? Wasn't Michael Bay going to do that and it turned into a $75 million movie or something like that? I don't know, but it's just in his DNA to make big spectacle movies. I'm hoping I can jump around.

Q: You've mentioned that there were some challenges with finding the right tone between the character stuff and the action. Can you talk about that?
Caruso: Well, the challenges when you have some very strong, heavily dramatic scenes between Timothy and Alex and then at the same time, even tonight if you're sticking around, you'll see we have a scene where Teresa Palmer comes in and looks incredibly sexy and she's an amazing fighter and she's teleporting and transporting and doing all these things and basically killing the aliens, these Mogadorians, and so as a filmmaker, when you take a giant step back and you see that scene tonight that we're shooting and some of the dramatic scenes that we've shot, you always fear for tone, and that was one of the fears I had in "Disturbia" when we had our first test screening and I'll never forget sitting there, and I never thought the movie was funny, it's weird. Because you're making kind of a thriller and you have this character, and we were watching the first thirty minutes with a test audience and they were laughing and they were going crazy, and I was having a heart attack thinking, "There's no way I'll be able to scare them, there's no way. These people are having fun, they think they're watching a comedy." But what I realized is that it made it more endearing, it made you care for him even more because you got to laugh with him and feel for him, and ultimately, at the end of the movie, that you really got more involved, so I'm hoping that's the case here, if that makes any sense, because you blend these different elements of the movie that it all kind of comes in but John is your anchor and Number 4 takes you through all this, and if you hang onto his belt, you'll experience all these different things and that's kind of what I was alluding to yesterday. Every once in a while when you step back and you look at the sequences and the visual, you get a little nervous.

Q: But audience members enjoy unexpected twists and directions that a movie goes...
Caruso: I think so, I think so, but we've all seen movies too where we go... the first half and the second half don't blend or the tone is a little weird or you realize like "Wait a minute, somehow the third act sequence is not blending in with everything else. It's really well done but it seems like you're on two different tones." That's my job to sort of police that it doesn't happen, but it's always the fear, particularly when you have all these different sort of dynamics working.

Q: It seems your previous two films "Disturbia" and "Eagle Eye" had Hitchcockian references to "Rear Window" and "North by Northwest." What are you looking to for inspiration for this?
Caruso: Well, you know it's interesting. Obviously, it was easy to watch "Rebel Without a Cause" because when I read it, it had sort of that feel, and you know what movie I really watched that sort of was bizarrely inspiring was "Starman." I really really watched "Starman" and I was just watching the whole Jeff Bridges of it all and I even put Karen Allen in this movie after I watched "Starman," she came in and did a cameo, but it was just one of those elements about what is it like to be on this planet? What is it like to fall in love with all the things we take for granted? I kind of dealt with that and also even kind of watched "The Grifters" in a weird way, because Henri and John are two characters that are kind of disenfranchised. As soon as something goes wrong, they just pick up and leave and that's part of what John is. What I thought was really interesting was that you meet him at the beginning of the movie in Florida and he's having a great time with his buddies and he's at this party and everything's going well and he's talking to this girl and then BAM, something goes wrong and they could potentially find out where he is and he and Henri basically take all their stuff, throw it in the fire and move on, change their hair and dye their hair. So there's this really interesting romantic element of this disenfranchised character. But as far as inspirations in a Hitchockian way, I don't think there's a Hitchcockian one here but those are the two or three movies I sort of tapped into.

Q: Tim Olyphant plays the guardian/mentor of Alex's character, so do we see any of the other guardians in the movie?
Caruso: They all have guardians, they're called CÍpans. In this film, you do not. In the next series of books, you will, but basically Timothy Olyphant plays Henri and he's John's guardian and the only other number you meet here is Number 6, who actually comes out and finds Number 4, because her guardian has been killed. What's interesting is Number 6 is about six months ahead of Number 4 as far as once her CÍpan got killed, she's now hunting down the Mogadorians. Instead of them hunting her, she's trying to find them. And so she's aggressively trying to find Number 4 and so her maturity and her mastering of her powers is advanced because she lost her CÍpan earlier than John. To answer your question, you don't see Number 6's CÍpan but you know that her CÍpan has been killed.

Q: So all nine are alive in this movie?
Caruso: No, no. The movie opens when Number 3 gets it. And then you know hence that Number 4 is next, because they have to be killed in order.

Q: In the book, it says that there's someone trying to get them all together. If three of them are dead, what's the point of getting them all together?
Caruso: Well, because what you see when you get Number 4 and Number 6 together and you can see the devastation, the havoc they can reap, you understand that if you can get the other six together, they're all linked. They're all different but using them together, they can be powerful.

Q: What happens if they're killed out of order? Is that even possible?
Caruso: They can't be killed out of order. They can be killed out of order if like 4 and 6 actually ultimately work together or if they're in the same place, then they can be killed, but they can't be killed out of order. Book 2 deals with finding Number 5 and in this screenplay, we don't even deal with Number 5. These nine children are all members of the Lorien Guard, and the Lorien Guard were sent down here and sort of the way that the powers were separated, the Mogadorians know, Kevin Durand knows, as the Mogadorian commander that he has to kill these children in order to remove all their powers or for the future of these powers to even exist. It's sort of like--I don't want to say "The Last Airbender"--but once they're all gone, they're all gone, and ultimately, we learn that Number 3 at the beginning of this movie has been killed, Number 4 is next. When he kills Number 3, he whispers... and they're sort of connected in this ethereal kind of way, he whispers into Number 3's ear and we don't know what he's saying until it hits Number 4, John, when he's in Florida and then that incident happens and he sees that vision and he knows that he's next.

Q: Kevin Durand's race, are they like a warring planet?
Caruso: Yeah, basically the Mogadorians are sort of like Genghis Khan, where they started to take these planets and tap all their resources and just sort of take them over and they're sort of that way, and they've taken over Lorien and basically, what we now realize is Lorien and Earth are so similar that the Mogadorians have their eyes set on Earth, so as he's down here searching this, he's reporting back and now they know that Earth is going to be the next planet, so it's not just what's happening on Lorien, it's also eventually what's going to happen down here on Earth. In a way, there's a Superman element to it where they basically had to get them out while Lorien was being destroyed just to live and what will happen is once they mature and their legacies kick in, when they get older, we need to get them back together. Hence, Sam's father... John meets Sam and the reason Henri comes to Paradise, Ohio is the man was supposed to get these nine together was centered in the center of America.

Q: So the scope of this could get even bigger?
Caruso: It's much bigger. The third book definitely leaves earth and towards the end of the second book, as far as the outline I saw, it starts to. Ultimately, there's a ship in West Virginia where they all have to kind of get together.

Q: You talked earlier about tone, and it sounds to me like it would be a very dark tone and serious when you're dealing with survival and trying not to get killed.
Caruso: Yeah, I mean I say this stuff but you also have to understand that there's this guy who walks down the street and he's got these weird feelings and he just gets excited and as he clinches his fists, telephone lights just start to explode and he realizes, "What the f*ck is going on? Did I do that?" And then he figures it out so there's an element of discovery and there's an element of fun, there's an element of falling in love, which is incredibly fun. Our love story--this is not a criticism--but it's not angsty or about "Oh My God." He falls in love with this girl and she loves him and there's nothing that's coming really between them, but it's a lot more... I don't want it to sound like it's incredibly dark. There's some dark elements but there's a lot of fun.

Q: You talked about all the stuff with Loriens and Mogadorians and the numbers, but does Alex's character know all this stuff or is this stuff he's learning as the movie goes on?
Caruso: One of the differences is that in the book, he knows everything. In the movie, he figures it out about three-quarters of the way through.

Q: So the people going into this movie probably won't need to know any of this because I was thinking, "Boy, that's a lot of stuff to know before watching a movie."
Caruso: No, you'll discover all that stuff with him, which I think is more interesting as opposed to knowing in the very first voice-over who he is, where he is and what's happening. I think again in the screenplay, there's a little bit more of the discovery of the powers that haven't kicked in and in the book, the powers are almost there from the get-go.

Q: What is the guardians' role in this?
Caruso: The guardian's role, they basically do not have any of these powers or elements. They would be part of this... if they were on Earth, they would be this Navy Seal fighting force, they'd be special forces. They'd be Lorien Special Forces that were assigned and sort of ripped from their families and said, "Your job is to go down to Earth and to guard this person."

Q: But not tell them about their powers...
Caruso: No, they basically say, "When it's time and their powers start to come in, it's your job to tell them and sort of nurture them." The CÍpans are not like these people who can do anything but they basically can just say, "Here's what's going to happen." And the great thing is that they don't know what powers these kids are going to get, so there's a mystery to... that's what I'm saying. Part of Timothy's character's frustration is moving this kid around the country, around North America, and just trying to figure out, "When is this sh*t going to happen? Nothing's happened."

Q: You're saying the guardians don't have powers?
Caruso: They don't have powers. They're just great fighters.

Q: What about the quick turnaround for this movie because having the movie coming out in February?
Caruso: No, it's really tough and it's weird. I think last President's Day was so huge. It was an insane day so everyone sort of set their goal and for me, I was like, "Yeah, I can make it" because if it's a good date for the movie then it's a good date. It will be tough, but I think what's interesting is coming from the Steven school now, you work really hard on all your action and visual effects sequences and you have to lock them. You have to lock them and turn them over, as hard as that is.

Q: Is there a lot more CG than you normally have done?
Caruso: There's more CG than I've ever done. In "Eagle Eye," we actually had a Reaper airplane but we couldn't put a Reaper in the tunnel so there was a CG plane a little bit and then the rest of "Eagle Eye" is just cable removal. This has two fully-formed 3D characters that are beasts that the Mogadorians have taken down with them and there's this huge fight with two 3D characters, that's a first for me.

Q: What's it like working with Guillermo Navarro as your DP, as he's done some amazing movies with Guillermo del Toro.
Caruso: I know. I gotta tell you I was so fortunate because I was looking for a DP cause Dariusz Woslsk was out doing "Pirates" already and I loved working with him and Amir Mokri was out doing "Transformers 3" and I worked with him so I was looking and then as "The Hobbit" just kept pushing, I made a call because I love Guillermo's work and I thought "Pan's Labyrinth," you can't make a movie better than that in my opinion and it was so beautiful and then this was months and months ago, and they pushed "The Hobbit" one more time and then the window opened up and I called him and he said, "Yeah, I'd love to go to work, I'm sick of sitting here not doing anything!" But I should say he does commercials all the time so it just worked out where the timing was so great and at the time, we were going to finish, he was going to get a month off and he'd be going to New Zealand for three years, but then obviously that didn't work out but for me, it worked out great. He's genius, he's passionate, he's a partner. Every day when you go to work, he's so inspiring because he loves what he's doing and we both have a love of film, not the digital world, we just love film and it's just great to share with him.

Q: I was curious about the 3D or lack of 3D on this film and what was the motivation for which way to go with this?
Caruso: I think at the end of the day, we're not that big of a movie, if that makes any sense. We're in the middle. So we really never got into 3D discussions. I think this just felt like an old-fashioned... For me, trying to ground this movie in the most realistic way and make all of his emotions real and human and the 3D element and the scope of the movie, to be quite honest with you, the discussions never even came up.

Q: You've done so much to develop the story and to adapt it, so do you feel proprietary if it does well?
Caruso: (laughs) No, I mean like I say my job is to make the best movie I can and I don't want to say there's not been heavy conflicts, but some of the ideas I've had don't go along with what's going on, but I have to make the best movie and the only thing I haven't dealt with was--and who knows how popular the book will or will not be?--is if it becomes really popular, there will be people who go, "They changed that, they changed that, they changed that" or "They didn't follow that." I think it being the situation, like I said I can't worry about it, I have to just try to make the best movie from a character standpoint and what works in this one screenplay. I think what's interesting and what we ended up doing was just stripping out a lot of the history and past that's in this book and keep it more in what I call the "Chinatown mystery." You'll figure that out later or maybe you don't even need to figure it out 'cause you just know the immediate problem. The immediate problem in this screenplay is "Number 3 is dead, I'm next, I don't have my powers yet and I like it down here on Earth. I don't know what this greater thing is" so ultimately it's about surviving and once you survive this movie and get through it and understand that we're enemies and you figure out who you are, you're sort of like Luke Skywalker. He knows what his calling is now. By the end of this movie, as he rides away, hopefully he knows who he is and what is calling is and it has nothing to do with the life he thought he was going to live.

Q: Would you want to do a sequel?
Caruso: Maybe ask me on the last day of shooting. (laughs)

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