On a faux representation of Central Park – complete with artificial grass and uneven turf – in a Vancouver soundstage, ComingSoon.net sat down for a panel discussion during principal photography with The Day the Earth Stood Still‘s director Scott Derrickson, producer Erwin Stoff and stars Keanu Reeves (playing the otherworldly “Klaatu”), Jennifer Connelly (as “Helen”) and Jon Hamm (as “Dr. Granier”). Against a photo realistic backdrop featuring the New York City skyline and idle police cars, lights blazing – which gave us all the palpable feeling that we were in hot water – Derrickson and company offered us a vivid idea of their reverence for Robert Wise’s 1951 original film and their intentions for modernizing it. (Read our set report here!)
ComingSoon.net: It’s been over five decades since the original film was released. What brought you around to wanting to modernize it?
Scott Derrickson: I’m a big fan of the original. I had a chance to meet Robert Wise, before he passed away, at a festival when I was a film student and he was talking about this film and “The Haunting.” [Those two films] are my favorite of his. In the case of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” I think its greatness is pretty self-explanatory in that it’s one of the first film that brought real intelligence and legitimacy to science fiction in its era, when sci-fi was certainly less respected and considered less intelligent. It was also a film of its period in dealing with current events of the time and was such a fantastic statement about the global situation of the day it was made. Thinking of it just as a film fan or film watcher also, the whole notion of Gort and Klaatu coming out in space suits and the ship, I just loved how there was really a presence of an alien world on our world. The intermingling of these three things that belong to each other but not to the rest of the world, I love that in the movie. They’re so unreal compared to the real world, yet they’re so tightly bound to each other. When I think of that film, that’s the image that always comes to mind. The trinity of the ship, Klaatu and Gort. And also just the interplay of it being a drama and thriller, that it has sci-fi elements to it but it’s also a very serious character drama.
Erwin Stoff: One of the things that I so loved about the original movie, aside from all of the cinematic innovations as far as imagery that Scott mentioned, it was really the only science fiction movie of the time that wasn’t fear mongering in its themes and conceptions. Most of the science fiction movies at the time really existed to make us afraid of something. To make us afraid of the red menace. To make us afraid of the all of the places science was exploring at the time. They all existed as warnings. This was really the only movie that challenged mankind to be the best version of itself. And that’s thematically as unique for this movie as all of the cinematic innovations.
Keanu Reeves: I think all of what you’re talking about is what goes into making it a “classic.” And hence, being a part of its time and the classic trying to be able to transcend that which, I guess, is where I came in in terms of trying to remaking that classic in our time with all of the same ambitions and hopes is why I was drawn to it.
Jennifer Connelly: I thought that it was just a great idea to do it. I love the original film. I think in terms of performances, Patricia Neal was so fabulous and I loved seeing this science fiction film everyone was so committed to. It took itself seriously and was really effective. As Scott was saying, as a drama I thought it was a beautifully made film and at the same time really fun and exciting – it had all of these different elements going on at the same time. I really liked the way Scott, Erwin and [screenwriter] David Scarpa contemporized this version of it. I felt it became relevant to us today in a way that I found really interesting.
Jon Hamm: I basically second what Scott was talking about in a sense of looking at the first film. Science fiction was very much a niche discipline and this brought much more to a mass audience. It demonstrated why science fiction is an important niche because it enables the artist to be subversive in a way they can’t be if they’re just laying out a story. By couching it in terms of aliens coming into the world, you can tell stories that maybe aren’t as approachable. When you take that in terms of the ’50s with all of the red scare and the Cold War and societal problems we had then, you certainly couldn’t say, well maybe the idea of America is this big sole super power in the world isn’t the best way, maybe there’s a more cooperative way of going about things. Then you capture it in a science fiction aspect and you say well, it’s not us that’s saying this, it’s the aliens who have this perspective, then it makes it more palatable for everybody. I think our version gets to that as well. It’s more accepted to be critical and politically incorrect nowadays, but I think the same vibe happens. By couching it in the science fiction aspect it’s a little easier to swallow.
CS: Who initially brought this remake to the table – was it you, Scott?
Derrickson: I don’t think it was anybody sitting here. It was a Fox property. They had been struggling for years to find a way to make it work. And I think working with David Scarpa, the writer, they cracked it open.
Stoff: The making of this version and the energy behind it was solely Tom Rothman. He’s the person who really felt the responsibility to try and remake this. He took it as a great personal interest. About 15 years ago, when Keanu had done Speed for Fox, there was a different head of production there and he had a poster of The Day the Earth Stood Still behind his desk and the weekend after Speed opened, I went in and I looked up at the poster and said to the then president of Fox, “We should remake that with Keanu playing Klaatu.” It was one of those weird things that all of those years later, it came to pass.
Derrickson: On that note, one of the things that has been pleasing to me as the director is to observe and experience, first hand, is his respect for the original as it’s part of the 20th Century Fox legacy. He seems unusually, in my experience at least, concerned in the overall quality of the production, because I think he understands there’s a certain treading on sacred ground if you’re going to remake a Fox classic. It’s been great to have somebody like that at the top of the food chain who has that much respect for the film you’re remaking.
CS: What does Keanu bring to the Klaatu role?
Stoff: I thought he brought something specific, what it was was an innate curiosity that naivety that’s tempered by a certain degree of cynicism and spirituality. You just know that the guy knows more than we do about the big picture but way less than we do about the world we’re in. And I thought, even 15 years ago, I thought those qualities would be interesting to bring to the character.
CS: Since the original film, so many sci-fi entries have borrowed themes and images from it. How difficult has it been to make it fresh?
Derrickson: It has been difficult. There were a lot of conversations about what we wouldn’t do. You have to take a lot of the familiar science fictions staples and technological ideas and remove them and say, “We won’t do this, what can we do instead?” I think we came up with some fresh and innovative ideas so the film doesn’t feel like it… if we do what I think we’re doing, it’s going to feel very connected to the original but it’s not going to feel very connected to those films the original spawned. It’s definitely a re-telling of that story, but in terms of the science fiction elements themselves there’s a lot of originality in it.
Stoff: The movie will be 100% recognizable in terms of the original movie. But I think it has been re-imagined for today.
CS: We understand you’re making a “green” movie, not just in terms of the color palette, but in the actual behind-the-scenes making of the film. Can you elaborate on that?
Stoff: The truth of the matter is this all of that has affected our lives. I was called into a meeting when we first started pre-production that was a 20th Century Fox News Corp. meeting. They have a mandate to be a green company by 2011. Whether it was because of this movie thematically or it was an accident of time, there were certain things production-wise we’ve been doing and been asked to do and so on. On a day-to-day basis it has affected our lives. But there are people around us going, “No, use these generators, use these kinds of lights.” But as far as making the movie, it hasn’t affected us in any way.
CS: Keanu, does Klaatu still say those three famous words “Klaatu barada nikto”?
Reeves: Yes-ish. [laughs] The context is a little inverted. But yes. I remember when we had script meetings I said, “We’ve gotta have that.”
Derrickson: The draft of the script we had when Keanu came on board, it wasn’t there. I think Keanu was one of the people who said, “You’ve got to have that in there.”
CS: Did you study Michael Rennie’s performance at all?
Reeves: Watching the film a few times in a row, yes, I did. This one is a little more… he was kind of like the nice guy who carried a big stick. I’m not such a nice… I’m kind of a nice guy, but a little more sinister-ish.
Derrickson: He’s a little more complex.
Reeves: But [Rennie] had such a wonderful ease about the “I’m an alien and I’m a human” quality about him. You really believed his naturalistic [approach], an almost bemusement and also his frustrations too. In that scene where everyone is around the saucer and they’re interviewing everybody and the media is like, “Aren’t you afraid?” and [Klaatu] goes off and offers something rational and the guy’s eyes cloud over. Again, that’s an example of the film being subversive, this guy only wants fear and Klaatu wants to give a rational answer about that. [Rennie] was great.
CS: Jennifer do you feel any responsibility following in the lead of Patricia Neal?
Connelly: Absolutely, they’ve done such marvelous work and I’ve already said how much I really loved what Patricia Neal did. In my instance, I’m a little bit off the hook, my character has been re-configured so much I think, just in terms of my vocation and what I do, I have a different job in this version of it. So my character feels, to me, quite different from Neal’s character. But I aspire not to disappoint people and I approach it with much respect for what she did.
CS: In some respects, the original carries a Christ allegory. To what degree, if any, is the subtext in this version?
Derrickson: It’s built into the narrative somewhat inextricably. To the degree that it’s in the original, it’s in ours, but not as direct or as obvious. There are some 400-pound metaphors in the original that we don’t have in this one.
Reeves: There are some “Christian” aspects to it obviously, right? I’m not wearing “Carpenter” on my jacket or anything…
Derrickson: Yeah, things like that. It’s in the same narrative fashion as there was in the original, and that was one of the appealing things about it. It was done, with my opinion, with the exception of the Mr. Carpenter bit, I thought that aspect of it was pretty elegant. Whether it’s “The Matrix,” “E.T.” or “Braveheart” or any of these films that have a basic Christ myth narrative – it’s a strong storytelling narrative that resonates with people.
CS: Scott, can you talk about working John Cleese?
Derrickson: He was fantastic. It was quite a thing to have such an amazing guy come to the set and everybody just loved him. People were sad when he left. Literally, the crew was grieving his leaving the set because he is funny and so full of life. The character he plays is quite serious and I think he liked that. He’s fiercely intelligent and I think he appreciated the opportunity to demonstrate what he could do as an actor as well.
Stoff: It was genuinely the most difficult role to cast.
Derrickson: We struggled for months. And he was the first person we offered it to. We never found somebody.
Stoff: When he popped up, it was “Who would you rather make the argument for mankind than John Cleese?”
CS: Jennifer, you play against Jaden Smith. What was it like working with the young actor?
Connelly: It’s a really difficult part because our little story within the story is a mother and son who are in conflict. And who have stagnated in their relationship and it you know it’s coming to a crisis point and something has to shift. So we have a bunch of scenes that are filled with tension and unresolved difficulty. Where you hope they’re going to work it out. So it’s a difficult balance to hit, to have a kid who can create that and who you so want to root for. One who can be a bit bratty with his mom at times but a kid you always like. Jaden is so charming and so interesting and beautiful. He draws you in. He’s got that beautiful quality to him and is a huge asset. And he’s fun, he’s a real kid. He comes to work and works but he’s a real kid which I love.
CS: Jon, who do you play in the film?
Hamm: I play Michael Granier, who assembles the team and tries to figure out this issue that has descended upon the Earth. There appears to be some back story between Helen and I which plays out a bit throughout the film. But for the most part I’m reacting to these things that are happening and trying to make sense out of them. I’m standing in the place of the audience and reacting to all of this that’s going on. It’s been interesting. My time on set has been limited so far. I’ve spent more time on the plane than I have been on set going back and forth, but the whole experience has been amazing so far. Jaden, I can’t second what Jen said any more. He’s truly astonishing as a nine-year-old.
CS: Scott, you’ve been attached to a number of projects between “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but you chose this one to move on. Obviously, you’re being careful with which films to do…
Derrickson: I had a very simple thing in mind with whatever my follow up film was going to be. I wanted to do something that wasn’t in either the fully commercial realm or the fully independent realm, either a commercial money making venture or independent personal, artistic merit movie. I wanted to find something that people would see and be commercial but have some creative and artistic merit to it. The projects I developed and tried to put together since “Exorcism of Emily Rose” have been that. And this film was really the epitome of that. Because it felt big and commercial, but when I read the script, the general approach of it is about some important things. I think there’s no greater argument for remaking the original than the fact that the original was such a product of its time and we’re in a different time. Updating it for this time is a really worthy venture. The combination of both the meaning of it, the aesthetic and cinematic possibilities of it were so rich and at the same time, this is a big movie people will go see. I just found that so satisfying it was not a hard choice to do.
CS: Did the writers strike affect this production at all?
Stoff: One of the things that has made this a fun and great experience is weirdly, for some reason, the larger the movie is, the greater the chances are that by the time you start shooting the script isn’t done. It’s completely counter-intuitive. For a number of reasons, we were dealing with an absolute deadline. We had the enormous advantage, we had a finished locked script by [the WGA strike]. For a movie of this size, that’s an unusual thing.
CS: Gort in the original film is a weapon, a threat. How is he depicted here? Does he play a larger part?
Stoff: He’s used to the same ends as he is in the original movie. It’s funny, it’s the one thing I don’t want to get into because I think it’s one of the film’s smarter, more ingenious things in the re-imagining of Gort. But, he plays the same role as he does in the original in terms of what his power for destruction is. He has the capability to end it all and one of the great things about the original that we realized in watching it to come up with a way to re-imagine Gort is there actually a physical relationship that exists between Gort and Klaatu. It’s like he’s Klaatu’s muscle. And the other thing we also did is that Gort, Klaatu and the spaceship all have to have a relationship to one another technology, materials, texture. It’s a little hokey when we look at it today, the production designer of the original went, “These three things have to fit together.” We did the same thing.
CS: Will he still have a cyclops-like visor?
Stoff: No, but again, like many things in this movie, Gort will be recognizable to you from the original movie.
The Day the Earth Stood Still descends on conventional theaters and IMAX December 12th from 20th Century Fox.