Making the Earth Stand Still


In 1951, 20th Century Fox released the black-and-white sci-fi thriller The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was helmed by legendary director Robert Wise. With the film’s intelligence, strong statement and solid filmmaking, the movie became a huge success.

Now, hoping to create a new audience for what some consider one of the greatest films in the science fiction genre, the studio has remade the classic hit into a film that stars Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, the space invader sent to give Earth a message, and Jennifer Connelly as Helen, a scientist who has been called on by the government to help try to make sense of Klaatu’s purpose for visiting the planet. talked to the stars of The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as the director Scott Derrickson:

Question: Can you talk about the decision to go forward; taking a sort of scared text, a sci-fi classic and bringing it into the 21st century?

Scott Derrickson: Yeah, 20th Century Fox wanted to do a re-make. I was the first of the people here to sign on to doing it. When I was given the script I was a bit skeptical. I love the original very much. It’s one of my two favorite Robert Wise films. The other one is “The Haunting”. Picking two from his forty I think is quite a thing. For me it was really this; in reading the screenplay, the screenplay certainly needed work when I read it but I was struck by the idea that updating this movie had tremendous value because the original being so rooted in the social issues of its time and such an intelligent and interesting, self-reflective commentary, coming from an American studio and an American filmmaker, on the cold war. And, the appearance of the atomic bomb and the struggle to establish the U.N. and things that were controversial and divisive. I loved the idea of being able to tell, basically, the same story but bring in these new social issues that we have now, these new, interesting messes that we’ve gotten ourselves into now in the world. That alone, seems to have value to it and made sense to me. I think the other thing was, it’s been 57 years since the first one and you’d better have a good reason to re-make a classic film but I think there is something different about this film as opposed to other classics which are so much more known by the general movie-going audience and I think that there is value to telling this story to the general movie-going population that, for the most part, won’t have seen the original. They won’t know that story. That was the motivation and the approach was to try to respect that original and respect the fan base and the fact that it is a sacred movie to a lot of people.

Keanu Reeves: I had the same question you had and then I heard that answer (laughter) and I went “okay. It would be fun to play an alien and it’s a worthwhile story” and that’s when I came onboard.

Q: But he’s not fully alien.

Reeves: That’s correct. That was part of the interesting side of the role was that it starts alien then becomes quite human.

Derrickson: It became an interesting conversation that Keanu and I had quite a bit during the making of the movie, is to what degree is he human? He says his body is human but where does the body end and the mind begin and vice-versa. We had to work out at least an understanding for ourselves where and how him becoming human really occurring and that was what was interesting about the process of working with that character.

Q: Jennifer, your character has everything on her shoulders. She is basically the human prototype by which Klaatu is going to decide whether we live or die on earth. Did you feel like playing this character was a huge responsibility?

Jennifer Connelly: Yes, it felt like a huge responsibility but I think it’s really clever what Scott did. It’s not just Helen. It’s not just on my shoulders in reality. I think the relationship between Helen and Jacob is employed in a different way than it is in the original film. It really functions like a little microchasm of human nature; how we are treating each other. They’re sort of in conflict and there’s a bit of a crisis and there’s a reconciliation and they each take responsibility and then there’s a movement towards a resolution and Klaatu observes this. So there is that dynamic. There is also the Barnhardt scene and other encounters that he has to help shape it so that was a little bit of a relief that it wasn’t just me. I wanted people to be able to identify with her and I thought it was important that she, herself be aware of the task and the enormity of that task and that position so I like that she has a moment with Barnhardt where she says “tell me what to do.” She’s aware what the stakes are and what she’s found herself involved in. I liked Patricia Neal’s character in the original, that she is open-minded and she’s a very strong, free-thinking individual. I thought that was important to carry over; that bravery. Those qualities, to be a human without prejudice, without bias, was really essential. That she be able to communicate and that’s she’d be really making you feel the depths of her love. I thought those were really important things.

Q: And what was it like working with Jaden Smith?

Connelly: Working with Jaden was fantastic. I think it’s really clear that he has a lot to offer. I think he did a great job. As I mentioned, it was a complex relationship and I think that’s a lot of nuance to ask of someone his age. I think he did it beautifully and he even seemed to have a good time doing it, which was a relief.

Q: Scott, why no cool flying saucer for Klaatu?

Derrickson: I watched the original quite a few times when just starting pre-production on the movie and I think, like I was saying earlier, you need to respect the original film and try and figure out what made it great and what can you take from the original to a modern audience that will work for them. In watching the flying saucer, from the original, land in Washington, D.C. I think it was the second time I was watching the film through again, what really hit me was the precedent that that set for spacecrafts represented in Science Fiction cinema. That, really, from that point forward, space ships all the way through “2001” and “Star Wars” and the “Terminator” films, the “Matrix” movies, they have all been represented in a similar fashion which is that they are metallic-constructed machines that are engine-driven and those are projections of our industrial age technology like our cars, our airplanes, these things that are starting to get us in trouble in the big picture and so I loved the idea of trying to develop an alien technology that came from a completely different trajectory altogether and came from a completely different tradition and this was something I had discussed with the art department and everything. The idea was that this was a species that had a technology that was essentially more ecological and biologically-based and that’s why the ship looks the way that it does.

Q: Keanu, is there something special about the sci-fi genre that keeps pulling you back or do you approach a film like this like it were any other movie?

Reeves: Well, I love the genre and I approach it like any other film, I guess is the short answer. I think Science Fiction provides great storytelling opportunities. I’ve just, in the past, had the fortune to be part of good stories in Science Fiction genre films.

Q: Do you see any possibility of sequels?

Derrickson: Six months after the night following the day the earth stood still. I haven’t heard any discussion about that.

Q: Is it something that you would want to do?

Derrickson: Probably not.

Q: Gort is one of the best-known science fiction robots of all time so can you talk about the decision about the look for Gort and why you wanted to use nano-technology with the robot?

Derrickson: The nano-technology was in the scripts which I thought was interesting so that was already there when I got involved with the project but there was no real description of him in the screenplay and we started down the wrong path, honestly. I looked at the original and thought what things can I bring from the original to a modern movie that audiences who don’t know this film will still appreciate? I just couldn’t quite make sense of why this thing would be in human form and it certainly can’t look like this tin robot from the original. So, we spent a lot of time designing fantastic, alien monster creature things that got increasingly ridiculous. It got to the point where I remember sitting in a room with these two pieces of artwork that were the current versions and just saying “this looks like something that should be in a museum of modern art or in a park as a piece of modern art.” I didn’t even know what I was looking at. Then Jeff Okun, our Visual Effects Supervisor–and this is like after three or four months of doing this–was standing in the doorway and he said “why aren’t we just making it look like Gort?” And it was one of those moments I was like “oh, God.” I didn’t want to acknowledge how dumb I felt when he said that (laughter). It was like “okay, you’re right. Let’s get rid of all of these. We need to make it look and feel like the original somehow. But it needs to have the impact and the scale and magnitude that a modern audience will find satisfying.” So, we basically tried to find the best blend of that. How we could most keep it looking like the original without it falling short of what our modern audience standards are for a sci-fi robot thingy. It was really that. That was the basic process. Then, the nano-technology aspect of it, I did think it was interesting; an interesting aspect of Science Fiction storytelling and certainly a major part of Science Fiction literature right now and I liked the idea of that playing a role in it. And, also, helping to justify why Gort is in human form. It’s not that he was built that way. He chose that shape to present himself. So, that started to make rational sense to me also.

Q: Keanu, do you know what you’re doing next?

Reeves: I don’t. I’ve been working on working. Just trying to find a good film and role.

Q: What is one of your films that you would really like to return to for a sequel?

Reeves: “Constantine.”

Q: That could happen, right?

Reeves: I don’t know.

The Day the Earth Stood Still hits conventional theaters and IMAX on Friday, December 12.