An On-Set Crash Course in I Am Number Four


Last week, a rather quizzical teaser trailer for a DreamWorks movie called I Am Number Four appeared online from out of nowhere. already had a bit of a leg-up on those learning about the movie for the first time, because back in early July, we were given a crash course in all things related to the movie. I Am Number Four is in fact the new movie from Disturbia and Eagle Eye director D.J. Caruso, a sci-fi action movie involving alien invaders that’s produced by Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. Having visited many movie sets over the years, we’ve become somewhat accustomed to being transported back in time, to ancient lands, fantastic futuristic worlds, or to places we could never possibly imagine traveling to. For I Am Number Four, we were transported back to one of the most frightening places possible… High school.

Based on the book by Pittacus Lore, the pseudonym for a fairly infamous bestselling author, I Am Number Four is the story of a young man known as “John,” who discovers he’s actually an alien sent to earth on a mission along with eight others, collectively known as the Loric Garde. He learns this when he discovers that he can emit and control light, but no sooner have his powers emerged, John finds himself being chased by violent warring aliens who mean to kill him, having already killed three before him.

As with his previous films, Caruso has assembled an interesting young cast including British actor Alex Pettyfer as John, who is actually Number Four of the Loric Garde, essentially alien warriors sent to earth in order to protect them from the imperial race, the Mogadorians. When we meet him, he’s been living on earth for 11 years, and while each of the Loric Garde have special powers, known as Legacies, John’s haven’t developed just yet. Timothy Olyphant plays John’s guardian or “Cêpan,” Henri, who has helped him find his way in the world as he grows up and before his Legacy develops. Dianna Agron plays Sarah, John’s love interest in the film, a photographer at his high school in Paradise, and the rest of the young cast includes Callan McAuliffe as John’s friend Sam, and Jack Abel as Mark James, the movie’s “jock antagonist.” All of that high school stuff is the least of John’s problems once the Mogadorians find him, but luckily Teresa Palmer shows up as Number 6, another one of the Loric Garde whose Cêpan had already been murdered by the “Mogs,” so she goes looking for her predecessor and turns up just in time to help John.

You’d think a potentially big movie like this would be shooting in Los Angeles or London or Canada or even Eastern Europe, but Caruso had selected Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as the base for the production to call home, partially in order to capture the suburban setting of Paradise, Ohio, where most of the movie takes place. We were driven out to Monroeville to an abandoned technical college that was being used as a soundstage in which they built the high school in Paradise that John is attending. As we walked into the space, we marveled at the attention to detail in creating that high school environment with all the usual banners heralding the school’s home team, the Panthers, as well as a trophy display case and just about everything you’d expect to find in an average suburban school in middle America. When we visited the set, they were on Day 34 of roughly 66 days of filming and had been doing night shoots for three weeks.

Unfortunately, Olyphant wasn’t on set the day we were there but a few of our colleagues were able to visit the night before, and they were kind enough to share their interviews with us. Normally, it would be unheard of for actor Timothy Olyphant to be doing a film potentially for younger moviegoers, since he’s best known for harder-edged roles in shows like HBO’s “Deadwood” and “Justified” and R-rated movies like Hitman and The Crazies, but here he was playing a mentor figure no less, so we were curious about his interest in the movie:

Q: You were a late addition, how did you get involved in the project and what led you to being back in high school?
Tim Olyphant: The good people, whoever makes these decisions at DreamWorks, offered it to me. I read it and I thought it was a fun part, had a talk with D.J. on the phone and we were off and running.

Q: Obviously D.J. brought you on the project, what was it that drew you to Henry?
Olyphant: There was something fun there, I thought there was something fun to play. I liked the relationship between Henri and John. It seemed like it, I was just very fond of that relationship.

Q: I know that this is based on a soon-to-be-released book and I have not read it and I apologize. Did you read the book?
Olyphant: No.

Q: Have there been any hints from DJ or the writers about subtleties of your character that may be in the book that may not be obvious in the movie?
Olyphant: Basically, the process was when I read it I had a very specific take on what I would like to do with it. I had that conversation with D.J. and we were on the same page about what I was talking about and we just kept poking around in that area. We talked about the book a little bit in terms of the source material and what was to important to honor, because I am not in the know in terms of the novel on occasion if I have an idea, it occurs to me that we have a source material that I don’t know if I am going in that direction. If I have an idea that goes outside of what’s on the page and I say “you know I know it’s not in the script but here is what I would like to do.” I also need to ask and how does that relate to the book and obviously even though I haven’t read the book, others have and I am in a position to be able to ask the questions.

Read More with Tim Olyphant

Once we arrived on set, we began by sitting down to talk to director D.J. Caruso himself. Although it was already time for most people to get off work by the time we arrived on-set, Caruso’s workday was just beginning. The director certainly has been making a mark in recent years with movies like Disturbia and Eagle Eye, both starring Shia LaBeouf, and while I Am Number Four takes him further into the world of science fiction than the latter, it continues the throughline of him directing coming-of-age movies within the context of a genre film.

We had a good amount of time to talk to the director since he hadn’t started filming yet, and he did a great job getting us oriented and up to speed on the world of the Loriens and Mogadorians before we actually had a chance to see them filming anything.

Q: How did you get involved with this? Obviously, you had the association with DreamWorks before. Did you get the manuscript back when they were first optioning the book?
D.J. Caruso: What happened was that 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 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.

Read More with D.J. Caruso

After talking to D.J., we began a series of interviews with most of his cast, including Dianna Agron, who may be best known for playing the role of Quinn Fabray, the mean cheerleader, on the hit Fox show “Glee.” In I Am Number Four, she gets to play a much nicer high school girl, and the love interest in the movie, which is a pretty sweet way to make the jump to big studio movies.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get much of a feel for her character on set because her scenes that day involved her running down a hallway, but we got a great sense of her personality from talking to her, and she’s quite a lot nicer than Quinn, that’s for sure.

Q: With the busy year you’ve had, what were you looking for in a project and what about this film interested you in particular?
Dianna Agron: It was funny. There had been this kind of push within my team to find a summer project. I said first and foremost “I don’t want to do something if it’s not right just because it fits into my schedule,” because it’s so hard as an actor to really engage with a character and a script if you don’t love it. It’s very difficult. So this project kind of came full circle because in January I had met Steven Spielberg. He had said, “You know, there is this awesome script and we’re interested in you, but you’re not available because it shoots in October.” And I was just flabbergasted that he knew who I was. Then it came back around and it had pushed. My manager, love her, was like “We can shoot for this.” and I said, “You’re crazy. The shoot goes too long and it’s not going to match with the break.” Luckily, I read the script, and I loved it. I met D.J. and we just bonded so quickly. Both the film and the show worked around each other, so I’m here because of very many things, people, luck, patience, and my manager being persistent.

Q: Isn’t it good actually both for the show and for the movie to have you in both things? Like the exposure in one helps you in the other?
Agron: I think so. I mean, Cory Monteith is off doing a film right now, and many of our cast are working on records right now and stuff like that. I think that as an artist, the more that you can do to diversify, and kind of challenge yourself, the more you grow. Like I know that I’ve grown out here. I will go back to “Glee” and take what I’ve learned out here. At the same time, it gives people that watch our show an opportunity to take a familiar face and go somewhere else with it, and see if they like it. You know, I hope both productions feel that way about me being here.

Read More with Dianna Agron

After doing a few interviews, we walked over to the area where they were filming, walking by a table piled with various alien weapons including a couple of swords used by Number 6, automatic rifles, and even some sort of rocket launcher, which we’d get to see in action soon enough. The day we arrived on set was in fact Teresa Palmer’s first full day, and they were shooting the start of an action scene in which John and Sarah are being chased by the Mogadorians down the hall of the school. We stood on the other side of the lockers as Alex and Dianna did a number of quick takes where they ran around the corner and ran down the hall of lockers, before a flash of light goes off in front of them representing an explosion. After they shot a number of takes, they cleared the set and we watched as they set up explosives on the door at the end of the hallway and warned everyone that it was going to be “LOUD” before the pyro team hit the trigger and indeed, blew the doors open. They did this a couple times, shooting each take with three cameras to make sure they had proper coverage.

Through the smoke and debris walks Teresa Palmer, all decked out in leather as Number 6, carrying the rocket launcher and a Howitzer, which she raises and cocks to shoot at the Mogadorians chasing after the two teen heroes. All she needed to do was say something badass in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice like “School’s Out” and the illusion would have been complete. She probably could have asked her co-star Alex Pettyfer for tips on that, as we learned earlier that he does a mean Schwarzenegger impression as well as Christopher Walken.

Of course, we spoke with Palmer before we had a chance to see how badass she was going to be in this movie as Number 6. Sure, she could tell us about all the cool things she was going to do later that night (which we missed unfortunately), but it wasn’t until we saw her on-set walking through the smoke of a door that had been blown off its hinges carrying a loaded shotgun did we realize we were seeing a new action heroine in the making.

We haven’t really seen Palmer in a movie with her normal Australian accent either, something that’s always somewhat jarring the first time you meet her, especially after watching her playing American women in movies like Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice earlier this year. The film’s star was somewhat annoyed to learn that she somehow managed to convince the filmmakers to let her keep her Australian accent for this movie, while he had to work with dialect coaches on his American Accent.

Either way, Palmer is always fun to talk to ’cause she’s always so bubbly and cheerful, which was the case here as well. We were especially impressed with the Lorien tattoos she sported on her neck.

Q: Is it true you’re using your real accent in this?
Teresa Palmer: We thought, there were nine of us, nine aliens from planet Lorien, and we didn’t think that all nine of them would be dropped in America coincidentally. So basically we’ve been hidden out in different parts of the world and Number 6 just so happens to be hidden out in Australia… Adelaide, South Australia where I happen to be from. So I get to use my own accent which is refreshing because in the last few films I’ve done I’ve been American and British, but yeah it’s kinda cool.

Q: Tell us a little about Number 6. Do you have a real name or is it just Number 6?
Palmer: She’s just Number 6. It’s been really a very physically demanding role because I’ve been training for the last eight weeks doing like stuntwork. I’m on the wires doing back flips. Right now I’m all padded up because I have to do a fast frontwards roll on the concrete. And obviously I’ve been training on pads, so it’s just funny when you arrive on set and you realize it’s not rehearsal anymore. You actually have to do it. You don’t get to wear a helmet. There aren’t any pads on the floor. You just have to commit to it. It’s been really exciting. It’s a very cool character.

Read More with Teresa Palmer

Last but not least, we had a chance to talk to actor Alex Pettyfer, now 20 years old, and a good-looking chap with blonde locks that would make you think he’d be in great demand, though he hasn’t really been on America’s radar since making his debut years ago in the British family spy movie Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker. He’s continuing his run of literary characters in DreamWorks’ I Am Number Four as an alien who looks like an average teen, which will be followed by CBS Films’ Beastly, where he plays a high school student turned into a hideous beast.

Q: What has this experience been like for you, this being your second big movie?
Alex Pettyfer: This is my first major film, but I haven’t had any films really come out. I’ve never had a movie out in the U.S. before, so it’s my second or third new experience and it’s amazing. I’m really happy doing this movie. Not many kids at 20 years of age can turn around and say, “Our producers are Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay.” D.J. is an amazing director, I’ve got the utmost respect for the man. Not only is it weird to have respect for someone as an onlooker and a fan, but also to work with them… When you’re a fan of someone’s work and you get the privilege to work with them, it’s really cool. You guys are on-set on one of the coolest days, we get to blow up sh*t, run around, disappear and fight. It’s not gonna be a boring day today.

Q: How did you get involved in the project?
Pettyfer: I came over to do ADR for 3 days for “Beastly” and I said, “Why do I really want to go back to England? Might as well stay out and have a mini-holiday.” I got this audition for “Number Four,” I sat down, they role the tape, I’m about to say my first word, and I go, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” The director’s like, “What?” I said, “I can’t do this, sorry.” I got up and walked out the door of the audition. I think maybe it was nerves or the people who were attached. I came back and I screen-tested for it.

Q: You weren’t f*cking with them, you were really nervous.
Pettyfer: Yeah, proper, of course. A lot of things go through a twenty-year-old’s head when you go into something like this. The biggest thing for me is I don’t want to let people down. At the same time, I love things that scare me and challenge me. If your job doesn’t do that and doesn’t excite you there’s no point in doing it.

Read More with Alex Pettyfer

Before we left, we got to pose with two of the Magadorians, large ugly bald dudes with tattoos on their foreheads and wrinkled prosthetic noses that made them look even more alien. The two tall thin actors were standing on platform shoes to make them look even more otherworldly, wearing long leather coats that came down to their knees. We also had a chance to talk to others involved with the movie, including the film’s producer David Valdes, Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth and all of Guillermo del Toro’s films) and DreamWorks Co-President of Production Mark Sourian, all of whom gave us more background on the project and why they decided to pursue the property and make the movie. We think you can get a pretty good idea what to expect from the interviews with Caruso and the actors, so that you’ll know a little more about the movie before they release the full trailer later this year.

I Am Number Four opens on Friday, February 18, 2011.