INTERVIEW: Helmer Kerry Conran Talks SKY CAPTAIN


One of this fall’s highly anticipated films has got to be Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie as they set out to take on a retro sci-fi world, where pulp fiction fantasies come to life, but whose fantasy is this exactly? Answer being writer/director Kerry Conran and I had a chance to sit down with the visionary to discuss Sky Captain and then some.

What you may not know is that Sky Captain is Conran’s feature film debut, which was originally intended to be no more than an independent film of his own as he took quite the grounded approach to what he considered his first film. Instead of filling his head with blockbuster dreams he set out on his own and over the course of four years put together a 6-minute clip of what would soon become approximately the first 10 minutes of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Six minutes may sound not a little for four years but wait until you hear the story about how those six minutes came to be and what happened once they were complete.

Could you talk about the six-minute video?

“It really did start out with me thinking I am going to make an independent movie and thinking also that using this blue screen stuff I could really up the production value and also at the time I was really thinking like I could compete alongside something like Clerks. That was my ambition, I thought if I could get this into Sundance it would be unusual and a little different than what that crowd is used to, so I set out to do that and the result of it was this six-minute video.

“The first thing I started with it was the Zeppelin coming into the city and docking with the Empire State Building, and I think that was the single most self indulgent thing in the whole movie. It could easily not be in the movie I suppose, but it was something I wanted to see and wanted to do, and it was what I cut my teeth on in a way of getting myself into this world, and that might have been year one, and that defined how I was going to approach everything. I had the scene with the actors in it [not Law and Paltrow] so that actually did encompass every challenge that I was about to face, combining the 3D with still photography and live-action.

“The next sequence in that was the newspaper coming up and going into Polly typing behind her desk and I was trying to play with the conventions of multi-plain dimensional techniques rather than traditional 2D animation and develop a defined look.

“That immediately went into air raids signaling and her [Polly] racing to the window, which is essentially when the robot attack begins, so I skipped the whole Radio City section. I had the first bits of machines coming in and starting to march down the street and them shooting and the radar calling Sky Captain and him flying in and that is more or less where I ended it.”

What you may not know is that Sky Captain is a movie that finds it’s stars surrounded by 100% CGI sets, it is a groundbreaking film and everything Conran just described he actually created on his own at home, not in some fancy studio. While the final product contains none of his original vision the story remains the same.

Was this always intended as a CGI film?

“I didn’t care how I created it, the thing I boiled it down to was that I sort of felt like I was making a Bugs Bunny cartoon in a sense that the whole simple premise was that I built a 12-foot blue screen in my living room that stayed there for like two years and I would film friends and my brother and people would come over and I would film them and experiment with them and the whole idea was to treat them like cell animation.

“I thought that it was most impossible for me to take actors out on location, taking them to New York City, closing down New York City, that seemed impossible, but I had photos of those places. So I thought, well I can stick a photo behind them and make it look, more or less, like they are in New York City and then make it stylized and take advantage of the fact that I can manipulate that single frame photo in a way you couldn’t do in live-action, which you kind of get what you get when you are shooting it. Here I could do all kinds of strange things to it, even kind of paint it and lighting it.”

As far as the look goes, is it what you originally intended?

“It’s pretty close to what I started out with at the same time being different, more refined, that sort of thing. It’s also in color, where I started in black and white. There certainly are scenes and shots that are tough to watch at this point, if I could get another year at it, I’d take it. You get to a point, where it’s just not ready, ultimately I came to grips with that, and thought this is the time I had, this is the resources I was given and this is what I did with it, and with all those things considered I am very happy with the results.”

With this film I see Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Star Wars all mixed together, did those movie play a part, and what else played an influence?

“Oh yeah, I was young enough that when Star Wars came out it was a big deal and when Raiders came out, it was a big deal. In terms of Star Wars, you had never seen anything like that before. There was sort of a number of milestones along the way and I probably first got the smelling salt effect on movies with King Kong in them, as a kid I was like, wait a minute, what is this? and that is when you just wake up and go, that’s cool.

“Then before Star Wars I had a rich background in the films of the 30s and 40s. There was a station that broadcast in Flint, Michigan, where I grew up, that used to play them non-stop, so that was where I saw serials for the first time, a lot of science-fiction movies as well as classic films of the era. Then Star Wars hit, and I think Star Wars was the film where I thought, I want to make movies.”

Where did the idea for a retro sci-fi film come from?

“The comics that I most loved were the pulp comics of the 30s and 40s, “Amazing Stories” and “Astounding Tales”, and if you just look at the covers alone, just the artwork of that, they’re amazing. Each one, on its own, tells a story, there’s such whimsy and imagination in them and you have never seen them translated to screen in any kind of way, because by the time the technology was around to capture that it had well passed that era, and you are seeing things more like the original Alien movie and even Star Wars to some extent, which didn’t really have the pulp thing going so much.

“It was an opportunity to take something and turn it into a flesh and blood thing that didn’t otherwise exist, something they couldn’t have been created back then, and that is where the Fleischer brothers’ Superman cartoons came in. That was the only example that I could find where they did create a kind of living motion version of that stuff, and they also did it in a sort of a film-noir style, so it was a tremendous influence on this film.”

Could you talk about the decision to go entirely against green screens?

“It was strictly economics, it was just trying to find a way to do it cheaper, not even cheaper, but in a way that was accessible to me. It goes back to the blue screen in my living room and creating worlds for your actors, they’re in Paris, they’re underwater, they’re here and there, but what if you tried to add depth to that and have them interact with objects that aren’t really there.

“It’s still in that apartment, but you have now created this new world that I couldn’t afford to build with wood and nails and plaster, but I could afford a set in a little crummy computer and a 3-D program and create simple walls that I could easily texture and then suddenly I had built a set, and it was something that I did quickly and by myself and it was something that I could really control in terms of how I lit it and how it looked. So it really came out of that, it was sort of just a way of figuring out how do I shoot in Radio City and yet I can’t fly to New York.

Did the economics of the film help sell the studio?

“John Avnet is who I first approached with it and he ultimately found independent financing in the form of De Laurentiis and that absolutely was what got the film started. For them to think that they could make a movie that looked like it cost three or four times the amount that it did was terribly appealing, and the actors were already on board at that point as well.

What was it like working with Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie as a first time director?

“It was freaky, it had different phases of weirdness to it I’ll say. The first phase is like you don’t even take it seriously, it’s like they’re not gonna do the movie, that’s stupid, why are we wasting our time talking about this? Then the next phase is like, they really might do the movie. Then you start to freak out, well what if they don’t do the movie? And I had never had those feelings before, of course I didn’t ever want that, I was content with unknowns and just making this film, and then you realize without ever having met me, without ever having read the script, they signed on.

“By the time we showed op on the stage in London though the first day we shot was a certainly a day I’ll not soon forget. That was that moment where I either walk and do it or I find a table and crawl underneath it in the fetal position or something.

“The first scene we shot was Sky Captain’s office when they [Sky Captain and Polly] meet for the first time, and I was up in some little office making my notes and everyone had vanished and I hadn’t seen anybody all day, I hadn’t seen any actors, anybody. So someone came and got me and said, ‘They’re ready, they’re ready to shoot,’ and I hadn’t seen the stage, I hadn’t seen anything, not even the office setup, nothing. So I go, ‘Okay, I’ll come down.’

“Then I start walking down this little row that takes you to the soundstage and no one is there. I see the door and I open it and I had never seen so many people in my life. They’d all kinda crammed in here on this one day and it was like a monster movie in a sense that the door opened and all these heads turned around at me at once in unison and then the crowd parted. Literally, straight in front of me were Jude and Gwyneth standing on the stage in their outfits, which I’d never seen them in… lookin’ at me, and everyone was quiet, just waiting for me. Then I realize, I have to go do this, and even from that moment from walking from there to there I’m thinking like, What do you say to them? How do you even start this whole process?

“That was the most sobering moment, and I thought I’m screwed, I have just killed myself. So I take that lonely kind of walk down that gauntlet to them and then I think I just blacked out, I scarcely have any memory of what happened next, but I know that we managed to start somehow… miraculously. After we got past that initial hurdle everything was just fine and I was good but I don’t, even to this day, know how to start a normal film if I did it again, I have no idea what you do to begin a film.”

Obviously you did something right, I have already heard of cast members bringing up thoughts of a prequel? Do you have any thoughts on more Sky Captain?

“Clearly with this type of genre, this type of story, you have to settle on certain things for the story so certainly I toyed with all the goofy stuff that this type of world would suggest, but I have not written anything and I don’t have firmly the thing that I most would want to do with a second one. I have two things that would be a lot of fun and probably would be equal to this film, and I certainly think we would all like to take a stab at it, I guess, but right now though, this film is not even dry yet and it’s a little daunting.

“The whole prequel thing, I think the reason that even got brought up is just the clear suggestion of their back-story. This film opens up and you’re in the middle of it, I don’t explain who he is or where he came from, it’s not an origin story. To me, I don’t know if you necessarily would want to make a prequel as much as you would want to make a ten minute vignette in the opening.”

Sort of like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?

“That’s right, and that would be sufficient enough to give you that sense of beginning and that past that they had. I am sure it would be a great deal of fun.”

Click here to head over to PART TWO of the interview where Kerry talks about some of the hidden gems in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, as well as deleted scenes, some spoilers if you are interested, and what is on his future plate including A Princess of Mars! Click here >>

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