Movie remakes are a delicate business. When done wrong, they’re almost offensively bad. But when they’re done right, well, they’re The Day The Earth Stood Still. A film which both remains faithful to the original, yet is updated for a modern audience. The subtext is rife with current political turmoil, Gort is bigger and bad-assier than ever, and the unique collection of visual effects includes a swarm of metal nano-bugs, glowing swirly space ships, and placenta space suits. A talented and good-looking cast doesn’t hurt, either. We spoke with stars Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, and Jon Hamm, along with director Scott Derrickson, at the film’s Los Angeles press junket last weekend. And we learned how they went about remaking a classing, making a "green movie", and creating realistic characters in a (hopefully) unrealistic story. Find out what they had to say after the jump!
Can you talk about the decision to take a “sacred text” for sci-fi fans and remake it?
Derrickson: I suppose I should take that one.
Hamm: Actually Scott, I think that one was for me [laughing]
Derrickson: You are welcome to it, Jon! 20th Century Fox wanted to do a remake. When I was given the script I was a bit skeptical. I do love the original – it’s one of my two favorite Robert Wise films, the other being The Haunting. Picking two from his forty is quite a feat.
The screenplay still needed work when I read it. But I was struck by the idea that updating this movie had tremendous value. The original was so rooted in the social issues of its time. It was such an intelligent and interesting self-reflective commentary on the Cold War and the fear of the atomic bomb, the struggle to establish the UN. These were things that were controversial and divisive. I loved the idea of being able to tell the same story, but bring in these new social issues we have now, these messes we’ve gotten ourselves into now. That alone seemed to have value, and it made sense.
The other thing is that it has been 57 years since the first one came out… you better have a good reason for remaking a classic film, and I felt that there was something different about this film, as opposed to other, more well-known, films. I think there is value in telling this story again, especially to an audience who, for the most part, has not seen the original and won’t know that story.
Reeves: Yeah I had the same question you had. Then I heard that answer. I thought it would be fun to play an alien, and it is a worthwhile story, so that is when I came on board.
But he’s not fully alien.
Reeves: That’s correct. That was part of the interesting side of the role. He starts alien, and becomes quite human.
Derrickson: Keanu and I had an interesting conversation through quite a bit of the film. To what degree is he human? He says his body is human, but where does the body end and the mind begin? We had to work out an understanding, at least for ourselves, of how him becoming human was really occurring.
The movie is about saving the Earth. What are you doing in your own lives to help the environment?
Reeves: I recycle, I have a couple solar panels, and I do some rainforest conservation.
Connelly: Similar. We drive a Prius, we recycle, turn of the light switches when we can. My husband is better at it than I am.
Wasn’t this a “green movie?”
Derrickson: Yeah, this was Fox’s first show to be a green production.
In what way?
Derrickson: I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but there were special generators used. I know there was a lot of effort that went into it to make it a true green show. The only effect it had on me personally was that it was paperless. For a director, storyboards become very complicated because they were all digital. So I never knew who had what, and there was no notebook to carry around. That became confusing.
I am of the belief that those [smaller, personal] contributions are important, but they’re not going to solve the problem. Thomas Friedman, who writes for The New York Times, has a great statement: “Don’t change your light bulbs; change your leaders.” I think the larger solutions are going to come from larger places.
Keanu, your performance reminded me of Rod Serling. What did you base your performance on?
Reeves: It really came to me through the obligations of the character and the story. I worked from the script. The character has certain “cues.” It was this concept of the separation of his consciousness and his body. I approached it like any other role.
But did you think of Rod Serling?
Jennifer, how did you handle the responsibilities of your character?
Connelly: I think it was really clever what Scott did. It’s not just Helen; it’s not just on my shoulders. I think the relationship between Helen and Jacob [her character’s step-son, played by Jaden Smith] is employed in a different way than it was in the original film. It’s like a little microcosm of human nature, and how we treat each other. They are in crisis, then there is a conflict, then there is reconciliation, and a movement towards a resolution – and Klaatu observes this. I wanted people to be able to identify with her, and I thought it was important that she herself was aware of the enormity of that task.
I liked that, in the original, Patricia Neal’s character is open-minded and a very strong, free-thinking character. To be a woman – a human – without bias was really essential. She had to be able to communicate, and you had to feel the depths of her love.
What was it like working with Jaden?
Connelly: It was fantastic. I think it is really clear that he has a lot to offer. I think he did a great job. It was a complex relationship, lots of nuance to ask of someone his age, and I think he did it beautifully. He even seemed to have a good time doing it – which was a relief.
Scott, you walk a fine line with the ending. You save the world, but there is a tremendous toll. By my calculations, New Jersey may no longer exist. What was the decision to walk that line, to not have a happy ending, but not show the full extent of the impact?
Derrickson: I thought a lot about that. The ideas of this movie – and certainly what the movie is ultimately saying – I liked the idea that the solutions to the problems that we are creating in our world are going to come back
I love the line when Helen says, “We can change. Can you stop this?” And Klaatu says, “It would come at a price, to you and your way of life.” I wanted to find some way at the end to not just wrap up everything perfectly and be inconsequential. There is a price. But I decided not to dissect exactly what that price would be. I wanted to put it out there, so the audience can decide, in their own minds, what that price would be. There is both closure to the story, and open-endedness as far as what comes next.
Jon, how would Don Draper sell this movie?
Hamm: Don Draper would probably sell it poorly. The modern sci-fi movie is not really his forte. He’d rather stick to products in his own time.
What was the decision like to not have a typical flying saucer design for the spaceships?
Derrickson: I watched the original quite a few times while in pre-production. I think you need to respect the original, and figure out what you need to take from the original to make it great for the modern audience. Watching the flying saucer from the original land in Washington D.C., it really hit me what a precedent that set for spacecraft represented in science fiction cinema. From that point forward, spaceships, all the way through 2001 and Star Wars, they’ve all been represented in a similar fashion: they are all metallic machines that are engine-driven. Those are projections of our technology, these things that are starting to get us in trouble, in the big picture. I loved the idea of trying to develop an alien technology that came from a completely different trajectory. The idea was that this was a species that was more ecologically and biologically based. That’s why the ship looks the way it does.
Keanu, is there something special about the sci-fi genre that keeps pulling you back to it?
Reeves: I love the genre. But I approach it like any other film. Science fiction provides great storytelling opportunities, and I have just had the good fortune to be part of that.
Jon, how did you come on board with this film? Was it after the first season of Mad Men?
Hamm: I came on after we wrapped the first season of Mad Men.
Derrickson: But only a few episodes had actually aired. If there had been five more episodes on the air, we wouldn’t have been able to afford him.
Hamm: I came on relatively late to the project – it was already going. I came right into the scene where I explain what is about to happen. It was a three-page monologue about astronomy and trajectories. I basically got off the plane, got fitted, and got thrown onto the set. It was a little nerve-wracking. The opportunity to be involved in this is amazing to me. I am still relatively new to all of this.
What, if any, part did the politics of America over the last eight years play in the creation of this film?
Derrickson: When we were making the movie, I knew the release date. At the time I didn’t know who the candidates would be, let alone the President. I think that I felt the way most Americans felt: that we had slipped off track in a lot of ways, and gotten ourselves into some serious jams. I think I also had the same feeling that the majority of Americans had, which is not one of cynical pessimism. I felt good about the fact that the collective community that is America was recognizing mistakes. That was really encouraging to be a part of. I look back at the election, the way it was conducted, and I feel that there was something “un-cynical” about it. I just had faith and hope that it would be a time of optimism, that there would be significant changes in this country. That’s not a partisan statement – that is just fact. We know we’ve made mistakes. I think everyone is ready to acknowledge those mistakes and correct them.
Can we expect to see a sequel?
Derrickson: I haven’t heard any discussion about that.
Is it something you would want to do?
Derrickson: Probably not.
When Klaatu and Barnhardt [John Cleese’s character] were writing the formula on the chalkboard, it almost felt like a duet. Was that intentional?
Reeves: Yeah. We were thinking about it as a kind of dance – a conversation.
Derrickson: That was a real math equation, about a real, significant high-physics theory. We tried to be truthful to the science. We had an astrophysicist who worked with Keanu and John. I remember watching them for quite a long time, working out the back and forth of that. I didn’t have much to do with that.
Gort is one of the most well-known sci-fi robots of our time. Can you talk about coming up with the look for Gort, and also about fusing nanotechnology with the robot?
Derrickson: The nanotechnology was already in the script. There was no real description of Gort. We started down the wrong path, honestly. I looked at the original and tried to figure out what I could bring from it to this movie that audiences who don’t know this film will still appreciate. I couldn’t quite figure out why this thing would be in human form, and it certainly can’t look like the tin robot from the original. So we spent a lot of time creating this fantastic alien-monster-creature-things that got increasingly ridiculous.
I remember sitting in a room with examples of the two most recent incarnations, thinking, “This looks more like modern art.” I didn’t even know what I was looking at. Jeff Okun, our visual effects supervisor, came in – this was after three or four months of brainstorming – and he said, “Why don’t we just make it look like Gort?” It was one of those moments. I didn’t want to admit how dumb I felt. It was so obvious.
It needed to look like the original, but still have the impact and scale and magnitude that a modern audience will find satisfying. We tried to find the best blend of that.