Perhaps it’s only the logical byproduct of our modern, technology-saturated, media-savvy world, but it still seems odd (to those of us who began seeing movies in the sixties and seventies, anyway) when the behind-the-scenes story of a film, with all those teeny-tiny technical details of how it was made, begin to eclipse the tale the film was originally made to tell. When Robert Zemeckis released “Cast Away” a few years ago, less people actually went to see the survivalist drama than those who knew that Tom Hanks had taken several months off in mid-production so he could starve himself to the appropriate level of skin-and-bones. With The Blair Witch Project, those shower-deprived improvisers had no idea what was happening to them, out there in the woods with a camcorder and a few notes, but the rest of us knew, because the directors’ brash, verite-nightmare filmmaking approach ultimately became the selling point of the film. With the recent low-budget thriller Open Water, no reviewer or film writer could resist talking about how the film’s creators, unable to afford pricy special effects, resorted to plopping their gutsy actors down in the actual ocean, along with real, non-SAG, open water sharks.
Now, with the release of the much-anticipated fantasy “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, it’s happening again.
Almost all of the film’s advance publicity has focused on the fact that the director, Kerry Conran, spent years alone in his garage, laboring over his computer to make six-minutes of artsy, film-noir sci-fi, what-the-hell coolness, using footage he shot with friends in front of a blue screen installed in his living room. As every major film magazine and the New York Times has slavishly reported, Conran imagined a way to make movies with no sets at all beyond those created in the computer, dropping the actors into the computerized environments much like traditional animation inserted cartoon characters onto a rendered background. The story of how a lone computer-nerd stayed the course of his own vision, and ended up wowing the studio suits so completely that he was given 40-70 million dollars to expand those first six minutes into a major feature film—and that Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Angelina Jolie all signed up for blue-screen duty on the basis of that sample footage—is a story no one can seem to resist.
Strangely, the movie itself—a delightful, charming, visually dazzling throwback to the pulp serials of the 1930s—is in danger of becoming a mere footnote in the story of how Kerry Conran and his antique Macintosh conquered Hollywood. That would be a shame, because the movie deserves to be judged on its notable on-screen merits alone. Conran is keenly aware of the danger, but understands why people are so entranced with his RAMs-to-riches story.
“I think what’s interesting about it, for most people” says Conran, looking a bit dazzled himself after hours of being interviewed by a parade of reporters, “is that this story, my personal story, is kind of the quintessential American dream, where some dorky kid from the Midwest can have an idea and can follow it through, and then one day he’s sitting in a hotel room, as the creator of a finished film, talking to a reporter about how it all began. That story is inspiring to people, because it reminds us of something that’s still good about this country.”
That said, Conran admits he’s worried that the technical innovations of “Sky Captain” might end up overshadowing the storytelling and the old-fashioned beauty of the movie itself. Yes, it was filmed with actors in front of a screen, with no sets and few props, all of which were created solely on the computer, but Conran is keeping his fingers crossed that audiences will be attracted to “Sky Captain”, and be entranced by it, based on more than the movie’s technological backstory.
“It’s certainly a concern,” Conran shrugs, “and I certainly wouldn’t want that to be the only reason that people go see it. I think it stands alone as a movie. The technology that drove it is beside the point. I’d rather have people drawn in by the fact that it looks different, that it’s visually appealing in a new way, or just be get caught up in the fun of the story, recognizing that it’s done in the spirit of the great old films and serials of the past.”
That, of course, is the whole point of the technology Conran embraced: to effectively recreate the style and look of a bygone age, to fill it with elaborate visions of a dreamed-of future, and to do it without spending Titanic amounts of money.
The good news is, he’s succeeded.
In the movie, set in a soft-focus, colorized-looking 1939, Polly Perkins (Paltrow) is a Hepburn-esque newspaper reporter—go ahead, call her plucky, she’s got moxie enough to take it—investigating the recent disappearance of all the world’s greatest scientists. The daring, slightly cad-like, Pepto Bysmo-swilling Sky Captain (Law), with whom Perkins and he have shared a romantic past, is the leader of a band of high-flying airplane pilots, called upon to help stop an invasion of giant flying robots—that’s right, giant robots—which attack New York by the thousands, and may have something to do with tall those missing scientists. After Sky Captain and Perkins team up to track down the mysterious villain Dr. Totenkopf, they encounter a series of gravity-and-logic defying wonders, from a squadron of planes that fly underwater and a floating air strip suspended by balloons above the clouds to a flock of lazer-shooting bird-like flying machines and a mysterious island crammed with mutant critters. There’s also Jolie as uniformed, eye-patched naval officer Frankie Cook, spouting dialogue like, “Alert the amphibious squadron!” One of the most spectacular miracles Conran has cooked up in his mind and computer, however, comes in the first few minutes of the film, as a massive passenger zeppelin docks at the top of the Empire State Building.
It’s an image that Conran says was central to his vision for this World of Tomorrow, and it was inspired, like the rest of the film, by the classic movies of 1930s. The Empire State Building as dirigible debarkation point came directly from “King Kong”.
“I remember watching the film of ‘King Kong’,” Conran explains, “where he’s on top of the Empire State Building, gripping this mooring dock, and then I got this book about the making of ‘King Kong’, and there was a reference to the landing dock. The more I read, the more it dawned on me that at one time they really meant to dock zeppelins at the top of the Empire State building. Later I found another book called The Book of Marvels, and in it was this artist’s rendering of the zeppelin dock, imagining what it would look like for zeppelins to unload passengers there. It was so . . . magical, the sense of wonder that came from that image, that was the single piece of pure self-indulgence I felt I just had to have in the movie. We could have opened it up any number of ways, but I so desperately wanted to see that, that weird combination of imagery and daring. That’s what I loved about that time period in America, that people dared to imagine , and they imagined on such a large scale. They didn’t stop to think about law suits that might result from trying to dock a zeppelin, let alone disembark people, and it’s imaging to sit back and watch what would have happened had those dreams been realized.”
Speaking of realized dreams, it’s a little hard to tell, based on some of the techno-centric articles that have been published about Conran and Sky Captain, whether the guy thought up the no-sets, actors-as-animated-characters, let’s-make-a-movie-in-our-computer scheme and then began casting about for ideas to try it out on, or whether he thought up Sky Captain and all those air-born robots and then decided to develop some computer programs in order to bring life to that specific project.
“The technologies I tapped into came solely from wanting to make this movie,” Conran says. “It’s a case of necessity being the mother of invention. I grew up weaned on and in love with the films and comics of the 30s and 40s, the great movie serials, and I later expanded that to include the great German Cinema, the work of Fritz Lang, and all that. I love those movies, but I recognized that during that era they had a limited capacity to breathe life into some of their own ideas. With the computerized environments, I could create anything and everything I imagined.”
Adds Conran, “The great promise of this movie is the hope that people who grew up with these kinds of films might see it, and would be thrown back to those memories. I hope they realize that this movie was, in part, made for them. Then of course I hope that younger generations of moviegoers will be excited by it, by seeing something they’ve never experienced before. I think there’s that unique opportunity for two demographic groups, divided by many generations, to come to this movie and appreciate the same thing.”
Asked what advice he’d offer to those inspired by his movie—and yeah, even those who are aware of the story behind the movie—Conran lights up and launches his answer, as animated as a preacher who’s just been asked to explain the Gospel.
“The big, big, big thing—and I’m a testament to this—is, and I mean this—don’t give up. It took me ten years for this to happen, and I think people could probably fare better these days. There exists today a really rare opportunity in history, because the technology has always been in the possession of the studios, only available to those with all the wealth, but now it’s suddenly available to the artists, to those who are at home dreaming about making films. I think that if independent filmmakers and film students can embrace that, and make the films they want to make—and that’s not limited to any genre—they can succeed. They can take advantage of the fact that we can now shoot digitally, you can edit on the computer. You can essentially possess an entire film studio in your computer. The tools are affordable and are available to anyone.
“All you need to do is have something to say, have a story to tell. There is a gigantic opportunity right now. I hope that if nothing else comes from this film I’ve made, it will encourage people to take advantage of the time we live in right now.”
Says Conran, “I can’t wait to see what people dream up next.”