A Q & A with Surrogates director Jonathan Mostow

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Much like the Terminator films, the sci-fi thriller Surrogates imagines a futuristic world taken over by machines. In fact, humans have become addicted to letting their surrogates do everything for them, whether it’s having sex or going to work. But when things begin to go haywire (as they always do in these kinds of flicks), a lone detective (Bruce Willis) has to take matters into his own hands and find out who is trying to take control of the surrogate technology. The film, which comes out tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray, isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. The Blu-ray edition, for example, features “A More Perfect You: The Science of Surrogates,” a short documentary that suggests Surrogates has more in common with reality than you might think. Director Jonathan Mostow recently participated in a virtual roundtable discussion with reporters to discuss the film and answered questions submitted via a chat session. Here’s what he had to say.

I really enjoyed listening to your audio commentary on the DVD. Talk about your approach to it. You even kept talking even as the credits were rolling.
Thanks for the compliment. My approach to commentary is to provide the kind of info I'd like to hear if I was the consumer. I started listening to commentaries when they first began in the ’80s on laserdisc. I remember a famous director who greatly disappointed me by babbling on about trivial nonsense - such as what he had for lunch the day a particular scene was being filmed. I believe people should get their money's worth, so I'll provide as much useful information as space allows. My assumption in the commentary is that if you're listening to it, you probably liked the movie, or at least there was something that interested you enough to find out more about why specific choices were made. So I try to tailor my comments for that audience. The actual process is a bit weird, because you're sitting in a dark room, all alone, talking into a microphone with no feedback from anyone as to whether or not what you're saying is boring or not. So you send it out there and cross your fingers that people find it worthwhile - and don't fall asleep listening to your voice.

This isn't your first time dealing with a high concept of man versus machine. Can you talk about why this concept intrigues you?
It's true that I've touched on this thematic material before. In fact, I think all my films in some way have dealt with the relationship between man and technology, so apparently, it's an idea that fascinates me. I assume your question implies a relationship between the ideas in Terminator and Surrogates, so I'll answer accordingly... Whereas T3 posed technology as a direct threat to mankind, I see Surrogates more as a movie that poses a question about technology — specifically, what does it cost us — in human terms — to be able to have all this advanced technology in our lives. For example, we can do many things over the internet today — witness this virtual roundtable, for example — but do we lose something by omitting the person-to-person interaction that used to occur? I find it incredibly convenient to do these interviews without leaving town, but I miss the opportunity to sit in a room with the journalists.

Can you explain the casting choices in Surrogates? Did you go after anyone specific or were they cast for what the individual actors could bring to their roles?
The interesting thing about casting this movie is that for the surrogates, we needed terrific actors who also looked physically perfect. Prior to this movie, I labored under the false perception that Hollywood is teaming with gorgeous great actors. Not necessarily so. Yes, there are many wonderful actors. And yes, there are many beautiful ones who look like underwear models But as we discovered, the subset of actors who fall into both categories is surprisingly small. We were lucky to get folks like Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe — and we were equally fortunate to find a number of talented day players to round out the smaller roles in the cast. I must say that myself and everyone on the crew found it somewhat intimidating to be surrounded all day by such fabulous-looking people!

You've worked with special effects a lot prior to Surrogates. Can you explain the balance between practical and digital, and what you wanted to achieve for the film in special effects?
My goal for the effects in this film was to make them invisible. There are over 800 vfx shots in Surrogates, but hopefully you'll be able to identify only a few of them. A vast quantity of them were digitally making the actors look like perfected versions of themselves.

I found the distinction between the surrogates and their human handlers interesting. Can you expound upon why such a drastic difference?
The difference was logical. For starters, human operators would be out of shape — they sit in their arm chairs all day not moving. They'd also appear kinda shlumpy, since they don't need to leave their homes (much less shower or dress), so who's gonna care if they stay in their pajamas all day. On the surrogate side of the equation, we imagined that based on human nature, in most cases, people would opt to operate idealized versions of themselves — so if their surrogate looked in a mirror, for example, they'd see this fantastic-looking version of themselves. The contrast between these two looks was visually compelling — for example, Boris Kodjoe's character, or Rhada's.

One of the deleted scenes shows the surrogates' prejudice towards a human being among them. Why was this particular element cut?
The scene you reference (Bruce and Radha in a bar) was cut, but the underlying idea is still in the movie — although admittedly not as strongly as had we kept the scene. (There are references in the movie to "meatbags" and other moments that indicate a hostility and prejudice toward those who reject the surrogate way of life.) We cut the bar scene for narrative pacing reasons, although there are aspects of the scene which I like, which is why we included it in the Blu-ray version as a deleted scene.

How do you approach the promotional campaign for a film and in what way do you enjoy participating most in promoting one of your films?
I greatly enjoy the press phase of the film — but not for reasons you might expect. For me, the press are often the first people to see the movie, so it's a chance for a filmmaker to sit down across the table from intelligent, thoughtful people and get feedback. (Of course, this virtual roundtable kinda removes the face-to-face element!) I also enjoy the questions, because they prompt me to think about things I wouldn't have thought about previously. For example, someone today asked about the thematic connections between T3 and Surrogates. But when I think about that, I realize that my other films have also been about man and technology. Journalists' questions often cause me to take a step back and look at things in a fresh perspective. Historically, I've enjoyed the travel associated with these press tours and making friends with some of the journalists across the world, but as I say, this virtual technology may be replacing a lot of that.

How involved was KNB Effects? What did they bring, if anything, to the film's effects designs?
KNB is a top-flight company that specializes in prosthetic devices for movies and creature design. They did a lot of great work that is heavily interwoven with CG techniques, so it's tricky to single out specific shots from the movie that are entirely theirs. They were great to work with.

2009 was an extraordinary year for science-fiction, from your film to Avatar, Star Trek and District 9. Why do you think so many good sci-fi films rose to the surface last year, and do you think we'll see any good ones this year?
First of all, thank you for mentioning our film in the same breath as those other movies — all of which I loved. I don't think it's a coincidence that 2009 was a good year for sci-fi. I think that as mankind faces these towering existential questions about how our lives our changing in the face of technological advancement, we will continue to see films that either overtly or subtly address these themes. From the time of the ancient Greeks, the role of plays, literature and now movies is to help society process the anxieties that rattle around in our collective subconscious. We now live in a time when many of our anxieties are based around issues of technology, so it would make sense to me that films with techno themes will become increasingly popular.

Was there ever a discussion to create a SURROGATES-themed video game? The plot lends itself to a decent companion game.
There are no discussions that I know of, but I agree, it would make the basis for a cool game.

Each of your films have boasted sound mixes that many have considered classic examples of sound design. Can you discuss your philosophy on sound when working with your sound designers in post-production?
I really appreciate this question because sound is something I care deeply about and I believe that mixers I've worked with will probably tell you that few directors get as involved with sound as I do. Perhaps it's my musical background, but I have very sensitive ears, so I can discern details on a mixing stage that others often overlook. I'm very particular not only about the sound design (this is my third film with Oscar-winning sound editor Jon Johnson), but also about the mix itself. I think a good soundtrack helps immerse the audience in the movie. Ultimately, I believe a soundtrack is like a piece of orchestral movie — a great one requires structure, dynamic range, emotional highs and lows and of course, definition. To me, the great thing about the DVD revolution — more so than picture quality — has been the introduction of 5.1 surround sound to the home.

Do you supervise aspects (video transfer, extras or other elements) of the home video (DVD/Blu-Ray) release for your films?
Yes. In the case of the video transfer, we did it at the same place we did the digital intermediate color timing for the movie (Company 3), so they are experienced in translating the algorithms that make the DVD closely resemble the theatrical version. I am deeply involved in that process, as is my cinematographer. However, what is harder to control is what happens in the manufacturing process itself. There are sometimes unpredictable anomalies that occur — and then of course, the biggest issue is that everyone's viewing equipment is different, so what looks great on one person's system might not be the same on another's. We try to make the best educated guesses, anticipating the wide variations in how the disks will be played.

I imagine that before writing and creating the world of Surrogates you studied the topic. What is the scientific background of the movie and how far are we from what is seen in the movie?
I did a fair amount of research for the movie, but really, what I discovered is that the best research was simply being a member of society in 2009. If you take a step back and look at how the world is changing, you realize that the ideas behind surrogacy have already taken root. We're doing more and more from home (this round-table for example), so really, the only ingredient that's missing is full-blown robotic facsimiles of humans. Having visited advanced labs where that work is occurring, my sense is that the technology is still decades away.

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