THE IMAGINEER: AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEX PROYAS
Alex Proyas was raised in Australia and discovered filmmaking early in life. After entering the Australian Film and Television School in 1982, he wrote and directed the short “Groping,” which led to a bountiful amount of music videos and commercial assignments. “Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds” was his first full-length feature. Entirely shot in Australia, it is best described as an aggressive, post-apocalyptic Western. The film did little to further Proyas’s career in features, so instead he turned to music videos. His lavish video for Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” brought him to the attention of American audiences and cemented his status as one of the top directors of music videos. His subsequent film “The Crow” (screenplay by David Schow and John Shirley, 1994), became a cult sensation and his feature breakthrough, but is sadly better known for the tragic death of Brandon Lee than its ironically laced poignant tale of love and death, delivered brilliantly by Proyas and the late actor. His next film, “Dark City” (co-written with Lem Dobbs and David Goyer, 1997), was his most personal story, a complex film that crosses genres to make a beautiful statement about humanity that somehow slipped by the cynics of our time. Known for the breathtaking visuals and dynamic storytelling of his films, Alex Proyas is a person of tremendous warmth and great sincerity, a rare breed of filmmaker who injects dept on the screen and off it.
For me, it’s a great honor to present this 2000 interview to POP! readers. First, “The Crow” is my favorite on-screen comic book adaptation. The film is an unforgettable love story that’s poignant from the second the late Brandon Lee emerges on-screen from the grave as the hero who seeks vengeance against those who murdered him and his beloved. Second, “Dark City” is one of the most important films to come out in the last dozen years of cinema. Not only is it an arresting visual fest, it stands tall as a compelling picture that stresses man’s imagination and emotions can never be contained. 2002’s lively “Garage Days” was the infectious feature about how just playing the music in a rock band is where the real heart of rock ‘n roll is at. His last cinematic outing was the summer blockbuster “I, Robot” starring superstar Will Smith. All of these films are proof that Proyas is still one of a handful of film directors that constantly delivers unique and inspiring films to today’s cinephiles.
George Khoury: Where did your passion for film originate?
Alex Proyas: I guess I was eight years old, maybe even younger, when I saw “Lawrence of Arabia.” I mean I’d seen films before, obviously, but I remember that being the first cinema-going experience that had really blown me away. It was such a wonderful epic vision. I think that was the time I started thinking that I lusted to be doing that somehow; I think I went straight from wanting to be an astronaut and working for NASA to wanting to be a film director or something. Soon after that — and I’m probably confusing dates and timelines — I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That was an even more extraordinary experience for my young mind to handle and I really fell in love with this cinematic aspect of film.
Does your love for science fiction originate more from books or films?
I think “2001” was an early encouragement to be in the cinematic genre, but I didn’t think of “2001” as science fiction because I didn’t know what science fiction was because I was so young. It really came from picking up science fiction novels, a gift, when I was a little older back in my early teens. It was literature that made me really focus on the genre. I think those early novels that I read were what influenced “Dark City.” I remember reading Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and all these guys that kinda made me reevaluate things and excited me.
My film school work was experimental avant-garde films, but there was always this early influence of fantasy and science fiction, and I kept going back to it. “Dark City” is the direct result of it, of all these ideas that I was influenced with at an early age coming back to haunt me. I’ve always loved stories. That’s why I wanted to make films, and commercials and music videos are a great training ground, to learn technical aspects. In commercials you tell stories. One of the hardest things to do is to tell a thirty- or sixty-second story. It’s much more difficult in many ways more difficult than writing a novel. It’s a very specific skill to do that well. I’ve always used my work in commercials as a way of understanding and telling a cinematic story more concisely; I have visual approach to storytelling, but I don’t think it’s any less relevant than characters talking in a theatrical manner. I like to tell stories in a visual fashion, and I’ve always been drawn to films that do that.
How did you learn screenwriting?
I’d written many scripts before — quite bad ones. Really, I still don’t consider myself a screenwriter, I consider myself a director, first and foremost. I really use my writing abilities — or lack of writing abilities — as a way of bringing forth the emotion that I want to portray in a movie. To me, that’s really the most important thing. When I examine how I want to make a film analytically, it really comes down to if there’s an emotion I want to get across. I use the writing aspects as a way of trying to get as close to that as possible, and often from that point on, I am in many ways focusing in and finding the whole story. That’s pretty much the way we worked on “Dark City.” I wrote many drafts initially and then worked with Lem Dobbs and David Goyer to focus on what it was we were trying to do and to use them as a sounding board. The collaborative aspect is extremely important in that sense.
Was “The Crow” the first film that brought you to the United States?
I was pretty much living in Los Angeles making commercials and music videos for a while. It was an on and off thing, I was never there permanently. I had an apartment and all that sort of stuff.
Did living in Los Angeles — a city where no one knew you — serve as an inspiration for “Dark City”?
[Laughs] I don’t know if that was so much the inspiration to “Dark City”. I spent some time in New York as well and I think New York was probably much more an inspiration. I love wandering around cities at night when there’s no one around. I remember wandering around some fairly dangerous parts of the city, where people were telling me I shouldn’t be going there on my own. But I really enjoy that part of experiencing the city when there aren’t people there. It’s that kind of an emotion that I was trying to capture with the film.
What attracted you towards “The Crow”?
At that stage of my career, I was being offered sequels to bad horror movies and things like that. When I first got involved with “The Crow,” there was a script which I didn’t think was very good. I was more attracted to the original comic books, and I just liked this character. I bought this element of an avenger back from the dead. It was a really interesting character to explore. I also think it coincided with a number of ideas that I’d been playing with. I started writing “Dark City” way before “Crow.” “Dark City” was the thing I’d always wanted to do, and there were some similarities between the two films. This whole thing with this guy coming back to his past had an amnesiac quality to the character in “The Crow” that I think was injected into the film because I was already dealing with those ideas with “Dark City.” All those things added to drawing me to the material.
Did you play up the love story element in “The Crow”?
That was always there. That was very strong. In fact, part of the problem with “The Crow” is that I don’t think it’s as strong as it could have been. But no, that was there from the comic books. This guy is just obsessed with this lost love and this desire to get back to his sweetheart, and that is incredibly strong and bittersweet in the comic book. And that’s one of the things that I enjoyed so much about it. I’m a real believer in romance in movies. I always try to inject that aspect into a film. I think it’s extremely important.
Were there any other elements you injected to the story? I believe that you came in with a fully written screenplay.
No, not at all. When I got involved with the project, there was a draft done by one of the credited writers that I didn’t think was very good. I worked with the first writer for a couple of drafts. I seem to remember all I was trying to do was get it closer to the comic books because the screenplay really went away from the ideas in the comic and I thought that was a big mistake, so I kept trying to drag the thing closer and closer to the comic. David Schow and I did the most work on the screenplay — we probably did twenty drafts together. He did all the writing, but I was involved quite extensively during that whole process; we were really trying to be true to the comic. I also really loved the artwork from the comic book. I wanted to make a comic book movie that for once actually looked like a comic book. We were trying to be as faithful as we could be to the source material.
The Eric Draven character of “The Crow” has many noir qualities — an innocent man turned vengeful as the result of what bad men have done. Was that (noir feel) intentional?
That type of comic book and the “Batman” comics and movies are all heavily influenced by noir films. In the case of “The Crow,” I was influenced by comic book artists who were being influence by the original filmmakers that I happened to like. So it’s sort of coming around in a strange way. [Laughs] But I can’t say that I was specifically going for noir sort of conventions in “The Crow.” I was aware of them, but I was much less concerned with that than I was in the case of “Dark City,” which touched much more heavily upon noir conventions. “The Crow” really was more a question on the visual level of trying to be faithful to the comic book, and the comic book was permutated with his noirish thing, but that was inherited from the material.
Was there ever a possibility after Brandon Lee’s death of the film not ever coming out?
Absolutely, I didn’t want to finish it. All I could see was that a very good friend of mine had died in front of me. I was absolutely devastated by that and I didn’t care at that stage. It was very hard to see beyond that tragedy, at that time, and see things clearly. But I’m glad that I was convinced to finish the film, and that really came from Brandon’s family. If they hadn’t wanted to finish the film, I would have been very happy to have walked away from it. In retrospect, I’m glad we did it because it served Brandon’s memory well, which is all that I really cared about in that film; that Brandon will be remembered as the great actor that he was, primarily because of “The Crow.” He really grew through the process of making that film. I knew he was doing good work; and that’s exciting to be around when you’re working with someone who’s confident and coming of age in a way as an actor. He knew that film was going to be something special. He constantly surprised me with what he was doing on the set; there were really some wonderful moments that he achieved.
What has been your reaction to “The Crow” films that have followed your vision?
I didn’t see the sequel. It would be very hard for me to judge it as a film because I have this underlying feeling that to make a sequel is just wrong. It was morally wrong to do that. “The Crow” was finished for Brandon, to honor him. To make a sequel really didn’t gel with me. That was a bad thing. So I’ve never been able to watch the film for that reason. If I did, I would find it hard to judge.
After “The Crow,” you actually began to work on “Casper the Ghost?”
I was pretty distraught, and I guess this opportunity came up to something that was different, in a far away different direction than “The Crow,” that it really appealed to me. In retrospect, it was a big mistake. The fact that I didn’t get through the film makes it clear that it was. [Laughs] I loved the idea of doing a kid’s fantasy. One of my favorite films of all time is “Wizard of Oz.” I would like to do something like that one day. “Casper” seemed to be an opportunity to do a really great kid’s film with some real solid emotional resonance. Unfortunately, it started to move away from its potential at some point and that’s the reason I politely bowed out.
Was there a screenplay?
There was a script, but it was one of those situations where things were rewritten at much too late a stage in the whole process.
So that makes “Casper” your first true Hollywood project.
It was. [laughs]. It’s certainly being thrown off the deep end, let’s say. I’ve been through the mill as much as anyone within the filmmaking process. What we went through on “The Crow” was certainly an absolute extreme of what filmmakers have to deal with, and I’m certainly prepared for that, that’s part of the business. But for me, the rule you cannot break is that you have to have a script. You’ve got to be at the stage when you start preproduction where you are confident in the material, because if you don’t have that — you’re lost without a map. You’re absolutely in an impossible situation. That’s the one rule that I will never break again; I learned that the hard way.
How difficult a pitch was “Dark City?”
I’d say it was probably impossible to pitch “Dark City” to the studios. It came down to people having faith in me as a filmmaker, because I think it was something most people could not comprehend. And even having made the film, I still can’t pitch it. [Laughs] It’s an unpitchable story. I think that’s what appealed to me about it. I was looking for people who would have the confidence to let me create this madness, and I was lucky to find those people.
Is it true that the story stemmed from recurring nightmares you had?
I wish I could dream entire screenplays up; it would certainly save a lot of time. But the only aspect that was inspired by dreams is the actual Strangers themselves; this idea of them altering things. But in my dreams it was depicted in a very intangible way and not really that much like the movie.
Were you ever aware that the words “Dark “and “City” are common in the lexicon of film noir?
Oh absolutely. To tell you the truth when I came up with the title “Dark City” I really thought I’d invented it. Then a couple of years later I came across the movie introducing Charlton Heston back in 1950, so I realized that I hadn’t invented it. There’s a book called “Dark City” by Eddie Muller. It’s a wonderful little book about the history of film noir, and I guess he picked that title for reasons similar to my own. It summed up a genre in many ways. That’s what I wanted to do with the film, I wanted a title that established a genre in people’s minds, but when you start watching the film you realized that it’s anything but that. Not even the genre is clear at a certain point. It’s like we play that game with the audience so I just wanted that sort of stereotypical noir title. I guess other people thought of if for the same reasons.
How would you go about defining film noir?
I think it’s about uncertainty. To me it seems to be about characters that don’t really know where they fit into the world, and they’re trying to find their place in it — usually fairly unsuccessfully.
Which noir pictures served as an influence on “Dark City?”
There’s two streams of influences on “Dark City.” One is the expressionist movies, the German expressionist movies like “Metropolis,” “Nosferatu,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and then, the noirs from the ‘40s and ‘50s which were actually influenced by German Expressionism. German directors like Fritz Lang specifically went to work in Hollywood and were instrumental in establishing that genre. In terms of the American films, I would say “Lost Weekend,” “Double Indemnity” — very specifically, and ”Asphalt Jungle.”
Have you ever watched “Scarlet Street?”
Yes, a long, long time ago. I’ve seen most of these films but I haven’t caught up with them for a while. Could you refresh my memory?
It deals with Edward G. Robinson’s character, a guy who falls for the wrong girl and soon trouble begins to follow him as well. He’s trying to run away from something he can’t escape, because no matter where he hides, in the big city, he feels trapped; essentially there’s no escape for him. The reason I mention it is because there were elements of your film that reminded of it.
All sorts of plot points from “Dark City” come from film noir. It’s just taken to an extreme, and the extreme resolves itself in terms of science fiction. It’s like once they discover the answers to their questions, they realize they’re in an existential nightmare. In turn, it comes right back to German Expressionism. In many ways because that’s mainly cinema fantasy, noir was this convention that dabbled in fantasy but was really trying to stay faithful to reality. Occasionally, you’d get films like “Kiss Me Deadly,” which is a hard-boiled, gritty, realistic movie. It turns out that the thing they’re all chasing after in the end is this suitcase with this light inside that is Pandora’s Box and it destroys them in the end. To me, the convention was already dabbling with this blend of fantasy and film noir, and that really appealed to me and was something I especially aimed for with “Dark City.”
Did you always want the city to have this claustrophobic feel to it?
Sure, I just liked the idea that I explained the noir convention. The insomnia is a noir convention. The idea that an entire story can take place at night is also a noir convention. What I tried to do is use the amnesia in the plot of the strangers. The feeling of a closed community, or not being able to escape, is a common theme in noir and is explained by the fact that you can’t escape the city because there is a actually a limit to the city. You can’t go beyond it. And the concept of the night never ending is also explained because the night never does end — it is actually an eternal nighttime. I remember seeing many noir films that were about this concept of someone just trying to make it through the night to survive, either from the mob or the cops or something. It always struck me as an appealing notion — suddenly the character in the movie realized that the night will never actually end, that there is no escape from darkness. [Laughs] All those ideas came to me while watching these movies. It’s very much feeding off the genre.
Originally you wanted to base the story around Bumstead, the detective, making him more integral to the narrative, which would have give the film a definite hard-boiled feel. Why didn’t you go in that direction?
I felt it was too convenient, and it’s been done before. I also thought it was a less emotional perspective for the film. I thought there was an opportunity to invest the audience’s emotions in a character that was emotional and less analytical. I also think it’s more interesting to have the guy in the thick of it, the protagonist rather than someone who’s off on the sidelines. Also the detective’s angle is an intellectual one for me. I always imagined the three characters of Bumstead, Murdoch, and Emma, Murdoch’s wife, being like three parts of the same character. I kept trying to structure the performances on that notion, which was that Bumstead was the mind: the brain, the analytical part of the character. Murdoch was the gut: the instinct and emotion. And Emma was the heart. So to me, it was which of those did I want to follow, and it seemed to me to be the instinctive part.
Was there anything you wish you could’ve fixed after you turned in the final cut?
Yeah. I mean the studio was very supportive all the way through and they’re a great bunch of people. I don’t think anyone else would have made the film, quite frankly. It was a great experience from that respect, but there was a certain amount of nerves towards the end of post-production. There were certain things that I actually was made to do, that I just don’t agree with. One being the opening voice-over, which I think is kind of insane, quite frankly. I think it gives away too much of the mystery up from. To me, this was always a mystery: you want to let the audience unravel it, you want to just throw them into something and then have them unravel the pieces as they go, as the characters do. But then to start off the film with something that tells you who the bad guys are, and the fact that they’re from another planet or whatever the hell we ended up putting in… the voice-over was a real mistake and I knew that at the time. One day I would love to go back and remove that voice-over and redo many scenes that we dropped for various reasons. [Pop! note: A director’s cut of the film finally arrived to DVD in 2008]
That seems to be one of the biggest obstacles currently in films. Studios seem to think audiences can’t figure things out for themselves without having to test-market everything to death.
Well the test process is a nightmare for filmmakers. It’s nice to know what people are reacting to and what doesn’t work, but at the end of the day, you have to be allowed to use your own better judgment. It’s getting to the point where if two people don’t understand, then it’s the problem with the film. And it’s not the case; the problem is probably with those two people. That a small number of people in a test screening can dictate what happens to films for a much wider audience for me is insane.
It seems crazy that one comment can have such power.
That’s where we’re at, where new sequences have to be shot. We didn’t get quite to that extent with “Dark City” but we certainly had to make some alterations which I think probably meant absolutely zip at the box office. I can’t imagine that these changes we made, made more people go see the film. If anything, it probably made few people go see the film.
Many critics, with the big exception of Roger Ebert, were quite harsh on the film. Do you think it’s because they’re just too cynical and can’t see what the film is really about?
I don’t know if most of the critics were; I think it was definitely a mixed bag of reviews but I’m used to that. I mean I think “The Crow” had that same sort of mixture of reviews. Some people just don’t get it, quite frankly. I certainly felt there was a degree of not getting where the film was coming from. I can’t begin to go into the bizarre ideas about what film “Dark City” was; I just think it’s a very broad stylized fantasy. A lot people have a very hard time with that, it’s not their cup of tea. But there were also some really terrific reviews where people understood the principle of it and went with it.
Do you think more realistic movies are being made in the sci-fi genre?
Yes, I think it’s partly because studios like the principle of science fiction, and they generally do quite well. A lot of people don’t really understand the genre, so they dumb it down as much as possible for the basic meat and potatoes version of science fiction. But I think there’s certainly the potential to do a lot more with the genre in the movies.
In closing, what is the significance of Shell Beach?
(Laughter) The significance of Shell Beach. Well, I think it’s this thing that everyone is looking for. It’s this gate to the answer to life. It’s still out there somewhere, that hopefully we’ll all find eventually.
This piece is dedicated to Carolyn Gan of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City for screening “Dark City” as part of their cool CabaretCinema” series. This writer regretted very much not being able to have introduced one of his favorite films back in March.
[Interview © George Khoury, 2008. Originally published in Creative Screenwriting #33 in 2000]