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Issue 02, Volume 01

Reflections on Modern-Day Moviemaking and What the Future Holds

by Theo Zenou

In the last decade, D.J. Caruso has proven himself as one of Hollywood’s surest bets: he can make hits, direct big names (Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey) and launch new talent (Shia LaBeouf, Dianna Agron, Alex Pettyfer). But the most striking aspect of Caruso’s filmography is his ability to transcend his films’ pop culture brand. Two for the Money (2005) is an electrifying journey into the compulsive psyche of men who love losing almost as much as they love winning. Disturbia (2007) is an exploration of suburban boredom and voyeurism. I Am Number Four (2011) uses aliens as a metaphor for teenage angst and a search for identity. His next film, The Goats, is an independent project he directed in 18 days. Soon, he will be back in the pop culture realm with an anticipated adaptation of the cult graphic novel Preacher.

Martin Scorsese believes that “movies fulfill a spiritual need that people have: to share a common memory”. What was your first exposure to this “common memory?”

My first understanding of what the power of cinema could be is when I saw Mean Streets with my father.  When you are a child, film is all about entertaining, escaping, and there’s something magical about that. But when I saw Mean Streets, I realized that a film could be about my father’s friends and my father’s family. Within the reality of what Scorsese was doing, each character represented something that was part of my life. It was an eye-opening experience. I understood a film doesn’t have to be a spectacle, it could be character-based. It’s a universal need we all have.

Your recent films offer a lot of spectacle and yet you still manage to convey the character’s intimate moments. How do you find that balance?

That’s the battle of modern moviemaking between the art and the commerce. I’m always striving – I’m not sure I always succeed – but I’m always striving to make sure it’s a character-based piece first. I thematically have to understand what the character needs. For example, on Eagle Eye, Shia [LaBeouf] and I were basically: “Yes, this is great spectacle. It’s about technology and the dangers of the information world and what all we share. But, at the end of the day, it was about a guy who really, really wanted to have his father understand him and love him.” And I Am Number Four was about a guy who didn’t want to accept his destiny and understand who he really was. No matter how big the spectacle gets – and it’s a wild ride in these modern-day movies – if you can hang on to your theme and ride it out through all the spectacle, then it’s a much more rewarding experience for the audience.

You have made six feature films and one could see them as two loose trilogies. The first one is made of The Salton Sea (2002), Taking Lives (2004), and Two for the Money—dark, gritty, urban, rooted in Michael Mann or Brian De Palma. The second is comprised of Disturbia, Eagle Eye (2008) and I Am Number Four, anchored in Steven Spielberg movies where extraordinary events shape ordinary people. Those subject matters and genres differ, but they share an emotional core. When looking for a picture, do you first and foremost consider the emotional experience?

When I read a script, it’s usually the emotional response. Then I go back and read it and I say: Why am I the right guy to tell this story? Thematically what I found is that the characters I seem to be attracted to are people who are in dark moments in the beginning. They have to fight through the darkness in order to find little glimmers of light and hope, whether they are revenge-driven or redemptive. That’s the journey I like to take my characters on.

How do you decide the pace of your films in the edit room?

Each experience is always a little bit different. But the main thing is always getting that assembly together and taking that all in. And then it’s like having a pencil that you just keep making sharper and sharper and sharper. It’s amazing the domino effect of a scene you have on Monday and it’s working really well. By Friday – even if you haven’t touched it – it isn’t working as well because all the stuff you are shaping around it has changed the rhythm of it. The more experience I get, the more a movie is almost like a song or a piece of music. It needs this harmonic chord that goes through it. You realize you have to tune scenes to get back in tune with the rest of the picture. So, I just get in there and get dirty. Editing rooms are the kind of places where you work really hard. You go in the morning when it’s sunny, you come out at night, you have no idea what time it is. You go home and you take a shower. You are sitting in the shower and you go: “Oh my God, I didn’t really think about this or that.” And you go back the next day. I really enjoy the editing process prior to anyone else having to see the movie. There’s that 8 to 9 weeks period where you just get to explore and get what you need. It’s just you and your partner, the editor.

You closely collaborate with your actors. How do you work with them?

The most important aspect is that there is a mutual trust. I tend to just help the actors in preparation. I want to make sure they are building a foundation for the character in a clean fashion. If I can help with the foundation, then it’s really their job to erect the house or the structure. It’s really important that you agree – from the core – on the theme, the character’s exploration, the obstacles…

Run us more specifically through your collaboration with an actor in a scene. There’s a scene in Eagle Eye where Shia LaBeouf’s character walks into a church and sees his brother’s body into a coffin. How did you work with LaBeouf to create this intimate moment?

It was an incredible, emotional scene. I wanted to keep it simple and beautiful. I still haven’t met anyone as prepared as Shia. And if you look closely, he sticks a little piece of paper in his brother’s hand. Shia literally wrote his brother a poem. I remember he flipped it to me and let me read it and I was like of course you can put this into his hand. He had this whole thing figured out. We already had all the foundation built in. Shia had known I had lost a brother when I was younger. I think he had a picture of my brother in his pocket; he’s so prepared! Honestly, I remember doing it in one or two takes: walking him over in the wide shot and getting in there in the close-up. And it cuts, I look over and the script supervisor is crying. Everyone is crying! Shia and I are just so connected in those moments.

With that mutual respect and agreement, the actor becomes your partner and you are his or her partner. That’s important to establish so you know you are always going to be there and fight for each other. Because there are outside sources – even though they all mean well – that might be countering the vision that you have.

You mention “outside sources”. Are you referring to studio executives, producers?

Outside sources can be anyone from a producer to a friend or a writer. There’s a group of people – like writers I really adore – that I love to show the movie to because I respect their storytelling skills the most. I know they are going to come from the heart.

I think what happens with the studio is the homogenization of what the expectations are, what they want the movie to be from a marketability standpoint….But, for example, Adam Goodman [President, Paramount Film Group, ex-President of Production for DreamWorks] was a guy who was just so trusting of the filmmaker. He’d have really good opinions but at the same time if it was about red or blue, he’d say: “Look, it’s really just a matter of choice and I want you to go with the choice you want to make.” Those are the kind of relationships you really want.
I remember reading an article – six or seven years ago – by Cameron Crowe in the New York Times about how you do value everyone’s opinion. But as a filmmaker, if you start to take all that in, the 1% you take from here and the 2% you take from here, all of a sudden the film derails. It gets off track and it’s not the film you set out to make anymore.

Your foray into interactive storytelling with Inside—where the audience could guide the plot through Facebook or Twitter—was very interesting. Do you believe this type of content will get made on a bigger scale in the future?

Inside was really clever because Toshiba and Intel were brave enough to advertise in a hands-on way. And the social film aspect of it would be something to really test with Facebook, social medias and networking. You’ve heard about it for 10 or 15 years now: how the Internet was going to change moviemaking. Yes, of course, we all watch movies on Netflix, all that stuff is great. But the entertainment that has been made never really felt integrated. With Inside, I thought, we scratched the surface of what could become incredibly interesting. If you even take that one step further – whether from an advertisement standpoint or a pure film standpoint – you could create a really interactive experience that’s still incredibly cinematic. That would be the goal. I would love to go deeper, and I am convinced other people will if they haven’t already. If it stays away from being a gimmick and becomes real and emotional, it definitely could work.

Your next film is a coming-of-age drama, The Goats. You wrote the script over 15 years ago; why is this a passion project?

When I was a Production Assistant starting out, I worked for directors John Badham and Rob Cohen. I was a reader for them and the novel The Goats was my weekend reading. I loved it. They ended up optioning the book out of their own pocket because Universal – where they had a deal – thought the movie was too small. Over the course of the years, the film kind of went away. And as I became more successful – and this is not even a comparison – I started looking at Lasse Hallström’s My Life as a Dog and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and I thought “I really want to make a coming-of-age film.” And there’s no better coming-of-age story that I ever read than The Goats. We went back out and got the option. Obviously, I knew it wasn’t going to be a studio movie.

We raised three million dollars and shot the movie in 18 days. I’m editing it and putting it together. Unlike anything else I ever had where I know my movie is going to get a 2,000-screen release, now I am hoping just to get the financiers’ money back and sell the film. It was incredibly liberating to make, even though it was hard as hell. I just felt really great making this little movie that I wanted to make.

I would imagine that making big movies actually helped you make this little movie even better?

I think so. I’m now a firm believer in experience. For example, I operated the camera a lot on The Goats. I had these kid actors who could be on set only for six hours. And I didn’t want to have long conversations about the compositions and how to achieve them. So, I would always be getting the camera exactly where I wanted to get it. The experience of the big movies – working with great camera operators and DPs – helped me know exactly what I can get by and exactly what I needed in such a short time.

What makes The Goats so personal to you?

It’s about these two kids who are victims of an incredibly traumatic camp prank because they are considered nerds or outsiders. You spend a three-day journey with them and realize how amazing and special these kids are. But because society tells them they are not the cool ones, no one really has a chance to see how incredibly beautiful they are on the inside.

My personal family life wasn’t as fragmented or damaged as the main character’s family life but I always felt like I was on the outside. And I didn’t mind it. The more I know artists, filmmakers, writers, poets - you are always that person on the outside observing. And that was something that helped me become a better storyteller. And it’s that kinship I felt with Howie, the lead character. I just knew him and I want people to get to know him too.

Can you give us any updates on your upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel Preacher?

John August wrote a really great screenplay, and Sony liked the screenplay a lot. Now I’m kind of fine-tuning it and restructuring it a little so we can get back in there after the holidays and hopefully get Sony to say they really want to make the movie. It’s a scary, scary picture for a studio.

Will it be R-rated?

Oh, it’s going to be R-rated for sure! There’s no question it’s going to be R-rated.  The material is incredibly unique and unusual. I get e-mails from people everyday saying: “Don’t f*ck it up! Don’t put Shia in or I’m gonna kill you!” But right now, I’m focusing on getting the story right in a screenplay form. If you are familiar with the piece, it spans so many graphic novels. It’s about what to hone in on and how to tell the right story, how to kick out all this great stuff and make one great two-hour movie that hopefully could span other films, but also stands alone as an amazingly unique picture. Sony is incredibly brave; it’s scary, but there’s some sort of bizarre universality that I am trying to convince them exists. There’s something incredible about Jesse [the preacher]: what exactly is going on, who he is and what his relationship is with God. Also, what is the Saint of Killers’ relationship with the Devil? It’s all fairly simple in the themes, but the way it goes about it is so highly unusual and sacrilegious. It’s gonna offend some and it’s not gonna be a movie for everyone.

You’ve worked with this new acting generation: Shia LaBeouf, Alex Pettyfer, Dianna Agron, Teresa Palmer. Do you see a common blueprint or quality in this generation?

Someone like Shia and a few others, they have this “thing,” like Sean Penn — they are pure actors and they are amazing. What is happening is they are not allowed the opportunities that some of the other actors have been allowed in their generation. So, they start to gravitate toward projects like The Wettest County [John Hillcoat, 2012]. The Tom Hardy’s and Shia’s, they are trying to find those types of films so they can still meet the commercial needs on a studio level, but also fulfill their creative needs.
      You know, we are all guilty if we keep doing what the studio wants us to do—if we don’t branch off or do a Goats as a director or a Wettest County as an actor. I admire Brad Pitt because he believes in his projects. He takes a studio picture like Moneyball, and yet it’s still an incredibly, fiercely independent project that is very accessible.

Do you think there will be an even bigger gap between studio filmmaking and indie filmmaking than there already is today?

I’d like to think that somehow the gap could close but I also know that you might make a $20 million film and the studio doesn’t know how not to spend $30 million to market it. So, your $20 million picture becomes a $50 million investment. And how fake is a $20M film if it’s not a romantic comedy with Katherine Heigl? That favors certain movies. So, the dilemma would be: when you are under $10 million, how do you find someone that can strategically take a marketing campaign and not spend studio kind of money on it, but still make the movie accessible and easy to find.

Studios are making fewer movies in the middle because they’d rather spend a whole lot on the tentpole movies or acquire the little guy and spend a little bit on marketing, which Fox Searchlight is genius at. And the guy with movies in the middle, they are a lot tougher—the $40 million, $50 million films. The gap is widening but maybe, somehow, if there is a way they could figure out the marketing costs and control them, which I haven’t seen in my 20+ years in the business.  They just keep escalating. The gap is gonna remain, unless we figure a way to close it.


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