I first became involved when Tom Rothman, the chairman of 20th Century Fox, sent me a copy of the script they had. I think they’d worked on the script for a few years and struggled with what to do with it. I’m a huge fan of the original film so when I got the script I was a bit sceptical. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to remake The Day the Earth Stood Still. When I read it, I knew it needed some work but I appreciated the writer’s general approach to doing it and I certainly saw the value in doing it pretty quickly. It really updated the social issues that the original was dealing with. I also came to realise that it’s not a film that the modern movie-going public is used to. Telling that story for the general public now seemed like a really good idea.
This is a matter of opinion, but I differ from a lot of film fans in that I don’t think that a remake changes the original at all. I don’t think a good remake or a bad remake makes any difference to the original. I think Philip Kaufman’s remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is better than Don Siegel’s, but I don’t think that makes Don Seigel’s any worse. There have been four versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I think that’s a real tribute to Don Seigel and the movie he made. If anything I think it shows a great respect. I have to act on those creative beliefs, so I don’t feel worried about doing any damage to the original but I do have respect for the original and for the fans of that original.
Keanu is a very particular actor with a particular, and peculiar, set of gifts which I don’t think people give him enough credit for. I think that there are some critics that have been hard on him because they don’t understand his appeal and I think it’s because they don’t pay attention. There are very few actors who could make The Matrix films and not look ridiculous. What he does extraordinarily well is that he has an understanding of his own physicality and of his own countenance, and how it can draw an audience in without becoming too big or silly. In movies in which it would be very easy to become silly in. There’s a mystery to him, and not just him the actor. I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the last couple of year and he’s a fascinating guy. There’s something about him that keeps you constantly wondering about what’s going on beneath the surface because he’s an interesting fellow.
I knew that the movie had no chance of succeeding if the audience didn’t buy that he was an alien and I needed an actor who could communicate that to the audience without overdoing it and without it becoming something the audience would be conscious of. I believed that Keanu had the ability to do that. He’s extraordinarily alien in the first scene in which you meet him, to the point that he even freaked out Kathy Bates! She wasn’t making too much of it, but she just came to me at one point and said, “You know, he’s really freaking me out!” What’s particularly interesting for me to watch is that he takes on this human body but becomes accustomed to it and sort-of becomes human by the end of the film. You shoot movies out of order and he’d really worked out where he was going to be with that throughout the film.
I love Jennifer and I’ve spent so much time with her and her family over the last year. She is so bright and smart and funny and she made shooting a pleasure. She’s an extraordinary actress. When you’re cutting a film you’re constantly stopping and starting the movie and landing on random still frames. You hit the space bar on the Avid, the footage pauses and you usually end up with some bizarre facial expression on your actors’ faces. One of the things that became almost a running joke between me and my editor was that we’d pause on a shot of her literally thousands of times and every time you stop there’d just be this frozen image of her looking perfect and beautiful. The camera loves her so much. She was always my first choice for Helen, the person I’d brought up in my first meeting with Tom Rothman, and the reason I wanted her was that I knew we’d need a real actress to ground this film with aliens and robots throughout it. And genre fans love her. We had the star of Labyrinth and the star of The Matrix on set with us and there were definitely some pinch-myself moments having a chance to work with those two!
I couldn’t have had a more collaborative experience working with a studio than I had working with Fox on this movie. Tom’s been vilified by film fans and demonised in such a severe way. I don’t know what the past is with filmmakers working at the studio, so I’m not challenging what anyone else has said, but in my experience they were very respectful of me creatively. I was very direct when we started to make sure we all knew what kind of movie we’d be making so there wasn’t any basic push or pull of them seeing dailies and saying, “This wasn’t what we were thinking.” I think a part of the responsibility lies with the filmmaker to actually do that. Every single time they would look at stuff they would write down all of their creative notes, they would give them all to me, and then the last thing they would say would be, “Take those. If they work, use them, if they don’t, don’t.” That’s the way it worked until the end.
For as long as I’m privileged to make movies I’m going to try and make movies I’d want to see. Those are the kinds of movies Kurosawa made, and if I make one movie that’s as good as his mediocre films I’ll be satisfied as a director! The reason he’s the beacon for me is that he seems to the only filmmaker in cinema history who I feel, through his entire body of work, was always pursuing the highest level of art and entertainment at the same time. He made movies that were a 10 on the Entertainment scale and a 10 on the Art of Cinema scale all the time. He took the best of Hollywood cinema and the best of European cinema and put them together in his own unique way. I’ll always try to do things that are entertaining that audiences will want to see because I like those sorts of movies, but I always want them to have some sort of artistic appeal or cinematic craftsmanship, and certainly some kind of thematic value.