Alex Proyas for “I, Robot”

Aussie director Alex Proyas has fulfilled hus five year dream to bring Asimov’s I, Robot to the screen. The Egypt-born Australian native came to prominence with his stylised music videos, before rising to Hollywood ranks as director of the feature film The Crow.

His Dark City received widespread critical acclaim but was not successful in the US until being rediscovered on video and DVD. He tried returning to a different genre with Garage Days, which disappeared rather rapidly. With I, Robot, Proyas has crafted his most expensive and ambitious film to date. Willl Smith stars in this action thriller inspired by the classic short story collection by Isaac Asimov. In the year 2035, robots are an everyday household item and everyone trusts them, except one slightly paranoid detective (Smith) investigating what he alone believes is a crime perpetrated by a robot. The case leads him to discover a far more frightening threat to the human race.

Part sci-fi actioner and part allegory on race and being an outsider, this may swell be the definitive Proyas film. The director spoke to Paul Fischer.

Question: So how did this come to you by way, I mean did the studios just offer it to you, were you pursuing it? What is the story?

Answer: I was going to do I, Robot, and about 5 years ago, some horrific amount of time that I can’t remember now we starting working on trying to secure the rights, couldn’t get the rights it was tied up in all sorts of legalities at the time and we started working on this, I read this script called “Hardwire” by a writer called Jeff Vinter that was very influenced, highly influenced by the Asimov stories and I thought this is at least a robot movie we have always wanted to do the definitive robot movie you know. Then literally I think within 6 months of working on that the I, Robot rights became available and to cut a long story short we kind of absorbed the two projects together. We looked at how we could condense the I, Robot stories into one narrative and it proved to daunting of a project so we sort of went back to Jeff’s narrative and then the two things sort of came together.

Question: When it had come from being I, Robot piece to a more or to as much kind of a Will Smith big Hollywood movie

Answer: Well when Willl Smith got involved I guess (laughs)

Question: well do you want Willl Smith to be in this I mean…

Answer: I did I wanted Will from the very being I actually approached Will very early on in the process and he turned me down the first time

Question: Why?

Answer: I don’t know, you will have to ask him. The script was in an early form and then literally about six months later or something we were a little closer with the script and we went back to him again and he got excited about it.

Question: Do the characters, was the character in the original story very different to the character in the stories?

Answer: No, no he wasn’t. I think Will brought an enormous amount to the project and I think he obviously brought a great sense of humour and that’s kind of what I wanted. I thought that was really important for this story to have someone like Will, and I mean there isn’t anyone like Will, who is a unique guy, but to have Will’s sense of humour to drive you through this story I thought was a great think. So I was really excited about that and I mean when we first met him and he started talking about it, he had such a wonderful take on this character that from that moment on I just could not imagine it without him, I thought if he turned me down again I was going to be devastated because he just had such a great vision for this guy you know that he has really brought to the film project

Question: What about the science fiction purist who may or may not take this to be the real interpretation of Asimov. Is there likely to be any controversy in that regard?

Answer: Well there has been a little bit of feedback on the web about people, from people who either can’t spell Asimov or think that is a novel and not actually a collection of nine stories, so it is a bit hard to take that controversy seriously but I am a science fiction fan myself and you know we certainly went into the project trying to honour Asimov’s work as much as we possible could, with the proviso that it is inspired by the stories, it is inspired by his robot stories and not a direct translation; we have never maintained that it is so you know.

Question: Dramatically it ‘s….

Answer: I think dramatically it is very true to his stories, and I actually think it frames the three laws in a very unique light, which I hope I believe that Asimov’s would have found interesting. His daughter certainly did last night at the premier

Question: Really

Answer: Yeah so you know its a unique film in that respect and I also think that from my point of view to try and condense everything that Asimov did in the nine stories into one movie would have been really problematic even if we had done it narratively, conceptually and philosophically it, you know, it would have been pretty much impossible.

Question: What did his daughter say to you, that was her first time seeing it?

Answer: Yeah, she loved it, thought the film was great and felt that Isaac would have appreciated it, I mean who knows you know, I hope she is right, you can never know and she was very complimentary of the film so it was great, that was my best review, I am happy now, I don’t need anymore

Question: You work with special effects a lot throughout your career. Is this the biggest special effects movie that you done, probably the most daunting?

Answer: Oh yes I think it was hugely complicated to do this film. It was certainly a complex movie to make with over a thousand of the effects shots and for me getting the robots right was obviously incredibly important. But we also had this world we were trying to create, I mean for me I am most proud of some scenes, like the factory floor scene were there are these thousands of robots running around, none of it is real, I mean Will is and Bridget are essentially the only real elements in the scene and that was quite a mental challenge to shoot a scene like that and then finish it in a way that I think that it worked fine

Question: Is it hard to avoid special effects taking over a film narrative, where do you draw, where does the balance lay between special effects and story?

Answer: Well I sort of approach this film from the very beginning, I said to the effects guys that I wanted to shoot it just like a regular movie because I have done a lot of visual effect films and I don’t like it getting in the way and unfortunately it very often does. You know when I am sitting around a set while some guy’s programming a computer and me and the actors are just sitting around bored out of our brains waiting for some bit of technology to work it can get very frustrating and when you lose that momentum I find that you lose your focus on what the scene is supposed to be, so I was adamant that we could just shoot it like a regular film in the typical fashion that we employ with films and they could just deal with the consequences later on. There is a thing called a motion control rig which is a way of repeating moves which is the thing that takes forever to deal with, suddenly everyone is focused around this particular box on the set, so I said I don’t want ant of those on the set I don’t want to see one of those units ever through in this entire production and fortunately I didn’t you know, but it made for a much more difficult post production because without some of these technological reinforcements they, it just makes the technique a little bit more difficult in post you know, but that was the way we approached it.

Question: And Sonny is completely CGI right?

Answer: Completely CGI yep

Question: I mean that is the most impressive CGI I have ever seen, I was questioning whether or not they were real robots you know, how did that even work out, how many versions did you do

Answer: Well we went through a lot of development on the character, we started designing Sonny years before we made the movie, I think he was the first thing we started designing but really the way we achieved that look was we had obviously Alan did his performance on set and we used him as the guide as the performance guide for the CG character, but we also built some full size NS fives that we could set up and light, they didn’t function they didn’t move they were just kind of posable puppets but full scale with all the detail that those characters have and so we would set them up in these scenes and would light them and frame them etcetera and so we used that as a guide so anytime we were sort of questioning a sort of photo reality of the CG world we would go back and look at that photographic element and we would try and copy that as much as we can. But it is just a lot of trial and error; it is really a lot of long hours to get them….

Question: Tell us a little bit about Will. There is all this legend that surrounds him, this big Hollywood movie star we see stuff like this in the magazines. Give us an idea of what this guy, you know what he is really like, what he is all about, a story or a anecdote that would sort of sum up your impression of him as a guy as a person

Answer: Will is just a great person, I mean he is having fun he is really, he really enjoys his life and he enjoys his career. He works very hard because he likes it, he likes what he does he enjoys himself and that kind of rubs off on the entire crew you know, when we are working with Will he is a pretty happy go lucky guy I mean I was really surprised at how easy going he was, a guy who works such long hours and has done so many movies he is incredibly relaxed about the whole process, you know sometime there was a lot of waiting around you know sometime a shot or two took hours to set up in this movie particularly when they are running around what we call ‘Vicky Level’ at the end of the movie it was a very difficult set to work in, we virtually had to pull the set apart and put it back together again for each shot. So you know I would see Will sometimes and I would say ‘Will look I am sorry it is taking so long’, and he goes ‘Don’t worry about it, it is fine’. It’s like I am just…

Question: What would he be doing during that time?

Answer: He would be in his trailer often recording music I mean it is a very sensible parallel career for him, it makes a lot of sense, because when he has got down time, I think he is using that to work on other projects and record music.

Question: Reports say that he was always singing on the set.

Answer: Oh yes, there was a lot of singing on the set

Question: And love songs apparently?

Answer: Yes, yes in fact there is a duet that was captured on film..

Question: Between you and him?

Answer: Yeah

Question: And what song was that?

Answer: Um, I have forgotten now

Question: Is it going to be on the DVD?

Answer: It probably will be, yeah

Question: Excellent!

Question: Oh, gotta remember what the song was, you can’t tell us what the song is!

Answer: You will have to wait for the DVD (laughter) it is terribly out of key actually, no Will is perfectly in key and I am completely out of key, but

Question: What kind of pressure is there for you making a big movie like this with a big movie star like Will, with so much riding on it in the summer, box office all that kind of stuff? Do you feel that pressure or do you ignore it?

Answer: You certainly feel it, but you know, I treat every film in the same way, the film that I did before this one was little six million dollar Aussie movie and it is the same for me I mean its’, the craziness is a little bit more hyped obviously as the budget goes up but all everything I do, all the movies I do I feel the same angst for there success, so you know it is self imposed pressure more than anything else.

Question: Are you doing anything smaller after this, are you planning on it…

Answer: I am not doing anything at all…

Question: Why is that?

Answer: Because I really need a holiday

Question: I thought they might have heard your singing on the set….

Answer: (Laughs), well it is probably that too you know.

Question: So you are taking a break

Answer: I am yeah well, I basically did Garage Days and went straight into this movie, so it has kind of been like four years now of working very long hours. So it does wear thin after a while.

Question: Are you going to travel or are you going to remain in Australia?

Answer: Not really sure at this stage, but

Question: Did you want to shoot I, Robot in Australia at some stage or?

Answer: Yeah, we were going to shoot it in Australia actually, but we were jockeying for position with the studios with Star Wars and they just got in ahead of us you know. So I wasn’t really in love with the idea of shooting it in, I had already had my experience shooting in empty warehouses in Sydney, so I wasn’t really keen to repeat that one. But…

Question: Even though you have a lot of empty warehouse scenes in this movie?

Answer: Yeah, but ironically they were mostly shot in sound stages, it can get very difficult for sound, I mean we had nightmares on Dark City because we were just in these open buildings and a we just had to loop a lot of it and really I just hate looping performance so it seems like a minor thing but it is actually really important to me…

Question: Are you as cynically about the future and your own life as your film?

Answer: I am not actually cynical about the future at all. I hope my I, Robot doesn’t sound cynical about the future, I mean I see it as a very optimistic message about the future and technology.

Question: How do you feel, Will smith character is very anti… well, initially very anti technology, certainly very anti robot. Do you feel the same way?

Answer: No, no, I mean Will’s character finds, he shakes the guys hand and shakes the robots hand it is all about his quest to be able to do that by the end of the movie. So I mean, to me the robots represent, can represent all sorts of other things, they are not necessarily… I don’t just see them as robots

Question: Racism Undertones?

Answer: Perhaps, perhaps they do that, perhaps they represent anyone in the World who is a little different you know, racially, sexually whatever, however you want to see it and to me it is about accepting the differences in other people. I think that to me is a very, I already believe in that and I think all my films to a certain extent are about outsiders and realizing that they are probably ok.

Question: Is this the first summer movie blockbuster experience?

Answer: Well, yeah it is certainly the biggest budget movie I have done. I have never opened a film in July before so I guess that means it is my first summer movie.

Question: Right

Answer: I mean Dark City at one stage, when the studio ran very hot and cold on that film, which seemed to be every second week at one stage they were all very excited about making it a Summer film and stuff but then they decided, someone decided that it wasn’t that, so it was almost a Summer film.

Question: Do you get cynical when the studios run hot or cold over films, or when films don’t do as well because of poor marketing or whatever.

Answer: Oh yeah, I have had a really bad run with, I mean Dark City was a classic example for me when they just had no idea what the movie was they were selling it in a completely bizarre way and if one more person comes up to me and says I love Dark City I never saw it on the big screen I sort of caught it on DVD cause I had no idea that it actually came out you know I will scream. Because it literally is. and it sold huge on DVD. But it was a classic example of studio just not understanding how to sell the movie, they just didn’t get it you know which is a shame but these things happen I guess.

Question: What DVD secrets are going to be on this film, any ideas?

Answer: Well they asked me that in the other room and it is like I was saying there is 20 hrs of material they are going absolutely crazy with the DVD there will be all sorts of stuff. I mean the cool thing for me on the DVD is they are getting Ray Curzwile who is very influential on this project he wrote this book called Age of the Spiritual Machine and he is going to do a commentary on it and they are doing like really cool stuff with real robot guys. Guys who are actually making these things now so that is the one, I am actually as keen as anyone to see that chapter.