Kerry Conran, Jon Avnet for “Sky Captain”

Some films take years to develop, but rarely do they get as personal as “Sky Captain” for Kerry Conran. The shy genius behind the concept was given a deal any filmmaker would envy – many millions and his own major computer effects facility to work on the project. Now, after many years of blood, sweat and tears the dream has finally come true. During the San Diego Comic Con, I got to speak with him and producer Jon Avnet about making that dream a reality:

Question: It’s hard to believe this is your first film. What’s your background and what’s the history of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow?”

Kerry Conran: I had been in film school. I’d been out of there a couple of years and was trying to figure out how to make a movie. Studios are not prone to handing out a $100 million budget so I sort of just retreated. I didn’t want to go the route of working my way up in some lateral kind of move. I sort of took what I’d learned and I had this copious interest in computers and tried to kind of use the computer that was just emerging as a technology that was viable for filmmaking, and use a technique that was used traditionally forever – you know, the blue screen – but taken to a real extreme conclusion.

At the time, these programs and software were just sort of starting to be available to, not consumers, but cheap enough that you could consider it. So really it was about a four year period. I had intended originally to make the film – it was a black and white film, sort of like a news reel – and I was six minutes into it with four years having expired and realized I had to cry, “Uncle” (laughing).

Marsha Oglesby, who produced the film with Jon, was a friend of my brother’s wife. She came over and we showed her the film, and she encouraged me to show Jon, which we did the next day. We are here now six years later as a result of that.

Question: Did you immediately jump at the prospect of making this movie?

Jon Avnet: I looked at it and I said, “Okay, what do you want?” He said, “I want to make a movie – I want to make my movie.” I said, “I think I can do that.” We spent about two or three days talking about the tone of the movie, curiously, not the technical process, just to make sure we were on the same page, because he was going to write it. It wasn’t written at that point, and I tried to listen to what his vision was. I concluded that his talent that I thought was so obviously…I mean just this gorgeous, graphic lighting – the whole concept of it.

I just thought, “I think this guy can do it.” We spent two years working on the script. Both of us are hard-headed people and not shy about expressing our opinions, whether it’s verbal or otherwise (laughing). And during that time, I think we really forged a very decent, respectful kind of trusting collaboration, which meant that when we disagreed with each other, we didn’t punch each other. I felt he was responsive to what I said. I’m not an idiot; I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve got more experience than him, yet it’s not my movie so there’s a kind of dance there that’s difficult in the collaborative medium of film. But I believe after that, that we could collaborate.

The difficulties of doing any movie, which would be more so here, were things that we could overcome, and overcome with a little bit of grace and dignity in the process. And I was correct about that, and that’s a big gamble. Armed with his script, I went out to get a cast that I thought would be a great cast that he would respond to. God knows what an unbelievable ride. It was such a kind of radical bunch of maverick nuts. We were just a grungy bunch of people who really didn’t know what we were doing in certain ways, who were trying to do this the way he showed it to me.

I felt, “My God, he’s going to take video and make it look like film. I’ve never seen that. This is a major, major, major breakthrough. Does anybody know this?” I can go shouting into the jungle about this thing, you know? This is what he came up with.

Question: This is such an unusual film. It was finished before Paramount got involved, wasn’t it?

Jon Avnet: It was finished shooting, and the reason it was finished shooting was that I was petrified that I would not be able to protect Kerry from the studio. I was also petrified of losing my ass because I spent a whole lot of money and I don’t like to do that. But I was just… How is he going to explain to them some of the things he explained to me? I either get it or like, “It’s your film, Kerry. If you’re going to have ‘King Kong’ references and you’re going to have ‘THX 1138’ and the Titanic adventure and all this, that and the other, God bless.” I couldn’t protect him from the studios. I prayed we could shoot the movie and then show it to the studios. And we’re lucky, they all wanted it.

Question: A lot of directors and producers these days end up working on multiple projects together. Do you think that’ll be the case with the two of you?

Jon Avnet: I don’t know how Kerry can look at me anymore (laughing).

Kerry Conran: God only knows what the future holds. The thing that’s unique to Jon is that Jon is a director and I don’t think he wants to be saddled with what I put him through for the last six years. I think I would imagine Jon’s next feat will be his own film. But I think it’s a natural assumption that we [would work together again]. We’re an oddball couple, but it works. I think that we had the necessary contrasting [personalities] that kind of pushed each other in a way that created something unique, that wouldn’t have happened independently.

Jon Avnet: When it works, it’s a really great thing. What Kerry found out about me is that I have a lot of patience. You would never know that by listening to me. I wouldn’t say that’s the first thing [you’d notice], but from the processing of making movies and raising kids… I don’t want to go in and sit down with somebody else, if I’m going to produce a movie, and have to say, “Now listen, if you have a problem, tell me.” I didn’t have to say that to Kerry, just like he didn’t have to say it to his brother.

When I say, “Kerry, I think you should cut this sequence. No, I’m not telling you you have to do it, but think about it,” he’ll think about it. When I said to him, “I don’t like this in the script,” he’d either do what I said or he’d come up with something better. And Kerry wasn’t worried for one second that I was going to try and take his movie away from him, but I could support it. When you have that, it’s a very natural thing. It’s difficult enough to do it on your own. It really is.