Continuing with my lengthy and meandering conversation with Kevin Conran, Production Designer, and Michael Sean Foley, Lighting Designer, reminiscing about the making of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and random digressions into wherever the conversation and the Guinness took us.
Jim: I’ve seen in the last few years, a number of articles online, of people taking a second look, reevaluating, celebrating the tenth or fifteenth or whatever anniversary; do you think that in the larger film community, it’s getting a second look?
Conran: I don’t know. I hope so. I mean, we were, like I say again, everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and due to the way the world works now, you can get that opinion out there. But it’s really kind of up to me, my brother, Michael Sean, if we want to value those opinions or not. I know that Roger Ebert, God rest his soul, loved the movie, and wrote glowing things about it. George Lucas thought enough of it to invite us up to spend a week with him at Skywalker Ranch with Zemeckis and Cameron and guys like that, all of whom were exceedingly kind about the film, so if some kid, some disgruntled filmmaker that never got his chance, wants to rake me over the coals, I can let that bother me, or I can go “nah, I got to stay at Skywalker Ranch for a week with George Lucas and James Cameron. Call me back when you get to.”
Jim: Apart from the fan response or lack thereof, or the commercial success or lack thereof, it was a pioneering work. You had a lot of problem-solving to do; would Sin City have happened within five years if you hadn’t come first?
Foley: Sin City? Forget about Sin City. 300!
Conran: Right. 300.
Foley: I met Zach Snyder; we were finishing up our last scene down on Melrose, when I went to the Starbucks, and I ran into Zach. He was talking to his producer about 300; I sat there and laid it out. Like, this is how we did the whole movie.
Conran: You asshole! Why would you do that?
Foley: I know. So, yeah, before 300 was actually started filming, all that information was out there for Zach and everybody.
Conran: We laid the groundwork for all those things. Avatar wouldn’t have happened, even the way Lucas makes his movies. We influenced a lot of people.
Jim: Absolutely. Even movies where people don’t even know that there are special effects happening; if you’re going to shoot a film set in 1903 New York, they’re not going to go to Vienna anymore, they’re going to just green screen it and build virtual sets.
Conran: Frankly, I’d love to see a producer in town that thought enough of what we did, and recognized the intelligent choices we made to break new ground and keep costs down, and take us up on our bet, that we’ll do something like that for three million bucks.
Jim: Challenge accepted!
Conran: Yeah. Because honestly, the funny thing is a lot of people have taken the techniques and the things that we broke ground on in that movie, and applied them to to their films today, but rather than take those ideas and methods and utilize them to make a much less costly movie, they’ve simply applied them to big huge movies; they’re still spending 200 million dollars and using those techniques. You don’t have to. I’m not suggesting for one minute that for three million dollars we could make The Avengers, I’m not saying that. I am saying there’s a movie in there that’s big and grand and has a lot of scope for that price point. I think that’s where Hollywood reveals itself and fails, is that you have to trust the people that you’re working with, that you’ve hired to get this vision on screen, and trust is really tough, man. It’s a struggle. Having said that, I’ve signed a deal with Dynamite to produce a book, The Art of Sky Captain, and so that’s going to come out, so you know, it’s weirdly percolating again. Hope springs eternal. Maybe we’ll get to do it again.
Jim: It takes about 10 years for something to become a cult hit. It took Firefly 10 years, it took Freaks & Geeks 10 years, and so you’re overdue.
Conran: I hope so. We’re still out there, both hustling and doing stuff.
Jim: So in an alternate world, if it had actually been everything that the studio was betting on it to be, there obviously would have been a sequel, and a whole franchise and so forth. Did you have any ideas in the works of what would come next?
Conran: Yeah. We had an idea for a sequel. It’s a logical evolution from where that film was, but it’s different enough that I sort of don’t really want to reveal it, because I do hope we’ll get to do it. And whether that means it begins as a graphic novel or some other avenue, or a short, or a Kickstarter thing, believe me, you’d want to see this one. Because it takes the steps that might not seem fully expected in some ways, but as soon as you see them, you go “oh, of course.” And that’s what I’d like to do.
Foley: But as it grew, I mean, John Carter of Mars was the second thing that the guys were up for. We spent six months in Glendale, starting and redesigning and trying to work that movie. Not the sequel, but the next thing was to try to take another movie.
Jim: That might have gone differently too.
Foley: Yeah. It would have been James Cameron’s Pandora.
Conran: Yeah. I’ve got the seven minute short that we made on my website, you can see it. KevinConran.com. And it’s pretty good, and the thing Michael Sean was talking about was, I’m just going to say it, I’ve said it before, is, if we had gotten to actually make that film, it would have changed Hollywood history. And not because “oh, we’re so awesome,” because of what we were doing necessarily, although it would have been really a good film I believe, it’s because it would have come out well before Avatar, and Avatar’s the same movie. It’s the same movie. It’s an earthman-warrior, transported to a different planet, falls in love with a princess in an uprising, saves the planet. It’s John Carter and A Princess of Mars. And then when I went to see Avatar, in the theater, I’m sitting there, and my stomach dropped out, I mean I just got sick to my stomach, because there’s a shot in the movie, I remember it like it was yesterday, those four-winged creatures, which were my designs for John Carter, by the way, well in advance of Avatar, come banking around from the right of the screen, and there are these mountains floating in midair. They’re in our short, you can see ’em, well in advance, years ahead of… When Sherry Lansing lost her job at Paramount, our movie got pulled. The new guy came in, and they scrapped us.
Jim: They always do that, right?
Conran: So, y’know, everybody that was working on our film lost their jobs. That’s what people, my friends back in Michigan, people that don’t work in this industry, don’t really understand, is that we don’t really get jobs in the conventional sense that my buddies do at General Motors. You go from gig to gig, and when it goes away, you’re scrambling. So our thing suddenly ended, and a few of the guys in my art department went on to work on Avatar, and mysteriously some of my ideas showed up on the screen in Avatar. I’m not suggesting anything untoward happened, I’m just saying that’s what…
Jim: Amazing coincidence.
Conran: Well, things happen, y’know, but it was really hard to sit in that theater and see that, and go “shit, we were there years ahead of these guys.” And the proof is on my website, this is not just sour grapes.
Jim: But in a larger sense, it’s, yeah, it’s Hollywood. The John Carter movie that eventually got made suffered from the fact that the story had been plundered and looted by every studio in Hollywood for a hundred years.
Conran: Exactly right.
Jim: By the time the movie comes out, every revolutionary thing in the story has been seen a thousand times.
Conran: So imagine flip-flop that. If we’d gotten our John Carter on the screen before Avatar came out, what’s that do to the fortunes of Avatar? 3-D technology and crap aside, because honestly I don’t care about any of that stuff. It doesn’t matter, it’s just another trinket to pull you into the screen, it means nothing. I don’t care about any of that. Tell a good story, show me some pretty pictures, make it all work, that’s all they’re looking for.
Jim: And now I want to see that movie. I am curious about why the audience didn’t get it.
Conran: I think how a movie is marketed is so separate and apart from the people that make the film. You don’t really have a lot of interaction with them, apart from looking at some one-sheets, y’now? You don’t really get a say in how it’s promoted. I’ll tell you this, and I think this would have been a fun thing… Our idea, Kerry and I, from the beginning was this little quirky B-graded black and white movie, and what we wanted it to actually be was just released quietly with no-name people, and the idea being that, you know, somebody’s rooting around in a sub-basement room in Paramount, and they come across a movie that was made in the ’30s that they’d forgotten about and it never got released and nobody’s seen it, and then we’d project it, and there’s 90-foot robots walking down Broadway, and there’s underwater airplanes, and people would go “how in the hell did they do that in 1939?” And that’s what we wanted it to be.
Jim: That would be fantastic. It would have been great.
Conran: Yeah. But you can’t sell movies, they don’t… Marketing a movie and making a movie are just different worlds, and I don’t know how much communication there is between the filmmakers… I know there wasn’t much in our case. And we were new, and so nobody really cared what we had to say about anything. So they were going to do what they always do, and they didn’t promote it as like a family film, they promoted it as some kind of big tent-pole thing, and it wasn’t that.
Jim: I remember that.
Conran: I’ve got friends throughout the years, that keep wanting to know, that have reached out to me, that are like “I was just watching this with my ten-year-old, he loves it!” Now imagine, that’s a ten-year-old born in the 21st century, who has no idea about those Flash Gordon serials I watched when I was a kid, and he loves it, ’cause that same magic is in there to some degree.
Jim: Well, the other part of that… when you’re making a tiny little movie for change that you pull out of your sofa cushions, on a really tight budget, there’s a lot of compromises that have to be made. Now your technology, the computer work that nobody had done before, mitigates a lot, gives you a leg up, but there are compromises that need to be made; on the flip side, when a studio comes along and says “here’s a shopping bag full of money, make a movie,” every one of those dollars has a hook attached, and you have a whole different batch of compromises…
Conran: There’s no question.
Jim: Now, was there a particular, anything in particular, that the studio said you simply must do or simply must not do, that had an impact on what you wanted the film to be?
Conran: Well, there’s a… the color that exists in that movie, to the degree that it does, that was mandated by the studio. Whatever color, desaturated or not, we had to put it in, because they wouldn’t let us make a black & white movie. And it was always supposed to be a black & white movie. In fact, we famously went and, thank God I don’t remember the person’s name, because I’m not going to tell tales out of school or anything, but, just a studio executive type that was attached to our film in some capacity, it’s a woman, it’s a person I saw one time and one time only, I don’t ever recall her being around our production otherwise, but we had to go in and screen some scenes at Paramount, so we’re on the lot in their screening room, and there’s somebody sitting in the back that was important, but see, even that concept is weird. We were a collection of, at our peak, like a hundred and fifteen people maybe, under one roof, and we’re all very close, and everybody knew everybody, and we were the ones making the movie. The producers – that’s a whole ‘nother rant I could go on, the producers — but nevertheless, here’s a person that I never saw before and would never see again, that had a huge influence on how our movie was promoted, produced, and brought to market. And she pops in, and we’re screening this thing, and it happens to be one of the opening sequences where the robots are marching in New York, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s character gets thrown to the ground, and he swoops in in this plane, that whole action sequence. There’s a shot in there where a police officer runs to a call box and says “send reinforcements, send everything you got!” We’re watching, this is a lengthy scene, and at the end of it, we’re all kinda sitting there, and they bring the lights back up, and it was very much that thing where everybody was waiting for this person in the back to validate the work they’d done, right? And so the comment was “can that call box be blue?” So if you go back and look at the movie, there’s a little blue tint to the call box, because that was clearly going to be the thing that made or broke the movie.
Jim: That’s a creative contribution.
Foley: No other notes, just “I lived in New York, and those call boxes are blue.”
Conran: So thank you for that, and we’ll get back to work.
Foley: I was there for that one, that one was good.
Conran: We all looked at each other, sorta like with this, “is this real?”
Foley: “Are you kidding me?”
Conran: Is this really how you people make movies? No wonder Hollywood movies suck. No wonder.
Jim: That’s a good point. I point this one out to people: 1977.
Conran: You will believe a man can fly.
Jim: Before that. For ten solid years, Hollywood is making these amoral, ethically dubious stories about edgy people doing horrible things with their miserable lives in a kind of an unjust universe; Five Easy Pieces, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, and some of them are good, and some are just movie after movie of ethically questionable people making terrible decisions and living horrible lives. Cinderella Liberty is a classic example of this. Just bleak movies, and then Lucas comes along and makes this movie with very clear-cut heroes and villains and you can tell which is which…
Foley: Bad guys wear black and good guys wear white,
Jim: It’s a straight-up Lord of the Rings fantasy dressed up as a science-fiction movie, and people love it because it’s actually an action-packed story with a beginning, middle and end, and heroes you can root for and villains you can hiss at, and they love it. And the studios looked at it, and said “wow, that movie made a hundred billion dollars and is gonna run forever… I guess people like movies with rockets in them.” And they made a whole bunch of morally dubious, ethically vague, tedious, bleak, science fiction movies about cynical depressed people. They missed the point, in an epic display of point-missing.
Conran: Well, I think Lucas and the success of Star Wars, though, was he didn’t compromise on it, it was what it was, and it wasn’t going to be, nor was it ever intended to be, all things to all people, and yet, irony of ironies, it kinda becomes all things to most all people in the end of it.
Jim: If you make a movie that kids can enjoy, that doesn’t insult adults, it’s pretty much money in the bank.
Foley: But I don’t think he intended it to be anything more than what it was.
Conran: That’s exactly right. It’s a “save the princess” kind of story.
Jim: Twenty years later, when he came to do the prequels…
Conran: But again, there was so much influence on those films, from all that had happened in between, in those intervening years.
Jim: And I think part of it, part of the reason the sequels didn’t work, was that 55-year-old George Lucas cannot get into the headspace of 27-year-old George Lucas. As a young kid making this movie, he’s “aw, it’s gonna be great, we got a pirate, and we got a princess, and we got a knight and a wizard, and it’s a great story…” Thirty years later, he’s like “wait a minute, a princess means a monarchy, we need a democratically ruled Republic,” and then you have a fifteen-year-old democratically-elected queen, and no, it doesn’t work, it’s stupid. But his real-world concerns had overridden his childlike fantasy. An old guy can’t make a young guy’s movie.
Conran: I think he could still find that. I think George Lucas could still make a rightful successor to his original film, I believe he could. I don’t know that he ever will. But there’s a part of that guy that’s still alive in him.
Foley: For me, not that anybody’s asking, but when you have nothing, you make these decisions, like, you do a lot more things with less money, and less people in your business. And I think at some point, he just had so many people coming at him, like “that doesn’t make sense, why isn’t it this?” You know what, I didn’t even fucking care about that, that wasn’t even part of the story, now you’re making me think about this, now I gotta think about it…
Jim: And now you need to explain all these things.
Foley: Yeah, fuck it, when it was, like, just him, and he was just making a story, why do I need that kind of backstory to understand the democratic process of the galaxy?
Conran: It almost speaks to what you said earlier, with regard to the visuals, you know, like as far as computers have come, and our ability to animate digitally and do all these things that you couldn’t do a generation or two ago. That’s fine, but I think it’s conspired to hamstring a lot of filmmakers. Because to me, honestly, and Michael Sean and I have talked about this for years; great, the world’s your oyster, you can do whatever you want, we got all the technology we can bring to bear, you can do whatever you can imagine… well, the problem there is it’s too much of a good thing, and people can’t shut it off. You’re far better as an artist and creator, when there’s a box defined, in a way. Now look, within that box, you go nuts, do as much as you want, go as crazy as you want, but you butt up against this reality of the story, that breaks it if you go outside it. So, same thing applies visually, and I think to me, it doesn’t matter if I’m looking at Transformers or Avengers or anything. I mean, The Matrix, I think about halfway through the second Matrix was when I finally was at my breaking point; I just, these things all look the same, and it’s all just visual noise and clutter, and it’s like “we can put all this shit on the screen, so we will put all this shit on the screen.” Editing carefully, editing where you take stuff out, that’s what I’m proud of with Sky Captain. There was this clarity to the movie, it was simple, you could see things, they worked.
Jim: This movie clocks in at NOT two and half hours.
Conran: Just because you can throw everything at the screen doesn’t mean you should. And there’s a sameness to that look.
Jim: The incredible visuals of your film, planes flying underwater, the flying helicarrier base, “the land that time forgot,” all of that stuff… the thing that I remember the most in the movie, fifteen years later, is the smartass that Giovanni Ribisi played. What a great character! He was amazing. I love that guy.
Conran: Well, first of all, the guy’s a really sweet human being. In the limited time I got to spend with him, I really liked Giovanni, but he’s a terrifically talented guy. He brought something to that part that he might not have. He was our first choice, actually, and then as things happen in Hollywood, he didn’t get the part. Negotiations broke down, so they cast somebody else. Actually they cast a guy who went on to win an Oscar for Best Actor. And he worked on the show for a day. And I had made props for him, and a costume change, I knew enough about him as a real person that I thought these things would appeal to him, and I was trying to do something that would be fun for him. And he seemed like a nice enough guy, but he was on the show for a day and a half, and he disappeared. He just took off and he left the show, and suddenly Giovanni came back. And we were fortunate in that regard, because he was great.
Jim: Well, it worked, he was great.
Conran: Listen, you know, it’s funny, you sorta have to live through something like that. It changed my life in so many ways, not all for the good, but a lot of ’em were good. It’s like having a kid; you can’t describe that journey to somebody unless they’ve done it themselves. But to suddenly be thrown into this world where you’re… at the time that film was made, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Angelina Jolie were probably three of the six biggest actors on the planet, I mean they were huge. And then you’ve got all these others, Michael Gambon, Giovanni Ribisi, and all these other people, and it’s just amazing.
Jim: And the reanimated Laurence Olivier.
Conran: Sure, and so you’re in the middle of all this now, and you’re like “wow, crap, and I’m just some guy from Sherman Oaks,” I don’t, I read the same garbage in TMZ… well, it wasn’t TMZ back then, but whatever, crap about all these people. “Gwyneth’s a monster, and Angelina’s a bitch, and Jude’s a…” whatever the opposite of a prude is, whatever, these things that people put out there, and they’re absolutely horrible, and I gotta tell ya, they could not have been more wonderful to work with. As co-workers, and just people. I have super-fond memories of all of them, they were so great. And I think, Gwyneth Paltrow told me one time, she came from a Hollywood family, but she told me in no uncertain terms, it doesn’t matter, her early films, you’re getting taken advantage of in this town, period, that’s just it, they don’t care who your dad is. And she got herself to the position where she could suddenly dictate the terms; “hey, y’know what, I DO want a chef on this, because I care about what I eat, and I’m not eating the slop that you’re feeding those poor souls,” and she was in a position to have earned that and could do it, and I totally got it. And she was generous and cool and fun. And Angelina Jolie was only with us for like a little over a week, but she’s a little intimidating. She’s otherworldly beautiful, and she’s clearly very smart, and she’s a lot. That’s a lot. She’s a big giant star, and now I have to tell her, “well, I did this because I thought…” it’s a weird position for a guy who’s driving his kids to preschool a week before, with no real previous experience in this environment. So all the talent on that show, we had no primadonnas, we had no dicks, everybody was great. They were great. People should be so lucky. And what it revealed to me was, a lot of this stuff that you read and a lot of this stuff that gets out there in the media about who they are, it’s not true. It’s not true. Some of it is clickbait stuff, I guess you call it now.
Jim: “Fake News!”
Conran: It’s just, it’s nonsense. They were there for the project and they committed to it, and they believed in it, and it was very different for all of them. You’re asking them to act against nothing. That’s commonplace now, it wasn’t then. I don’t know, we were really fortunate; the people that came onto that show, they were really great.
Jim: I read somewhere that Angelina Jolie had gone out and done some, I don’t remember what, some super research preparation to come in and do this part.
Conran: You probably read that in something I was interviewed on, since I’ve talked about it several times over the years. She went out on her own dime and interviewed WWII pilots, and she came in, that first day, we’re doing the table read, and she presented all this stuff to my brother, she said “here’s some of the vernacular of the day, and how they spoke, and I thought it was really interesting,” and a lot of it is in the film. We didn’t have that, we didn’t know, and she really brought value with that. We only had her, like I said, for a little over a week, and she did that for us. I’ll be eternally grateful. She cared enough to think about it, and it’s the same kind of stuff this guy (gesturing toward Foley) does with me all the time with anything we’ve ever worked on. It’s like, hey dude, here’s the thing we’re doing, and he’ll come in the next day and “so I was thinking, and I got and I went and I found and I did, and here.” And it’s like “holy shit, that’s awesome! How’d I get this lucky?” And I felt that way with her. How cool is that? She could have just walked in and cashed her check, and she did not do that. None of them did.
TO BE CONCLUDED.