"Dark City" Director's Cut in the Big Apple

Attention, denizens of the Big Apple: Cinefantastique contributor Andrew Fitizpatrick (who also runs his own blog, The Blood-Spattered Scribe) will be appearing at the Rubin Museum of Art tonight to introduce a screening of DARK CITY. This little masterpiece of science-fiction and film noir came and went without a peep back in 1998, but ten years later it has developed a deserved reputation as a cult film. If you have only seen it on DVD, this is your chance to appreciate the stunning visuals on the big screen; even better, this is the 114 minute “Director’s Cut” that fans have been anticipating for years. The screening is part of the museum’s Cabaret Cinema series, “where movies and martinis mix.”
The Rubin Museum is located at 150 West 17th Street, New York, New York. Call (212) 620-5000 for information. The film starts at 9:30pm.
Below the fold is a transcript of a Question-and-Answer session with the film’s director, Alex Proyas (I, ROBOT), and co-writer David Goyer (BATMAN BEGINS).
Question: Tell us a little bit about the genesis and the writing process.
Alex Proyas: Well, I started working on it, and later brought in David [Goyer] and Lem Dobs. The genesis was really just me pottering away on it for many, many years, as my ability to make it a big-budget kind of film evolved. Really, from there it became a collaborative process with first Lem Dobbs, then David.
David Goyer: I got a call from Alex. He sent me the script. The thing that struck me was that I had had a series of nightmares when I was a child that were very similar to the Strangers, and I remember keying in to that and talking to Alex about that. I’m also kind of an Australia-phile. He said, ‘Come to Australia for a couple months, and the studio will stay out of our hair.’ It went from there. Then it got very elaborate. Lem came back in, and everybody was rewriting everybody; nobody could remember who had written what scene.
Alex Proyas: It was quite odd when we decided we would all get shared credit on this film, and the WGA kept saying, ‘You’re sure? You’re you don’t want to arbitrate this.’

David Goyer: In fact, they did do arbitration. We sent them a letter saying, ‘We all agree this should be the credit, in this order.’ They said, ‘We think there should be an arbitration anyway.’ God bless the unions!
Question: There are many ideas in this film about identity, but the core plot is really out of an old film noir: a man wakes up with no memory and fears that he may be a killer, then has to find out who he is and what happened to him.
Alex Proyas: Yeah, sure, that’s really the genesis of the idea, and I just thought what if you took this to the absolute extreme. This guy realizes that it’s not just his identify that’s a mystery but the entire environment and world that he’s in. So if you just kept pushing logically to the very end of it, you get something like this.
Question:  It does emphasize that film noir paranoia to maximum effect.
Alex Proyas: Sure, I think it’s heart is much more film noir than possibly science fiction. It sort of evolved into a science fiction film, but it started off as an exploration of reality. That’s kind of become a trendy thing to explore in science fiction, but when I was coming up with this idea, it didn’t really feel like it was that genre; it felt like it was something altogether different. But I guess it’s found its niche now.
Question:  Could you talk about casting?
Alex Proyas: Well, Rufus [Sewell] is someone I had wanted to work with for quite a while. I always felt he would be great in the lead. I didn’t really want someone that was kind of going through this entire experience in the movie, questioning who he was, while [viewers] are going, ‘We know who you arewe’ve seen you in a million other movies.’ So for me it was a great thing having someone new and fresh. Also, he’s a great actor; he fit the character, which is always the most important thing. It happens so rarely, I guess, in the movies. So much of the casting happens based on who is the correct box office for the movie; we obviously didn’t do that.
I felt he would be strong in the lead, and then I would just surround him with some more established actors, but also people that I just wanted to work with. Keifer [Sutherland] is someone I had been wanting to work with for a while, and Richard O’Brien as well was someone that was perfect for this character. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the character that he did. So it was an elaborate process.
David Goyer: To New Line’s credit, they let you cast anybody you want. They pretty much stayed out of it. This film was an incredibly refreshing experience. They basically just let Alex do exactly what he wanted; there was…almost no interference.
Alex Proyas: Yeah, you get these lists of who they will make the film with, who the studios will make the film with. The New Line list for the role of Murdoch [the lead played by Sewell] had a whole bunch of people. I remember David Letterman was one of the people! [audience laughter] I figured they had a pretty broad approach to that character. That would have been a really interesting version of the movie.
Question:  The visuals are wonderful. What was it like working with Dariusz Wolski? Did you have to explain much of what you wanted to him?
Alex Proyas: No, we don’t talk very much on the set. Particularly as the film wears on, you get more and more sick of the sight of each otheryou don’t actually say that much. But I had also done The Crow with Dariusz as well, so we had a real shorthand. I really enjoy that way of working with people, because I tend to be very moody on the set and like to thing my thoughts, so the less I have to say to people, the better, so that part of the process worked very well.
Question: DARK CITY is a very fast-paced film. Was it always planned that way, or was it tightened in the editing?
Alex Proyas: I like things a bit fast paced, so it was always planned to be pretty fast.
Question:  There is a great score by Trevor Jones. At one point did you sit down and talk with him about the tone of the film?
Alex Proyas: Working with Trevor was really quite amazing, because we had so little time. For some reason, we backed ourselves into our corner, running out of the time we left ourselves for scoring the movie. He worked in London; the film was being made in Sydney, and we literally had oneI think we had two days to spot the movie. So we sat down, went through the entire movieand I think I’d had maybe a couple of phone calls with him before that. We just sat down two days solid and went through the entire film and discussed each scenea very short amount of time to do that.
Then he went back to London, because that’s where he works, and he was working with the orchestra in London. I can’t remember exactly how much time he had to do the score, but it was really compressed: he was working around the clock; he wasn’t sleeping at all. And I remember flying to London and coming into the thick of this thing, when he had maybe two weeks to finish the score so we could mix the film. I remember getting on the plane and thinking, ‘This is going to be a total disaster,’ because I had so little involvement with the music and that always makes me very, very nervous. I walked in and he played me a piece. I remember him playing me the theme on his piano in his living room; then he took me into his little studio and played me some of the music, and I was blown away. I thought he did a fantastic job. So that was the extent of my working relationship. It’s not often I work that distantly from people I collaborate with, but in this case it had to be, and the result was wonderful.
Question:  If you’re shooting a John Cassavettes-type film, it is farily easy to rewrite and reshoot. If you have a movie of this scale and complexity, how easy is it to modify your ideas or improvise?
David Goyer: Believe it or not, we actually did some of that. It was a crazy experience. The movie shot forever, and I remember we were rewriting and rewriting right up until production. Then I was supposed to go to Botswana, and then there was some problem and I was tracked down in Zimbabwe. I had to come back to Sydney. We were rewriting scenes while we were shooting. Sometimes I was back in the states and we’d have these crazy late night phone calls and I’d fax scenes to [Australia]. Then we did reshooting, but it was terrifying because the movie was like this Chinese box, and it wasn’t just a simple film where you could come up with a scene and slot it in. You were terrified – or at least I was – that every time we would change something tiny, the entire thing would lose integrity and fall apart. So I’m sitting there, watching it, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really air tight!’ I can’t believe it. We were so freaked out. I was constantly thinking, ‘We’re missing something.’
Question:  Regarding the opening voice-over narration, which explains the plot, was that your decision, or was it something the studio wanted to avoid confusing the audience?
Alex Proyas: I think every director dreams of giving away his entire movie in a stupid voice over. [audience laughter] I believe there’s a certain cult of turning the soundtrack off until you see Keifer Sutherland at the beginning of the movie, and I think that really rocks, actually.
Question: Was it difficult to get New Line to let you shoot this in Australia, and was Dennis Potter [PENNIES FROM HEAVEN] an influence?
Alex Proyas: No, it wasn’t difficult, because it was the only way we could afford to make the film. The film cost $27-million to make, and it was not easy to make it for that amount of money, but it would have been impossible to do that, I imagine, here.
David Goyer: What was brilliant about Australia was that it was so remote from the studio. There was a huge delay in getting the dailies, and they didn’t want to bother sending anybody out. So it was just like ‘Oh, they’re off on the other side of the world, and we don’t know what they’re doing.’
Alex Proyas: By the time they checked the dailies, the sets would have been ripped down and we would have been moved on, so they really had to hate something for us to go back.
And the Dennis Potter thing was simply that very early on I actually approached Dennis to work with me on the script. He politely declined. This was at the time that he was quite ill and no one knew that was the case. He sent me this fantastic letter that re-established my desire to make this film. He was extremely supportive of this script, which is why the credit is there.
David Goyer: He said you were insane or he was frightened of you.
Alex Proyas: Yeah, he was frightened of me. He said I was insane. I appreciate that.
David Goyer: There was a funny thing about the title. You know, it was DARK CITY, DARK CITY, and then Warner Bros., who is the parent company of New Line, was going to release MAD CITY, so they said, ‘You can’t call it DARK CITY anymore,’ even though it had been DARK CITY for a million years. Then it was DARK WORLD, right? Then LOST WORLD was coming out, so it couldn’t be DARK WORLD.
Alex Proyas: Yeah, it was DARK WORLD, and Spielberg owned the word ‘WORLD.’ Then we were going to make it DARK EMPIRE, and another guy owned that word.
David Goyer: By this time, MAD WORLD had come out and stiffed, so they said, ‘You can go back to DARK CITY.’ But I love it – it got exponentially bigger: City, World, Empire. Then it shrunk back down to ‘City.’

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