Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Kerry Conran

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ten years ago, Kerry Conran sat in his apartment, glazing over his Mac, waiting hours and hours for a robot's leg to move. Years of long, forgotten days yielded a six-minute sample film. His sister-in-law came to dinner and brought a friend who worked in the film business. She showed the six-minute film to Jon Avnet, a director (Fried Green Tomatoes) and producer (Risky Business, Less Than Zero). Avnet took Conran under his wing, raised a $70 million dollar budget, and got Conran his own studio, more computers, a staff and three movie stars.

Such is the legend that people will tell about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It will no doubt go down with the legends of Orson Welles' complete freedom on Citizen Kane and Robert Rodriguez with his $7000 budget for El Mariachi.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, Conran clearly hopes that he will inspire future filmmakers. "I used the same software to make the short as I used to make the final film. It's software that's available to anybody: After Effects, Photoshop and Maya. And that's it. You can substitute any image manipulation program for Photoshop, any composite program for After Effects, and any 3D program for Maya. And there you have the ingredients to make a movie."

Conran is a tall, round man with a close-cropped mat of hair artfully flipped up in the front. He barely remembers any of that time squirreled away in front of his computer. He apparently doesn't even remember what he ate. "Chicken comes to mind -- sandwiches of some sort -- on rice bread, which is like cardboard. I've come to learn late in life that I have all these freaky food allergies. I was always tired and fatigued, and yet I don't think I was eating badly. I think I had wheat allergies."

After spending so many years locked away in his room, he was quite suddenly forced to make the transition to Hollywood player and big-time director. One day he simply reported to work and found himself standing face-to-face with Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi.

"That, honestly, was the part that I most had to come to grips with," he says. "Initially, the first couple days, I would have liked to do another take of something, but I didn't want to push it. But I found really quickly that once they agree to do the movie, they're counting on me to be the one person to tell them what to do. You have to have the confidence to kind of know that."

Conran had the good fortune to shoot on the same London sound stages that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg once used for the early Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. It gave him a good feeling, he says. His crew broke up the enormous stage into several smaller stages, each with its own pre-existing camera setup. That allowed the actors to move through the day with great speed, much faster than a normal shoot.

"One of the side effects of this whole process was speed," he says. "The actors would have to make these big leaps. Gwyneth in particular is, like, rapid fire. She just wants to go, go, go. That stuff just suited her perfectly. There was enough time in-between things that they could kind of settle in to it, but it wasn't the agonizing wait that's typical of movies where you're setting up scenes."

He worked with the actors for 29 days in April and May of 2003 and spent the next year or so digitally inserting their images into the finished backgrounds. "It was a quick production cycle but it was labor intensive on the back side," he says.

One actor took a little longer. Some movie fans may notice that the film's villain is played by an actor who died 15 years ago: Laurence Olivier.

"That was Jude Law's idea," Conran says. "I wish I could take credit for it. We were in London, shooting, and he came up and said, 'I know who can play Totenkopf.' It was one of those things where I could have killed myself for not thinking of it. It sort of made sense for the way the movie worked. For Jude, it was clear he wanted to play opposite Olivier and he created an opportunity for that."

Conran and his crew found footage of Oliver from a BBC interview in which the great actor kept relatively still. They used that and built a 3D model that could be rotated 360 degrees and projected the video image onto it. Then they hired an actor to duplicate Olivier's voice.

Conran considered pulling bits and pieces of Olivier's actual voice from movies and television, but he quickly nixed the idea. "I think if we tried to patch something together, it would have sounded like a ransom tape."

After such a long incubation process, how did Conran know that the film was finally finished?

"Paramount told me it was finished," he says. "They told me to stop working, and I think that's ultimately the way films get finished. There's no more money. That's the time I had and that's the movie I made."

"There are many scenes, many things about it I'd love to go back and tweak. You could tweak it to death. But it's done. In totality, I'm not displeased with it. I'll look away from the screen a couple times and go get popcorn."

Conran expresses his excitement about his next potential project, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars. For now, he waits for Sky Captain's opening day. "I have no perspective," he says. "I've been in such a vacuum for so long that I don't know if anybody's even heard of this movie yet."

Read Jeffrey's review of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Date: Sept. 17, 2004

Movies Unlimtied