Since making his feature directorial debut in 2002 with 'The Salton Sea,' D.J. Caruso has slowly but steadily infiltrated the mainstream with one project or another that combines an independent sensibility with commercial appeal. His last two films, 'Disturbia' and 'Eagle Eye,' were both big hits, and earned him the box office cred to tackle an even bigger project: 'I Am Number Four,' a highly-anticipated adaptation of the best-selling book by Pittacus Lore (also known as Jobie Hughes and James Frey).
Cinematical recently sat down in Los Angeles with Caruso for a chat about 'Number Four,' whose trailer premieres on Friday, December 10. In addition to talking about the challenges of adapting a book that was still being finalized at the time production started, Caruso offered some insights about the challenge of creating something original within the science fiction canon, and examined his own evolution as a filmmaker whose work ventures ever closer into the commercial mainstream.
Your previous two movies referenced 'Rear Window' and 'North by Northwest.' Which Hitchcock movie does this one evoke?
D.J. Caruso: This one? I don't know if this is a Hitch thing going here. Definitely not.
Do you have to be strategic when you take on a new project to make sure you don't become too strongly identified with one kind of influence or film?
Caruso: I think you kind of have to kind of step back and really take a look at sort of plotting it out and planning it out and fortunately, it's such a weird business. Like I swear, I always am so appreciative that I get to work again; it's such a bizarre thing to say, I know. But you look for characters that you really relate to or characters that you love so that you can put some of yourself into the movie, and I kind of think about the last three movies that I've been tackling, I've kind of [believed] that what I can bring to these is like an elevated genre movie. Like I can bring characters [to the screen] that I care about, characters that I love, still respecting the elements of the genre that people have expectations for and really deliver. That's sort of been my approach, but I thought also with this movie, and it's why there's no Hitchcockian elements, but the element for me was I've never just balls to the wall [made a science-fiction movie]. 'Eagle Eye,' you didn't know was a science-fiction movie, but this movie you know is a science-fiction movie and you know you're dealing with some of those elements.
I was really excited by that challenge, and it kind of – and this is not in tone – but it kind of reminded me of when I saw 'Back to the Future,' how excited I got seeing that movie. When I got to Act Three in this movie, I felt that kind of excitement about, okay, now it's all going to come down and we're going to have fun. But I think I would be lying or remiss to say I grew up loving Martin Scorsese, and when I saw 'Mean Streets' and I saw 'Taxi Driver' and you go back and look at 'Salton Sea,' I think you're kind of dealing with the filmmaker that you wanted to or thought that you would become, and so you'd like to have permission to get back to that in between elevating genres.
'Salton Sea' seems like a more personal film than some of your more recent ones. At this point is your approach combining your personal attitudes with more mainstream material?
Caruso: I think you try to find what it is about the character or about that that becomes personal to you, and this one in particular was about, for me, who you want to become and who you ultimately are going to become, are two different people, and you have to accept the fact that when you make these decisions, these choices, that it's not necessarily about you. It's about how you can affect others, and I think that's sort of what I really kind of tapped into for John, that character. I can see that, and I can direct Alex [Pettyfer] to understand that conflict.
Because the book was optioned before it was even published, how much of it was being worked on concurrently with the movie?
Caruso: I don't think it was done totally. I had the manuscript, and I know they were just finishing polishing it up and it was going to be coming out in a couple of months. So it was very interesting; I know I saw the outline for Book Two, for where they thought Book Two would be going, because for me it was very important to understand how to chart the characters. But it was an interesting process to think that you're working on something, a book that hasn't been published. And some people were trying to anticipate reader disappointment in what would be left or out what wouldn't, and I kept saying, we can't really deal in that reality; our reality is to tell a good story and protect the movie. So whether the lyric box has a bigger function in the movie or in the book, we can't anticipate what the expectations of the reader are going into it.
We have to make the best movie that we can, and stay as true to the spirit of the book as possible. So that was really interesting, and also knowing that some of the things that we did with ancillary characters like Sam, Colin's character, I know had some influence on what's happening in Book Two, because we had discussions like, oh, that's great, because we were going to do this! We didn't necessarily influence the finished product, but we definitely might be influencing where the series goes.
How tough was it to condense all of this mythology knowing that it would be explored in later installments?
Caruso: I think you ultimately ask the question, when you talk about elevating genres and their familiarity, you would expect to see a flashback in this movie where John sees and understands and gets it, but there's sort of an element of what Henri's trying to talk to John about that there's an element of letting the audience use their imagination. Let John use his imagination, so you don't have to see all of these flashbacks; you understand what happened, you understand the plot, but it wasn't necessarily going to take away and deviate from the plot. So why not leave it as more of a mystery, because at the time of the first movie, it's you're Number Four, you're next, they're coming for you, you'd better figure it out and get these legacies kicking in and stop fucking falling in love, because there's not going to be any time. And then not necessarily intricate to the plot would be, oh by the way, this is what happened. This is how you got here. You do ask the question, but I don't think you necessarily always have to answer it in such a concrete manner.
How much originality is there still to be mined, especially in a science-fiction story? Or how do you make sure you tell a coming of age, "The One" kind of story and make sure it is distinguishable from the ones that came before it?
Caruso: Well, I think what you have to do to distinguish it is not necessarily cater to what the expectations are. Like we don't have a montage in this movie where his powers grow and we play a great '80s rock tune or something (laughs). Basically, he discovers and starts to use them in real, practical situations; he gets in a fight and some guy tries to kick his ass and he realizes, and not in a funny way like in 'Spider-Man,' which is a great movie, but where [he uses] the practical applications of what's happening to kind of deal with it. And I think the beauty of the way the movie ends is that it's not going to be the way every teenage girl wants the movie to end, because without giving too much away, it can't end the way that you're going to want this movie to end because he has to keep moving on.
So there's that element, and I think the challenge of not, of sort of exceeding those expectations you're talking about, the movie starts with a kid and a guy who's trying to figure it out, and he becomes this full-fledged warrior who meets Number Six, and Number Six is so much more advanced in her psychology of what she's doing, that he starts here and takes a jump there and it's just very satisfying. Because there's a familiarity to it, but it's pushing the boundaries of what you're supposed to be doing.
Thanks probably in no small part to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, 'Eagle Eye' evoked that really strong filmmaking style of Michael Bay. Do you need to make an effort to enlist collaborators to work with you to help distinguish your work from, say, your producers Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay, and make sure it's your film and not theirs?
Caruso: The thing I've been very lucky with is that when you have a director who's a producer, like Steven and Michael, [they] never came to the set. They never came to the set once. On 'Disturbia' he came once and on 'Eagle Eye' he came once because he was scouting, so I've been very lucky; I mean, I've been incredibly lucky that when – what I've found is that when you have directors that have been producing, or directors running a company – it's the same thing at Castle Rock; when Rob Reiner was running Castle Rock, I remember having to call and say after the third week of shooting, hey – is everything cool? They were like, oh, yeah – it's fine! Instead of getting the calls like, what about this shot?
I found it very liberating, because when the script came in, I told Steven, "this is 'The French Connection.' We have to keep this as real and grounded and visceral as we can with natural light." [On 'I Am Number Four'], with Guillermo there is a much more traditional shooting style, even though the trailer might seem different; there's slower camera movements, there's masters that kind of evolve, and we have this thing called the Poochie dolly, so I learned a lot and Guillermo and I learned a lot abut each other, and it was a different visual style than 'Eagle Eye' with Dariusz Wolski. So I think certain cinematographers are good for different aspects of the movie; I mean, if you said, who do you really want to work with, I'd say, well, Roger Deakins. Some day I'll get to work with Roger Deakins, but I think we all teach and learn from each other.