Jonathan Mostow is one of the "that guys" of the directing world: you almost always recognize his handiwork, but you're not quite sure who he is, because his films maintain a more assertive sense of themselves than they do of him (and we mean that as a compliment). Although he did some smaller films before then, 1997's Breakdown was his calling card as a filmmaker, and contained all of the elements that would signify something made by him – namely, an interesting idea that was executed with mastery of form and a comfortable grasp on genre conventions. Subsequently he directed the submarine thriller U-571 and Terminator 3, and his latest, Surrogates, is another example of high-concept storytelling streamlined to maximize its entertainment potential.
Cinematical recently sat down with Mostow in Los Angeles for an exclusive interview about the ins and outs of the film, which follows Bruce Willis as a cop investigating a murder in a futuristic society where humankind interacts through android proxies of themselves, called surrogates. In addition to explaining the film's world and surrogates' place within it, Mostow talked about his technique as a director marrying interesting ideas to effective storytelling, and reflected on his expansive career both as a director and producer.
Cinematical: What is the point of the surrogates for the people in this film? How does it revolutionize their lives?
Jonathan Mostow: It's not so much that it revolutionizes their lives. It's just kind of like it's the extrapolation of where we're going, which is more and more we seem to be able to do stuff through our computer and online. Like right now, you can stay in touch with all of your friends via email or Facebook or Twitter; you can get all of the information in the world from AP.com or NewYorkTimes.com, whatever. So the only thing you need to leave the house for is to go to your job, and if you really wanted to socialize in person with somebody. What if there was a machine to enable that to happen as well? Where we're going with robotics and this whole new developing field of brain stuff, it feels like it doesn't take a lot of speculative science-fiction to imagine we could sort of get there. This movie isn't really asking the question, gee, if in the future this technology existed, what would actually happen?
Surrogates is really a metaphor for asking the question, today, right now, we live in a time where we are swamped with all of this technology; we love it and we're addicted to it, but we also can't let go of it. What's that doing to us as human beings? That's really kind of to me what this movie is fundamentally about, so the appeal to people of having a surrogate is extrapolating out where we're already at. We're all constantly seeking convenience and a better existence, so if you can live with a surrogate, you have no personal jeopardy, moral boundaries are conveniently erased, and you also just feel better. It's why video phones never took off; there have been several iterations of video phone technology, and they never took off because ultimately people didn't want to be shown to the person they're talking to. The internet gives you that anonymity – you could be anybody on the internet. So it's the same thing with surrogacy; it affords you that cloak of hiding your personal identity, and that's the other necessary requirement of any of these technologies succeeding.
Cinematical: How important was the conceptualization of surrogates in developing your story? Was the priority telling a compelling story that you then seeded with the idea, or did the idea come first and then you figured out how to tell a story about it?
Mostow: It's funny – a cart before the horse question, and I'm not sure which is which. The reason I don't make more movies is because it's really hard to find ideas that I go, yeah, I could spend two years of my life doing this. Mostly what I do is say no to movies, because I go maybe I would see that, but I don't think I could spend two years on it. I'd go nuts. For me there has to be the idea, but I'm also a very mainstream, middle-America moviegoer, so I don't have patience for a lot of movies that feel like they're medicine, or are preaching to me. I want to be entertained; if I'm going to spend my nine or ten bucks, I want to have an escapist entertainment.
I look for both, so for me the thing I initially responded to when I read the graphic novel is I went, oh, that's a cool idea! Then when I started working on the movie, I said, well, the reason it's cool is because it's a metaphor for how we're living right now, it's connecting to something I'm feeling inside, but it's also cool to have these really good-looking robots going around. So those two things kind of go together. It's kind of like my submarine movie [U-571]; when I had the idea to do that, I was on an old WWII submarine you can take a tour through, and I was like this is cool, and then once I started understanding the history of it, I realized this was fascinating. Cool and fascinating are sort of the two things that I need, and those are the litmus tests for every decision I make in the movie. I don't know if that quite answers your question...
Cinematical: I'll rephrase: How important is it that the idea you come up with maintains a sense of accuracy or continuity if it "interferes" with telling a story that's more interesting?
Mostow: That's the best question I've heard all day. I think for filmmakers, that is the most difficult thing that you deal with, because if you're working on a movie that gives a hoot about the audience, you hear the phrase "serve the story" a lot. Because everything's got to be in service of the story; my philosophy about movies is the star of the movie is the story, and by the way, behind any star that's had longevity, they know that too, [because] the audience is there to see a story. They like whoever the movie star is and that may have enticed them to come see the movie, but really what they want is story.
So once you have the basic story, which for whatever reason you've decided is what you're doing, then you have to service it, in a movie like this where there's a million cool ideas, and you can't fit them all in. First of all you couldn't fit them in even if you had a story that enabled them all because you only have your two hours or whatever, and then once you have the story set that's like the foundation of the house. so if there's a frustrating aspect, you wish you could get it all in but you can't, particularly in a movie like this where there's so many interesting things to talk about that some people may go see the movie and go, "well, I thought that was cool but I thought they were going to deal with [this or that]. What happens when you have to go to the doctor?" We couldn't get to that because we just couldn't fit it all in the movie. This is one of those things where there was a wealth of cool ideas and we just could only fit so many of them into the movie.
Cinematical: Is this a world where this technology is fully developed but fundamentally flawed, and a person discovers that flaw? Or is it about a technology that is genuinely beneficial to humanity, but because someone is abusing or exploiting it, it needs more control or vigilance?
Mostow: I'd say it's a third thing. The technology exists, it's great, everybody uses it, and there's a little problem off to the side that someone has developed this device that can use this technology to kill people and that's certainly not a good thing. But from the emotional character journey that Bruce's character goes through in the movie, it's more about a guy waking up and smelling the coffee and going, wait a second. I know we're all living like this and I know this is better for a million good reasons, but is this really the best way to live? And do I really want to live like this? I don't know. It's sort of asking those questions. [But] in a movie where the macguffin is something very gimmicky, like a time-travel movie or something, that could be a cool movie, but it's hard to relate to that macguffin because there's nothing in my own personal experience that has anything to do with time travel. But this is a movie where it's so metaphorical that it enables a different kind of vibe. Once you see the movie, I think it becomes clear; it's not a movie that says, gee, some day this technology will exist but we should be very afraid of it. it's a movie where it's talking about the here and now through this macguffin and what exactly happens with surrogates is actually less important than what it refers to in our current existence.
Cinematical: How do you decide which movies you prefer to produce instead of direct, and how are those producorial efforts a creative stopgap between your directorial efforts?
Mostow: Most of the things I've had a producorial involvement on began as things I was going to direct or I set out to direct my self and realized either I don't have the fire in my belly to do it, or I don't feel like I've licked the story enough. It takes such a commitment of passion and energy and time and it's all so encompassing to direct that you've got to see the bullseye and you know you can hit it, or at least get awfully close. When you're not quite sure how you're going to get to the bullseye, for me I feel that's when it's time to sort of step aside and go, you know what? I'm going to let someone else do it. There's movies where the schedule just didn't permit me to do it so I segued over into a producing thing, but I don't have anything I can think of where I produced it where I didn't at least start out thinking in wanted to direct it.
Cinematical: You've been attached to Sub-Mariner and Escape From New York. Are you planning to direct either, or both?
Mostow:Escape From New York is just a rewrite I did for New Line a couple of years ago and I was sort of briefly attached to direct, and then New Line got folded into Warner Brothers so it's sort of under a whole different thing so I don't see myself doing that. Sub-Mariner is something that I am developing, but again that's one of those superhero movies you have to get exactly right, and if you don't then you shouldn't make them. That's one that's sort of in there. I don't develop a whole bunch of stuff and unfortunately the internet tends to aggregate and accumulate old projects. I used to have a company at Universal and we had like 40 projects in development, very few of which I had an involvement in in any capacity. It's one of those things where it's like, don't believe everything you read on the internet – except your site, of course.