HOLLYWOOD — Born in New Zealand, writer/director Andrew Niccol moved to London in the ‘80s and began his career directing TV commercials before making his movie debut in 1997 by writing and directing the Oscar-nominated sci-fi thriller Gattica.
He went on to write the influential The Truman Show (which won him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay) and The Terminal, and to write and direct Lord of War and In Time.
His latest film, The Host, which he also scripted, is based on the best-selling novel by Twilight Saga author Stephenie Meyer, and once again explores ideas about identity and love in a sci-fi scenario.
A love story set in the future, where Earth is occupied by the Souls, a species who inhabit and then erase the minds of their human hosts, leaving their bodies intact, The Host follows the adventures of Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), one of the last surviving humans who fights back, risking her life for the people she cares about most — Jared (Max Irons), Ian (Jake Abel), her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her Uncle Jeb (William Hurt) — proving that love can conquer all.
Here, in an exclusive interview, Niccol talks about making the ambitious film, his love of post and sound, the appeal of sci-fi, and why he always prefers using visual effects to create his imagery.
POST: You seem to love doing sci-fi projects. What’s the appeal for you?
ANDREW NICCOL: “I write other things but it’s true that I’ve had the most success with sci-fi, and I love the fact that it’s like a Trojan horse. Meaning that if you have serious ideas, sometimes it’s easier to slip them by people if you wrap them in a futuristic setting. So people tend to think, this has got nothing to do with me, when it actually has everything to do with them.”
POST: What sort of film did you set out to make with The Host?
NICCOL: “I tried to be very faithful to the novel and I was very drawn to the book’s idea. I love the story’s ambiguity, which is a dirty word in Hollywood as they want good versus evil, with no shading in between. And I loved that these aliens — the Souls — might be better for our planet than we are. Yes, they steal our free will, but they’ve eradicated war and disease and hunger, and healed the planet. It’s a great idea.”
POST: How closely did you work with Stephenie Meyer?
NICCOL: “She was very involved, but I was pleasantly surprised since I had no idea going in what to expect — and after a few days of working with her, I said, ‘Thank God you’re normal,’ because it would be so easy for her not to be normal, given all the huge success she’s had. But, she was very flexible and collaborative.
“For instance, in the novel, the Seekers — the aliens who go around searching for surviving humans — are all dressed in black, and when I suggested they wear white because of their pure intentions, she agreed immediately. So she was very open to any changes I wanted to make. She could have been a monster, but she’s great and just very agreeable, even when disagreeing with you.”
POST: What were the biggest technical challenges making this?
NICCOL: “An unexpected one is that since Saoirse plays two characters, she’s in almost every scene, so I was desperately looking for stuff to shoot that she wasn’t in (laughs). Otherwise I’d work her to death. Then Stephenie had written scenes like the wheat field in the cave, which was a huge undertaking. We had to wire every strand by hand. She wrote ‘river in a cave,’ which sounds good on paper but which took a lot of engineering and design to create.”
POST: How long was the shoot and how tough was it?
NICCOL: “We shot on location in New Mexico and Louisiana for about three months, with all the cave sets built at Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge. Shooting in the desert is always tough, but the locations we found were just stunning.”
POST: You’ve never worked with DP Roberto Schaefer (Neverland,The Kite Runner) before. What did he bring to the mix?
NICCOL: “He’s worked with Marc Forster a lot and he has this indie side I really needed, because we had a tight budget. So I wanted a DP who could work fast and who had also shot big action movies, and he had the best of both worlds. We also share a similar sense of composition, which speeds up the process a lot on set.”
POST: Did you shoot this digitally?
NICCOL: “Yes, on the Alexa. I did In Time with the great Roger Deakins, and just assumed he’d want to shoot film, but he asked me to look at a test he’d done with the Alexa, where this actor had one candle, and the detail was amazing and the noise was non-existent. Once a DP like Roger makes the switch, all the producers will follow suit. So yes, film is dead.”
POST: You had also never worked with editor Thomas Nordberg (Alexander, Beastly). How was that relationship?
NICCOL: “I like to edit very closely behind the actual shoot, as I like the flexibility of being able to change things, so I work on the edit on weekends. He came on location with us and set up his Avid gear, and it can be done on a laptop now. Then after his first assembly, we did the main cut on the lot at Sony.”
POST: How many visual effects shots did you do in the end?
NICCOL: “There are hundreds and hundreds. I lost count. Every alien eye had to be done. I used contact lenses, but then we would grab that as a matte and enhance it. We used a lot of vendors, including Rodeo FX in Montreal, Chaos, Sandbox F/X, Post Matters, Capital T, Freestyle, EDFX, Juggernaut, Ace, Rotofactory and Gradient Effects. But what I do is chase the artists I really like. I’m not really loyal to companies so much as to the artists, so if they move companies, so do I. That was a big part of it as I’m more interested in the artistry of VFX than the technology, and I find I use vendors everywhere in the world now.
“I have a great company I use in India, and for clean-up stuff on this they were invaluable. As there’s no commerce in the film’s world, there’s no signage, so we had to take out every single sign and traffic lights, since the aliens are so polite and law-abiding that they don’t need any of that stuff. So you can send a shot to India in the morning and it’ll come back the next day, and it just costs you $200. Amazing! I don’t even know where the guy is.”
POST: The film has some stunning visuals, such as the all-chrome cars and helicopters the Seekers use to track down humans. Do you like working with VFX?
NICCOL: “Yes, I love it, but I’ve often had discussions where digital artists are saying, ‘Well, the light is coming from this side so it shouldn’t be doing that,’ and I just go, ‘Yeah, but it’s far more beautiful that way.’ So with the wheat field in the cave, they would tell me, ‘No, the light couldn’t reach that far back in the cave,’ and I just go, ‘Who cares? It looks better.’ So I tend to take a lot of license with VFX, and I’ll always go for beauty over logic. It’s amazing what you can do now, but you have to also consider budget and so on.
“The weird thing is that often VFX look more realistic in the end. There’s a glow-worm scene where at first we thought we’d just do it practically, with lots of small lights and dimmers to turn them on and off. So we did a test, and immediately went, ‘Get the greenscreen.’ Because it didn’t look real enough! Even with something simple like a bullet squib, I prefer to use VFX now instead.
“I’ve lost so much time in my life watching someone stick a wire up an actor’s arm to the squib, and then the timing’s wrong and the squib goes off early, so it’s, ‘Let’s do it again… and again.’ Now I just send the shot to India and it’s perfect. If I want a little more blood, or less, it’s no problem. So the pendulum’s swung the other way, and some things I just don’t do practically anymore. You just fix it in post, though I don’t like hearing that phrase, as it’s easy for people to say.”
POST: As usual, the sound and music are also key elements in this film.
NICCOL: “It’s hard to over-stress how important sound is. I love being able to bring new music into the world. I can do a lot of other things and crafts. I could shoot a film and art direct it and edit — but I can’t write music. That’s the language I understand the least, so getting all the sound and music right is very important to me. I work with Paul Massey. who’s probably one of the best mixers on the planet — he’s done everything from Spider-Man to Rango and Pirates of the Caribbean — and he mixed all the dialogue and music, and did a great job.
“Sometimes when I’m doing a scene and I’m feeling something false about it, I’ll close my eyes while we’re shooting it and just listen, as sometimes the truth is actually in the sound. You can fool the eye, but you can’t fool the ear in the same way. Actors will hate me for saying this, but I happily replace dialogue and you can change a performance so much by doing that.”
POST: Was doing a DI also very important to you?
NICCOL: “Yes, we did it at Efilm with colorist Mitch Paulson, and again, I follow the colorist around, not the company. The DI is great because it’s not exactly a rewrite, but you can tweak and vignette elements and change the look of a single frame for the better.”
POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
NICCOL: (Laughs) “I always thought we were watching 3D at the movies. I still remember the first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia as a kid. Don’t tell me I wasn’t watching 3D. I’m serious. It was so immersive. But to go and do 3D to a film after it’s been shot in 2D is pretty horrendous, I feel. Do it for a reason, not just because you can and can charge more.”
POST: What’s next?
NICCOL: “I’m juggling a couple of projects. I’ve got to be in love with something before I totally commit.”