Exclusive: Underrated Alex Proyas Talks Dark City, Dracula Year Zero

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For months all of us here at Techland have debated the five most underrated sci-fi movie masterpieces, and now the filmmakers are taking the time to respond. (Next up: Getting all those spaceship designers to respond to our top 10 vessels of all time) This is the first in (at least) a three-part series of Q&As with the creators behind our underrated gems:

Alex Proyas’s Dark City is a masterpiece rooted in mystery. We’re dropped into a foreign futuristic landscape, and learn the governing rules as we go. It’s sci-fi less presented to the viewer on a platter than developed from the inside-out. And the film established a young filmmaker by the name of Proyas as one of the sci-fi visionaries of his generation.

So imagine his dismay when the studio saw the first cut of his futuristic metropolis and not only decided to market the whole thing as a horror film – which it most certainly was not – but also mandated an opening monologue that stated explicitly all the facts and dynamics behind its allure. The mystery was strained out in the opening seconds. Dark City was doomed…

…That is, until Proyas was able to return to the project via a DVD director’s cut, able to resurrect – in true Blade Runner fashion – his original vision. Proyas was so excited about his inclusion on Techland’s underrated roster that he gave us a ring from Australia:

Did you fight to finally get the chance to restore your original vision in a director’s cut?

Well, it was quite a bit later, ten years, and there wasn’t much of a budget. But New Line basically decided that there was enough of a cult following to give us a chance to do it. So for 18 months, I was bouncing back and forth between Australia and L.A. on some other kind of business – there was always some other studio financing my trips – and I would stop in to see how the sound mixing and editing was going. And scene by scene, that original movie came back to life.

What was it like, to venture back into that world after so much time had passed? Did you have any favorite additions, that you were able to slip back in?

God I love that film. Once I started getting back into it, looking at the scenes I had to ditch along the way, I really thought it was a better movie. I remembered that original movie I wanted to make.

It was quite exciting, almost felt like I was revitalizing something that was kind of lost in the first place. Most obvious is that we eliminated the narration at the beginning, that was perhaps the most conspicuous change. Originally, the movie tested very poorly when we first started showing it, and it seemed as if audiences weren’t getting it. People didn’t understand what was going on, with the clocks stopping at midnight in this world where the sun never rises, but that was actually my intention. The idea of the movie was that it requires a certain amount of patience and test audiences aren’t renowned for that level of patience.

Other than that, it was a lot of smaller details that we added back in, a line here and a look there. Little things that had a very big impact. There’s this little moment where the hero looks at his fingerprints while he’s standing under the street light, and he sees that his fingerprints are actually spiraled shaped, and it’s the tiniest details like that, these really creepy moments, that are my favorite. It’s not so much that these are big plot points but rather that they lead you to feel the difference in the weight and depth of this movie. It just moves differently. It was actually a very interesting education in the terms of how you can subtly change a film but create an entirely different experience.

(More on Techland: See the best sci-fi characters of the decade)

Why did you have to take all these moments out to begin with?

Well I begrudgingly agreed. At that stage in my career, I was a younger filmmaker and they were able to badger me into doing what wasn’t right. And I thought it might actually benefit the movie, to make it simpler. And unfortunately, I went along with it. It was all about speeding the movie up, which of course leaves you unable to be very mysterious or subtle. But I kind of regretted it even at the time, and now I would never make the same mistake again, to alter the entire pacing of a story.

Why do you think it was underrated or overlooked by so many, even as someone like Roger Ebert was hailing it as the best movie of the year?

Well, what happened to us was that the film was marketed essentially as a horror movie, and it was kind of dumped into theaters and people at the studio didn’t know what to make of it….(continued on next page)

(More on Techland: The best sci-fi films of the decade)

Why do you think it was underrated or overlooked by so many, even as someone like Roger Ebert was hailing it as the best movie of the year?

Well, what happened to us was that the film was marketed essentially as a horror movie, and it was kind of dumped into theaters and people at the studio didn’t know what to make of it. Ironically, today if if my movies don’t have that sort of impact, of upsetting the status quo, I’m kind of disappointed. When you make movies that are unusual and challenging on some level, you’re going to get those reactions as films become more and more homogenized and the more interesting films are ignored.

As for Roger, he gets the films and is clearly not scared of having an opinion. Which many critics are. Critics often line up behind a consensus opinion, there are no original thinkers out there and I would say that Roger is really the last one left. He’ll tell you what he thinks and not what you want to hear. It’s always nice to have someone as influential as Roger who can see what you were trying to do and will stand behind your work.

Does the director’s cut DVD redeem the experience for you?

Obviously, it’s a great lesson that filmmakers can learn from my experience: If you don’t stick to your guns it can result in the worst possible situation. You change your film to make a studio happy and then it still isn’t given a fair chance at the box office. Even if you’re between a rock and a hard place, you have to stay true to your original vision.

But to have this whole DVD experience this many years after the movie came out, it’s so surreal. I’m really proud of the film, of the reactions it’s provoked over the years. I bet it’s even turned the studio a tiny profit now – though it took a long time. The wonderful think now about the shelf life of movies is that they just don’t disappear any more. If enough people like something you can always see it, and that’s what’s great about all these different Blu-Ray formats that are with us now, the movie looks every bit as beautiful now as when we made it.

(More on Techland: The best video games of the decade)

Did revisiting the movie lead you to think at all about how you have changed as a filmmaker through the years? Looking at this movie, there are such striking images. Are you a director who thinks first and foremost in terms of visuals and framing?

I do like frames, and compositions. I think some of my visuals and landscapes have always been very influenced by Kubrick, who had so many striking images. I think I’ve learned through the years, though, that the visuals are not the be-all and end-all. When I was younger I would try and ram a visual into a film at the expense of all other areas of the film. I would force actors to stand a certain way, or look a certain way because I’d want a particular image. But I think I’ve matured a lot as a filmmaker, and have learned to be a little more flexible in that process.

What was the last film that blew you away?

Well, I was just spouting off about how conservative all these films seem today, and how uninspired they are. But I was blown away by Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

What can we expect from you next?

Well I think I’m now working on a movie about the origins of Dracula – called Dracula Year Zero. You never really know until you start shooting, but it sure feels like I’m working on it. We’re still in the budgeting and scheduling right now.

(More on Techland: The best gadgets of the decade)

Why I’m so intrigued by this story – when someone originally suggested it to me, I was like, I’m so not into this; Dracula has to be the most filmed character in the history of movies – is that this script has such an interesting and original take on this character. It’s all about how Vlad of Transylvania became this creature; the choices that he made to make him into this tragic character. It’s so intriguing to me, to approach this as a character study on a huge, epic canvas. The script is from these two young guys who have never really done a script before, but they basically did their thing and have reinvented the whole context of this most familiar personality.

Well, I can see why you like that – maybe it’s a good script precisely because they weren’t part of an uninspired studio system…

You know, I think that’s it. They made this exactly the way they wanted to, and it’s perfect.

No studio telling them to add a narrator…

Ha! Exactly.

Techland’s Underrated Masterpieces: Join the debate – what titles deserve to make the cut?

More on Techland:

What We’re Looking Forward to in 2010: Sci-Fi Movies

How To Kill A Superhero Franchise In 20 Easy Steps: Spider-Man Edition

Disappointments of the Decade: The Master List

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