Fantastic Fest Interview: Eagle Eye Director D.J. Caruso
by Alex Billington
September 25, 2008
Hitting theaters this week is an incredibly entertaining action film titled Eagle Eye. After catching a screening of the film at Fantastic Fest in Austin last week, I met up with director D.J. Caruso to talk about making the film and, of course, Y: The Last Man as well. Caruso's past two directorial gigs were The Salton Sea and Disturbia, two films that showcase his talent for directing great characters and telling good stories. In Eagle Eye he steps above and beyond his past films and jumps into the action genre with an intense story that kicks off full of excitement and doesn't let up until the end. Whether you're a fan of D.J. Caruso or just curious to hear more about the behind-the-scenes of Eagle Eye, be sure to read this interview.
Eagle Eye is an thoroughly entertaining action film about two random strangers who are forced to follow instructions or else die. The concept is a bit hard to explain, but hopefully you've all seen the trailer. It's definitely a great film to kick back and enjoy this weekend, especially if you're a fan of action films or technological thrillers. And for those who didn't know, the story was actually devised by Steven Spielberg himself. Without further ado, check out my full interview with director D.J. Caruso below.
What draws you to specific scripts and what drew you to Eagle Eye?
D.J. Caruso: Well, usually, the first thing I always do when I read [a script] is like -- is there a character that I can relate to? How can I put myself in this movie? And that would be through Jerry Shaw in Eagle Eye. It's usually the character and then I used to watch movies like T2 and other movies and just go like, "how the fuck do these guys make those movies?" Do you know what I mean? I just remember like, "holy shit, I'm never going to be a director" because I couldn't even tell you how James Cameron was doing that.
But now -- I feel like I got to a point where'd I love to do a rollercoaster sort of action movie that had a little bit of a cautionary storyline, something that had a little bit of substance. And Spielberg, after Disturbia, kind of turned it over to me and said, "We're going to make this movie. I would like for you to make the movie." I read it and I really got into it. That's kind of how it started. I was just thinking about it too. It wasn't necessarily a genre that I thought I needed to do, but I did feel like I wanted to take that step up and to be able to shoot some action and do it with a character that you cared about.
How much was Spielberg actually involved in this?
Caruso: He was really helpful because he was doing the post on Indy. So, he's really good with giving Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci] and I script notes. "Okay. You guys tried this and that's great," or "What about this?" The great thing about Steven is he'll have an idea and it might not be great. He'd be like, "I don't know -- yea that idea sucks, doesn't it?" Instead, some people get threatened by it. But where he was the most helpful in this movie for me was in the editing room because I would, obviously, kind of show him sections and sequences and say, "I really like this. I'm not really sure about this and I'm cutting from here to here." He would be so helpful and so concise.
Some people give you broad comments -- his are so specific, like "you know when the car comes around the corner, if you guys want to try that and show me something tomorrow, that would be great." He was supportive and he was enthusiastic, but I really understood his genius because he would watch a sequence once and then would say, "Okay, why don't you guys back up, go to that cut" and he would remember cuts so specifically. He's seeing a sequence for the first time, but he was really, really helpful in the editing room. Ultimately, at the end of the day when we showed him a movie mixed with everything in it, and he just stood up and he went, "Wow. You did it." It was one of those things where you go, "Thank God." For a year it's banging around your head like, "I hope I don't fuck up this movie."
Was it a challenge for you to tackle all the technological elements?
Caruso: It was a challenge. It's a physical, like an emotional challenge, to always keep your mind sharp. On a movie like this, you don't have any moments off whereas Disturbia, you block a scene. You're looking out. You're figuring out your next shot. This is a movie -- just the car chase alone, I can't even tell you the months of the meetings we had just about, "Okay. You want to pick this car up with a real crane. Here's the way we're going to do it" and all that physics stuff about the physical effects guys doing all these formulas. I always would tell my friends at school like, "I'll never have to figure out the value of x" and sure enough, here are these guys figuring out the value of x and I go, "oh shit."
But, what I try to do is like-- At the end of the day, we have all this big technological stuff and all this big physical action. But then, when you realize as a director that a day's work is a day's work and then you just kind of take that day and you tackle a day and do the best you can. But… my bad story boards are given to a good story board artist. That story board artist then would go to a pre-vis guy and talk about the pre-vis and then the pre-vis then becomes how we decide that the crane is going to travel-- So, it's a really demanding movie. It's like you're in grad school and I feel like I've learned a lot, but I also feel like-- Now I know I can make a movie like this and what it is; it's an incredibly collaborative process where you can tell people what your vision of the sequence is and you have really good people around you that help you execute that vision.
What really intrigued you about Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan? What did you really like about this cast?
Caruso: Well, what I thought about initially was that in the script, Jerry Shaw was much older. He was like 29 or 30. When Shia and I were doing foreign publicity on Disturbia, I said, "I got a script for Eagle Eye. Steven [Spielberg] gave it to me and it's really great." I was like, "Who do you like in the 29 and 30 year olds?" I didn't know Shia was going to be in it. So we're both making our actor's list, he's like, "Yes. Yes." I was like, "Well, you know, you don't have many options. You have this. You have that." Eventually, when I came back to the States and started working on the script with Alex and Bob, it dawned on me that not even for Shia, but that the character would be better to be 22 or 23. Like he left college, his brother went to MIT and he was in that space. It's okay to be 22 and 23 and not know where you want to go yet.
I felt like Shia's the kind of guy now-- he's 22. He's reading Charles Bukowski on the side. He's in that exploratory range and I felt like it would be good to go with him. And once I did that, I felt like it would be sort of his young adult role and get him out of the teenage thing because Disturbia he's a teen and Transformers he's a teen now. He'd sort of move up. And then Michelle; I saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and I was like -- that is the greatest girl I've ever seen in my life. Do you know what I mean? Like, I have to work with that girl. And so, it was a young, feisty, fiery mom in Chicago, a single mom and I really think Shia and Michelle together just has this really-- they both have very similar acting styles. It just felt right. I was so happy that the studio is DreamWorks because, without saying names, you can only imagine what the other studio's lists of who you would have to put in as Shia instead, if that makes sense.
It does! With all of your films, you seem to be stepping up in scale every time – so where do you plan to go next?
Caruso: You know, I don't know. It's just one of those things where you want to like the character and sort of hang on to each other. I'd love to make a little movie too, particularly after this movie because like I said, you never have a moment off. I feel like to be successful as an American filmmaker in this current climate, you have to be able to make a movie that is sort of pop culture and, more importantly now, you have to deliver a movie that they'll spend marketing dollars on. Do you know what I mean?
Caruso: I knew I had to prove that I was able to do something like that and do it within the movie that I really wanted to do. So, I now feel like the next movie is going to be something that I really have to care about and the character base, but I feel like now I can step up and do-- I will say there are movies now that I read and go, "Well, it's a good script and I like it, but it's not going to be anything different than something I've done before." It's always good to challenge -- but it's the character -- if I read a character that I really like, and, I'm not doing it, but I was always intrigued with Thor. At the end of the day, when I started thinking about it, I just thought I wouldn't be the right guy to do a movie like that. It'll be scary. It'd be scary to undertake.
If we can jump to Y: The Last Man a little bit?
Caruso: Yes, absolutely.
How far into that are you? Are they looking to get it made?
Caruso: I turned in the script last week, about five days ago. I actually have the notes. It got turned into New Line. Things have changed. I don't know if you know, but New Line barely exists anymore. So now, New Line is going to work on it and Warner Brothers wants to make the movie. They obviously are excited that Shia is interested in making the movie, being Yorick Brown and all that stuff. But, it's my job to get the script right first. Then once we get the script right, which we're getting close, then it could potentially be the next movie. Warner Brothers is light on movies for 2010. They're pushing hard to get it going, but we gotta get the script right and we're getting close. If you know the series at all, there's a lot to choose from, but it's also -- you want to make a movie that stands alone. But I keep telling them I can't fit it all into one movie. God wiling, if it's successful enough, there has to be another movie, but we're working really hard and I would like to get that movie going.
I'm curious how big of a scale it will have, because this is obviously a worldwide occurrence in the comic…
Caruso: It is a worldwide occurrence. Since you're familiar, I think what will happen is, initially it'll open very similar to what you know in the opening book basically, with Yorick and Beth. And ultimately when it all goes down, we jump to 6 or 8 weeks later, and sort of take that world there. In the montage of when it's all happening, we do see what happens in China, we do have little vignettes of things that are happening all over the world. And then from that point on, in the first movie, it then stays in Yorick's journey to get to — with 355 as they try get across — and find the doctor and losing Ampersand… It's global in that you see what happens, but it doesn't go out further like some of the other stories.
I'm really looking forward to it.
Caruso: It's the first time I've ever had a lot of fanboys send me opinions and all that stuff, which is really cool because I appreciate the passion, but it's been tough. The good thing is Brian's been around, Brian K. Vaughan. He basically was saying-- because one big change is that we put in a ticking clock with Yorick and Ampersand and I separated them. And Yorick starts to get a little sick when Ampersand is not with him. Do you know what I'm saying? I felt like we needed some kind of ticking clock so that it wasn't just the boy and his monkey. And so, that actually was really cool. Brian loved that. It's good to hear that the creator loved that. So, we have that kind of going. We're really close. I feel like in another like month or so the draft will be-- Now that I have full focus, I can work with the writer and get it good.
What are your five favorite movies of all-time?
That's always a huge question.
Caruso: Yea, I know. Boy, that's a huge question. Well, I can almost kind of genre it maybe, I guess. I would say the coming of age story is My Life as a Dog. Horror would be a tie between Alien and Jaws. Drama - that's really tough, but I'd have to say Godfather, but almost by default. I almost feel guilty saying that.
No, no. It's an awesome movie.
Caruso: Then I have two more?
Caruso: One more. I'm trying to think of a movie that really, really changed my life. I would say The French Connection because I just think it was one of the most compelling things. I will also tell you the movie that I love very much is The Conversation. I just think it was a great movie.
Thanks to D.J. Caruso and everyone at Paramount for putting together this interview. Eagle Eye hits theaters this weekend and is an incredibly fun action film - so check it out!