Ethan Checks Out the Set of D.J. Caruso's 'I Am Number Four'
by Ethan Anderton
October 11, 2010
Back in my high school days, it would have been quite an epic day if one of the students suddenly had their hands lighting up like headlights. But in Pittsburgh, this occurrence is totally normal, and met with quite an indifferent attitude. That's because this strange experience isn't happening in a real high school, but on one of the sets for the adaptation of the sci-fi novel I Am Number Four built inside an abandoned building of a technical college. All would seem normal if it wasn't for a huge film crew, and lead actor Alex Pettyfer running into a closet as his hands "light up like road flares" in a frantic state of mind. So what is going on?
Director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia) and much of the cast including Timothy Olyphant (The Crazies), Teresa Palmer (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), Dianna Agron ("Glee") and Jake Abel (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) have referred to the film as a science fiction infused take on Rebel without a Cause. If that sounds a bit strange, don't worry, because there's plenty that you'll need to understand since this story comes from a series of novels (the first of which was just released) introducing us to a whole new world. Our first look at the Michael Bay / Steven Spielberg produced big screen telling of this story came with the teaser trailer. But since that doesn't exactly reveal much about the plot, we'll give you a rundown.
After the planet Lorien is attacked by a violent alien race known as Mogadorians (led by Robin Hood actor Kevin Durand, who sadly wasn't on set for my visit), the children of The Lorien Guard (essentially the planet's royalty) send their nine children into hiding at various locations on Earth. What's so special about these kids? As they grow, some special powers, called Legacies, will slowly manifest themselves little by little. Meanwhile, the Mogadorians are on the hunt for Number 4, having already dispatched with Numbers 1, 2 and 3 (the Loriens can only be killed in their numbered order).
We find Number 4 on the Earth name John Smith along with his Sepan (guardian) named Henri (Olyphant) as they're adjusting to their recent change in residence to Ohio in order to keep themselves safe. With a rough-around-the-edges attitude evoking Rebel Without a Cause's James Dean, the alien now has difficulty adjusting, complete with bullying jocks, a beautiful but unavailable girl, and sudden appearance of strange powers. By comparison, it may just be easier to go through puberty again. While it seems like a lot to take in for one film, DreamWorks' telling of the story isn't going to be a visual copy of the book. In the film, we'll basically discover more about John/Number 4 as he learns about himself. Director D.J. Caruso explains:
"In the book, you'll get a lot more of the history of Lorien and where he came from. In the screenplay, we deal with it on kind of a level where there's a lot of mystery, so I think God willing Movie 2 is going to be the second half of this book in a weird way, because there's a lot more of the history of where he came from and how he got there. I was more interested in him trying to figure out who he was. Who he wants to be and who he ultimately is are two different people and I think that was sort of the dramatic conflict that I liked. This is a kid who really thinks he wants to stay in a small town and fall in love with this girl but at the same time, his destiny and what he's supposed to do are not going to allow him to do that."
Pettyfer elaborates a bit on his character: "Johnny's like this James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause, doesn't really know his identity. That's what this movie's about. John goes through this weird stage in his life where he doesn't know who he is. He fits in in Florida, at the beginning of the movie, then in Paradise, Ohio, falls in love with a girl, then finally figures out who he's meant to be - that's a warrior. That's just so cool, to have so many different dynamics to the same character is amazing to play around with." But since he's just discovering his alien powers, he needs some help fending off the hulking, intimidating Mogadorians.
That's where Timothy Olyphant comes into play as Henri, the Lorien responsible for protecting/mentoring Number 4 on Earth. Back in the opening scene described in the opening paragraph of this story, Olyphant rushes into the janitor's closet for a rushed, yet helpful calm to help Number 4 control his new Legacy discovery. Seeing Olyphant jump into work is truly fascinating. There's no method acting or warming up to the character. You can tell he's already got it down to a science as he moves seamlessly from a conversation with a crew member (many of which have come to call him "Olyphantastic") right into the scene calming Pettyfer's character down with a quick pep talk. Though Olyphant's films have put him into plenty of action, but this is the actor's first straight-up sci-fi flick. But Olyphant says he wasn't deliberately looking to jump into a new genre. The actor says, "I tend to just think about the character, I haven't really thought so much about the genre and the stuff that I am doing is very organic and very human, but there is super human strength and power that the kid possesses and whatnot, and that stuff is a lot of fun, the action, the effects." However, Henri doesn't have any Legacies of his own, so his action to protect Number 4 can only go so far.
Enter Teresa Palmer as Number 6 whose Sepan has already been killed forcing her to survive on her own. But she's not hiding anymore as the actress says Number 6 is "sick of being hunted by the Mogs. She wants to make the hunters become the hunted. She wants to step up to the plate and stop running." And since she's three years older than Number 4, her powers are much further developed and she's become quite kick-ass. Palmer says, "The first time you see #6 she's a total professional, she knows exactly what her Legacies are." On this day on set back in July, Palmer is preparing to fire quite a loud, grenade launcher to blast apart a door in the middle of a school to rescue Number 4 and his love interest Sarah (Agron) as they're being chased by Mogadorians. With a sexy yet bad-ass strut, Palmer shoots several takes walking through a huge hole in a couple doors and fires a loud grenade launcher sort of gun at the would-be assassin aliens. Both she and the shot composed by director of photography Guillermo Navarro (a frequent collaborate with Guillermo del Toro) look quite good.
It sounds like there's plenty more on the way as well since Number 6 (who's been crafted as a bit more of a tough character in the film, a departure from the book) and Number 4 seem to have quite a face-off with Kevin Durand's Mogadorian leader. Palmer teases the climactic action sequence, "That's the most in-depth fight sequence we have in the film. We haven't started working together in rehearsals, I feel like we're going to get together later on and figure out the choreography for that particular scene. But that's some amazing sword work and I've been working on the sword work for a majority of the rehearsals. I'd say I spent six weeks worth of sword work. We have so many different cool moves and I'm doing flips and chopping people's heads off. It's all fun." With their Legacies combined, even though there's only two of them together, their powers are extremely powerful. Caruso elaborates:
"What happens is that each one of these nine acquire different powers. Number 4, he discovers he has this "lumen" power, this sort of light and energy that comes out of his hands. He has no idea what he's supposed to do with it or how to use it. He also has a little bit of telekinetic things are happening. At the same time, he's got a little bit extra strength and speed. #6 comes in and she's sort of… in the book, she disappears. We kind of made it more of a teleportation and that's how she uses her fights and uses that to get away and do some things. She's also, I don't want to say… and she has incredible speed, so all of the nine have different elements and different things and if you put these nine together, even the three that have already been killed, you'd [have] a perfect fighting machine."
What's most interesting from my perspective is how much of a practical approach we saw to filming quite an otherworldly story. Sure there's two races of battling aliens, but from the lumen powers on Number 4's hands (which were actually light sources strategically strapped to Alex Pettyfer's hands providing both a tangible representation of his powers and a great source of light to help compose an interesting shot) to pictures shown from the set photographer of a police car getting lifted and flipped by Number 4's telekinetic powers, this film's production is surprisingly grounded. While there's likely plenty of green screen on other scenes I didn't observe, much of the stuntwork and action seems quite practical. Pettyfer and Palmer trained for weeks on various wire work stunts as well as gun and sword training. Even Dianna Agron had to train on wires for a stunt you can catch a glimpse of in the teaser trailer.
In addition to the stunt work, the aliens in the film aren't gigantic monsters, but simply taller human-like aliens with some exaggerated features and plenty of tattoos. With raised boots, and Matrix-style wardrobe, the Mogadorians were a force to be reckoned with as they chased Number 4 and Sarah (Agron) through their high school. The set itself took me back to my days in high school and invasion of these aliens to such a familiar setting makes it seems that much more threatening.
The Final Word: There's much more that I simultaneously didn't observe and can't tell you about, but this mix of science-fiction and high school coming-of-age has some promise. I'll admit that the first teaser trailer didn't seem to land with that big of a splash, but when you're introducing a race of aliens from an unknown novel which audiences aren't aware, it's a hard sell. But listening to D.J. Caruso and his cast talk about their characters, it sounds like this is a crew who has a grasp on what will hopefully be a new franchise. Hopefully another trailer will be a little more in-depth by delving in to the story. I can't make any guarantees yet, but I think there's something to be excited about when this movie hits theaters February 18th, 2011 next year.