DJ Caruso interview: I Am Number Four, Michael Bay, and getting low budget movies made in Hollywood

As I Am Number Four arrives in UK cinemas, we met director DJ Caruso for a fascinating chat about Hollywood filmmaking...

A versatile director of television and film, DJ Caruso has lent his talents to such shows as The Shield and Smallville, and helmed features such as the 2002 noir-drama, The Salton Sea, and the thrillers, Disturbia and Eagle Eye.

Caruso’s latest film, I Am Number Four, marks something of a departure for the director, an effects-laden sci-fi fantasy that combines Twilight-style romance, laser shotgun battles and giant monster brawls, it’s a change of pace from his earlier work.

As I Am Number Four opens in the UK, we sat down with Caruso to discuss the changing face of television and film directing, and the folly of 3D conversions…

I saw I Am Number Four yesterday, and I thought it was a really fun movie. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with quite so many genre elements, um, colliding.

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[Laughs] Colliding in this big accident, right?

A fun accident! But what attracted you to the project?

It was kind of fun, and that was part of it. I was looking to do a science fiction film. I wanted to do one that, because I have so many kids, my ten-year-old daughter can see, but at the same time would be entertaining to a 35-year-old guy. 

When I read the script, I thought, “This reminds me of those Amblin movies I saw when I was young. Like, not so much Goonies, but Back To The Future. There’s an innocence to this, but at the same time, it’s incredibly fun and entertaining.

But the main thing was I just fell in love with the lead character. You had this disenfranchised guy, who is an alien – and metaphorically speaking, we’ve all felt like aliens – who thinks he figures out what he wants to be, and once he accepts that, and falls in love and likes this little town, all these things happen inside of him.

This explosion of gifts comes out, and he realises the greatest gift is also his biggest curse. He has to make a decision about whether he should follow what his destiny is, and that’s like ordinary life. Once we understand who we are, and accept who we are, we all become more powerful. I kind of liked that message in this fun movie.

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It struck me, actually, that the central character is quite different from the male leads we’ve seen in other recent teen movies. He’s an outsider, in the sense that he’s an alien, but he’s much more outwardly handsome than, say, Scott Pilgrim, for example. And good at sport.

[Laughs] Yeah.

It’s kind of a move away from those geekier leads, isn’t it?

It’s kind of a move away, and the trick as a filmmaker is, when you have a guy that looks like Alex Pettyfer, how do you make him seem like an outsider. That’s what I think’s really interesting. When you have him playing this alien, and realise that, even as good looking or striking as he is, he can be an outsider.

The interesting thing is that, when you look at the four main characters, you have Sam, who’s also the guy who’s being bullied because his father was some quote, unquote, kook. Then you have Diana’s character, Sarah, who was really popular, and she’s pulled herself out.

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I think young people can relate to that, because it can get so insidious inside that circle. Who’s popular and who’s not popular isn’t necessarily always the good-looking people. There’s a little poisonous circle of popular people.

So, I think you can be an outsider and still look like Alex Pettyfer, and I think that’s important to know.

And this is quite a departure, as well, from your earlier films. There are far more special effects and big stunts. Was that something you had to adjust to as a director?

It’s something I had to learn about. I’ve never had so many visual effects, and knowing that I like to do things practically, I have to think, “Okay, how can I go about getting these things actually happening in the frame, so that when we combine them with the effects there’s a great synergy?” Because I’m always the first to criticise a film that’s just all CGI, which just removes you from the sequence, you know what I mean?

So, I wanted to challenge myself that way. And the other challenge on this movie was the budget, which has a five in front of it, and to have a movie with this much action with a budget that’s in the 50s, it’s really a responsible movie. So, when you see that sequence on the football field, that was shot in four days. Some people would take two weeks to shoot that. So, I felt really proud of how efficient I was in shooting all that, and I think that all comes from trying to be prepared.

I had to really educate myself on CG, because it was something that was completely new to me – imagining things that aren’t in the frame. On Eagle Eye, we had one airplane that we couldn’t put into the tunnel, obviously, but besides that it was all really practical. So, it was really educational for me to accept that the monster can’t really be there, and that we’ll have to create him and put him into the scene, you know what I mean? It’s hard.

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Did [producer] Michael Bay provide any advice?

Michael was really helpful. Particularly when the shots started coming in, and I’d say, “Gosh, this shot’s not fully working.” Michael was really helpful in saying, “When it comes through the wall, your key light’s here, and when the character’s falling down lower in the frame, he’s still remaining in the key light, which is no longer there. You’ll have to tell the visual effects company to take him down out of it.”

I realise, in watching that with Michael, that it’s so second nature to him. Every shot in his movies is a visual effect, so he totally gets it. He gave me the ability to articulate to the visual effects company what needed to be done.

One of the prevailing things we’ve seen in this kind of action fantasy type of film is 3D. I was interested to see that it wasn’t in 3D. Was that an option that was ever on the table?

It came up once, and I just said no. I mean, first, my feeling on 3D is that I hope it’s a fad again and kind of goes away. [laughs]

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That’s refreshingly honest!

I think, when you see Toy Story 3, I get it. I totally get it. When I see what Cameron did with Avatar, I get it. And I’m sure what Michael’s doing with Transformers – they’re designing and shooting the movie to get the right experience.  It’s the conversion thing that’s got me so disgusted.

I feel like a filmmaker’s responsible for every single frame of what’s happening, and when you’re sending a film overseas to be converted, and it wasn’t really designed to be 3D, it feels so irresponsible to me. I think a beautiful movie that’s designed that way is great.

The only conversion that I’ve personally really liked was in Alice In Wonderland, because however they did the conversion, they did it right. And it was working in the non-live-action sequences. Outside that, I don’t understand. I don’t get it.

If I was ever to do a movie in 3D, I’d have to go to school and do a lot of homework, and figure out how to design a set. Otherwise it just feels sloppy, doesn’t it?

I agree. From an outsider’s point of view, it seems that the industry itself’s losing a bit of faith in 3D. We ran an article recently that noted how much smaller the word “3D” is on posters these days, whereas a few months ago it was bigger than the film’s title.

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It’s also a matter of cost. How much the conversions cost, how much does shooting it in 3D cost, and all that. It’s much more expensive. Ultimately, is it going to be worth the extra millions, and is it paying off in the box office?

I think there was a point, when Clash Of The Titans did that conversion, I remember literally thinking all through the film, “Is there something wrong with these glasses? Why does he have seven legs? Did my contacts drop out? I don’t understand!”

It was really frustrating. There was a point when Clash Of The Titans came out, when it was still pimpy to be in 3D, and I think the audience fell for it. I think now, they’re starting to go, like, “Wait a minute.” I hope.

If the audience demands that the 3D be of a certain calibre and at a certain level, it might stable itself out. But I hate to say this, but I just want it to go away.

But Toy Story 3 was fantastic. I get it in that situation, but not in the others.

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You were saying earlier about getting I Am Number Four made on a fairly tight budget. Would you say that discipline comes from working in TV? Were the lessons you learned there useful in making this film?

Yeah. Definitely. I think one of the things, too, now I’ve been with Steven Spielberg for three movies, he’s so efficient. I’ve watched him direct, and he’ll have this huge crane shot, and he’ll just cut right in the middle and go, “That’s all I need.” Me, I’ve got the crane shot, and I’ll let it go up and over, and he’ll say, “No, no. Go to the close-up.” And you realise that he’s got such discipline. He’s literally cutting while he shoots.

I’m not that good. There’s no fuckin’ way I can do that. But one thing I get. When you’re doing The Shield, and you’re doing seven to nine pages a day, you’re thinking, “What is it exactly that I need, because I don’t have time for anything extra. So what is it, in the bare bones, that I need to get the story across, in the fewest shots I can do?”

So, I think you learn that discipline. When I started, I got a crane for the one day. So, I’d be like, “I’ve got the crane.” On Disturbia, I had one crane. I was so excited. You really have to take advantage of that. Whereas when you get to be a little more successful, you start to see all this equipment show up, and they’ll say, “We bought you a crane, just in case you needed it”, and I’m like, “I don’t need a crane!”

I like to be really efficient, and coming from a television background, you look at your call sheet, and decide where you’ll spend most of your time. “Okay, this is the most emotional scene in the episode, so I’ll give that one three hours.” That discipline comes across, so when I’m shooting a movie, I don’t get neurotic about it. I want to be efficient. When I’m not, there’s something in the back of my brain that says, “You can be doing this better.”

A lot of film directors are crossing over into television and vice versa. Scorsese’s doing Boardwalk Empire, for example. Do you think the lines are becoming blurred between the two?

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I think they’re becoming more similar. I think what’s interesting, particularly in US television, is that it’s getting braver. So, when you go onto the cable networks, like my friend Frank Darabont did The Walking Dead on AMC. I can’t tell you how long he’s had that and how many networks passed on it, but AMC took it, and it’s fantastic.

There’s two things. As a filmmaker, there’s the immediacy. Once television says you can make something, you don’t fuck around. You make it. You don’t have a year in development. “Oh yeah, we’ll make your movie if you get Leo DiCaprio,” and you go, “Well, DiCaprio’s not available until 2014.” [laughs] So, I think there’s an immediacy. You can go make it and do it right away.

And they’re willing to take more chances on TV. There are things now on cable that are just more risky and more satisfying as a filmmaker. So ,I think that’s what’s happening, that cross pollination, where you can go and make things immediately. And at the same time, it sharpens your skills.

I don’t know how true this is, but in the lab the other day, we’re sitting there talking and Stefan, a great colleague of mine, was saying to me, “In 2008 or 2009, there were 325 Hollywood studio movies.” I said, “Okay, that’s good.” He said, “How many do you think there were this year?” I said, “I don’t know. Like ten less or 20 less?” He said, “There were 128 studio movies last year.”

That’s just so far down. But, he said, there are the independent movies as well, but think about that. 128 movies. Let’s say there were 130 studio movies last year. That’s not a lot of jobs. And there are so many great filmmakers out there. So, how do you keep them working? I think television is providing that opportunity.

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Do you think, therefore, that if studio pictures are decreasing, that you still have big budget films being made, but some of the smaller dramas, such as the films you’ve made in your earlier career, are being made less?

They’re definitely being made less. You can’t make an $18 million movie like The Salton Sea right now. Well, you can, but what happens is, if Fox Searchlight don’t have it, Fox Searchlight, they can roll out a movie. They have an old-fashioned approach. “Let’s put it out on 50 screens. Let’s go out on 200 screens.” The studio marketing system is so plugged into spending a lot of money.

If you make a $20 million movie, or you make a $15 million movie, it’s going to cost 35 million to market it. So, we’re going to spend 35 million because that’s how we get people to see it.

The river’s flowing, and it’s plugged it into that. They don’t know how to cater a campaign, and really nurture it, other than Fox Searchlight. I don’t know how they do it, but they’ll find a tiny little movie and they’ll really believe in it and support it.

I think that’s what’s happening. It costs so much to market a movie that everyone tries to hit a home run. Let’s spend a $100 million on a movie, because we’re going to spend $50 million to market it anyway. So, everyone tries to hit the massive home run, and all the money’s drying up.

And at the same time, over the past ten years, every studio now is owned by someone else. They’re a part of a bigger company that doesn’t understand the movie business. Before, they were these standalone companies that said, “We’ll make a movie.” Now, it’s like, “By the way, BEG owns you, and Viacom, and CBS.” All these companies are owned by corporations that really look at the books and go, “Okay, we’re going to give you 600 million to make movies this year,” and that’s it. That’s all you have.

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So, it’s a combination of all that. The little movies aren’t getting made. Can you make a $20 million movie? It’s getting harder now.

Which way can you see yourself going in this climate?

I think the next thing that I’d like to do, if I continue to have some success, is go back and do a movie I’m working on with Fox, which is a little bit more of an adult movie. A $25-30 million movie. I have to get a movie star to do it, but at least he’ll do it for me.

Then I’d like to satisfy some of those dramatic needs and get back to some of the things I’d like to do. I loved The Salton Sea. I thought it was great. Nobody saw it, but I loved making it. I want to make movies that are a little bit more satisfying to me on a personal level, and then also be able to jump back and forth, so I can satisfy my genre expectations.

If you look at a guy like Alan Parker, I think, God, a guy that can make Fame and Mississippi Burning and Midnight Express. That’s such a diverse thing. I’d love to be able to jump back and forth.

So, you’re not looking to follow in Michael Bay’s footsteps and make gigantic Transformers movies?

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I don’t personally think I have that in me. I just don’t know if I’m ready to go there yet. I don’t know. There’s a lot of character stuff, even in the genre movies that I make, that I really enjoy. What I’m trying to do when I’m working in a genre is elevate it a little bit. And the way to elevate the genre is to spend time with the characters.

I enjoy that. I don’t think I could go to a full-on – I’ve been offered them – a full-on spectacle, tentpole, summer movie. I’ve never been that. My action movie came out in September [laughs]. My little thriller came out in April.

I’ve never been a Christmas, Thanksgiving director. I have a film out in February [laughs].

I wouldn’t want the pressure of a tentpole studio movie. They rest their expectations on you because it’s like, then the movie- Michael obviously makes his own movies, but it can become something else.

I think whenever you can exceed people’s expectations, it’s always really good, but when you’re the tentpole movie, the Christmas movie, people’s expectations are always much higher.

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It’s difficult to maintain creative control then, you think?

That’s why I love working with DreamWorks, because Steven Spielberg’s a director and owns the studio. I have so much freedom. It’s good that way. So, I feel like the three movies, I’ve had so much freedom. If I’m over at Sony or Paramount, and I’m their $100 million action movie, from what I hear, you don’t have that much freedom. Everyone’s resting their summer on you.

And at the same time, I can’t remember seeing- you see so few of those movies that blow you away if they’re not done by James Cameron. They come along and then they’re forgotten.

DJ Caruso, thank you very much.

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