Nicolas Cage's apocalyptic movie Knowing brings a lot of surprises, says director Alex Proyas. He explained to us how he crafted a widescreen action-adventure, with a spooky family drama at its core. Spoilers below...
In Knowing, Nicolas Cage plays a professor whose son digs up a time capsule that was buried at his elementary school in 1959. The capsule contains a sheet of paper full of numbers, which appear to be purely random. But Cage deduces that each number refers to a major disaster, including the date and the number of people killed. And he begins to suspect that he and his son have an important role to play in the apocalypse, which is coming soon.
Knowing opens March 20, and a couple of the film's biggest disaster set-pieces will be shown off at New York Comic-Con.
We're attracted to stories where little details and clues turn out to be the key to everything, says Proyas. "The devil's in the details." He says he was intrigued by the film's basic premise, that someone could have buried information "like a message in a bottle," years and years ago, with a code that predicts disasters with total accuracy. "It feels like an urban myth," and has an immediate appeal, he says. "It touches on something in our psyche that resonates in some way. It feels true." And it feels instinctively creepy, even when you hear just the bare-bones summary. "That's certainly the way the film functions in the first third to a half," before it takes a sharp turn in another direction, says Proyas.
The movie's latest trailer hints at a much broader picture, with some spooky scenes of scary white men in the forest (referred to as the "whispering ones,") and some scary apocalyptic moments as well. Even though his film features Nic Cage unraveling clues and trying to figure out secrets from the past, Proyas said it's the "absolute polar opposite" of Cage's National Treasure movies. (He adds that he's enjoyed those films, but his couldn't be more different.)
According to Proyas, his film mixes huge wide-screen action sequences with quieter moments to create an unpredictable blend. He says he was originally attracted to this movie because
I could see a story taking shape... that would the audience on a very unexpected and emotionally resonant ride, and that's what got me. The hook of a story where I thought I could see where it was going, but then suddenly it's not going in that direction. It's going in a far more interesting direction.
The biggest challenge of creating Knowing was keeping all of those twists and turns, and the huge set-pieces, going while still preserving the core of the film.
Proyas has talked before about how he felt pressured to crank up the pace of his earlier film Dark City, and it wasn't until the recent release of the director's cut on DVD that he was able to restore some of the quieter moments that lent the film a lot of its depth.
In the case of Knowing, Proyas stuck to the idea that
the spine of this story is a very intimate personal drama, a story between a father and a son, and they are the vehicle that carries us through this escalating series of events that evolve into quite an epic scope by the end of the story. That is quite a challenge, but also why the film is so effective. It does give you a very solid grounding, a very solid path through this story. And so what was challenging was also ultimately the key to why I think the film will hold an audience. It gives us a human face to all this stuff.
Cage's character is trying to protect his son from the consequences of the knowledge inside the time capsule, but Proyas hinted that some of his efforts may end up backfiring.
There are tons of post-apocalyptic stories and movies coming out, but Knowing is part of a rising tide of pre-apocalyptic tales (similar to the original Terminator films) in which people know an apocalypse is coming. Proyas says the fear of a coming apocalypse seems to be part of the zeitgeist right now. "We're all concerned about where things are heading." Back in the 1950s, genre films tended to focus on the spectre of nuclear armageddon. But now, annihilation could come from so many different directions, it's hard to know which type of destruction to be scared of.
At the same time, the 1950s was a more optimistic time. Proyas' film includes some scenes from the 50s, when the fateful time capsule is being buried, and everyone is talking brightly about the promise of a shining future, with the proverbial flying cars and personal rocket ships.
The movie's biggest set piece is the giant sequence where a plane crashes into the highway, and Cage rushes to rescue survivors from the burning aircraft. Proyas filmed the whole thing as one continuous two-minute take, and it was the hardest part of the film to realize, he says:
I really wanted to put the audience in the scene. I think we're becoming so blase about slick visual effects. I'm trying to make them not seem like visual effects. The way we did that, in that instance, is [that] in one shot we create this entire scenario, where Nic sees a jet airliner crash into a field, and he runs into the maelstrom and tries to rescue people. It was a very challenging sequence to create, becuase it was this combination, on a major scale, of stunts, people on fire, exploding fuselages — real mechanical effects — and also CG augumentation to that. And I had my leading man running through this situation for this continuous amount of time. Oh, and it was raining, as well.
When you're editing a film in post-production, sometimes the studio will ask for "alternate coverage" of a scene for television broadcast. But in this case, there's no alternate, less gruesome version of the jet crash sequence, because it's literally one camera following Nicholas Cage through the carnage. And after all that, Proyas nearly didn't get the scene at all:
When you put all the stunt sequences, all the effort on the one lens running through the situation, and there is no backup plan, that is where all sorts of things can go wrong. We set it up for two days. We spent two days shooting it, even though it was one continous shot. I think we did three takes over the two days. After we blew everything up, we had to reset it, which would take half a day. On the first couple of takes, because it was raining, the lens fogged halfway through the shot — which was the most depressing, disappointing thing, because you couldn't see a thing. It was just fogged out. So we were literally on our last take with the sun going down. I knew I was only going to get one more shot at it. I was actually calling the studio from the set, saying we're not going to get this, we're going to need to come back the next day, which would have cost $300,000 or something. And I hung up. And I was told everything was ready. And I yelled action, and somehow miraculously we got it, just at the end of the day.
Before Proyas got involved with Knowing, writer/director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) was lined up to make the film. I asked Proyas if any of Kelly's vision of the film survived in the final version, and he said not at all.
Finally, I had to ask Proyas about comments he's made in interviews before about wanting to make a big space opera film. He was one of the people bidding to make a movie version of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and he lost out to Roland Emmerich. But he's also said several times that he'd like to make a film of Alfred Bester's Stars My Destination. I asked him if he might still make a big space opera film, and he replied:
I hope so. I keep trying. I like Stars My Destination, and and that may happen sometime in the future. Who knows?