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'Sky Captain': Embracing the Past

By Rob M. Worley     September 18, 2004

An interview with Sky Captaindirector, Kerry Conran
By Dean Kish (a.k.a. Soothsayer)

Director Kerry Conran's"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a look back at how peopleof 1940s and 1950s saw the future through comic books, pulp novels and serialsof the era.

His film is also a unificationof mediums because of his breakthrough use of CGI technology which allows actorsto travel back into that era without the aid of giant expensive sets, longon-location shoots and extensive continuity editing.

It truly is amazing that hisstory began with a small six-minute film, which he crafted in his garage. Thatsmall film was entitled, "The World of Tomorrow". It took Conran yearsto cobble it together but he stuck to his vision. With the use of a basic Applepersonal computer, Conran spent long hours on the tiniest of details so that hisnoir/serial world could become real. His persistence paid off and eventually itgarnered the attention of Hollywood director-producer Jon Avnet. And the rest asthey say is history.

How does a man change the waywe view things by sitting in his garage? What other plans does he have for thefuture? And what inspires such a visionary?

I had a chance to sit down withKerry Conran, via telephone, and talk about his new "world oftomorrow".

Soothsayer: So whatinfluences did you have when you were a kid? And how did they help flesh out thefilm?

Conran: A lot of myinfluences came from the old serials of the 1940s and 1950s that I would watchwhen I was a kid. I imagined what it would be like if they created a sciencefiction film of that era using the styles and sensibilities which they knew. Butit was also in taking advantage of the technology today to realize somethingthat they couldn't realize back then but also be evocative and reinterpret it atthe same time.

Soothsayer: Do you haveany favorite serials?

Conran: I have tons ofthem but especially "King of the Rocketmen" and "CommanderCody".

Soothsayer: That isexactly what I was thinking.

Conran: "King ofthe Rocketmen" was really well made and one of the more entertaining of theserials. I also looked at "The Masked Marvel" and "CaptainMarvel" certainly.

Soothsayer: I justwatched "Captain Marvel" again last weekend.

Conran: Oh you did. Theyare just fun. They were the first attempt at really bringing these comics tolife. They made the best with what they had and many of them were quitesuccessful.

Soothsayer: Do you haveany other serials from that era that you would like to bring forward to thecinema today?

Conran: It's hard tosay. I was really a big fan of the "The Masked Marvel". I also reallythink that the "The Rocketeer" really embodied "CommanderCody".

Soothsayer: Yeah Ireally love "The Rocketeer", the film and the comic.

Conran: The comic isbeautiful. But I don't know if there are any existing serials or comics that Iwould personally like to see because I sort of did that with this film. The filmis a composite of all those and I am pretty content with what we did.

Soothsayer: Here is sortof an odd question; is Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow in the film) more BrendaStarr or Lois Lane?

Conran: I thinkabsolutely Lois Lane. But also I would have to say some of Lauren Bacall in"Have and Have Not", Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur. There isprobably even some of Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday". But Ithink she was probably most patterned after Lois Lane.

Soothsayer: So howimportant was it to have Production Designer and your brother, Kevin, on thefilm?

Conran: Oh it was huge.Kevin and I were able to work in almost shorthand. We didn't have a lot ofresources starting out and we didn't have to go through any designs to arrive atwhat I was shooting for. We also shared in common a very similar aesthetic andwith that we knew exactly what we were trying to get at. We also knew what eachother was capable of. In that regards, it was a huge part of this film.

Soothsayer: Do you feela kindred connection to legendary animator Max Fleischer?

Conran: Yeah, I thinkthat. I think the Superman films of that era were just great films. I thinkapart from being great pieces of animation that really stands up to this day.They were also great pieces of film noir in a way. We actually used thosecartoons and started breaking them down from more of the aesthetic point of viewbut also from a technical standpoint. We tried to understand how an animatedfilm was constructed and a lot of the problems that they had to deal with andsolve.

For instance, when we had tocreate a cityscape we couldn't afford to populate it nor did we have the time tocreate thousands and thousands of people. Back then when they werehand-animating they couldn't draw or animate thousands and thousands ofcharacters.

When you study it, you realizethat maybe they only used maybe three to ten characters at the most. They used asource of sound, composition and shadows to sell all sorts of things.

We carried through a lot ofthose concepts and conventions into the film. I think that you will probablynotice that there are probably no more than ten people on screen at a time and Ihope that you don't feel cheated that there isn't a city teeming with people.

Soothsayer: Even back inthe film noir films with Orson Welles there never was very many people on screenat a time.

Conran: Never. The verydistinctive look of film noir came about from some of the very similar problemswe had, no money. And it was the use of light and shadow, which also came fromthe B-rated horror films, which helped disguise that fact. Then it ended upbecoming a distinctive style that was then duplicated historically.

Soothsayer: My firstfeeling when coming out of Sky Captain that it was indeed "Max Fleischercome to life".

Conran: Yeah, I thinkthat is quite an apt description.

Soothsayer: There is arumor that you will be directing the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs "APrincess of Mars", the first novel in the John Carter of Mars series. Isthat true?

Conran: That seems to betrue.

Soothsayer: Are you afan of those books as well?

Conran: Oh, sure. It hadbeen many years since I had last read them and I have subsequently reread them.But I think in those books in particular you can see where George Lucasdeveloped some of his ideas for "Star Wars" and where J.R.R. Tolkiencame up with some of his ideas for "The Lord of the Rings" even. In away the John Carter story is a combination of those two worlds. I also thinkthat in that aspect it will be quite the opportunity and challenge to dosomething that audiences have quite seen before.

Soothsayer: I have beencollecting some of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs for going on 10 years nowand I even have some Canadian first editions. I was so excited when John Carterwas first optioned.

Conran: The film isgoing to be an enormous undertaking but we are excited and thrilled that we havebeen given the chance to finally bring it to life.

Soothsayer: Tars Tarkas,the four-armed man is going to be quite the challenge I imagine.

Conran: It is going tobe quite tricky. But aside from it technically it is going to be hard toring-out a performance especially since we want it to be a real and richcharacter.

Soothsayer: Did you eversee a rather bad '80s sci-fi movie called "Krull"?

Conran: Sure.

Soothsayer: Do youremember the Cyclops in "Krull"?

Conran: Vaguely. Ireally don't remember the movie very well other than the title.

Soothsayer: You mightwant to go back and look at that film again. In part, at least in my vision, theCyclops in "Krull" is what I think that Tars Tarkas, the four-armedguy's personality would be like.

Conran: Really? Oh, wow.I will.

Soothsayer: Did you hearthat Ashton Kutcher is the front runner to play Flash Gordon?

Conran: Oh, no. Wellthat sums that up.

Soothsayer: Are we goingto see your six-minute film, "The World of Tomorrow" on the DVD?

Conran: Yeah, it will beon the DVD. Unfortunately it is 10 years old now but it is very evocative of thefilm that it became. Actually some of the shots are out rate duplicated. But itis a black-and-white version of what we ultimately created.

Soothsayer: There hasbeen so much talk about the little film that it will be interesting to finallysee it.

Conran: (laughs) I justhope you're not disappointed.

Soothsayer: Do you haveany messages for all those independent filmmakers still stuck in their garages?

Conran: The main thingis not to give up. I have said this before but I really think that we are sortliving through a renaissance period in a way that technology has now been madeavailable, in particular to filmmakers. It has almost become the desktoppublishing craze of many years ago that empowered people to become their ownpublishers. I think that the tools exist now that allow independent filmmakersto create something that really rivals what studios could have dreamed up yearsago. This new technology is a great opportunity for filmmakers. You just have tohave that desire and that project to believe in. Where there is a will there isa way and I am living proof of that.

Soothsayer: Thanks somuch Mr. Conran for taking the time with me. It also think that on some levelthat we are kind of kindred spirits.

Conran: Very much so.

Soothsayer: I hope wewill have a chance to chat again when John Carter comes out and thank you.

Conran: Without a doubt.Thank you.

Sometimes we have to look atthe past to embrace the future. In Kerry Conran's case, he not only looked backbut also saw the future through their eyes. Conran's "Sky Captain and theWorld of Tomorrow" is not only a homage to the past but it also helps usunderstand their vision of the future and in some ways our own

"Sky Captain and the Worldof Tomorrow" Stars Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi and AngelinaJolie. It opens September 17, 2004.

-- SoSays the Soothsayer --


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