Why Alex Proyas had to direct the sci-fi thriller Knowing

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Patrick Lee
Dec 14, 2012

Alex Proyas, director of the sci-fi action thriller Knowing, told SCI FI Wire that he was drawn to the story by its unique premise: Papers in a 50-year-old time capsule contain predictions of every major disaster since it was buried—as well as prophecies of disasters yet to come.

"I haven't seen it done, either, and it gets under your skin," Proyas said in an exclusive interview Monday. "The whole notion that someone could have accurately predicted a series of events throughout the last 50 years, and then there are further predictions still to come. To me, it was a very kind of disturbing, intriguing concept. So that was really the genesis of my interest in it."

Proyas—whose body of work includes the culty Crow, the visually arresting and mind-twisting Dark City and the big-budget I, Robot —wrote the screenplay with Stuart Hazeldine (Riverworld), Ryne Douglas Pearson (Mercury Rising), Juliet Snowden & Stiles White (The Need, Boogeyman) and Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, Donnie Darko): quite a sci-fi pedigree.

The movie stars Nicolas Cage as a professor who stumbles on the terrifying predictions about the future and sets out to prevent them from coming true. Following is an edited version of the first part of our two-part interview with Proyas. The second part runs tomorrow. Knowing opens March 20.

Tell me what intrigued you about the idea for this film.

Proyas: As a filmmaker, you're always looking for an original story to tell, one that hasn't been told a million times before. It seems like ... in this time of remakes and reboots, ... if you can find something with even the whiff of uniqueness to it, I think that instantly piques people's interest. It certainly did for me. So I think that was the main thing. ...

As we got deeper and deeper into this concept, it just kind of created all these wonderful possibilities. All these notions that, ... if you knew the day you were going to die, or if you could have that information, would you want to know it or not? And it's a question that many people find hard to answer. ... You can see the merits of both sides of the argument. ... So it's just one real small example, but there's just so much, there was so much possibility in the story that we developed. ...

Talk about balancing the sort of fantastical premise of the film and some of the big visual-effects elements with what is essentially a story that is very real in a lot of ways. You have some real people dealing with real issues that any audience member will recognize.

Proyas Yeah, I mean, that was really our approach to it. We wanted to make it as believable as possible. ... I've made movies that are quite stylized in their visuals, ... and, for me, the challenge of this film was to try and ground it in reality as much as possible and just make the people in the story feel very natural and very believable. And I felt that when you then superimpose this totally bizarre set of circumstances on these characters, that it would really help the audience kind of track it and feel like this is all really happening ... and as a result be more emotionally satisfying in the long run. So that was really our approach, and all the actors embraced that notion. I'm very happy with the performances and the results that we got. ...

Then we tried to create the same feeling with the visuals. I tried to make the ... visual effects as invisible as possible and really make it feel naturalistic, like it was all really happening in front of the camera rather than in some computer somewhere. ... Audiences are so sophisticated now, they know a CG shot a mile away. And the trick, if you like, now is to try and make it so they're not really sure what they're seeing: They're not really sure if it's real or if it's computer-generated. ... I often kind of combine on-set effects with digital effects and try and make them as seamless as I possibly can. ...

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You've got two pretty large set pieces: the plane crash and the subway accident. Can you talk about each of those and sort of the challenge that that presented you? I presume you didn't have a $300 million budget for this film.

Proyas: No, no. Nor did I want one, actually, because I think that comes with certain strings attached, unfortunately. And I think in the long run it's better for you as a filmmaker if you can actually do things in a fiscally responsible way, above all. ...

There [are] a few moments of spectacle in the film, for sure. ... The plane crash, I guess, to me is the one that was the most nail-biting as a filmmaker, because I decided at an early stage to do it all in one shot, ... just because I thought it'd be a great thing to try. And ... so it's basically one uninterrupted shot from the moment the plane crashes and Nick runs into the maelstrom of exploding wreckage, etc., tries to save people. And the intention there was to just try and make it, again, as visceral and as seamless as possible. Almost like you're a news crew on location rather than a film crew, you know? ...

That had a fair share of challenge, to set up this, because ... the shot was eventually a two-and-a-half-minute uninterrupted shot. With multiple stunt people on fire and certain explosions queued, timed to explode at the right time, etc. ... We made it rain as well, just to make it a little bit more difficult for us. I remember the sound guy on one of the takes ended up falling head first with his sound gear into an inch-full pool of water as he was running frantically behind the camera. But we got it. ...

We rehearsed it for a day, and ... it took two days to actually shoot. And ... even though it was one [shot], we did three takes. But to reset between each take, essentially, almost took half a day to reset, because it was so much pyro, etc. ... We had some technical issues with the camera, actually, and both of those two takes were unusable, and so we had a couple of hours left on the last day before we lost the sun. And I remember calling the studio and saying, ... "We're not going to get this. We're going to have to come back again." And it was going to be an incredibly expensive day to redo. And then, suddenly, everything kind of fell into place, and the sun came out, and we got exactly what we needed in the last hour of light. ... It was one of those ... somewhat miraculous moments where everyone was standing around feeling like they just won the lottery. ... But it was quite untidy for a while.

[Tomorrow: Shooting the subway crash and working with Nicolas Cage.]