Director Jonathan Mostow Q&A
January 26, 2010
Terminator 3 director Jonathan Mostow stars in the action thriller Surrogates; a movie based on the successful comic book series by Robert Venditti. The story centers around a world where people live in near-total isolation, rarely leaving the safety and comfort of their homes, thanks to remotely-controlled robotic bodies that serve as ‘surrogates’. These surrogates are designed as better-looking versions of their human operators. Because people are safe all the time – and any damage inflicted onto a surrogate is not felt by its owner – it is a peaceful world free from fear, pain and crime. Jonathan Mostow explains more…
How would you describe your new movie, Surrogates?
The premise of the movie is that surrogacy has taken over the world, just like cell phones and computers. Surrogates are new devices that offer users the opportunity to experience life vicariously from the comfort and safety of their own homes. In our film, surrogates represent the ultimate freedom, from both physical harm and the mental toll of everyday life. Pleasure is achievable simply by plugging in. But for some, surrogacy feels like the abandonment of humanity itself. In a world where actual physical contact is increasingly rare, does the very notion of love threaten to lose its meaning? Those are some of the ideas we explore in our story.
What attracted you to the movie?
I was attracted to the story because I love the notion that we can live life vicariously through these surrogate robots. It is a metaphor for living in this digital age. Any time you sit down at a computer and communicate with somebody via email or a chat room or read their blog or whatever, you’re not really experiencing them. There’s some layer of technology that’s inserted between you and another person – and this movie speaks directly to that.
What is at the core of the movie?
The core idea of ‘Surrogates’ is how we retain our humanity in this increasingly, relentlessly technological world that we live in. Technology is great. The fantasy of technology is that it frees us to be creative, productive and to do all these wonderful things. The flip side to that is that we wind up being servants to it in a certain way. We’re tethered to our cell phones. It’s great to have email, but when you spend hours a day returning emails, it becomes an obligation. So these new opportunities and possibilities in life also restrain us in certain ways.
What’s the story about?
This movie is a mystery and a detective story. Bruce Willis stars as an FBI agent whose investigation into the mysterious murder of a surrogate finds the hero confronting a conspiracy that calls into question the very definition of humanity. Bruce Willis’ character is caught in this existential dilemma. He walks through life as everybody else does in this world, doing their job day to day – except he does his through his surrogate, so he’s really just staying at home. In the course of the movie, he begins to realize that he’s not happy. He can’t even articulate why he’s not happy, but he knows he’s not happy. And the circumstances of the story cause him to lose his surrogate halfway through the movie and he has to now go out in this surrogate world as a real person. It would sort of be the same as if you said, “You know what, I’m not going to use a telephone or email or faxing or any kind of electronics. I’m just going to exist as people existed 100 years ago. How would I feel and how would that change my life?” And, in so doing, he comes to realize that all this technology that’s supposedly made life better, more perfect, safer and more enhanced isn’t actually making anybody happier.
What’s it like to work with Bruce Willis?
A great movie actor is the actor that can make you believe you know what they’re thinking without a single word of dialogue. It’s about how they move. It’s about really specific nuanced things in their behavior. And I believe Bruce is at the absolute top of his profession in that regard. I think he’s one of the truly great cinematic actors of all time.
Is the movie set in the present day or the future?
Rather than try to do the future – as a lot of filmmakers do – I decided to set it in the present day. I feel that there is something non-authentic about Hollywood visions of the future always, so I decided to consider the era like cell phone technology. Cell phone technology started twenty years ago and it just took off. Now, everybody’s got one. How would our lives be if everything was exactly the same as it is now except this new surrogate technology existed. It’s a really interesting, different spin on doing a science fiction movie that has a futuristic premise. In our movie, everything is from the present day, including regular telephones and present day cars. The only difference that we have in our movie is that everybody’s sitting at home in their “stim” chair operating a robot.
How has the story of the movie evolved?
Well, the initial concept for the “stim” chair in the script was this very comfortable seat where you were attached to wires and electrodes. We didn’t want something that felt claustrophobic, so I came up with the idea that essentially you are in something like a massage chair, which already creates a sense of relaxation. And there are lasers reading your skin temperature and reading your body movements and neural impulses. The only thing you have to wear is a very light headset that’s modeled on something like a Bluetooth. The idea was to create something one wouldn’t mind sitting in for 16 hours a day.
What do these surrogates look like?
Your surrogate can look like whatever you desire. For the sake of psychological continuity, most users choose surrogates that resemble their real selves in some way, albeit trimmer and better looking. The more adventurous may opt for completely different bodies – a new race or gender. Those with less money to spend can operate generic surrogates, which lack the facial detail and expressiveness of more expensive units.
How real is the technology of the surrogates?
In some elements, the essential breakthrough elements have been accomplished already. It’s technologically possible to read someone’s brainwaves and translate that into physical movements. For example, there are people with total paralysis who can type by simply thinking about the letters they want to type. The computer recognizes this. And then there are the monkeys… In the film, we actually have footage of a monkey with electrodes inserted into his brain. He is able to operate a mechanical arm that feeds itself with his thoughts. Literally, you watch the mechanical arm pick up food and put it in the mouth of the monkey – and the monkey is controlling the arm only with his thoughts.
That sounds amazing.
It is. That core research has already been done, although it’s still in its early stages. In terms of robotics, that’s an explosive field. There are constant advances every day. It feels like these two things will merge soon and that this technology will be possible. As with all things, I’m sure the first use will be in the military for battlefield application and then for things like mining or diffusing bombs. It doesn’t make sense to send men down mines when you can send a surrogate. Eventually, like all things, I’m sure it will become commercially available at some point as the production cost decreases.
How close are we to this technology now?
I’m not a scientist, but I would think we would see this possible in 20 or 30 years. Maybe sooner. Technology has an exponential curve of progress, so it’s impossible to predict. What is relevant about the movie is the question it asks, which is: What does this do to us if we can live vicariously and we never have to leave our home? That’s already here now. I can stay in touch with my friends, do my shopping and get my news and even do work all at home. I never have to leave the house. I don’t have to ever deal with anybody. What happens to people when they don’t have to deal with others?
You famously directed Terminator 3 and now you’re releasing another sci-fi film, Surrogates… What is the appeal of the genre?
Science fiction has always has a cool, gee-whiz factor. First and foremost, you think, ‘Wow, It would be so cool to do a movie with all these good-looking robots.’ That’s the escapist, entertainment part of it. But then you find the idea is really compelling because it makes you think about all the time you spend in front of the computer and on the internet and all these things. It makes you think, ‘Wow… That’s a lot of time. What did I use to do with this time before I had this technology at my fingertips?’ It makes you think about all that stuff. That’s what drew me into making this particular film.
SURROGATES is Available on Blu-ray & DVD January 26th!