Andrew Niccol Interview

Writer-director Andrew Niccol sounds off on his industry farce about a digital actress taking Hollywood by storm

Writer-director Andrew Niccol sounds off on his industry farce about a digital actress taking Hollywood by storm

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Andrew Niccol has such piercing blue-gray eyes that if I weren't meeting him in person, I'd be wont to think they were some kind of digital touch-up. But maybe that's just his new movie rubbing off on me.

In "Simone," the writer of "The Truman Show" and "Gattaca" (which he also directed) has created another uncanny "what if..." scenario about a neurotic down-and-out film director named Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) whose career is pulled out of a tailspin by a computer program that creates a hyper-real CGI actress. A pouty blonde knockout that Taransky passes off as real -- a reclusive artiste who won't appear in public or even on the sets of her own movies -- Simone takes the world by storm, rocketing herself and her creator onto the Hollywood A-list, which in turn digs Taransky deeper and deeper into his own elaborate deception.

One can see in Niccol's almost unreal peepers hints of the abstract imagination that has spawned his unsettlingly feasible stories. "Gattaca" was about a near future where designer DNA determines destiny. "Truman" predated the reality TV craze but foretold of a "Big Brother"-type world taken to a disquieting, if humorous, extreme. "Simone," while being primarily a showbiz farce, is just as eerie, and there are clearly more bizarre but strangely familiar stories cooking in the man's mind.

A native New Zealander who got his start in television commercials, the writer-director's weather-beaten features make him look a little older than his 38 years. But his spirit seems considerably younger as he intangibly radiates nervous enthusiasm while talking about "Simone" recently in his room at a posh San Francisco hotel.

Q: I've detected what I think is a recurring Andrew Niccol theme in the movies you've written -- a commentary on human beings' manipulating what it means to be human.

A: Maybe. [Smiles.] I just don't even analyze what I do. You may have far greater insight into this than I do!

Q: Well, let me give you examples and see how you feel about it. In "Gattaca," you have science creating a caste system through genetic engineering. In "The Truman Show," you have a false world being created for one person. And in "Simone," you have a false person being created to fool the world.

A: Well, I think that's very true -- especially about "Simone" being "The Truman Show" inside-out. I didn't realize it at the time. [Pauses.] Right. Well, I'm always looking for the humanity in the technology, I guess. I like to deal with the ambiguities of life as well. I don't like black or white. Life's not like that. You just tend to deal with a lot of gray. That's what's so frustrating about life. [Laughs slightly.]

Q: Are these ideas you'd like to explore further or would you like to move away and do something completely different, like a romantic comedy or a Western in the future?

A: The thing is, you only see what gets made. I have a body of work that is yet unfilmed. The horrible thing is that (to get a movie made) all the planets have to align, you know? Even though there are really just two questions in Hollywood: Who's in it and how much does it cost?

Q: I understand that "The Truman Show" (directed by Peter Weir and released in 1998) was bought and put into production long before you got to make "Gattaca" (released in 1997).

A: Yeah. I wrote "The Truman Show" before "Gattaca." I wanted to direct "The Truman Show," but I remember the studio head at the time saying, "Andrew, we will not give you $80 million for your first film!" I made the mistake of writing my most expensive film first. [Laughs.]

Q: Did not getting the nod to direct that film frustrate you?

A: Oh, sure! But the interesting thing was, she said, "We won't give you $80 million, but we would give you 20. So I made sure that "Gattaca" was $20 million!

Q: There's a slightly exaggerated pretentiousness in that very aspect of Hollywood as depicted in "Simone." How do you walk that fine line?

A: I'm not sure it's only slightly!

Q: Well, it's more that it's not all that far from reality. It's just a twist of reality.

A: Well, I take a dig at pretentious directors -- like me! [Laughs.] That's why Taransky's films are so bad. I mean, they're terrible and nobody would make them without Simone. Then he's so caught up in himself that he thinks he's changing lives. "We're speaking to the human condition," he says -- to a digital actor!

I always laugh at those Oscar ceremonies where people stand up and say, "The cast was so courageous." I always think, You're not fighting fires or curing anything. [Another laugh.] But I try to keep some perspective, so everyone gets a dig, even me.

Q: So, the fact that Simone herself is a bit of a melodramatic mannequin, is that partially a comment on the way audiences and awards shows tend to embrace overly emotional performances?

A: Somewhat, sure. It's something about our celebrity culture. The ultimate joke here is the worship of a celebrity that literally doesn't exist. Then you also have to ask yourself, just how real are the so-called "real" celebrities that we worship?

Q: ...how much of their image is manufactured.

A: Yeah, exactly. They do digital work on real actors anyway. They fix complexions. They use digital stunt doubles. Oliver Reed acts from the grave (the actor passed away part way through filming "Gladiator" and his face was masked onto a stand-in for some scenes), so it's all out there now.

Q: A rumor went around some years back that Kevin Costner had his hair filled in for "Waterworld."

A: Oh, sure. People do that all the time. One of the digital artists that worked on "Simone" works on a pop star [pauses] who I will not name. (The artist) supervises the digital work that's done to her -- "trim my ass here and give me better abs" -- on all her videos.

Q: Speaking of the manufacturing of celebrity, I hesitate to break the illusion but Rachel Roberts (the Canadian model who was the physical basis for the Simone character) would probably like to get some recognition off of this movie. Yet the closing credits read "Simone...as herself."

A: It's not true to say it's only one actor involved in (creating) Simone. But yes, I'm simulating a simulation. For me, the point is not to make a totally believable, artificial actor. The point is, we know that's possible, so what are the implications when you have one? When you have an artificial actor but you don't tell anyone? That's the fun for me.

Q: At the moment, there has to still be a human doing the voice of any computer-created character...

A: Sure. That's the irony about the Screen Actors Guild saying, "Oh my god, artificial actors are going to take away our jobs." More actors got a job working on "Simone" (than would have if the character was flesh and blood). Like there are at least four voices on Simone. There are scenes where I even play ping-pong with the voices. Almost word-for-word I switch between two actresses. So it was fun to manipulate her the way Taransky does.

Q: It also must have gotten you inside Taransky's head too.

A: Right! Exactly.

Q: On the subject of Taransky, I don't think Al Pacino has ever worked against green screen before -- talking to something that isn't there and will be added later (as he does when sitting at Simone's computer console). How did he take to that?

A: Well, he's so good. I mean, he would work to a block of wood -- and probably has, if you know what I mean. [Laughs.] He's never done an out-and-out comedy like this either. But I liked the subversive quality of having Hollywood royalty -- one of the world's most respected actors -- saying "Who needs actors?" It's so funny.

Q: I talked to Chris Nolan earlier this year, who directed him in "Insomnia." He was saying that Pacino knows exactly where the camera is, knows just how big or small to be -- that he's just a master.

A: Yes he is. There was one little moment (in "Simone") when he was just doing a little reaction shot -- it's the reaction when Catherine Keener (playing his ex-wife) asks him into the house, and it's obviously been a while since she asked him into the house. He's just turns and gives this quick reaction shot. But he does (several takes) and he just kept doing it. She'd ask him again and again, and every time his reaction was just slightly different. He would go, "Really?" Or he'd say nothing. Or he'd do a double-take. It was a hypnotizing moment and I just...let the film run out. I couldn't say "cut."

Q: So you had bunches of takes to chose from.

A: Exactly. And the editor, he looked at it in dailies and he said, "Wow. You could use the worst one of those and it would be brilliant." I'll never destroy those dailies because it was just one of those fantastic moments. He is a master. That's what I'm trying to say.


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