World without feelings in Wimmer's 'Equilibrium'
November 27, 2002
The Hollywood Reporter
By Martin Grove
Wimmer's world: Over the years Hollywood has brought to life such futuristic literary worlds as those of "Fahrenheit 451," "1984," "Brave New World" and "Minority Report." Their common denominator of a perfected future gone alarmingly wrong continues with writer-director Kurt Wimmer's "Equilibrium," opening Dec. 6 via Dimension Films.
In Libria, Wimmer's world without war, there also is no art, music or poetry. In fact, all human feelings are suppressed through daily doses of the government-mandated drug Prozium. Those who are still able to feel because they aren't downing their medication are guilty of "sense offense" and are subject to summary execution by terrifying police squads unable to feel any emotion as they slaughter the offenders and their lovable pets. This world without feelings that Wimmer creates feels very believable with its well-executed high-intensity police state action scenes in which blazing gun battles are blended with in-your-face karate kicks. The Blue Tulip production was produced by Jan De Bont and Lucas Foster and executive produced by Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein and Andrew Rona. Starring are Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs and Angus MacFadyen.
"It was really about my desire to tell a story about a man who makes the journey from not having really felt anything to feeling everything," Wimmer told me Tuesday. "It was kind of the absurdum version of a journey that I had gone through on a personal level myself. I'd studied art in school and become disillusioned with it during that time and turned my back on it. I turned to screenwriting and wrote strictly about ideas. After about half a decade, I got married and had kids. I sat down to write 'The Thomas Crown Affair' in that time and (to write the film about the theft of a painting from a museum) had to review a lot of the stuff I'd studied in art school. I started finding myself saying that a lot of the stuff I'm looking at is pretty great as opposed to what I (had originally) convinced myself it was. It was a pretty profound and pretty quick occurrence for me and I was deeply moved by it.
"I had sort of spent 10 years thinking that the world was founded and held together by ideas. I realized again pretty fortunately that, in fact, the world was held together by emotions. It was a story that I wanted to tell. So I looked around for a paradigm to tell that story, and I ultimately decided that this science-fiction paradigm with a (Gestapo-like) future where we sort of (eliminate) all contemporary realities to clear the decks for our own more simplistic structure in which to tell a simple (story). I thought that would be the best way to approach it, so that's what I did."
How did the picture wind up getting made? "Originally, we were going to make it as an independent film, myself and my producer friend Lucas Foster through a Dutch tax deal, which was available through his producing partner Jan De Bont. However, all those tax deals are predicated on a domestic distribution deal. We went to Dimension with that proposal and they said they wanted the world (rights) and we said OK."
Asked what sold Dimension on wanting to take the project on worldwide, Wimmer replied, "I honestly couldn't tell you the answer to that. I never asked because I was afraid to make them question their decision. I give credit to the president of production there, Andrew Rona, who just fell in love with the simplicity of the story, I think."
Wimmer wrote "Equilibrium" in early 1999. "It was very easy (to write)," he explained. "In fact, I wrote it because it was an idea I'd had in the back of my mind for several years. I didn't think it was a commercial idea, but it was something I just wanted to express and get out of the way so I could write other more commercial things. So I wrote it in four or five days. After a few months of (having it sit) in the closet, I showed it to my friend Lucas Foster on a lark and he actually liked it, surprisingly enough and thought we could get it made and offered to support me as a director. Naturally, I said OK."
While "Equilibrium" is Wimmer's first film as a director, his writing credits include John McTiernan's 1999 remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair," Barry Levinson's 1998 drama "Sphere" and Roger Donaldson's thriller "The Recruit" for Buena Vista Pictures Distribution and Spyglass Entertainment, starring Al Pacino and Colin Farrell, opening in late January. "When I did 'The Thomas Crown Affair' I was fortunate not to be rewritten in any sense," he noted. "McTiernan actually filmed it exactly as I had imagined it so it came out exactly as I saw it. With regard to my own film, however, I had limitations in budget that required me to scale down my original vision from what I had initially wanted it to be. Since I'm creating a futuristic world, plainly everything had to be manufactured. So it actually turned out to be very different (from what was imagined), but very rewarding at the same time."
And now that he's directed, would Wimmer go back to being "just" a writer? "Not by choice," he said. "I love directing. It's the most wonderful experience of my life. I love writing, too. I love them both equally even though they're at opposite ends of the activity spectrum, but there's nothing I enjoy more than the energy of being on the set and (in effect playing) Russian roulette, especially when you're on a small budget production -- which is not to say I wouldn't like larger budgets in the future -- and sometimes you only have one take and each one is do or die and every single set-up is a roll of the dice and every night you go home with the satisfaction of saying, 'I got it.' "
Wimmer puts the film's cost at a very reasonable $20 million and clearly spent it very wisely because the picture looks like it cost a lot more. "I found that it came down to making the correct choices about where to spend the money," he observed. "In other words, turning your back on the idea of flying cars and just using a Cadillac and painting it all white. It was simply a process of avoiding science fiction cliches and trying to make something that stood out as being different, yet was generally found in a practical environment."
Although some directors have very definite preferences about what aspects of the filmmaking process they prefer, Wimmer takes a more balanced view. "It's a tossup," he said, "between being on the set and working with the camera and the block and the actors and (doing) the editing. In one sense, there's a tremendous amount of satisfaction in watching playback and knowing that you've got it. In the other sense, there's a tremendous amount of satisfaction in taking what you did get and making that magical synergy that only editing can give you."
On the other hand, there's no doubt in his mind as to the greatest challenges involved in making "Equilibrium:" "The most significant challenge is always budget and between our very lean budget and very lean time frame (it wasn't easy). But more significant than that, ultimately, was the challenge of being a first-time director and convincing those people around you that you can do it and you know what you're doing. The unfortunate truth is that almost nobody can look at dailies and say with any certainty whether what's there is going to make a great film at the end of the day. I was very fortunate to have the complete and total support of my actors from beginning to end."
Casting, he pointed out, "was very arduous on this film. It took about nine months. Emily came on board (early). Christian had always been somebody I was interested in, but he was busy doing 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin.' But the process took so long that eventually he became available again and I went to him directly. But Emily was one of the first people I got on to the film. I was and am, of course, very pleased with that."
Focusing on how he worked with his actors, Wimmer explained, "Unfortunately, this was a genre film and in genre films spontaneity can actually be more dangerous than it's helpful although I really think that is the best way to work with actors if at all possible. But I think that (approach) lends itself much better to dramas or comedies. Because the camera plan is worked out in intense detail ahead of time, unfortunately method acting was not an option. We did have some rehearsal. Not much, but we used it to our best advantage, I think."
The film includes many intense action sequences with some particularly well choreographed scenes involving Gun-Kata, an innovative fighting style in which Western-style gunplay and Eastern-style karate are blended. Were they storyboarded? "Generally, no," he replied. "I did do some storyboarding, but for the most part (those) sequences were too complex to storyboard on the limited time and budget I had for storyboarding. So, therefore, I simply shot listed them, which I tend to rely on more heavily than storyboards anyway."
What Wimmer has come up with in "Equilibrium" is something of an interesting hybrid film that puts a sci-fi story for serious thought in an action film skin. "For me, the writing was something of an intellectual exercise," he said. "Aside from telling the story, which was meaningful to me, about a man who never felt anything and (who now makes) the journey to feeling, I obviously peppered the background of the world with ideas taken from contemporary surroundings like the trend toward voluntary self-medication in Northern America and the sort of emotional censorship that I see on the part of, for instance, the MPAA, which is why I rated all contraband in the film EC-10. For me, writing those ideas down in the form of a screenplay was enough. To make the exercise of turning it into a film interesting to me I had to invent a visual idea that I would find exciting. It was only after I found out that I was going to direct the film that I brought the action element into it. In the original screenplay, there was almost no action. That's when I invented this concept of the Gun-Kata. I think in the end, to a degree, it works in that it takes old-time fiction paradigms that maybe contemporary young audiences haven't seen. The last (film version of) 'Fahrenheit 451' was made in 1967 by Truffaut. I don't think many people under the age of 30 have seen it today. So (my approach was) taking those ideas and wrapping them in a sort of sci-fi action tortilla that they could hopefully enjoy."
Martin Grove is seen Mondays at 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., PT on CNNfn's "The Biz" and is heard weekdays at 1:55 p.m. on KNX (1070 AM ) in Los Angeles.
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