Dark City: About The Production

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Writer/director Alex Proyas set about imagining the Kafka-esque world of Dark City before making The Crow, the acclaimed and highly successful action-thriller starring the late Brandon Lee. A lover of science fiction in his youth, Proyas had long been intrigued by one of the genre's wilder branches, in which the very nature of reality is called into question. "I always thought that was a very powerful idea that hadn't been explored in films," Proyas recalls.

"The paranoid aspect of the story came out of dreams I had as a child -- that while I was asleep, dark figures would come into my bedroom and rearrange things. Maybe the way I envisioned it was a bit bizarre, but I think being afraid of the dark is a very basic childhood fear. Whenever I'd come across that concept in a book as a kid, it would haunt me and make me re-examine the way I looked at things.

Proyas believes that fantasy and science fiction films should allow filmmakers and audiences to think. "In literature, science fiction has always been a genre for ideas that can alter your perspective on things; in film it's almost never used for that -- it's used to have big spaceships blow up cities. I think we're a little tired of that," Proyas says.

A thought-provoking, existential screenplay, the story evolved as Proyas worked on Dark City successively with Lem Dobbs (Steven Soderbergh's Kafka) and David Goyer (New Line's upcoming Blade). Recalls Proyas' long-time producing partner, Andrew Mason, "Lem comes from a very artistic and literary background, so he was able to introduce a vast depth of humanity into what was a very complicated plot. David Goyer sharpened the material and made it more accessible."

In the process, the project's focus shifted significantly. "The idea I initially had was a story about a film noir detective who's on a case that doesn't quite jell," says Proyas. "As he unearths more clues, he begins to discover the existence of a mystery that challenges his very sanity."

During the months Proyas worked with Dobbs and Goyer, the emphasis switched from the investigator to the harrowing mystery surrounding John Murdoch. "I thought Murdoch was a more emotional viewpoint for the story, whereas centering it on the detective made it more cerebral and less visceral. The detective ended up being the character played by William Hurt, who is still my favorite character in the movie," says Proyas.

According to Proyas, Dark City is an ensemble piece, where all the characters are strong. "You can examine the story from anyone's perspective -- from Murdoch's perspective, or Bumstead's, Schreber's or Emma's -- and it would be just as interesting. We played with all those points of view, and I knew how the film would be told from each one, but I finally chose Murdoch because having him in the center gave the other characters the most room to breathe."

To lead the ensemble, Proyas enlisted Rufus Sewell (Carrington, Cold Comfort Farm), whom Andrew Mason discovered during a trip to London when a friend suggested he see Sewell's latest play. "I was told he was the most exciting new actor coming out of England in years," says Mason. "I went to see him and thought he was extraordinary." After meeting with Alex Proyas and reading the script, Sewell accepted the role of John Murdoch, which was a departure from the kinds of film roles he has played to date.

"I never thought about being in a science fiction film before," says the young actor. "Normally, there's not much for an actor to do in a film like that, except to point at things and say, ëOh, look at the size of that!' or ëI've never seen one of those -- they've been extinct for 4,000 years!' But this is part film noir, part science fiction, part fairy tale, and it has really vibrant roles for actors."

"My character is on a quest to find out who he is. I've had experiences in my life when I thought I was on the edge of madness, and I drew on those experiences to play Murdoch."

Stage and screen actor Ian Richardson, who plays the leader of The Strangers, Mr. Book, is also a newcomer to the science fiction genre. "At the age of 62," he comments, "I relish a challenge. It's terribly gratifying working for such an imaginative director."

Alex Proyas says he was "blessed" to have William Hurt playing the impassive and meticulous, but not unemotional, Inspector Bumstead. Reciprocally, Hurt was proud to have been part of Dark City, which he says is "unlike anything I've ever read before."

"Bumstead is a very fastidious man, very precise," says Hurt. "He reminds me of someone who has a vast collection of jazz and has categorized it all perfectly -- I like that about him."

"William Hurt brings a sort of gravitas and dignity to any role he plays," observes Richard O'Brien, who plays John Murdoch's chief antagonist, Mr. Hand.

O'Brien has had a distinguished stage career in England, but is best known for his performance in the immortal screen version of a musical comedy he wrote in the `70s, "The Rocky Horror Show." In the film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, O'Brien reprises the role of the hunchbacked butler, Riff-Raff, whose status as a pop icon was confirmed by the character's memorable cameo in Men In Black. Alex Proyas says he wrote the part of Mr. Hand with O'Brien in mind.

"I had to find a way to play a character who has no human qualities, without making him flat," says O'Brien. "I based it on the kind of person we've all met who just goes completely blank on you. Whether it's because they're deaf, or stupid, or mean-spirited, you don't get anything back from them when you say ëhello,' and it kind of blows you away. For me, that was the key to The Strangers: that complete indifference about any of the humans. Humans don't matter -- they simply don't count."

The casting of Kiefer Sutherland as Doctor Schreber brought humor and light to a role that was originally written as a much older man, says the director. "Kiefer came up with some spectacularly unusual ideas for the character." Intrigued by the story's implications, Sutherland eloquently sums up the question the film poses to each of the characters: "How valuable is your soul, and what are you going to do to protect it?"

That theme is perhaps best embodied in the character of Emma, who claims to be Murdoch's wife, although it is possible that they may never have even met before. Because of his loss of memory, Murdoch has no way of knowing whether the people surrounding him are friends or foe. This is particularly true with Emma, a beautiful woman with whom he shares an undeniable attraction.

"John and Emma's love for each other is really what The Strangers' experiment is all about," says Proyas. "If you're a romantic who believes that love at first sight can exist -- unconditioned by the past -- then you'll buy what happens between them; if you're a cynic, you'll probably say it's a load of bull."

No cynic can deny that as far as the script was concerned, it was love at first sight for New Line Cinema's President of Production Michael De Luca and Development Director Brian Witten. The executives immediately responded to the material and embraced Proyas' ensemble approach to casting, which they felt perfectly complemented the filmmaker's ambitious vision. Financed by New Line, production began on August 12, 1996, under the auspices of Proyas and Mason's Australian company, Mystery Clock Cinema.

Like Proyas' first American film, The Crow, Dark City is set in a distinctive version of the nightmarish urban environment. In its design, however, Dark City represented a quantum leap from The Crow, where sets were combined with practical locations that had been dressed and lit to achieve the stylized look of an urban hell.

"Out of our entire production schedule, we shot only two days outside in the daylight -- the two beach scenes" says the director. "Like the characters in the film, the crew spent several months living in darkness."

"We built 50 sets, " says producer Andrew Mason, "and the only way to do that without busting the budget was to make the film in Australia." The new Fox Film Studios in Sydney, which is Proyas and Mason's hometown, was chosen for the construction of Dark City's sets, including the underground world of The Strangers, which was the largest indoor set ever built in Australia.

"The sets are supposed to be a composite of different eras," explains Proyas. "Here and there you see modern cars, for example, but the stylistic center of gravity is the `40s, because of the look I wanted for The Strangers. Above-ground they wear long coats with fur collars and fedora hats, so you couldn't imagine them walking around in modern Los Angeles. The basic `40s look of the city is an environment that enables them to operate unnoticed."

Instead of constructing sets that would evoke the memory of other recent science fiction films, Proyas, who is known for creating distinctive, visually crafted films, drew inspiration from German expressionists like Werner Herzog and Fritz Lang.

"For this film --to a certain extent -- we went back to Metropolis as a source of inspiration, and tried to design a city that lacked detail. We were determined to create a landscape that was very sparse and empty. Every set that I walked onto, I would spend half an hour removing detail, because I wanted to isolate the characters within a very empty world."

At the same time, Proyas and his collaborators sought to ground this highly stylized world in reality. "The film was lit as though from practical sources," says Andrew Mason, explaining the look created by Proyas and director of photography Dariusz Wolski, who previously worked together on The Crow. "All the sets were built as complete environments, with floors, ceilings, walls and doors."

"Initially we wanted to give the film a gritty, almost documentary look, even though that wasn't the style that finally evolved," explains Proyas. "I wanted it to look like it was lit with available light.

"As for including ceilings -- that's just my philosophy in working with actors. I feel it's better for the performances. In a film like this that is completely built on stages, I wanted to give the actors the sense that they're still in a real world, so all the sets we used had four walls and a ceiling, rather than having one wall removed and a lot of cameras and lights poking in at them like bugs under a microscope -- although, as it happens, that's just what the human characters in the film turn out to be!"

Proyas says he wanted to establish a strong visual contrast between the human world above ground and The Strangers' underground domain. He elaborates: "I felt that the Strangers' world, being decrepit, Gothic high-tech, would contrast with the above-ground sets, which are less dirty and worn than you would expect a city to be -- kind of like a dark Disneyland."

It was production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Independence Day), who was responsible for the look of the Underworld, which took three months to construct. "Alex and I first began working on the concept for the Underworld two years before the start of production," he says, "and we always knew we wanted the metal in that set to have an eroded look. There's a desperation in The Strangers' work because their world is crumbling and in decay -- that's what the design reflects."

To build such a vast area cheaply and quickly, the filmmakers decided to make all the columns out of canvas, and employed sailmakers to cut and shape the canvas. They then hoisted the canvas to the roof and clad it in sheets of polystyrene, which was textured to give the columns a solid appearance, and added some copper to create that metallic, decayed look.

Rufus Sewell says that the Underground was his favorite of the film's numerous sets. "When Alex first sent me the sketches for that set, I was more excited than I had been when I read the script," he recalls. "The Underworld was truly remarkable -- a little bit scary, very thrilling, and full of hundreds of bald people!"

Completion of principal photography was followed by extensive effects work, including two of the most remarkable sequences yet achieved in film with the now-familiar techniques of computerized "morphing." Australia's D-Film accomplished these striking sequences, which show Proyas' vision of what happens to the city and its inhabitants when the process of "Tuning" is going on.

The Tuning begins on February 27, 1998, when New Line Cinema opens Alex Proyas' Dark City in theatres all over America.

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