Interview: Sky Captain director Kerry Conran

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Director Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a look back at how people of the 1940s and 1950s saw the future through comic books, pulp novels, and serials of the era.

His film is also a unification of mediums because of his breakthrough use of CGI technology, which allows actors to travel back into that era without the aid of giant expensive sets, long on-location shoots, and extensive continuity editing.

It truly is amazing that his story began with a small six-minute film which he crafted in his garage. That small film was entitled The World of Tomorrow. It took Conran years to cobble it together but he stuck to his vision. With the use of a basic Apple personal computer, Conran spent long hours on the tiniest of details so that his noir/serial world could become real. His persistence paid off and eventually it garnered the attention of Hollywood director-producer Jon Avnet. And the rest, as they say, is history.

How does a man change the way we view things by sitting in his garage? What other plans does he have for the future? And what inspires such a visionary?

I had a chance to sit down with Kerry Conran, via telephone, to talk about his new "world of tomorrow".

Soothsayer: So what influences did you have when you were a kid? And how did they help flesh out the film?

Conran: A lot of my influences came from the old serials of the 1940s and 1950s that I would watch when I was a kid. I imagined what it would be like if they created a science fiction film of that era using the styles and sensibilities which they knew. But it was also in taking advantage of the technology today to realize something that they couldn't realize back then, but also be evocative and reinterpret it at the same time.

Soothsayer: Do you have any favorite serials?

Conran: I have tons of them but especially King of the Rocketmen and Commander Cody.

Soothsayer: That is exactly what I was thinking.

Conran: King of the Rocketmen was really well made and one of the more entertaining of the serials. I also looked at The Masked Marvel and Captain Marvel, certainly.

Soothsayer: I just watched Captain Marvel again last weekend.

Conran: Oh you did? They are just fun. They were the first attempt at really bringing these comics to life. They made the best with what they had and many of them were quite successful.

Soothsayer: Do you have any other serials from that era that you would like to bring forward to the cinema today?

Conran: It's hard to say. I was really a big fan of the The Masked Marvel. I also really think that the The Rocketeer really embodied Commander Cody.

Soothsayer: Yeah I really love The Rocketeer, the film and the comic.

Conran: The comic is beautiful. But I don't know if there are any existing serials or comics that I would personally like to see, because I sort of did that with this film. The film is a composite of all those and I am pretty content with what we did.

Soothsayer: Here is sort of an odd question; is Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow in the film) more Brenda Starr or Lois Lane?

Conran: I think absolutely Lois Lane. But also I would have to say some of Lauren Bacall in Have and Have Not, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jean Arthur. There is probably even some of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. But I think she was probably most patterned after Lois Lane.

Soothsayer: So how important was it to have Production Designer and your brother, Kevin, on the film?

Conran: Oh it was huge. Kevin and I were able to work in almost shorthand. We didn't have a lot of resources starting out and we didn't have to go through any designs to arrive at what I was shooting for. We also shared in common a very similar aesthetic and with that we knew exactly what we were trying to get at. We also knew what each other was capable of. In that regard, it was a huge part of this film.

Soothsayer: Do you feel a kindred connection to legendary animator Max Fleischer?

Conran: Yeah, I think that. I think the Superman films of that era were just great films. I think apart from being great pieces of animation that really stands up to this day, they were also great pieces of film noir in a way. We actually used those cartoons and started breaking them down from more of the aesthetic point of view, but also from a technical standpoint. We tried to understand how an animated film was constructed and a lot of the problems that they had to deal with and solve.

For instance, when we had to create a cityscape, we couldn't afford to populate it nor did we have the time to create thousands and thousands of people. Back then when they were hand-animating they couldn't draw or animate thousands and thousands of characters.

When you study it, you realize that maybe they only used maybe three to ten characters at the most. They used a source of sound, composition, and shadows to sell all sorts of things.

We carried through a lot of those concepts and conventions into the film. I think that you will probably notice that there are probably no more than ten people on screen at a time and I hope that you don't feel cheated that there isn't a city teeming with people.

Soothsayer: Even back in the film noir films with Orson Welles, there never was very many people on screen at a time.

Conran: Never. The very distinctive look of film noir came about from some of the very similar problems we had, no money. And it was the use of light and shadow, which also came from the B-rated horror films, which helped disguise that fact. Then it ended up becoming a distinctive style that was then duplicated historically.

Soothsayer: My first feeling when coming out of Sky Captain that it was indeed "Max Fleischer come to life".

Conran: Yeah, I think that is quite an apt description.

Soothsayer: There is a rumor that you will be directing the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, the first novel in the John Carter of Mars series. Is that true?

Conran: That seems to be true.

Soothsayer: Are you a fan of those books as well?

Conran: Oh, sure. It had been many years since I had last read them and I have subsequently reread them. But I think in those books in particular you can see where George Lucas developed some of his ideas for Star Wars and where J.R.R. Tolkien came up with some of his ideas for The Lord of the Rings even. In a way, the John Carter story is a combination of those two worlds. I also think that in that aspect it will be quite the opportunity and challenge to do something that audiences have never quite seen before.

Soothsayer: I have been collecting some of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs for going on 10 years now and I even have some Canadian first editions. I was so excited when John Carter was first optioned.

Conran: The film is going to be an enormous undertaking but we are excited and thrilled that we have been given the chance to finally bring it to life.

Soothsayer: Tars Tarkas, the four-armed man, is going to be quite the challenge I imagine.

Conran: It is going to be quite tricky. But aside from it technically, it is going to be hard to ring-out a performance, especially since we want it to be a real and rich character.

Soothsayer: Did you ever see a rather bad 80s sci-fi movie called Krull?

Conran: Sure.

Soothsayer: Do you remember the Cyclops in Krull?

Conran: Vaguely. I really don't remember the movie very well other than the title.

Soothsayer: You might want to go back and look at that film again. In part, at least in my vision, the Cyclops in Krull is what I think that Tars Tarkas, the four-armed man's personality would be like.

Conran: Really? Oh, wow. I will.

Soothsayer: Did you hear that Ashton Kutcher is the front runner to play Flash Gordon?

Conran: Oh, no. Well that sums that up.

Soothsayer: Are we going to see your six-minute film, The World of Tomorrow, on the DVD?

Conran: Yeah, it will be on the DVD. Unfortunately it is 10 years old now but it is very evocative of the film that it became. Actually, some of the shots are outright duplicated. But it is a black-and-white version of what we ultimately created.

Soothsayer: There has been so much talk about the little film that it will be interesting to finally see it.

Conran: (laughs) I just hope you're not disappointed.

Soothsayer: Do you have any messages for all those independent filmmakers still stuck in their garages?

Conran: The main thing is not to give up. I have said this before but I really think that we are sort of living through a renaissance period in a way that technology has now been made available, in particular to filmmakers. It has almost become the desktop publishing craze of many years ago that empowered people to become their own publishers. I think that the tools exist now that allow independent filmmakers to create something that really rivals what studios could have dreamed up years ago. This new technology is a great opportunity for filmmakers. You just have to have that desire and that project to believe in. Where there is a will there is a way and I am living proof of that.

Soothsayer: Thanks so much, Mr. Conran, for taking the time with me. I also think on some level that we are kind of kindred spirits.

Conran: Very much so.

Soothsayer: I hope we will have a chance to chat again when John Carter comes out, and thank you.

Conran: Without a doubt. Thank you.

Sometimes we have to look at the past to embrace the future. In Kerry Conran's case, he not only looked back but also saw the future through their eyes. Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is not only a homage to the past, but it also helps us understand their vision of the future and in some ways our own.

Tags: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Sky Captain, Kerry Conran, serials

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