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Alex Proyas - Director, Dark City
by Dov Kornits

Alex Proyas hates to talk about certain things: His origins as a music video and commercials maker; the death of his dear friend Brandon Lee during The Crow shoot; Dark City's budget; and Kiefer Sutherland being busted outside a famous Sydney brothel. What he does like talking about is the feat of shooting a Hollywood production in his own backyard, the decision to stick with relatively unknown Rufus Sewell in the lead role, and his first little known feature film entitled Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds.

The first thing you notice when you walk into his cosy suburban office (adjacent to his producer pal Andrew Mason - producer of The Matrix and Thin Red Line) is The Crow merchandising doll standing proudly atop a ledge on the wall. The director is seated behind a large desk lined with a Dark City soundtrack, a pile of unread scripts, a half full cigarette pack and an ashtray. He stands to shake hands and the imposing stature, both physical and intellectual, is immediately clear. Proyas makes it clear from the beginning: Dark City is his movie, made his way or the highway.

Originally from Egypt, the three year old Proyas arrived in Australia with his family. After studying at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, making award winning short films, video clips and commercials he ventured to Hollywood. More video clips came his way, and finally the breakthrough. The Crow could have been a vacuously stylised star vehicle for up-and-coming action man Brandon Lee. It turned out to be one of the best-realised and intelligent films of 1994. The rest, as they say, is Dark City.

Dov Kornits finds out what makes the man work so well in the dark.

DK: Can you tell us about the project's evolution?
PROYAS: It's a project I started writing in 1990 and I basically approached New Line Cinema who liked it. It had an interesting history up to then. It was with Disney originally and then Fox second and then finally at New Line. Both Fox and Disney pulled out because of disagreements with the script, the casting or some other issue.

DK: Why did you cast Rufus Sewell in the lead?
PROYAS: He's an unconventional choice. I met some movie stars in the classic sense of the word but I basically felt Rufus was the right guy and I was pretty adamant about it. New Line were kind enough to let me do that as long as I supported him with more familiar names.

DK: Can you tell us about your first film Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds?
PROYAS: We were very naive, inexperienced and didn't really have the resources. It was fun in a very odd way because there was a little bit of AFC money in there but the majority of the money came from a company called MMA who were INXS' management. We had just made a video with INXS and these guys wanted to get involved with movie making and they had no idea either. So they gave us a little bit of money and we made it piecemeal and never really had the resources to get the thing off the ground when we finally made it. We certainly didn't have the support of the Australian Film Commission, who basically told me that I should give up making movies after seeing the film.

DK: So are you laughing at them now?
PROYAS: I don't care. I don't think they're worth laughing at.

DK: What about the progression to The Crow?
PROYAS: The thing that got me to the States was doing the Crowded House clip Don't Dream It's Over. The song was a big hit and as a result my video was on MTV. It was exciting because they actually put the director's name on the screen. I just basically went over there on the back of that. I never lived in LA, even whilst making The Crow. I'd just spend three or four months there at a time, and come back here.

DK: Is music video a logical step for a fledgling filmmaker?
PROYAS: For me it was the only step. There was no other avenue for me in this country. It was either sit at home and write scripts on the dole and hope that the AFC saw some merit in that. And I did try that and it didn't work. Physically I could not get my films made in this country. Or do something which will give you some level of control over your destiny, which is what anyone wants.

DK: How come it took you so long to follow up The Crow? Did Brandon's death have something to do with that?
PROYAS: I think so. Brendan and I were very good friends and it was a difficult time for me. Dark City is a fairly uncompromising script, so it was not the easiest thing to get made even with the success of The Crow. I had very defined concepts about what I wanted to do, how I wanted the script to be and who I wanted to be in the movie. I was not willing to give. If I was going to do another dumb action movie, then I would have been able to do it the very next year.

DK: Did people think that The Crow was going to be another dumb action movie?
PROYAS: I had been offered a number of films before it, and it wasn't like it was the first thing that came along. The reason I took on The Crow was that it had other levels to it. That's really what I was working on and incidentally it had a lot of people running around and shooting each other and jumping over buildings. But to me I saw the human level to it, and partly, I think that's why it worked.

DK: What genre would you put Dark City in?
PROYAS: Paranoid thriller, science fiction thing. It has many genres rolled together. There's an element of action but that's not the primary thing. I think all movies are action movies these days. You've got to have action at some point. It's hilarious because in The Titanic when the ship is sinking and thousands of people are about to die and they still have to have a gunfight. Why?

DK: So did you have to throw in extra action into Dark City?
PROYAS: I didn't have to, but I like action. I enjoy it. Sometimes it makes you tell a story more effectively. But you know, it's a simple thing because it's worked throughout the history of movie making. It's about movement and to a certain extent about cutting to the chase.

DK: Anything to say about the Kiefer incident?
PROYAS: They're human beings and want to have a good time.

DK: What about Brandon's death?
PROYAS: I've said it. He was a great friend, it was a terrible incident and that's all there is to it.

DK: What happens when you're doing a gun scene in Dark City?
PROYAS: You deal with it very carefully, which is the way I've always dealt with it.

DK: Was the darkness of the subject matter the reason Fox and Disney passed on the project?
PROYAS: That really didn't come into it. The challenge for the studios was the complexity of the story. Dark films have been proven to work. The Crow and Seven were dark films and were all successes. We're at a stage now in the late 90's where people accept that films don't always have to be full of musical numbers to make them appeal to the audience. There is an audience out there. Look at the X-Files. Maybe fifteen years ago it would have been a problem but not today. Thank God.

DK: What sort of influences are in Dark City?
PROYAS: The story by science fiction literature more than any other type of work. It certainly wasn't influenced by any other movies. Design-wise there are references to Metropolis, Nosferatu and M, but story-wise I deliberately did something that has never been done before.

DK: Can you tell me the budget?
PROYAS: No.

DK: When you're writing, do you think of the practicality?
PROYAS: No, I don't think you can do that. You basically come up with weird stuff and hope someone can come up with how to do that. You can't censor yourself as you're writing. It's too hard just to write. This whole thing that happens in the film with the city evolving, growing and changing, this was something you couldn't do when I wrote it. Within eight years, now we can actually achieve this stuff. But really in the last few years it's got to the point when you can virtually do anything. If you've got the money, you have the budget to do it, you can do anything.

DK: What about the future?
ROYAS: I'm always writing and working with other writers to develop stuff. I don't know what will come of that. I'm working on a very small comedy set in Sydney which I'd like to do. For me, the very next thing I do, I'd like it to be less to do with visual effects and sets, because that's tough. Not that any type of filmmaking isn't, but I'd like some different challenges next.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=54
originally posted: 06/02/99 17:57:20
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