Interview With “I Am Number Four” Director DJ Caruso
How much of the book had you read when you signed on to direct the film?
DJ Caruso: I had read the manuscript and then a few versions of the book as it progressed.
What was the hardest part of filming I Am Number Four?
DJ Caruso: Blending visual effects with the teenage drama. That was a challenge, not to allow the effects to overtake the characters.
You’ve worked in TV and film; do you have a preference over one medium? How are they different for you as a director?
DJ Caruso: TV is a great way to learn and experiment. It moves at a much faster pace and the discipline it requires taught me how to approach scenes and how to manage a day’s work. So when I direct a film I feel like the “workout” I did in the TV world has prepared me to kick ass on the film. Obviously, film is my preference, but I love doing great TV.
What drew you to each of the young actors you eventually chose when casting?
DJ Caruso: Alex brought a strong physical presence and he also had a very accessible quality. Dianna had a grace and intelligence that the character required. Callan was perfect for Sam because he embodied Sam’s pain and struggle, but maintained a cool quality. Teresa was just plain kick ass in the room.
I Am Number Four is your first directing effort in the science fiction genre. Why did you choose I Am Number Four to adapt?
DJ Caruso: I was looking for a somewhat family friendly science fiction film like the great ones in the 80’s that I grew up watching like Back to the Future. I felt that IAM4 had qualities that I could tap into that would satisfy that desire. That is why I was attracted to the material.
What sort of challenges did you run into adapting I Am Number Four into a movie?
DJ Caruso: All films present tremendous challenges. IAM4 was loaded with special effects and the number of shots grew. We had less than nine months to finish the film. So it was a full court press to make our release date.
If the studio asks for a sequel, will you be interested in doing it?
DJ Caruso: Of course I would be interested. I think Number 6 would be a great character to take the next level.
What was your favorite part of working on I Am Number Four?
DJ Caruso: I love shooting film. Being on the set and creating is always my favorite part of the process. It was no different on IAM4.
Beyond fantasy and thriller, is the real issue of the movie the search for love and a normal life?
DJ Caruso: Once you accept who you truly are, you become empowered to great things with your life. In his quest for normality and true love he learns that his destiny calls on him to sacrifice the things he truly wants. He must become selfless. For a young man or alien (ha ha) that is a tough thing to accept.
What was the scene that you regretted taking it out of the movie the most and why?
DJ Caruso: I hated taking the Karen Allen scene out the most. I love, love, love her. I wish we had developed her character more to allow for a more significant role.
Who has been your favorite performer to work with?
DJ Caruso: Wow. I have been blessed to work with some amazing people. Naming one would be impossible.
Which aspect of the film is the influence of Spielberg’s movies?
DJ Caruso: Steven’s love of science fiction and endearing characters is of course present. I felt like the darkroom scene where he uses his hand to light her face was very Spielbergian. Homage…
You say it’s difficult to cut scenes, so how do you overcome it and make an objective decision?
DJ Caruso: Sometimes cutting a scene is very difficult. Most of the time it becomes obvious as the narrative drive of the film becomes clear that a scene does not belong.
What would you counter to criticism saying I AM NUMBER FOUR is just a mixture of STAR WARS and X-MEN?
DJ Caruso: I wouldn’t counter that criticism. If that is how the film was perceived by a particular viewer, so be it. BTW those are two amazing films.
‘Trying to Connect’ is a great scene! As a director, was it hard for you delete a powerful scene like that?
DJ Caruso: Thanks. A few months removed…I should have left that scene in!!! That was hard to leave out.
You have done plenty of action-thrillers. Have you always wanted to do a big sci-fi effects movie?
DJ Caruso: Someday I will do a big budget sci-fi film. IAM4 was done for a very modest price with good bang for the buck. I would love to get back into this arena someday.
What is your next project?
DJ Caruso: Preacher at Sony based on Garth Ennis’ graphic novel. Also working on a very small indy entitled Goats.
What balance did you try to strike between the film’s story, special effects and action?
DJ Caruso: I always lean towards character and theme. Once the theme is defined in my head, it informs me about how the film should look, sound and feel. The effects and action should move the story and theme forward.
Did you feel the need to stay true to the original book? Or were you more interested in telling your own version of the story?
DJ Caruso: Of course I wanted to honor the intentions of the book. I made some changes
that I felt would be more cinematic. I also make sure that there is specific reason that inspires me to tell the story.
Johnny Depp says he’s worked with directors who you can see are editing in their head on set. Do you edit in your head when you’re directing a scene or how do you envision it when doing coverage?
DJ Caruso: The more experience I gain, the more assured I have become in knowing what I need to make the scene come to life. I have also learned to be flexible in allowing organic things to happen within a frame that you might not think you need.
What actor or actress would you love to work with in an upcoming project?
DJ Caruso: Actresses: Jodi Foster, Kate Winslet. Actors: Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt. Just to name a few…
I saw on the deleted scenes that Sam’s mom was initially worked into the plot, but got cut out. If other movies about Number Four get made, will Sam’s mom come back into the plot?
DJ Caruso: Sam’s mom was a created a few days before production started and we would have loved to have expanded on her character. She might show up in the next book? We fully fleshed out her back story behind the scenes.
What was the one thing you dreaded about directing I Am Number Four? What’s your least favorite part of your job as a director?
DJ Caruso: I dreaded the quick turn-around. I love to tinker and play with the film in post. There was just too little time. I am blessed to be a director. There is nothing about it that I dread.
There were more special effects in this film than your others. Did you have to adjust as director?
DJ Caruso: Yes. I usually love to have practical elements in all my frames. In IAM4 that was not possible at times. So blending the practical and visual effects was a new challenge. So yes, I made adjustments to accommodate this type of film.
If the book wasn’t even out yet, how did you know where the author was going with the story?
DJ Caruso: I was able to read the manuscript and the outline for book number two. This allowed me to understand the path that each character was heading down.
Can you talk about what you’re doing next? Is all hope lost for ‘Y: The Last Man’?
DJ Caruso: Preacher based on the Garth Ennis graphic novel is the object of my obsession right now.
While filming, what was the most challenging sequence of the movie? How did you manage to accomplish it?
DJ Caruso: The technical challenge of the final battle was the most challenging. We shot the football field sequence in just 4 nights. The wire work, explosions and fighting pushed the envelope of what could be done on our budget with the time allotted.
Do you have a film or TV show that inspired you to enter the industry?
DJ Caruso: The TV show that I became addicted to was Steven Bochco’s, Hill Street Blues. The dynamic characters and reality based filming style just blew me away. There are soooo many films that inspired me I wouldn’t know where to begin. I assure you that Scorsese films would lead my list.
Was Michael Bay intimately involved in the production? Or did he remain at a distance?
DJ Caruso: Michael Bay was a first class producer. He allowed me the space needed to direct and was always there when I needed help. He was very helpful in Post and helped me conquer some visual effect shots that were driving me crazy.
Why was the film’s production schedule so short?
DJ Caruso: Dreamworks and Disney had a specific release date and window that had to be hit. It was the driving force behind the short schedule.
Now that you’ve done a sci-fi film, are there other films in that genre you’re in discussion to direct?
DJ Caruso: I think the only genres that I can’t relate to as a filmmaker are comedies and romantic comedies. I can watch and enjoy them. I am developing a small drama, a dark drama/thriller and wacky modern western with amazing characters.
Do you read your own reviews?
DJ Caruso: Only from the specific critics that I really admire. Even if they slam me, I like to know why.
What has been the strangest thing to happen on one of your sets?
DJ Caruso: I once had the FBI arrest one of my actors on a cable movie I directed right in the middle of the shoot!
Who or what inspires you?
DJ Caruso: Inspiration comes from those who exceed my expectations. A desire to discover universality in my characters that help the audience to understand that they are not alone when they experience pain or joy.
You have worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. So, you must have had your fair share of ‘drama queen’ moments. What has been the worst?
DJ Caruso: I have a motto that I know I stole from another director (I’m not sure who) “keep the drama on the screen.” There have been a few performers who didn’t prescribe to this notion.
I felt that Kevin Durand was the perfect bad guy in this. Had you seen his work before casting him or did you discover him through auditions?
DJ Caruso: Kevin is great. I saw him in Ridley’s Robin Hood and remembered him in Lost. He is a very talented improv actor with great comedic chops. He can do it all.
How do you tackle something as overdone as teenage drama and still keep it fresh? Other than giving them super powers…
DJ Caruso: I strive for truth in themes. Teens tend to be narcissistic by nature and I loved that John had to sacrifice what he loved and wanted for the greater good. I also loved that he stepped in and stopped the bullying that was happening with Sam. I love lacing in great music for the young audiences as well. I’m still a teen, musically (ha ha).
Visitors from other planets, in whatever shape or form, good or bad, are a huge part of our popular culture. Why, in your view, do they have such an enduring appeal?
DJ Caruso: The mystery of the unknown. What we don’t know allows our imaginations to run wild. It is exciting to speculate on what is out there.
What can you say about your next and upcoming project (Preacher if it’s still on)?
DJ Caruso: It is still on. John August wrote a great script and we are fine tuning a draft now.
Regarding the common roots of Smallville and I Am Number Four : You’ve worked on Smallville’s first steps, directing the very first episode and happen to work with script writers’ Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. What lessons from Smallville did you learn and happen to redo or not on I Am Number Four?
DJ Caruso: Number Four does mirror Superman’s journey. I always made that connection. Also, a hero being reluctant to use his powers resonates in both Smallville and IAM4. These similarities were helpful because I was revisiting themes that I had explored before.
As one of many directors of Smallville, what are your thoughts on it coming to an end this season?
DJ Caruso: Great run. WOW! Clark must be 40 by now. Time to wear the cape!
Why do you think ‘Disturbia’ and some of your other films are so divisive? It was a great little thriller, not to mention a nice spin on a Hitchcock classic.
DJ Caruso: I’m not sure why they are divisive. I think the Salton Sea was one that upset many, yet many loved it. There was no gray area on that film.
You seem to be partial to a thriller…Is there any other genres you want to explore?
DJ Caruso: Drama and Western are the two genres that I aspire to tackle next.
I am a big fan of Timothy Olyphant. I know he was not your first choice for the role. What was it about him that you felt he could bring to the film? Is he as awesome as he seems? Do you plan on working together with him again?
DJ Caruso: Timothy is a first rate man and a first rate actor. I love his odd style. He takes scenes and twists them around, striving to find the truth. I hope we get to work together again very soon.
Conspiracies and paranoia seem to be a recurring theme in your films. Is this something you enjoy exploring?
DJ Caruso: These are universal themes that the audience can experience and relate to. They understand the character’s plight. Technology has brought these themes to the forefront. Big Brother is here!
Is it difficult to have creative control while having to incorporate a studio’s vision with yours?
DJ Caruso: The more success you have, the more you are trusted to do your thing. I find that the studio’s marketing departments can be the ones who cloud the vision of the filmmakers more so then the creative studio team.
Have you thought about completing the rest of the story arc as a TV series rather than the long production cycle of movie sequels?
DJ Caruso: No, but I like that idea!
In this movie which is more important action or drama in human relationships?
DJ Caruso: Human relationships trump all in my book.
How important is it to come to terms with your actors? Like they do like you say and not vice versa.
DJ Caruso: Unity is vital in order to create. I always try to bind in a way that actors understand that we are partners.
The special effects were amazing. When shooting, is it hard to imagine what the scene will look like finished?
DJ Caruso: I always have a specific vision. I would say if I get 75% of what I imagine, I’m happy. Thanks for liking the effects!
What Bonus Feature are you most excited to share?
DJ Caruso: Becoming Six is a cool feature that allows one to see how we created the fighting style and action elements for the Number Six character. Teresa worked very hard and it shows.
An online clip showed Teresa Palmer getting into shape for her role. Who much preparation does it take for the stars to prepare for such a physical role?
DJ Caruso: She trained for nearly three months. Wire work is very difficult and requires a very strong core. Teresa became deadly with her daggers.
If you could have a “legacy” or power, what would it be and what would the reason be?
DJ Caruso: My legacy power would be mind reading. I would love to remove the mystery of what people are really thinking.
Where did you find inspiration for creating these terrifying Mogadorians? Maybe took something from existing animals?
DJ Caruso: I wanted the Mog look to be very strong in silhouette. I loved the old black western duster jackets. Their membrane eyes and gill-like breathers were of course alien inspired. Finally, the Tattoos were a tribal ranking system that we developed for each Mog.
For you as a director – where’s the biggest difference between shooting Sci-Fi and Reality like in “Disturbia”?
DJ Caruso: The biggest difference was trying to maintain a real life balance in IAM4 with the other worldly elements. In Disturbia it was much easier to keep it real.
If seems as if you prefer working with young actors – what are the key difference between working with older and younger actors?
DJ Caruso: I like working with young actors because they haven’t developed old habits. They are open to trying new things or new ways to reach the potential of the scene or character.
Which movies and directors do you think influenced your work the most?
DJ Caruso: Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Ashby
“I am Number Four” contains a lot of visual effects – how difficult is it to make them look real and impressive without distracting the viewer from the film?
DJ Caruso: It is tough. I spent many nights color timing and tweaking so that the blend would be as seamless as possible.
Like Eagle Eye, I Am Number Four is a runaway movie. Did that part play any role in you doing I Am Number Four? What is so fun in the “runaway” genre?
DJ Caruso: Runway themes usually require your hero to find a place where he finds peace. Sometimes they can’t stay in that place, but he longs for the feeling it evokes. We are all on the run, right?
How involved are you with the DVD extras & is it something you think about during production?
DJ Caruso: I worked with my editorial staff and we finished the DVD extras during the regular post period. So yes, I am involved.
Can you give us 3-5 tips on directing an action scene?
DJ Caruso: 1. No matter how good the stunt is, if the camera is in the wrong place, you’ll never fully appreciate it. 2. Action with incident is more involving for the viewer. Action needs to advance the story. 3. When action has a visual effects element, make sure that practical destruction happens within the frame. This blends better than all CGI.
There’s a great and realistic love story in the movie, much better than other ‘superhero’ movies. Was it hard to shoot the ‘love’ scenes in between all those action scenes?
DJ Caruso: Shooting the love/relationship scenes were a pleasant change of pace. The actors really connected and so the chemistry was easy to capture.
In speaking with Visual FX Supervisor Bill George, it was clear he has tremendous respect for your vision and direction. How do you personally inspire your various production teams to give their all?
DJ Caruso: First and foremost is to respect their creative input. A director must inspire those around him or her to do great work. Bill is brilliant. He cares so much about the story. Bernie and the Piken are two fully fleshed out characters and Bill and his team attacked and developed them with passion.
Directing is a 24*7 job. Do you have time to rest or do you also think about the movie in your dreams while shooting it?
DJ Caruso: I dream constantly that I am shooting. In fact, one day, I was convinced that I shot a scene already, but it turned out it was only in my dream. It is 24/7.
With a big budget movie production – can you still be spontaneous on the set or is everything strictly planned?
DJ Caruso: A perfect director would be one who is as visually prepared as Hitchcock and as “actor free” as Cassavettes. I strive for this balance.
I read that you like to play tennis and the main character in this movie is into sports- any similarities there with you? Would you compare the directing job with sports, at least sometimes? Or only for the actors, because all the physical demands they have during the shooting?
DJ Caruso: I feel like playing sports and competing was a great way to prepare to become a filmmaker. I attack each shoot day like a game that I must win. The actors trained for threemonths in order to fight and do the stunts required. So they too have are like athletes who must perform well on a given day. They train hard and the day they shoot the stunt they are like athletes.
John is described as an “an extraordinary teen, masking his true identity and passing as a typical high school student”. What kind of student were you? Did you ever feel like an alien or were you completely integrated to society?
A – DJ Caruso: We all feel or felt like outsiders at some points in our lives. I was more of an observer then a participant in high school. I was a decent student who played sports, but never hung out with the jocks exclusively.