Andrew Niccol is one of the few futurist filmmakers working today. The man knows how to be ten steps ahead of everyone else. His concepts are imaginatively absurd, but in that absurdity, Niccol generally finds a sense of humanity. Not only that, also signs towards where we could be heading. Like In Time, the concept of The Truman Show seemed outrageous at the time, and yet that film has become a sad reality.
Despite his forward-thinking, Niccol doesn’t have the easiest time getting films made.
It has been six years since Lord of War, and a few projects between that time fell through for the filmmaker. Why? Because Niccol, as he himself says, is always creating expensive concepts. Now, he’s finally got one of those not-so-cheap concepts made. With In Time being his biggest film yet, he pointed out how like on every film, there are “trucks of compromises.” Even with those compromises, Niccol still managed to get his sci-fi film off the ground, and for more than two dollars.
Here’s what Andrew Niccol — who I also spoke to at Comic-Con, so if you want to know more about In Time, read that interview — had to say about the difficulty of getting his ideas made, the desire of leaving for France, and why it’s easier to sleep when you have no conscience.
It’s been about six years since Lord of War. Was this gap a process of trying to get other projects off the ground or did it just take a while to get the script right for this one?
No, it’s always going to be difficult, my life. Just because of the type of movies I make. If you’re not going into a studio with a comic, or a sequel, or a remake, already life is going to be difficult for you. So to do what I often do is to have expensive, unconventional ideas, it makes life harder, because you can go into a studio with a conventional idea that’s expensive, but don’t go in with an unconventional idea that’s expensive!
But you did that with this film.
Well, yes, but you can also go in and say no one in the cast is over 25 and there’s a ticking clock in every scene. And then they don’t even bother reading the script; they just sign.
“We love it! Here’s $50 million dollars!”
[Laughs] Exactly! In an odd way, they are brilliant accountants because they know that’s their audience who shows up at the movies. And if there is action involved in it and there’s a literal ticking clock in every scene, yeah, it will work.
With this being your biggest film, were there any noticeable differences?
Yeah. The independent way of working is great because you have total control, but you don’t have a bank. So that’s the challenge. But with a studio film, I guess my favorite thing about that is on the first day of photography, these enormous trucks show up loaded with compromise.
I thought you were going to say money…
No, they’re not loaded with money. They’re loaded with compromise! [Laughs]
I’m guessing you couldn’t have a character like Yuri Orlov as the lead, right?
No, exactly. Yeah, that’s not a movie that studios generally greenlight.
Your films usually follow morally ambiguous leads, except for The Truman Show. Do you see them that way?
Well, you know, you are talking about… the only character who is the lead of the movie is in Lord of War. For me that was really interesting to explore the darker side of human nature. And, in fact, an Akira Kurosawa movie that explained it just in the title—the more evil you are, the better you sleep. That just sort of was what I thought about almost in every scene of Lord of War. The problem with people who have a conscience is it slows them down. We all like to say, “How can you sleep at night?” But the thing is, if you have no conscience, you sleep like a baby. [Laughs]
[Laughs] So your tip is to have no conscience?
[Laughs] Well, no… I can tell you, knowing some people in the movie industry, that obviously helps them.
And you’re not one of those people?
No. That’s why I am not as successful.
[Laughs] That’s a sad thing to say.
Well, the movie industry is truly a contact sport. No one likes to say that, but it’s so true. Vicious things occur in this business that you would not believe [Laughs]
You make it sound like the world of Lord of War.
Yeah, oh yeah. Here’s something: The studio, New Regency, who made this movie is owned by a former arms dealer, Arnon Milchan.
They didn’t put that in the press notes.
Yeah, I have no idea why not! I don’t know why that’s not the first thing on his résumé!
[Laughs] You mentioned the idea of “truckloads of compromise.” I revisited S1m0ne the other day, and it’s kind of this big FU to the studio system and how auteurs should be left alone. Does that movie accurately represent your thoughts on filmmaking?
Yeah. The reason, I think, France is so civilized is that final cut for a director is the law in France. I’m not joking. It’s actually a law that a director has final cut of a film.
Do you ever think about just packing up your bags and going to France to make movies?
Every day [Laughs]. If my French was better I would be there in a heartbeat.
[Laughs] You once said how, at first, you wrote the most expensive version of The Truman Show. After that experience, do you write economically with budgets in mind?
Yeah, I try not to write with a budget in mind. I like to see where the story takes me. But yeah, I’m wiser now.
What did that original draft of The Truman Show look like?
It’s very different because the original draft of The Truman Show was set in New York City. I was going to put Manhattan in a box. In fact, I like to say that if you can fake it there you can fake it anywhere. [Laughs]
Did that happen with In Time at all, where you had to scale it back?
It could have been much bigger.
Was there anything in particular that you had to cut out?
It would have had even more action sequences, which those are the things that cost the most money.
Does that help in some sense [having less money], where you’re almost forced to be creative?
Sometimes money actually freezes your mind because you can throw money at a problem instead of being more resourceful. So even though I would never say it to any studio, it’s sometimes a blessing not to have all the money in the world.
Your films usually tackle absurd ideas, but they’re also very humanized. Is that an idea that appeals to you, making something humanistically absurdist?
[Laughs] You’re calling my stuff absurd?
[laughs] I mean, In Time or Gattaca… those are far out concepts.
Yeah, I am amazed, actually, that people went along with this, that I could just convince them that they had this body clock and they could exchange time in this way. But it’s odd. It’s enough conviction that people go along with it.
Lord of War has that absurdist feel as well. It’s one of those stories where real life becomes stranger than fiction.
Yeah. I do think the world, just generally, is a theater of the absurd. I’m glad you put that word back in my head. They’re giving me the wind up sign—“Wind it up, Andrew. Wrap it up!”
[Laughs] To wrap up then, did you see that NASA named Gattaca the most realistic sci-fi movie? And also, do you think in 20 years you are going to end up being Viktor Taransky?
[Laughs] I’m almost Viktor Taransky now. Yeah, someone just pointed that out to me about NASA. Though I would have given my vote to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In Time opens in theaters on October 28th.