From The Truman Show, Gattaca to In Time, director Andrew Niccol is swiftly becoming Hollywood's go-to architect of beautiful but dangerously flawed utopias. But what's his attraction to these tidy futures? In our exclusive interview, the director of The Host explains the message behind his shiny, disturbing visions.
In The Host, opening Friday, the world has been taken over by symbiotes who bond with human beings and create a world without hunger. It's based on the best-selling novel by Stephenie Meyer, and features an alien in a human body torn between her duty to her own race and her love of a human. Here's what Niccol told us:
What is your attraction to fake utopias?
Andrew Niccol: I guess I'm hopeful for a better world. But I'm also realistic [enough] to know that it's not so easy to achieve. One of the things that attracted me to this particular story is the ambiguity of it. Which is of course a dirty word in Hollywood, because they just want either good or evil. I was just intrigued by the [question of], are these aliens really the enemy? Because they're so often portrayed as the enemy. And in this story the context is, what if they're better for the world than we are? I kind of liked that, because of course [the aliens in The Host] have ended wars and famine. They're much kinder to each other and they've healed the planet. All we lose is our free will, but it's our free will that makes this place what it is in the first place.
We don't spend a lot of time exploring the alien-dominated Earth, but it looks like you spent a lot of time world building, did some of that get cut? What's the day to day life like for an Earth-bound soul?
They embrace whatever culture they encounter. Diane Kruger's character says that they don't come to change this world, they come to experience it and perfect it. There's a montage in the beginning of the movie you see that whether they're in Asia or Africa or Paris. They just adopt whatever customs they find, whatever costume they find. Basically they would go through a normal day the way we would except there's no competition, there's no hierarchy. They've found a way to perfect our society.
What do you think is the message of The Host?
For me the message is, Stephenie Meyer always writes love stories, but what drew me to this was about a greater love. Can we coexist with each other? And even with a species from another planet. For me that's what it is, coexisting.
How did you balance it that message with the story telling? How do you leave people with a strong message while also telling a compelling story?
I use a sort of Trojan Horse approach, which I think draws me to science fiction. It's much easier to say something about today, tomorrow. So if you have some sort of serious idea, it's much easier to slip them by people if you wrap them into some futuristic world. People can say, "this has nothing to do with me," when in fact it has everything to do with them.
What are the problems with having one of the main character only exist as a voice in Saoirse Ronan's head?
In the novel it's just two sets of thoughts conversing, which I never thought was very cinematic. So I decided that I would hear the thoughts of the human trapped in her own body. And I would see the alien speaking. And then when you have face as compelling as Saoirse Ronan, so that was part of it. And then there was a technical side of it where I recorded all of Melanie's human dialogue beforehand [filming] the whole performance. I had a hidden earpiece in Ronan's ear, so she was the only one who could hear her own voice basically speaking to her. So then she could have these intense conversations with herself. None of the other cast and crew could hear it, it was kind of effective.
How did you go about giving the physical representations of the souls personality?
Another thing I liked about Meyer's novel [is that] so many times we see aliens, and they're very humanized, which is illogical really. I like the fact that you could hold this alien being in the palm of your hand. I made it [emanate] this light so you couldn't really get a clear idea of even the shape of it. Because I think in reality we wouldn't be able to comprehend another being from another world.
A lot of your fake utopias that you have created feel very "a place for everything and everything in its place" — why do you think the future looks so tidy? Are you especially minimalist in your own life?
Maybe that's what I'm trying to do, the chaos that I actually live I'm tidying up my own life on screen. It's just wishful thinking… I don't think there are any rules. I think people are drawn to different things. It reminds me of a quote from Albert Einstein when someone was complaining about his cluttered desk and said if a cluttered desk suggest a cluttered mind, what does an empty desk imply?
Out of all of the societies you've created, what are your favorite details you created?
Whenever I screened it always gets a big laugh, when there are no brands at the store. I got rid of all signage, because there's no competition because everything is generic. I couldn't find a market that was brand free. It was actually very peaceful to see this store. And perhaps that's why I'm drawn to it.
One of the biggest problems with the book is there's a lot of buildup around the Seeker and the Wanderer, did you have to do a lot of work to beef up the climax?
One of the things that appealed to me was that they're killing us with kindness. In the novel, the Seekers are armed right from the beginning. I just took Stephenie's [idea] a bit further, and she even confided to me that if she had time again she would have gone with the approach in the movie rather than with her original approach. Because its more in keeping with their original intent. When they catch a human, it is like an intervention, because they're so terrified that we will hurt ourselves trying to escape. So I created a futuristic mace called peace, which is in line with all their other healing medicines. It's only later when Kruger's character is corrupted by her host that she picks up the gun.
The Host hits theaters on March 29th.