EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Matthew Gratzner on the 'UFO' movie
|INTERVIEWS - FILM|
SHADO's secret has been out a while, but here's a lengthy chat with the man bringing Gerry Anderson's cult sci-fi show to the big screen...
It seems to be news to a lot of people today that Matthew Gratzner's UFO project has a site up. We did report this back in March, but the surge of interest in anything 'UFO' is always welcome, so here's Shadowlocked writer Martin Anderson's interview with Matthew from a year back, regarding the project. Martin also chatted with VFX wizard Gratzner for Shadowlocked about his visual effects contributions to Shutter Island. Check the UFO tag for more about Matt Gratzner at Shadowlocked.
It’s ten years from now. Hidden from the headlines, hidden from the world, a secret global military alliance struggles in obscurity to save us from a stealthy invasion. The truth, too terrible for us to know, is that we are being harvested by a mysterious and dying alien race for our organs. From a base deep beneath a London film studio, the American commander in charge of the secret army marshals worldwide forces against the invaders: Skydiver, a submarine that can spit a jet fighter out of any ocean to combat the aliens in our skies; Moonbase, a lunar outpost where a fleet of interceptors struggle to prevent the alien craft ever reaching Earth; terrestrial forces, ordinance and troops that can be marshalled at a moment’s notice. Heading these resources, Commander Straker is uncompromising, a lone figure with a thankless task and a dark and unhappy past. But he’s the right man for the job – these aliens are not cute, and those that fight them are not the Men In Black. This is serious. This is SHADO…
“What I want to do with UFO is what Christopher Nolan did with the Batman franchise, or Martin Campbell did with Casino Royale,” says veteran Hollywood visual effects wizard Matthew Gratzner, now the director/co-producer of a $130 million Hollywood adaptation of Gerry Anderson’s cult 1970 UK TV show. “UFO is not a spoof, or a parody or a kids' movie. It's a pretty dark story, actually…it is not a show for young children.”
It never was. Anderson’s first foray into live-action sci-fi - after a decade of handling genuinely wooden actors in the likes of Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet – mixed its customary share of spiffy vehicles with the grittiness, darkness and bleak endings that were to hallmark the 1970s. Featuring divorce, drug-use, endless conflict, tragic happenstance and loads of death (even of cute children), UFO was a far cry from the optimism of Star Trek.
But Hollywood has embraced the bleak since The Dark Knight conquered the world, and – after numerous attempts to revive the show in some form over the last four decades - UFO’s time has come. Gratzner promises a trilogy of movies over the coming decade. "There are three movies planned. The first script is completed, and number two and number three are treatments - and numbers two and three are even more spectacular!"
“My biggest goal for this is firstly to not alienate the fans of the original show. We're not picking up where the series left off - we are starting from the very beginning. We really take the franchise seriously, unlike a film such as Thunderbirds, where they were saying 'here's a franchise that was great and everybody loved it, now let's put a whole new spin on it...' We're not doing that. There's a reason UFO has a following, there's a reason that Gerry Anderson has a following, and for us to overlook that or take that for granted would be foolish.“
UFO’s carnage was offset by its sex appeal; Lt. Ellis (played by Gabrielle Drake) and her purple-wigged moon maidens left a lasting impression on male sci-fi fans of all ages. For the ladies who found series lead Ed Bishop too angry and remote to lust after, Gerry Anderson soon brought hunky young Bond-contender Michael Billington into the role of apprentice UFO-hunter Paul Foster. Variety recently announced that Fringe’s Joshua Jackson will take this role on in Gratzner’s UFO.
“I've always liked him as an actor,” comments Gratzner. “He was terrific in his younger days on Dawson's Creek. He's a very smart person as well. With Paul Foster being an air-force test pilot, you just can't play the role as some kind of a jet-jock, with the actor going 'I'm a superhero, an action star!'...you need to believe it's someone who can not only physically do the role but carry it intellectually too.”
The relentlessly acid Straker – a role played by Ed Bishop in the TV show and not yet cast for the movie - can always count on his sturdy second-in-command Alec Freeman for a more balanced view. When George Sewell became unavailable to continue this role halfway through UFO’s one and only season, his character was replaced by ‘Colonel Lake’, played by Wanda Ventham. And Lake is returning for the movie…
"Gratzner is keeping a SHADO-style secrecy over the pivotal casting of Cmdr. Straker and Lt. Ellis, probably the two most iconic figures from the original show"
“For the character of Virginia Lake, “ says Gratzner, “we've talked to Ali Larter, who's very interested. I've actually met with her, and I think she would be a great addition to the picture. Lake is very strong and obviously also very feminine, and Ali Larter definitely encompasses that.”
Other characters coming back for the celluloid UFO include Lt. Ellis and SHADO’s hard-nosed purse-keeper General Henderson, memorably played in the original by Grant Taylor. Gratzner is keeping a SHADO-style secrecy over the pivotal casting of Cmdr. Straker and Lt. Ellis, probably the two most iconic figures from the original show.
“Ellis? That’s a tough one. We have four actresses right now that we're looking at, and it ranges from what you'd expect to something perhaps not as typical. But it's nothing outrageous - we're certainly not going to turn round and say 'Okay, Ellis is a man now'! It's a tough call, because both Straker and Ellis are two characters who really encompass the core of the show. Also, there no question the distributor will definitely have a say in casting.”
Aliens And Fidelity
The alien invaders in the original were particularly terrifying because their true shape, if any, was never revealed to us. The space-suited figures that landed on Earth to steal our organs were themselves semi-zombified abductees from previous sorties, now controlled by alien intelligence.
“In terms of motivation,” Gratzner says, of the new movie, “the aliens are still hunting people for purposes of organ-harvesting. That hasn't changed. As to what the aliens are, that I don't want to give away now. But I will tell you this - they're not creatures or monsters. It's not like you're going to see the aliens from District 9 or the Alien series. They are definitely humanoid in nature."
Throughout three conversations with Matthew Gratzner over the course of the autumn, even while a precious period of pre-design was temporarily put aside for necessary script meetings, and while the location of the film changed back from Hollywood to the series’ original London setting, the director was keen to let me and all other UFO fans know that he’s a huge fan of the series, as are the new movie’s script-writers Ryan Gaudet and Joseph Kanarek…
“These weren't two writers who were brought on and told 'Here's an old series - watch it and see what you can come up with',” Gratzner promises. “Ryan and Joe wrote the script independently, and they just love the show. What they’ve come up with is a very exciting action-adventure kind of science-fiction. They went through all the episodes and culled from the series what they thought was the most powerful and the most interesting. You'll notice elements from the show throughout the trilogy. We're really trying to honour and justify the original material that Gerry Anderson came up with.”
In the light of the Foster/Jackson fit, I propose that the two key episodes for the movie might be Exposed, where civilian test-pilot Foster is first inducted into SHADO, and A Question Of Priorities, possibly UFO’s hardest-hitting episode, wherein Cmdr. Straker must choose between preventing an alien incursion or saving his dying son…
“Yes on the first one, and I won't say anything on the second!” Gratzner laughs.
The Road to SHADO
The UFO franchise has been struggling to return ever since the show was cancelled. Set some years after the original series, UFO’s season two was to shift emphasis from Earth to the moonbase location which fans of season one most loved. In 1972 Ed Bishop was in talks to reprise the role of Straker for this new season, but eventually the project evolved into the unrelated Space:1999. Talk of a UFO movie simmered for a couple of decades before a huge push to revive the show in the late 1990s eventually came to nothing.
“The first draft of the script was written years ago,” Gratzner emphasises. The movie’s producer, Avi Haas, struggled for twelve years to obtain the rights from the various and evolving British ITV companies that held them. “ITV had gone through so many iterations from the days of ITC that [Haas] could never get the rights. Every time it all got ready, the rights-holders were involved in another upheaval. So it's not like one of those Hollywood stories where someone's flipping through a book and going 'What hasn't been done yet?'. Then Avi had the opportunity to partner with long time friend Henri Kessler, producer for the Robert Evans Company. When Mr. Evans got on board they were able to put his weight behind it and get it through just at the right time.”
One thing everyone who saw the original UFO remembers are the Sylvia Anderson costume designs, and most especially the bizarre purple wigs worn by female personnel on Moonbase. Can there possibly be room in the new movie for string vests, Nehru collars, silver braid and purple hair?
“Well...yes!” Gratzner admits. “The purple hair has been an interesting debate. I don't want to give any of that away, but that's something that has gone back and forth! A lot of the costumes that we're currently doing can't be a complete mirror of the 1970 version, but they do have that same sort of tone. This is all in the future, so we can have a little bit of leeway. I think there are ways around everything…”
"The purple hair has been an interesting debate..."
Another thorny problem requiring Gratzner’s attention, if he wishes to remain faithful to the original, are the ubiquitous SHADO logos plastered all over the organisation’s livery and wardrobe in the original show. A bit of an odd goal for a military power that wants to remain hidden from the world…?
“That's a good question!” he replies, laughing. “Logos on vehicles like Skydiver...currently I'm still trying to work that out. I definitely want to honour the original series and that whole world Gerry Anderson created, but on the other hand you have to ask why they would be advertising all of this stuff! But we also don't want to turn it into a case where everything is a ‘stealth’ issue, and you can't write it anywhere.”
Visual Effects And Design
“I don’t look on UFO as a visual effects film,” Gratzner says, “and I don't want people to look on it in that way. Of course they will because it's science-fiction, but the aim here is use the effects to support a story.”
Gratzner and Ian Hunter, his long-time partner in their visual effects company New Deal, have contributed notable visual effects to a string of Hollywood blockbusters including The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Hancock, Superman Returns, and War Of The Worlds, amongst many others. When I first spoke to Gratzner about UFO in September of 2009, he was involved in a period of pre-pre-production design on the movie, whilst concluding visual effects work for Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and attending to other New Deal obligations. The company is particularly known for not abandoning traditional miniature-work in favour of CGI…
“The big deal is that we just don't want UFO to look like a cinematic from a video-game. Digital effects are great, and we use various techniques from matte painting to digital compositing quite often, but it is just a tool, like miniatures are a tool. When you do shots for a show like The Dark Knight or The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or any of the shows that we've worked on where people didn't actually know they were miniature effects…that to me is why you use practical effects. I'm really pleased to be able to put those kinds of effects into UFO.
“So when you have a shot of Sky 7 coming out of the water, you want to make it look as real as possible, and it's very challenging to avoid that air of 'simulation' digitally. It's a challenge to do water simulation. Not to say they haven't done it successfully or really well elsewhere, but our goal in this picture is that when people see the film, they believe it's real. That they don't question how it was done, but just get caught up in the story. And if we can achieve that, then I think we've done a good job.”
Gratzner is resolved to update rather than amend the original production design on the UFO TV show, which features memorable sci-fi vehicles from the likes of Derek Meddings, Reg Hill and Mike Trim.
“Obviously the designs and concepts are spread out over three pictures,” the director explains, “so the first picture will have some of the more recognisable and key components.
“When they did the Star Trek film, people were very concerned, but I thought they did a really great job telling the story, and that the whole time-space continuum shift was an interesting way to justify a whole new series of films without having to repeat.
“The big thing I'm pushing for is getting the design and concepts locked before we go into pre-production, because there's just never enough pre-production time - something that's plagued every Hollywood picture I've ever worked on.”
This continues to plague Gratzner, as the design phase has been temporarily delayed whilst even more pressing matters demand attention. “It's a complex and organised chaos right now,” Gratzner admitted a week ago. “But it's going quite well. We've been talking to a lot of agents and a lot of studio executives, and not focusing as much as I had hoped on the design element. But that’s fine, because the script has changed a little bit, and there were things in the story I really wanted to focus on.”
Back To England
One major change in the intervening months, as reported in the Variety article, is that Straker’s SHADO HQ, and the central location of the movie, has returned to the UK.
“In the original script,” the director confesses, “[The setting] was going to be in Hollywood, California. But I moved it to London. I'm trying to be as true to the show as possible. We are shooting principal photography - most of the film - in London. When you think of the film industry, you think of Hollywood, of course. But there was a unique and, to be frank, inconspicuous nature of having SHADO in London. London's not the centre of all film, and I liked the idea that it worked out that way. It was just too much of a leap from the original show to bring it to Hollywood.”
Which London studio Gratzner’s production chooses is a more relevant question for UFO than for most movies, for the studio itself is likely to appear in the movie as a character: in Gerry Anderson’s original, both MGM British Studios in Boreham Wood and Elstree Studios stood in for the fictional Harlington-Straker film studios that serve as a cover for SHADO.
“Right now we're looking at Pinewood,” Gratzner says. “We are also looking at Shepperton. That hasn't been locked, and it's actually still pretty early on.
“Some of the visual effects are also going to be done in London, but the bulk of the post-work will be done in the United States. Since my goal is to do a lot of the visual effects in the world of practical effects and miniatures, we're doing quite a bit of it at New Deal.” New Deal Studios is one of the few remaining VFX companies who still does digital, physical and miniature effects in-house.
Gerry Anderson’s UFO was hallmarked by the memorable theme tune composed by Barry Gray and prominently featured in what is arguably one of the best opening title sequences of any TV show…but also as a haunting or exciting refrain in the incidental music of the twenty-six episodes.
“The current plan,” Gratzner explains, “is that Barry Gray's theme will actually be used in the picture.” Classical composer Richard Sortomme has been enlisted to score UFO. “He re-orchestrated the original Barry Gray theme, huge and sweeping and orchestral...I'm a huge fan of the original UFO theme. If you take away the Herb Alpert trumpet and the Hammond B3 organ and you listen to the music itself, there's a really spectacular orchestral score there.
The War On Alien Terror
"We want it to be the world saving the world,” Gratzner insists, “and not America saving the world. We're not saying there's any parallel between global terror and the aliens..."
Matthew Gratzner is keen to downplay any parallels between the set-up of UFO and the War On Terror. But already these comparisons are being made on web-based discussions that have arisen from news about the UFO movie this year.
“We want it to be the world saving the world,” Gratzner insists, “and not America saving the world. We're not saying there's any parallel between global terror and the aliens, but, like anything, people read into it whatever they want. If you go back even to science-fiction of the 1950s, it was all parallel to the Cold War. So will someone find a parallel? Of course.”
Even the most fervent fans of the original UFO recognise that the show couldn’t always boast scripts, dialogue or character development to equal the brilliance of the series’ tone, set-up and design. Even from the perspective of rather more simplistic 1970s TV drama, there were a number of dramatic cracks in the rich sci-fi gloss of UFO.
“The characters in the TV show are not as fleshed-out as we're trying to do in this picture,” Gratzner says. “Back in the day when the series was done, character development in terms of history and background was probably not as prevalent as it is now.
“Even more so with the internet: if somebody does a walk-on in a show now, there'll probably be a whole blog about ‘That Guy’! UFO has a very dark theme, and it is very true to the original series. We want to keep things in that vein and give these characters a lot of depth, giving these characters a certain level of humanity so that they're not just cardboard cut-outs.
“I'm certainly not saying I think that was the case with the series, but I do want to give them much more depth and range than was presented in the original show.”
Straker And Other Casting Issues
“[Casting] Straker is the one that we've been holding off on,” says Gratzner.
”We have a long list of actors for the role of Straker. We're obviously looking for actors that are recognisable, but most importantly are great actors. That's really what this show is about, because frankly with the visual effects, we can do anything."
Gratzner is currently wrestling with the practical realities of casting an international blockbuster…
"Any time you get excited about casting an actor, you have to consult your distributor. It's really hard. The frustrating thing is that I've never felt that UFO was cast-dependent. Look at the Star Trek picture, which has no major stars..."
“Any time you get excited about casting an actor you have to consult your distributor. It's really hard. The frustrating thing is that I've never felt that UFO was cast-dependent. Look at the Star Trek picture, which has no major stars. Okay, Eric Bana plays the villain, though you'd never know it was he, and Winona Ryder has a cameo. But it's not a case of $20 million actors, it's not like 'Star Trek starring Leonardo Di Caprio'…“
In our first chat in 2009, Gratzner told me that the cast would be international, but that about ten of the new cast members would be played by American actors. The original series had a larger British cast, with the only stateside actors being Ed Bishop and the odd turn from Grant Taylor as General Henderson.
“Granted, we're looking at an American for the character of Lake, and Paul Foster's obviously an American in this as well, but it won't be something where the entire cast is American. We're looking at an international cast, because the SHADO organisation is not just a bunch of Americans.
“The one characteristic of all of Gerry Anderson's shows from Thunderbirds through to UFO and Space:1999 is that they all had a really cool global feel that we also want to keep with the UFO movie as well. Too many films, because they're made in the United States, just say 'Well, everything happens here'. Well, that's ridiculous.”
Another concern when updating the format of UFO is the inevitable male dominance of the original cast. Apart from Colonel Lake, most of the women in the original show perform secondary functions, not the least of which is as silver-spangled eye-candy. For many TV-->Movie adaptations, the solution is to switch gender on some of the core characters, but Gratzner finally decided against it. “It was discussed on one of the secondary characters, but we opted not to do that. We're trying to keep it pretty true to the show."
The scope for cameo roles for the original cast has narrowed considerably since the deaths of Ed Bishop and Michael Billington in 2005, but Gratzner admits that this is a possibility that he’ll be looking at once the central casting issues have been resolved.
A Word With The Guvnor
Gerry Anderson, reported this summer past to be pleased that he was asked to consult on the UFO movie, was due to fly out and meet with Matthew Gratzner in October, but the meeting was delayed by increased activity on the planning phase of the movie.
“He hasn't visited us yet,” Gratzner reports, “but we're hoping that it's going to be sooner rather than later. I think he's going to be very pleased with the project. I know he wasn't too thrilled with the way Thunderbirds came out…he might get out to see us in the next few weeks, but more likely it’ll be in the new year.”
Target Audience And Rating
"There's no reason to make this film R, but it's certainly not a PG rating, because there are some terrifying sequences in it."
The original UFO series always had scheduling problems, and never a clear audience. In the 1970s it was shown at 11pm in the UK, but has since been shown at 6pm weekdays and even on Saturday mornings. The eye-catching spaceships and typical Gerry Anderson paraphernalia often conflicted with the dark, adult tone of the show, causing certain episodes to be either cut or omitted from a re-run. Might these demographic issues crop up again when seeking a rating for the UFO movie…?
“It's going to be something like a hard PG-13,” Gratzner says, “in the neighbourhood of the way Dark Knight was rated. That had serious tones and it wasn't a kids' film per se, but it wasn't an R-rating. There's no reason to make this film R, but it's certainly not a PG rating, because there are some terrifying sequences in it.
“It’s hard to say until the film is actually photographed. There are some sequences that I might photograph so that some of the more catastrophic action happens off-camera. Depends on how we block the scenes. I'm aware that it's art, but it's a commercial art. I’m not going to dig my heels in on something I know at the end of the day is going to compromise the look of the film. It's important to be intelligent within a rating that makes it a marketable picture.
”You look at a film like Watchmen, which was a great film and very true to the comic book...frame for frame in some cases…but it was rated R. That hurts the release on a picture like that. Everyone loved the film and was very excited about it, but it's a film where you take a graphic novel and you're so true to it that it does affect its marketability. I would be foolish to ignore that - I want to make a movie that everybody can go and see and enjoy. And that will stand the test of time.”
The Retro Factor
Part of the appeal of translating a classic TV show to the big screen is the nostalgia factor for its built-in fan base, and Matthew Gratzner admits that it’s probably a good thing he has commercial pressures keeping him focused on making UFO a modern movie…
“To be honest,” he admits, as a long-time fan of the show, “I watch UFO and I think that it would be really cool to make this movie as if it were the early seventies, just with newer technology… capturing that time, as if it is the future 1980 from the perspective of 1970. It would be neat. It would be just such a cool thing to re-imagine within the design palette of that time. I would love to make that movie.
“Unfortunately, I don't think a general audience could necessarily grab onto it. Certainly the fans of the original franchise could...but there's a point where you might get it so exactly like the original series that you then have to ask 'Why would we make this?'.
“Obviously there's a huge, huge fan-base, but there are also hundreds of millions of people who've never seen the show and don't know what it is. The challenge is to create something that is believable and new but still recollects the original show.”
From VFX To The Director’s Chair
Matthew Gratzner is following in the footsteps of many distinguished names who went into directing from a visual effects background, such as David Fincher, Joe Johnston and Douglas Trumbull.
“I've been wanting to direct for a long time,” he admits. “The problem is a practical one. Trumbull's probably a good example, because he owned a number of visual effects companies: when you own a business in the film business, it's very difficult to find the time. It’s almost a question of saying 'I'm going to take some time off and build my director’s reel, start directing, maybe make some short films...', but frankly it's very, very difficult when you own a business to just say 'I'm gonna stop for a while!'
"I've worked on a lot of films that aren't visual-effects-oriented films. I've worked on Martin Scorsese's last four pictures, and not one of those films is a visual effects film"
“So far it's been exciting. You work on shows very early on and somebody always has a grand idea about what they want to do, and then somebody will step in and derail it,” the director laughs. “But the pre-production so far, even in these very early stages, has been terrific. The producers are very collaborative, and Julie Mendal-Johnsen from ITV, who own the rights to the show, has been great. It's been a lot of creative work.”
Asked if he cherishes future projects less centred on visual effects, the director of UFO is pragmatic:
“One of the things I've been most fortunate with,” he says, “is that I've worked on a lot of films that aren't visual-effects-oriented films. I've worked on Martin Scorsese's last four pictures, and not one of those films is a visual effects film. It certainly has tons of visual effects, but is not considered a visual effects film. To me visual effects are just a way to tell the story if you can't do it for real. I love working on the Spider-Man and X-Men and Batman movies; these are terrific as well. But my favourite kinds of films are those that don't necessarily involve visual effects in the way you would expect.”
“To me every film is going to have some kind of an effect in it, unless it's a small character-driven piece involving four people living in an apartment block in New York.
“But even then, with today's economy, we'd probably have to shoot it in Hungary and create New York out the window digitally!”
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