By Sven Mikulec
The beginning of Minority Report, Steven Spielberg’s thrilling sci-fi noir from 2002, is closely connected to another science fiction classic: Total Recall. The film was optioned all the way back in 1992 as a sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but the development started five years later, when Jon Cohen’s script reached Spielberg and Tom Cruise. The two of them met on the set of Risky Business in 1983 and subsequently spent years trying to find the right film to work together on, and Cohen’s screenplay seemed like a perfect opportunity. Minority Report, just like Total Recall, was based on Philip K. Dick’s story, the rights to which were bought by writer/producer Gary Goldman. He created the first script, alongside the uncredited pair of Ron Shusett and Robert Goethals. After a hiatus, Cohen was brought in to adapt the story. The filmmaker who was supposed to make it was Jan de Bont, but when Cruise read the script, he contacted Spielberg. The experienced director realized the story’s potential but wanted to wait for Cohen to produce an enhanced version of the screenplay. When Cohen delivered, the project was officially set for a take-off: in 1998, Minority Report was presented as a joint venture of Spielberg’s DreamWorks and Amblin Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, De Bont’s production company Blue Tulip and Cruise’s Cruise/Wagner Productions. Even though the plan was for Minority Report to be made right after Mission: Impossible II was finished, with the action flick going over schedule a delay had to be made. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Spielberg found the time to bring in Scott Frank to rework Cohen’s material. The shooting script was very much Frank’s, but with a lot of material from Cohen’s third draft. What allegedly attracted Spielberg to the project was not only a chance to finally work with Cruise, whom he later called “his William Holden,” but an opportunity to stage a story that’s simultaneously a crime mystery with distinct noir characteristics and a futuristic science-fiction film that allowed him to combine two different genres.
Minority Report takes place in 2054, but for inspiration and motivation, Spielberg decided to turn to the past. “I had John Huston in my ear,” he explained later in an interview. “I went back and looked at The Maltese Falcon and Hawks’ The Big Sleep—to see how some of those film noir mysteries were resolved. They didn’t dot every i and cross every t. They tried to keep you off-balance. They asked more questions than they could answer in those days.” Minority Report hit theatres in the middle of June 2002, following a marketing campaign that was seemingly one of the least complicated tasks in the history of film promotion: after all, the names of Spielberg and Cruise were practically synonyms for box office splendor. However, since the director’s last film—A. I.—was a box office misfire, the promotional campaign rather concentrated on Cruise’s role in the project, highlighting Minority Report as a Tom Cruise action thriller. The popularity of the film among moviegoers was accompanied by almost universal critical praise, with Roger Ebert calling it a triumph of action and ideas.
The Cohen/Frank story based on Dick’s writing offered a fruitful field for the exploration of several distinct topics. As we all probably know, the story follows John Anderton, the captain of a special Pre-Crime fighting unit that keeps the streets of Washington, DC safe from murder by stopping heinous acts before they actually happen. This is accomplished with the use of three psychics able to see the future. John is a drug addict unable to cope with the loss of his son, estranged from his ex-wife, very good at his job but an utter disaster in the private sphere. When the psychics foretell a murder committed by Anderton, he goes on the run desperate to prove his innocence and, therefore, expose a flaw in the system he believed was bulletproof. The theme that immediately comes to mind even after reading a plot summary as brief as this is the question of free will. Is everyone’s destiny predetermined or are people capable of changing their path and reaching alternate decisions? If that’s true, then it’s more than possible that the Pre-Crime division incarcerated a lot of people who might have turned out completely innocent. Moreover, the film questions the boundaries of the protection of privacy. Is the government morally and legally justified to breach its citizens’ privacy even for a praiseworthy goal of protecting the society as a whole?
These were films that I loved, the black-and-white style with crossed light and shadow, lots of scenes in darkness and people moving in stealth, and a very hard mystery to untangle. That was a genre I had never done before, and this movie allowed me to go into that world of the whodunit and the murder mystery, the kind of movies that they don’t make so much anymore, for some reason. It gave me a chance to do something I always wanted to do in a movie, which is to bring to the photo-realism of film a kind of abstract expressionism. We decided to put the film through a process called bleach bypass, which essentially takes all of the Technicolor out of your face and makes your face much more pale. What it does is take those happy, delightfully rosy skin tones away from people who are naturally that way and washes everything out. Then we shot some of the scenes on 800 ASA film stock, which creates a kind of graininess that makes it feel more like old film noir. —Steven Spielberg
What’s especially interesting in Spielberg’s approach to the project and his chosen depiction of the high-tech society around the middle of the 21st century is to what lengths he had chosen to go to set everything up. In 1999, Spielberg invited no less than fifteen experts from diverse fields of science and culture to a hotel in Santa Monica. The three-day “think tank” was comprised of architects, authors, urbanists, journalists, computer scientists and biomedicine experts brought together to try to imagine and predict a plausible futuristic society. It is this exact meeting that a lot of intriguing ideas and images from Minority Report stem from, such as John Anderton’s Pre-Crime user interface, newspapers that update themselves with fresh information, a direct and personal system of advertising that connects with each passer-by individually and effectively, the transportation system with magnetically operated vehicles… “I wanted all the toys to come true someday,” Spielberg stated. The notes generated from the Santa Monica think tank enabled production designer Alex McDowell to create the image of the 2054 Washington, carefully including a lot of present-day locations and monuments to more easily convey the feeling of authenticity and credibility.
Minority Report’s visual identity owes a lot to Spielberg’s vision of a future society that’s at the same time dystopian and utopian, but also to the brilliant work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who shot it with high-speed film. The film is over-lit on purpose, with bleach-bypassing and its consequent desaturation of colors giving Minority Report a somewhat washed-out look, with the color reduced by as much as 40 percent. The play of light, dark and shadows is reminiscent of film noir classics such as Key Largo and Asphalt Jungle that Spielberg examined carefully in order to choose the style he wanted to employ. Kaminski’s work went hand-in-hand with McDowell’s production design relying heavily on colorless chrome and circular glass objects, providing the dominant shadows needed for the desired futuristic noir look. John Williams’ score resembles the work of the great Bernard Herrmann, while the picture was edited by Spielberg’s old partner Michael Kahn (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List…).
Science fiction loves to warn. Remember, science fiction’s always been the kind of first level alert to think about things to come. It’s easier for an audience to take warnings from sci-fi without feeling that we’re preaching to them. Every science fiction movie I have ever seen, any one that’s worth its weight in celluloid, warns us about things that ultimately come true. —Steven Spielberg
What makes Minority Report so good isn’t the fact it managed to successfully predict several aspects of the future, or that it offered some revolutionizing insight into the ever-going philosophical debate of free will versus predetermination, or that it features great performances from not only Cruise but also Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow and Samantha Morton. This film is great because it delivers a thrilling spectacle that’s at the same time both brains and brawns. As Ebert noted in his original review, Minority Report is a film that works on our minds and our emotions made by a “master filmmaker at the top of his form.” We’re ecstatic to be able to offer you the chance to explore Scott Frank and Jon Cohen’s script, a clear proof that sci-fi thrillers can indeed produce spectacle without sacrificing substance.
Screenwriter must-read: Scott Frank & Jon Cohen’s screenplay for Minority Report [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
This interview first appeared in Creative Screenwriting, volume 9, #3, written by Christopher Wehner, ‘What I did was ignore the hardware—Scott Frank on Minority Report.’
I didn’t know you were a sci-fi fan.
[Laughs] I’m not! I certainly enjoy watching science fiction movies, but I don’t seek them out, and I really don’t read science fiction. For me sci-fi is Blade Runner, Star Wars, and The Omega Man. I don’t have a vast sci-fi vocabulary, and it wasn’t in my wheelhouse to begin with. So to do science fiction was very difficult for me. To get inside the genre, I had to immerse myself in the world of science fiction. I did read a little, including Philip K. Dick. I do find sci-fi less about the characters and more about the universe of its concepts, and that’s not as interesting to me. Very rarely does sci-fi go beyond that. I know I’m leaving out all kinds of great films in my generalization.
Science fiction tends to rely on the conceptual to produce the narrative thrust of the story. So it’s problematic.
Right, and I wanted to approach it from the other end. As a matter of fact, in the short story the character of John Anderton embraces this new idea of people being arrested for crimes they are going to commit. And in the end he even sacrifices himself to save that system. But it was written in the ’50s I think. So I thought, “how do you get behind someone who embraces such a Fascistic system?” “Why would someone ever believe this is a good thing?” Well, first, the situation in the world would have to be pretty dire. The murder rate would have to be out of control. More people would have to be dying from murder than from natural causes, and there would have to be a panic situation that would force us to embrace such an extreme loss of civil liberties. Second, I thought there had to be a personal issue to make it really interesting. The main character had to be running from something or acting out some personal problem for it to really work. So, what if Anderton was a policeman before Precrime and experienced the loss of his own child right in front of him. He would have felt completely powerless to stop it. I thought that anger and guilt would lead to a denial for the character in terms of what he was doing, and that might give him some real motivation and make things interesting.
You’ve taken that identity approach before with your characters.
Yeah, I think all of my movies have been about someone trying to find a true identity. From Little Man Tate, Dead Again, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Minority Report. They’re all about people looking at themselves in a new light. Who they are versus who they thought they were. Anderton is a man who is blinded by his own grief.
How were the challenges of adapting Philip K. Dick different from those of Elmore Leonard?
Very different. Because I begin with character and write from that perspective, and Elmore Leonard is all character. There is so much material you can draw from to create plot and new characters. Leonard creates such rich and delicious characters who help generate the narrative. Philip Dick’s stuff, at least for Minority Report, operates on a purely conceptual level and his characters in the short story were very flat. They had no arc. So for me they weren’t all that interesting. There wasn’t much to draw from in the short story in terms of character.
How important was Jon Cohen’s script to the work you did?
Very important, because what remains from his script to the final version are very crucial elements. First of all, and the least important, is his creation of hardware. He created some very interesting gadgets that I just loved. From the ship they used to the robotic spiders, I thought those were really wonderful inventions. Also, Jon’s idea of scanning the eyes for identification, and having John Anderton get his eyes changed because of it, was wonderful I thought. The storyline involving the female Precog Agetha in the second half of my script was also his idea. And this led to the whole idea of having Agetha help Anderton with his own problems and delusions, and not just solving the crime. I also ended up giving Agetha her own history and her own narrative as a result. All of this, which is crucial for the story, came from the ideas that Jon Cohen had. More importantly, he had a structure that was very good. There were basic stepping stones that I used in the final script. Even though I created a brand new story with brand new characters, I was greatly influenced by Jon’s script.
I think you really injected a tired genre with some new life. Something that I hadn’t seen since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca.
Science fiction has become more about hardware than anything else. All the CGI and special effects crap they throw into a film in order to make up for a shitty script. Or maybe they just don’t care about the story to begin with. I don’t know. What I did was ignore the hardware. In my first draft of the script, when I say “someone picked up a phone” or got in a car, I say just that. I didn’t try to describe the phone or the car. I wrote the story as if it were happening right now. The only difference is there were these three prescient beings who were capable of predicting the future, and people were being arrested for crimes they haven’t yet committed. That was it. With the help of Jon Cohen’s draft, I created a system that evolved around those three beings. And then I went back and created a history as to how they (the Precogs) were discovered. I decided to make the discovery an accident. Like all great discoveries, the Precogs were not intended. A doctor was trying to treat children of drug addicts who were severely brain damaged. In the course of this research and treatment the doctor discovers that several of these kids were having nightmares that were coming true. I created a whole character history for them and then I injected that into the narrative.
Your script works on several different levels. It’s really a mystery within a mystery.
Yeah, and Steven was game for that. He was willing to experiment with a very complex narrative. He even told me he had never done a mystery, so I think that appealed to him. His only caveat was that the audience has to understand the journey we’re taking them on—or if they’re confused, it’s supposed to be that way. Steven was very concerned we make sure the audience was getting enough answers along the way so they weren’t in the dark, while at the same time there was a mystery building. But the plot was so complex and the script was long, and the challenge was really finding a way to tell all the stories we wanted to tell. We even tried to cut it down, but every time we did Steven would say he missed this or that, so we ended up shooting a very long draft of the script.
Hitchcockian. It’s also an ardently dark story—it reminds me of the old film noir. Your script Dead Again did as well.
I’ve gone to that well before. I went to the Rebecca well for Dead Again. I love his films and he has taught me a lot about writing and building tension. Hitchcock always populated his films with interesting characters. I like that, and I like to do that in my own writing. It doesn’t matter the character. If you have someone speaking, at least give them a unique voice. Helps make things more interesting. Those are the kinds of stories I enjoy reading and watching. You don’t see a lot of those movies anymore. We don’t seem to be telling complex narratives like we used to and as a result the audiences miss something when we do. They’ll say, “I don’t understand what happened at the end.” Well, if we would just write better stories, people would start paying more attention. If we told better stories, people would stop answering their cell phones, or replenishing their M&Ms.
I think there are expectations of genre we as an audience have right now, and the writing that is being produced just feeds right into it. It’s turned into a vicious cycle.
You’re absolutely right. I don’t see too many writers today who are trying to write complex characters and then from those characters create a complex plot. What they’re doing is starting with a concept, and then they’re creating attitudes, not characters. You have an idea to make a movie about car racing, not about a race car driver. So you’re working backwards, and you end up making up stuff to fill in the blanks as opposed to starting with an original and interesting character. What baffles me most is that audiences seem to like that—at least right now they do. Filmmaking is at a high level in terms of technology, and it can be exhilarating to see some of these movies from that standpoint. I go to see some of them myself for that same reason, so I don’t mean to devalue the accomplishments of those films. But what I am seeing is that we’re more obsessed with technology than content. We can make anything now on film. You can now do The Lord of the Rings! You couldn’t make that movie fifteen years ago.
Was there ever a concern that Spielberg wouldn’t have the same vision for Minority Report as you did?
I never know what the theme is until I stumble on to it halfway through the process. I know we had conversations from the very beginning, and as I started forming an outline we were talking about what the story might be, and in the end it ended up being much different from what we thought. The constants were that it was always going to be a mystery and a complex story. The irony of an age where homicide detectives were no longer needed and then Anderton having to become a detective again to save himself, was very appealing to both of us.
One of the themes of Minority Report is the loss of privacy.
We had a think tank where we invited all of these experts, architects, scientists from MIT, and even journalists. We invited people to talk about weapons, social and privacy issues, and all kinds of things about what the future might be fifty years from now. Where are we heading? Things like that. The issue of privacy really hit home to me during this time. What we’re losing more than anything, especially with the Internet, is the notion of privacy. We’re learning more and more about people. You can carry that into the world of advertising, security and law enforcement. Those entities where they really want to get inside people’s heads. Being able to know when someone is going to commit a murder before they even do, is the ultimate example. Also, in Jon Cohen’s script there was a very interesting thing he did that I touched on earlier—the idea of reading a person’s eyes to identify them. I thought that is the theme of this movie. In fact, at one point in his script, Anderton gets his eyes surgically removed from his head so that he can maneuver around without being tracked. It’s about being seen, and seeing what you want to see, and about being blind to certain things. This is a man who has a blind spot, and because of it he has embraced the system for all the wrong reasons. And it takes the system coming after him for him to really see what’s going on.
Once you knew what the story was going to be for you, how long did it take to find the spine and then begin constructing the script?
It took months of meetings and talking about the story, and then it was months of outlining where we had to rethink the shape of the movie. During some of the early story meetings, Steven and I had talked about a style for the movie and we both liked the idea of doing a kind of The French Connection in the year 2050. Yet at the same time we’re marrying that film style with a science fiction narrative where the hero of the story has a very dark side. Steven and I actually ended up watching The French Connection together.
It’s interesting that you would mention that, because I could see a little of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle in John Anderton.
What I liked about Popeye Doyle was that he was flawed. In the films of the ’70s, often the heroes were flawed almost as much as the guys they were looking for. Whether or not I subconsciously did that, I don’t know. I can tell you that it’s the way I write. I like to write about those kinds of characters. The superhero kind of character for me is dull. There’s usually no conflict for them where they’re having to hold it together in terms of their inner needs.
Was there ever a time when the writing was fluid for you? It sounds like you were always struggling with it.
No, it was always agony for me. I seem to take ten steps backward and a tiny baby step forward. I’m always throwing away much more than I am keeping. Since this movie was so outside of my wheelhouse, when I was finally able to make the material mine, that’s when it started to fall into place. But then I panicked because my ideas were gonna stink [laughs]. At one point when I was writing Minority Report, there was this horrible rainy season, and outside my window they were doing construction. There was pounding and the building was literally shaking every fifteen seconds, and that damn beeping sound trucks make when they back up, and there were guys yelling at each other. It was a mess. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my office sprung a leak. So it’s raining inside my office, there’s this pounding noise outside, and I was still able to write. That’s how I knew I had it—I could still write with all this shit happening around me.
How involved was Spielberg in the development of the script? You had story meetings together.
Early on, before he went on to do A.I., we worked for a year solid. Initially when I came on in January of 1999, Steven wanted to begin shooting that August. But Tom was in the middle of making Mission Impossible 2 in Australia, and that schedule kept getting pushed back for various reasons, so therefore our production kept getting postponed. We had more and more time to work on the script and what we ended up doing was reinventing the story. Steven was incredibly indulgent of my messy process.
What was it like working with Spielberg? He’s a modern day John Ford—you’re working for God essentially.
The greatest and hardest thing about Steven is he has access to everything and everyone. So I’m constantly getting information during the process. He’ll talk to whomever about this idea, or that technical thing, or whatever. When I was working on Saving Private Ryan, I had two large binders full of historical facts that he had accumulated about D-Day, and all this stuff he wanted in the movie. It’s wonderful because it gives you ideas for scenes and character, but at the same time it is very overwhelming in the sense that you have to be careful not to write to the research. He reads scripts with a tape recorder in hard, and he takes copious notes. I would then get the transcriptions. Steven has a tremendous instinct for what an audience is going to feel. Often times when we hit a problem he is the first to find the solution.
Did Tom Cruise ever have any reservations about playing John Anderton because of the character’s dark side?
I had one meeting with him early on, and then he went off to Australia. During that meeting he was game to pretty much anything. Tom is a fearless actor, he’ll try anything, and so I felt he would actually like it. During the filming, I was on the set and he was very much a student of the page. He works very hard at making what’s there work. He did have ideas, but most of them were behavioral. He was very enthusiastic about the screenplay. In fact, I think his enthusiasm for the project kept it together a few times.
Did you ever come close to dropping out of the project?
I did really get depressed after a while. There was a point where I had written the first fifty pages and was convinced that Steven wasn’t going to like it, because it was so different from anything he had done before. Also, the schedule was taking forever. I couldn’t work on other obligations I had. At one point I decided I just didn’t like science fiction, but Steven kept telling me that I had to write this for myself. He kept encouraging me to find my own unique point of view for the story. My way out was, if I write it for myself and he doesn’t like it, then I don’t know how to write it. So here I am fifty, sixty pages into the script, and I just thought, “there’s no way he’s going to like it.” Talking about it in theory was one thing, actually seeing it on paper was another. But Steven ended up responding well to it and told me he couldn’t see the movie any other way than the way I wrote it. Now I was stuck, I had to do it [laughs]. But then we went round and round about the details. Walter Parkes, the president of DreamWorks, was also very involved in the process. We all had different ideas of what we wanted in the script, and most of them were really good ideas. We wanted to do everything. Every week Steven would fax me pieces of research or ideas he had and all of it was good. What I ended up with after a year was a 180-page screenplay. That was when Steven went off to do A.I. At this point we had everything we wanted in it, but it still wasn’t quite working. Then I went to finish some other projects I had, and about a year later I came back to finish it.
Were you on the set a lot?
Yeah some. I did have a lot on my plate. I was working on A Walk Among the Tomb Stones, and had to finish that while Minority Report was shooting so I needed to step away from the set more than I wanted. I would go as often as I could. It was very difficult to leave once I was there. Normally I hate being on a set—it’s usually so boring. Writers who say they love being on the set are nuts. It’s not very interesting to me. It’s great when you’re there working, and can help problem-solve and things like that. But on a Steven Spielberg set it’s always interesting [laughs]. First of all, there’s so many interesting things happening in terms of the way the movie is being made. New cameras, experimental cameras, new ways of using cameras. Steven had a robotic arm brought to the set one day from an automated factory of some kind and they put the camera on the arm. Not to mention the people that visit his set. From the Secretary of the Navy, to Sting, Mike Myers, and Bill Clinton [laughs]. There was always someone showing up.
Do you set goals for yourself?
I do, both short term and long term goals. I think it’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re not obtaining your goals, so you also need to have those shortterm goals. I’m going to work on my book, or whatever it is. Instead of saying I’m going to finish something by December, I’ll say I’m going to write one page per day. What is your writing process like? I spend a lot of time writing about the script, thinking about the characters, getting ideas, lines of dialogue, before I actually write it. Anything that pops into my head I write it down and I start to organize that to shape the story. I spend months doing that. Sometimes before I write a scene I’ll spend an hour writing about the scene, and I sometimes realize I’m stuck on something. So what I’ll do is start with the dialogue and see where it goes, and then I fill in the action and different elements.
Does your inner critic become debilitating for you sometimes?
I have to work on it because it’s not helping me any. I think I might be more adventurous if I wasn’t so hard on myself. I might actually be a better writer if I was less inhibited. My inner critic inhibits me a lot from trying new things because I immediately stifle whatever sort of idea or notion I have. I’m constantly worried it’s not a good one. The most satisfying thing is the process of writing. Being alone in my room, satisfaction is only found in problem solving. And my inner critic is constantly pointing out those problems for me to solve [laughs]. What I have to do is let go and just write. I’m truly reluctant to turn anything in. The hardest thing for me to do is turn in material. It’s hard to look at my own stuff. I rarely print anything out. If I print out my script to re-read it before I turn it in, I’ll never turn it in.
It must be difficult for you to see your work on screen.
It’s horrible. It’s very difficult. I’ll sit there and think, if I only had ten more minutes, I could have fixed that bit of dialogue or whatever. But there have been times when it’s wonderful. I’ve seen it from rough cut to final print and have been very happy. And it’s not because I don’t like what the director did. That’s a different feeling. I’m more annoyed when that happens, and I can’t say that’s happened all that often. The movie you have in your head is never going to be on screen, it’s impossible. The script will be interpreted differently by the director, the costume designers, the actors, everyone.
But writers have to stand up for what they believe in.
I have a very strong point of view about my own material. But I do know that there are certain things I can and can’t do, like when a producer or whoever wants to take the story in a different direction and I just know I can’t do that. If it’s not consistent with my voice, I have no problem arguing my point of view, and I’m willing to find a way to solve the problem. I enjoy it actually. I enjoy collaborating within a creative team. I find that if I work with equally intelligent and creative people, sometimes more intelligent and creative ones, it challenges me to write better work. When I worked with Steven Soderbergh on Out of Sight, those days pacing around my office, spitting out lines of dialogue and running down to the deli for lunch, were some of the happiest I’ve had as a writer. When I can work with someone and we’re challenging the material in the same direction, and not fighting each other over what it’s about, that’s when it’s fun. Writers often don’t ask tough questions about their own work. While my scripts are sometimes imperfect, at least I know I’m always going to ask myself the tough questions.
You’re one of the few screenwriters who can get involved in the editing process of their films, and you even did some second unit directing on Minority Report.
I’ve been very fortunate. The second unit stuff was a blast. Working with Jersey Films on both Get Shorty and Out of Sight, they even included me in marketing meetings, everything. Soderbergh was very generous about showing his film. He would show me early cuts of Out of Sight. There were scenes we were thinking about losing, but weren’t sure. We’d go into the editing room and talk about it. Jodie Foster was the same way. Kenneth Branagh was the same way. I spent a lot of time with him in the editing room. Barry Sonnenfeld was also very good to me. All of the directors have shown me cuts of the movie very early on. As for my experience on Minority Report, Steven would show us cuts of what he was doing. He was always very excited about it. He was very generous. Whenever I needed to talk to him, he would always get back to me right away, no matter what he was doing.
You say you are more inspired by fiction now. Why aren’t you inspired by movies anymore?
Because they’re not good; they’re not written anymore. The writing is all about servicing the concept. It’s not about writing real characters. It’s about putting in a movie star and figuring out how to get them from point A to B. To be honest, I’m not sure where I fit in the whole mix of where film is heading. I don’t know if I write the kinds of movies people want to see anymore. I believe that some sort of new wave is going to eventually happen, and that we’ll get back to making more character-driven movies, and better ones. At least I hope we do.
This is from the 2002 Steven Spielberg with Wired magazine titled Spielberg in the Twilight Zone. Check out the full interview here.
So what drew you to the Minority Report?
The thing about Philip K. Dick is that he’s a concept illustrator. In Minority Report he’s got a very strong idea—that future murders can be preempted based on the psychic information from precognitives, or “precogs,” as he calls them. And the head of Precrime, played by Tom Cruise, who brought the book and original script to me, is himself accused of a murder that’s going to happen in 36 hours. He has to go on the run from all the men and women he’s trained to catch people just like him. At its core the movie is a whodunit. It’s actually a whodunit-to-me. I responded immediately to that. And then, I responded to the myriad possibilities of creating a future that is not too distant, yet with the kind of technologies we can only dream about but wish we had now.
How far ahead did you set it?
It’s 2054. When we started brainstorming we invited some of the far-reaching thinkers in the areas of science and medicine, technology, transportation, and the environment to imagine what the near future would bring. We had a three-day think tank at the Shutters Hotel [in Santa Monica, California]. Usually you see these guys on Nightline talking to Ted Koppel. We had all of them in one room talking to each other. Most of the software in the movie is based on their suggestions of what it will be like in 50 years.
What struck you about their ideas?
One of the things that excited me the most, though it was off the subject of Minority Report, was the transportation system. Certainly, as a country dependent on Arab oil, we’re desperate for alternative forms of energy. How do you most efficiently transport people from the workplace to home? Home to school? Home to shopping? And what kind of cities would be in our future? Based on ideas from this group, we devised a system where all the vehicles are crawling up and down the sides of buildings. It was like creating a SimCity.
What’s the first P.K. Dick story you read?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Dick’s stories have inspired Screamers, Total Recall, and Blade Runner, arguably the ultimate sci-fi movie. Are you concerned about the inevitable comparisons to Blade Runner?
Minority Report is a different film. There’s darkness to it. There’s personal tragedy as well. But I think it’s a little more accessible. I thought Ridley [Scott, director of Blade Runner] painted a very bleak but brilliant vision of life on earth in a few years. It’s kind of acid rain and sushi. In fact, it’s coming true faster than most science fiction films come true. Blade Runner is almost upon us. It was ultranoir.
There’s a great tension between possibility and skepticism in science. Yet skepticism is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of you.
Not a lot of skepticism has gotten into my work. Certainly in the last few films—Amistad, Schindler’s List, and Private Ryan, and A.I. and Minority Report—there’s been a, well, I’m not sure I’d call it skepticism, but a being unafraid of the dark truth, the difficult realities. I feel as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more courageous.
In 1999, you said that Minority Report would be the most cynical film you’d ever made.
I was wrong. It changed. Because, well, it’s not cynical to want to believe that there could be a miracle—that they could stop people from killing in the future. So in a sense, it went from being a cynical story to being a movie about wishful thinking.
What happens to the people convicted of premurder?
They’re detained. We don’t say how long, but we show that they are kept in a comatose condition in a large area called the Hall of Containment. It looks like Arlington Cemetery because there are these things like headstones with the names of all those interred. There are six bodies interred in each tube and the tubes rise vertically from the ground, and they are constantly monitored and fed intravenously. They are not conscious, although they do exist in a dream state. So they may dream for 25 years, or however long their sentence goes. I would like to think that after 25 years they are released with no memory of who they are or what they did.
Or what they might have done?
Or what they might do. The cynical thing would be to believe that somebody with homicidal tendencies can never be rehabilitated. I don’t believe that. I think they can be rehabilitated. I just didn’t go there because the politics of that debate were not part of the storytelling.
Precognition seems like an apt metaphor for what science fiction can be to the culture. Tell us about the precogs themselves.
Agatha [played by Samantha Morton], someone in her early twenties, gets a chance to experience the world for the first time when she emerges from the liquid tank. She’s embryonic. She gets to see the sky for the first time and see the clouds. And, of course, how could I not have a bunch of wires coming out of the precogs’ bald heads? I wouldn’t be honoring the genre. I had to honor the genre.
They seem like a continuation of the meeting, the melding, of machines and people.
People personify machines all the time. We anthropomorphize our machinery, especially our cars, and as kids our bicycles. I had a name for my bicycle—Scatterbolt—because it kept dropping bolts on the ground all the time. I think we’ve been conditioned to look upon our most useful machines as our companions. So I don’t think there’s anything new or surprising about making machines our close companions at all. A.I., for Stanley and certainly for me, was just the next iteration between man and the machines he creates.
Why are you so drawn to the sci-fi genre?
Every other genre has its limitations. With science fiction, you can pull out all the stops—and it still may not be enough. So sci-fi is really a candy store for someone with imagination.
Yet, for it to be truly effective, it must be based on reality, hence your think tank for Minority Report and the consultants you’ve used on films like A.I. and Jurassic Park.
Real science fiction always has a platform of truth. The best is really about the preternatural, and the worst is the kind where there’s no science to the fiction, like I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Jurassic Park would not have been Jurassic Park had it not been for the wholly credible aspect of cloning from DNA. I could do anything I wanted with a Tyrannosaurus rex, with the raptors, as long as the audience believed that dinosaurs could come back to the 20th century. And that was all because Michael Crichton did his homework and based his book on certain facts about cloning and the possibility of blood-sucking insects still containing the DNA of dinosaurs a hundred million years later.
How invigorated and hindered by new technologies are storytelling and filmmaking?
Well, we’re never going to get over our adolescent need to paint on the walls of caves—that’s not ever going to leave us. The technology may give us far better tools to communicate our stories. The technology may also provide a theater of the mind. Someday the entire motion picture may take place inside the mind, and it will be the most internal experience anyone can have: being told a story with your eyes closed, but you see and smell and feel and interact with the story. I certainly feel that if we had the technology today we’d be using it. We’re never going to stop telling stories.
Now the thing I’m most saddened by is the constant talk about the photochemical process becoming a thing of Thomas Edison’s past. There’s a magic about chemistry and film. Sure, a digital shot is steady. It doesn’t have to ride through the gate of a projector. And, sure, it’s as clean as the OR in a major hospital. That’s exactly what’s wrong with it. Film has a molecular structure called grain; even a still of just a flower in a vase has life because of the grain, because of the molecules in the film. Especially if you sit in the first five rows of any movie theater, you know what I’m talking about. The screen is alive. The screen is always alive with chaos and excitement, and that will certainly be gone when we convert to a digital camera and a digital projector. I was one of the first people to use digital technology to enhance my films, but I’m going to be the last person to use digital technology to shoot my movies.
Are there instances when the technology at your disposal forced you to alter, for better or worse, the way you planned to tell a story?
The great example is Jaws. I was completely hampered initially by the failure of the mechanical shark to work on cue and on time. And yet that failure in technology allowed me to be more Hitchcockian. In showing the water, yet not showing anything under the water or anything on the surface of the water, I was able to create terror based on what we didn’t see. For lack of a better shark, it was a better picture. Otherwise, it would have been a movie with a hundred extra shark shots. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a film that I didn’t feel limited on at all, but it took a lot more individual creativity by matte artists and visual effects supervisors to get UFOs to look like UFOs, to get the mothership to look spectacular. It was a lot harder in those days. You earned your stripes by being inventive, by creating illusions. In the 1970s, matte painting was like French impressionism. When I saw my first matte painting in Close Encounters by Matthew Yuricich, I said, “This isn’t done yet. Where are all the details?” And he said, “No, no, no—matte paintings are always impressionistic.” Today, however, all matte paintings done on the computer are photo-realistic. So the pure art of fooling the eye, of misleading the eye, of controlling where the viewer looks and how much the viewer gets to see, those days are gone. That also makes me sad.
There are some 400 special effects in Minority Report, more than any of your movies since Close Encounters.
Yes, but it’s not what you would expect. The plethora of special effects in Minority Report doesn’t serve to create a world, spacially. It’s actually part of the storytelling. The precogs’ thoughts are certain pictures, and their pictures are onscreen. And Tom Cruise has to scrub through these images in order to find out the location of where those murders are going to take place. He has a three-day window with a premeditated murder and as short as 20 minutes if it is a murder of passion. All these images are generated and transferred to a very large screen. And like John Williams in front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tom Cruise conducts, if you will, these images. Most of the effects have to do with images onscreen that we couldn’t photograph live, so we had to do them in postproduction. When I say we have 445 effects shots in the film, more than I have had in any movie in my career, most of those will go unnoticed by the audience.
What technologies scare you today?
For me it’s all about the level of intimidation. There are certain technologies that scare me because I don’t think I’m very good at them. For instance, programming a computer. I can get on AOL, and that’s about it. But I’m a gameplayer as you know. So I play games and I can navigate any game narrative. I stick with it for four or five days, if it’s compelling, until I get to the end. Sometimes I’ll play eight-hour days—which my wife hates. But since I’ve got my kids in the room, we are having a shared experience. And I have to have the mouse, or the keyboard. I have to control the joystick.
In your closing comments on the A.I. DVD, you spoke about the need for moral and ethical limiters.
The dreamers give us the technology, and I’m not being cynical when I say that sometimes that technology curbs our own dreams. Is there a day coming when there will be biotechnology that will not only make us live longer but give us a spurt of adrenaline in our heart when our energy is flagging around 3 in the afternoon? Do we want that? I don’t want to be the bionic man.
But don’t we love those stories?
Just remember, the best science fiction stories have the most dire warnings about civilization and the future. Most of them are cautionary tales. Even in Minority Report, being a precog, being able to stop murders before they happen. Well, society will pay a price for that.
“Samantha Morton’s character (is ‘Agatha’ a nod to Miss Christie?) has few words and seems exhausted and frightened most of the time, providing an eerie counterpoint for Anderton’s man of action. There is poignancy in her helplessness, and Spielberg shows it in a virtuoso two-shot, as she hangs over Anderton’s shoulder while their eyes search desperately in opposite directions. This shot has genuine mystery. It has to do with the composition and lighting and timing and breathing, and like the entire movie it furthers the cold, frightening hostility of the world Anderton finds himself in. The cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who has worked with Spielberg before (not least on Schindler’s List), is able to get an effect that’s powerful and yet bafflingly simple.” —Roger Ebert
“It’s just a gorgeous shot of two lost people. I used a bluish side light, which to some degree glamorized them, but also made them very lonely and alienated from the rest of the scene. You work in metaphors through lights and composition, and the worst thing for me is to see a movie that doesn’t have that. You see a cinematographer’s work and there are no visual metaphors, or they are so afraid to create a style that it just becomes this nothing. It’s a big palette, the movie screen. I dare to compare myself to painters, but I just have a bigger canvas to adapt to. If you don’t like my painting, don’t see the movie, you know?” —Janusz Kaminski
The following is an excerpt from the book Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation. It is a must read and a must have on your shelf. The book is available from Amazon.
What kind of conversations with Spielberg do you have before you start shooting? How specific are they?
It’s a really simple relationship: he directs the movie, I photograph it. Intellectualizing about making movies doesn’t really count for much in America, because the director is responsible for such a huge industrial machine. Filmmaking isn’t an industry that encourages risk taking. There isn’t much of an auteur sensibility any longer, because you’re shooting the movies with extensive coverage, all these amazing creative shots with unnecessary close-ups or over-the-shoulders. It becomes a very safe medium. All the intellectual conversations you might have with the director are usually quite interesting but ultimately a waste of time. You talk about ideas for three weeks before you start shooting and very quickly realize that none of those ideas apply, simply because the director is suddenly paralyzed in the face of having to direct this huge hundred-million-dollar movie and tell a hundred people where to stand and what to do. With Steven, we just don’t waste time on intellectual conversations. Very seldom do we talk about what the movie will look like. We might say, “Okay, it would be interesting if it wasn’t as slick as A.I.” We did Minority Report right after A.I., so we wanted it not to look as slick and elegant, which meant we said, “Let’s make this movie kind of dirty.” That’s as much conversation as we had. For Minority Report we looked at one movie, The Ipcress File, which I find to be an amazing piece of cinema. We looked at it because of the really interesting angles, but for A.I. we didn’t have any conversations. I think the beauty of our relationship comes from the lack of desire to discuss all those things. When he sees talent, he hires it and lets that person do the work they were hired to do. He’s got a tremendous amount of filmmaking to offer to me, and I’ve got a tremendous amount of filmmaking to offer to him.
How has that changed over time?
It hasn’t changed. Steven does his work, I do my work, and we mutually respect our decisions. I like to be left alone. Just let me do my work. Our first conversation before we started Schindler’s List was: “I’m making this movie in black and white. Do you want to do it?” “Sure, I want to do it.” There were no long conversations about concept. I went to Poland for three months and he arrived on the set three days before we started shooting. Nothing was very precise. There were no storyboards. A lot of the ideas just happened as we were shooting. It was very instinctual. With Saving Private Ryan he got to the set two days before. There are very few conversations, because he hires people he can fully rely on. You have to understand that Spielberg is a huge operation. He’s a producer, he runs a studio, he’s got a wife, he’s got seven kids, and on top of all that he’s very much involved in charitable organizations. He doesn’t have time to waste on useless conversations in terms of what this movie will be about. It’s like the Ivan Passer story. Steven discovers what the movie is about as he’s making it, which is perhaps different to the way he used to make films, when he would work everything out in advance. He has become much more poetic and free and adventurous in terms of wanting to discover what the movie’s about as he’s going into it.
How much input does Spielberg have in camera placement?
That’s the director’s job. You put the camera where you think it should go. That’s what he’s getting paid for. It’s another story as to how much collaboration there is on the set, because some directors are not interested at all in placing the camera, while others enjoy it tremendously. Usually at the end of a day of shooting, Steven and I will talk about the setups for the following day. He’ll give me the angle and we’ll block the scene with stand-ins. By the time we arrive on set the next day we more or less know what the shot is about. I drive straight from the lab, where I’ve been looking at the material from the previous day. I’m fighting the traffic, so Steven usually gets there maybe half an hour earlier, because he’s still trying to figure out what the hell he’s doing. He drives to the set because that gives him an hour and a half of thinking time, when he can fully focus on what the day’s work will be, which is a luxury in his life.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Photographed by Sean M. Casey & David James © Twentieth Century Fox, DreamWorks. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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