By Sven Mikulec
It’s been seven years since the esteemed American film director Kathryn Bigelow entered the history books as the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her work on The Hurt Locker. Fifteen years prior to this historical success, however, she broke through another barrier, as she became the first woman to win a Saturn Award for Best Director. The film that charmed the American Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films was Strange Days, a science fiction action thriller set in the (then) near future of Los Angeles, where we follow a former cop, now black market specialist on his odyssey of solving a brutal murder of a prostitute, at the same time trying to win back the love of his life with the help of a couple of reliable friends. Based on James Cameron’s idea and the screenplay he subsequently developed with Bigelow and experienced screenwriter Jay Cocks (Marin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence), Strange Days premiered in the autumn of 1995, heavily polarizing the critics upon release and ultimately failing to meet the expectations of the audience. Unable to wrestle with more efficiently marketed pictures like Assassins and How to Make an American Quilt, and a couple of weeks later Get Shorty and Leaving Las Vegas, Bigelow’s unorthodox, gloomy, violence-packed sci-fi made six times less than its 42-million-dollar budget, seriously threatening the filmmaker’s career and disappointing 20th Century Fox. Despite the fact Strange Days had its vigorous champions back in those days, with Roger Ebert giving it his highest praise and calling it a definite cult film, it took years for it to gain status among film lovers.
Today, Strange Days is largely seen as an underappreciated gem of a film, a true nineties classic regarded ahead of its time even by its fiercest disparagers. The story is set in Los Angeles, the year is 1999, and the city is in chaos: the streets are swarming with protesters, as the people rose against the police after a popular rapper is executed by a couple of dirty cops. Among all this disarray we meet Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a former LAPD officer who makes a living out of selling SQUID recordings on the black market. These illegal electronic devices allow the users to experience other people’s memories, reliving someone else’s experiences as if they were their own. When he’s not watching the tapes he made with his old lover Faith (Juliette Lewis), who has since then moved on to become the partner of a successful music mogul, Lenny cruises the city finding new clients, connected as a human being only to his bodyguard and driver Mace (Angela Bassett) and a private investigator he considers to be his best friend (Tom Sizemore). A SQUID recording of the brutal rape and murder of a prostitute puts him in danger and sets the plot in motion, and the rest of the film is a thrilling, captivating and often brutal ride to Lenny’s ultimate redemption. In the last two days of 1999, Lenny has the chance to reach a decision, as circumstances force him to choose between continuing down the road of slow self-destruction, suffocating in the images of days long gone, or living his life without the virtual reality goggles he puts on when the imminent reality seems too hard to face.
“I was fascinated by the dramatic and thematic potentials of the millennium, and the idea of doomsday as a backdrop for the redemption of one individual,” stated James Cameron, as he explained how he initially got the idea for writing Strange Days back in 1985. Cameron first called it The Magic Man, referring to the protagonist’s ability to get you any kind of SQUID recordings your heart desired, and back then, the whole idea consisted of no more than five handwritten pages. “I never got around to writing it, at least not that decade.” It seems the Los Angeles riots of 1992 had a lot to do with the realization of this project. When an African-American taxi driver called Rodney King was severely beaten by the police, as witnessed by the public on a videotaped that one of the witnesses made, Los Angeles erupted in a series of riots, lootings and clashes with the police, further empowered by the fact that the four LAPD officers responsible for King’s beating were soon acquitted. Cameron used this incident and incorporated it into Strange Days. The idea was originally his, but the atmosphere, politics and general setting of the film developed through a series of conversations with Bigelow. After Cameron wrote a 90-page treatment, the two of them then brought in Jay Cocks to help with the script, the writer with whom Bigelow had previously worked on a script on Joan of Arc. Cameron was allegedly more focused on the romantic aspect of the film, developing the relationships between Lenny, Faith and Mace, while Bigelow was far more interested in the edginess and atmosphere.
Strange Days was shot by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, who had previously worked on such films as Poltergeist, Commando and Red Heat, with the music of the New Zealand composer Graeme Revell (From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City). Cameron, who took on the roles of writer and producer, also did a lot of the editing, but was prevented from getting an editing credit because he joined the editors union only a couple of years later, before making Titanic. The camera work was impressive, especially considering the numerous fascinating point-of-view sequences. Since Bigelow couldn’t find an existing camera system that could help her pull off such shots, an entire year was spent on designing and producing a special, 8-pound, 35mm camera that could be mounted on a portable rig. In this way, the camera was able to mimic the human eye as accurately as possible, and Bigelow got the sequences that seemed revolutionary back in those days, when point-of-view video was reserved for video games such as Doom. This particular feature of Strange Days is especially relevant considering the role of the SQUID system both in the society portrayed in the film and in the broader context of Bigelow’s desire to make a comment on the very nature of film as an escapist, voyeuristic tool of regular people: by putting on the goggles and witnessing other people’s experiences, the users escape their own reality to become immersed in someone else’s. “Like the brilliant Peeping Tom,” Bigelow said upon the film’s release, “Strange Days utilizes the medium to comment on the medium.”
Ralph Fiennes was given the lead role, even though a lot of other top-notch names, such as Andy Garcia, Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell, were considered. His work on Schindler’s List and The Quiz Show, however, convinced Bigelow he was the only choice for conveying Lenny’s complexity. Angela Bassett was Cameron’s choice from the beginning, while Juliette Lewis got her role of the femme fatale partly thanks to her ability to sing. Even though Bigelow had to face some harsh criticism from women who saw Strange Days as an anti-women film because of the shocking violence on display, it could be argued Strange Days is a pure feminist picture, as Angela Bassett’s Mace is a physically imposing, capable, intelligent yet distinctly feminine character who might be the supporting pillar of Ralph Fiennes’ lost soul, but in some ways remains the emotional center of the whole film.
Strange Days, named after the Doors’ song, is a dark, gloomy but technically expertly crafted and beautiful film full of humanity. Its distinct atmosphere and unforgettable setting make it one of the most memorable sci-fi films we’ve seen, and Cameron’s script features well-developed characters and a story that somehow ends with an unexpected triumph, as a beam of hope pushes through all the smog of an alternate future that, given the events that unfolded in the last couple of years, just doesn’t feel as strange as it should. “It should be uncomfortable to watch,” said Bigelow. All things this close to home usually are.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: James Cameron & Jay Cocks’ screenplay for Strange Days [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
The following is an excerpt from Film Comment (September 1995), written by Gavin Smith, ‘Momentum and Design: Kathryn Bigelow Interviewed.’
How did Strange Days come about?
Jim Cameron had been thinking of and working on it for about nine years. He presented it to me around 1991 and I thought it was a fabulous, mesmerizing story. At that point nothing was really written, so he wrote a treatment and then we developed it together into a script. Everything I’ve done I’ve had input into the writing.
What was your way into it?
The politics was very important: the landscape of a society, a flashpoint society maybe on the brink of civil war, the tensions that were permeating every crevice. It’s not an incredible stretch of the imagination. Anybody who was in L.A. at the time of the riots will acknowledge that. I went down to help with the cleanup, and it gave me a lot of the visuals. You’d be on a street corner with these shells of buildings that once were, with tanks and National Guard cruising by.
How did Jay Cocks become involved?
Jay and I had worked on a script, together, after Point Break, on Joan of Arc, a piece that’s near and dear to my heart. It was a masterful script. I thought he would be a real complement to Jim.
Were there any notable elements that came from you specifically?
Jeriko [Glenn Plummer] was very important to me, what he stood for and the broader ramifications. There are two simultaneous tracks: the character story, which is the heart and soul of the project, and then the landscape against which the story takes place, that is a kind of narrative in and of itself, a charged political arena. But there’s a deep, fundamental need for humanity against that landscape—the fact that a Lenny Nero exists against that landscape, and his ability to be vulnerable, his emotionality, really is his redemption. It’s the interface of the two that makes it work; if they were separate, one may be too familiar, the other too didactic. You keep bouncing back and forth from the microcosm to the macrocosm.
His agony is a metaphor for the agony of a divided society—or vice versa. You don’t know which is a metaphor for the other.
They’re reflecting pools—one is not there without the reflection of the other. And as the environment gets more oppressive, the desire for genuine experience, for the SQUID [Superconducting Quantum Interference Device] technology, increases.
And it’s a vicious circle.
Constantly feeding itself. Part of why cinema is so attractive is what Roland Barthes said about it’s being a tear in the fabric of society, a widow onto another universe. The desire to see and watch is part of the human condition. I guess it’s called scopophilia—to fetishize watching.
Is this your most personal film?
It’s a synthesis of all the different tracks I’ve been exploring, either deliberately or unconsciously, ever since I started making art. Of reflexive ideology, something that comments on itself; a kind of political framework; a narrative that uses classical forms. At the heart of it, it’s a love story. And then you have the architecture of a thriller or noir. So it follows every track and yet creates a cohesion out of all that—not that necessarily there’s a simple answer, that you can neatly tie up all these threads at the end. Because the tensions still exist: it’s an ongoing process, a conversation as opposed to something finite. And there’s something very beautiful or serene at the heart of the film that’s antithetical to the environment, which is grim, brutal, disturbing, and the hideous creativity of the killer.
All your films deal with elite, closed groups that set themselves above society in order to pursue a private vision of transcendence and exaltation. You could say Strange Days takes the idea of escapism to an ultimate state of being.
It’s a kind of transgression: the desire to escape through watching, to cross over, can be insidious, and comes with its own price—just like the price that’s paid in Point Break, or the price [Megan (Jamie Lee Cur- tis)] pays in Blue Steel, or the price you pay for immortality in Near Dark. There’s a connection there, an alternate universe that folds back on the world as we know it. But there’s no state that’s absolute. It’s mutable; it might move through exaltation to utter destruction back to exaltation. Strange Days is a movie where we are led to believe that it’s the end of the world at the stroke of midnight, and all the forces of destiny seem to suggest you’re converging to that point.
Strange Days is above all a film that is profoundly troubled about the business of mass entertainment.
[Laughs.] It’s sort of at war with itself. You can’t come out of the art world without tremendous ambivalence. It’s part of the process, you question everything.
You’re not supposed to do that in Hollywood.
Well, what are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to entertain. To simply entertain: is there such thing as a neutral text? I don’t think so.
So in Point Break you gave us a profoundly satirical and politically literal spectacle of Ronald Reagan using a petrol pump as an improvised flamethrower, laying waste a gas station, then rampaging through the backyards and living rooms of America, pursued by Keanu Reeves of all people—the most blatant critique of the eighties I can think of.
[Laughs.] That’s what’s so fabulous about the medium. It enables you to work on so many different levels. If you were simply to do a critique of the last decade, it’d be so didactic it’d be painful. Satire is such a potent tool. It can be ignored and the piece still works; it can be enjoyed and the piece might work more. Strange Days is the ultimate Rorschach. One difference that’s very interesting is the difference between objective and subjective violence, which by the nature of the [point-of-view technology] puts the viewer into a very unusual position—as culpable for the first time. (I shouldn’t say first time: in Peeping Tom there’s a complicity.) And it’s not consensual. Or maybe it is because you bought the ticket. And why’d you buy the ticket? The reason the clip of the murder of Iris is so disturbing is that it’s so unflinching. There is a kind of purity about it, it’s not sensationalized. There’s no seductive lighting, it’s just flat, cold, harsh bathroom light. There are no interesting angles. It’s all dictated by the medium and the apparatus.
It denies the idea of the mediated image.
The possibilities are infinite. In a way Lenny Nero is like a film director. He directs the participants. At the climax he’s watching someone who he thinks has been killed, who’s experiencing that event for pleasure, and yet he’s experiencing his revulsion, his terror, and at the same time the killer’s pleasure.
It’s like a feedback loop.
It’s such a compression—like sound waves reverberating off reflective surfaces. You have this continuous reflection.
Right! That’s the script. Ralph and I talked a lot about Lenny as a director/producer/writer—and in some ways I found him studying me. So it was really an amazing opportunity to work within the medium, comment on the medium, treat it as subject and yet have all that at the service of a love story. The emotional centerpiece of the film for me is the scene where Lenny explains that it has nothing to do with Faith, or even the fact that he loved her and cared for her. It’s that he made this promise and that’s all he has left, this commitment to this person.
And his interior world has no correlation with the reality of Faith. His denial and loss are the psychological equivalents of the “false” experiences of the clips. He doesn’t even need the clips.
When Mace says, “Memories are meant to fade, they’re designed that way for a reason,” that’s the matrix around which the whole movie revolves. Talk about feedback loop—Lenny is caught like a gerbil on a wheel [as Max (Tom Sizemore) says].
What about the camera movement in the chase at the end of that POV?
Basically it’s a modified Steadicam that gives you the fluidity of Steadicam but the realism of handheld, without the limitations of either.
So you sort of retuned the Steadicam.
Right, there’s a gyro-stabilizer you can detune or tune in, depending upon how much life you want in the camera. For when she runs into the train yard and in front of a speeding freight train, well, no insurance company or train yard would ever authorize that. Carrying a camera crew behind you with a train going at eighty miles an hour—I don’t think so! So we did that backwards; the train was backing up and we reversed the footage. For all the POVs we tried to find ways of handling them so that it just looks like that’s what happened. There’s no real contaminating or adulterating the image so that it looks artificially created or too overly manipulated. Those are my favorite effects.
In the supermarket holdup in Blue Steel you intercut different moving camera styles: formal, distanced tracking, subjective handheld, and what I’d call sympathetic choreographed Steadicam movement somewhere in between.
I really only started to work compatibly with the Steadicam and trust it in Point Break. You can create an edit-free situation, yet it has the pace and sense of a quickly cut sequence. People move in and out of their coverage, and the actor and camera can move counter to one another. I love the purity of an unbroken shot, and I love that juxtaposed with a sequence that has tremendous editorial intrusion.
Exactly, there are rest notes and then there are flurries. You need rest moments where the camera is simply covering two people in an unbroken wide shot and you see the body language. It’s a cinematic exhale. That’s why we have punctuation. Peak experience only exists in relation to something that is not. It’s all context.
Were the demands of the chase sequence in Point Break very different from the robbery sequences?
They’re actually very similar. Both need a tremendous amount of coverage. The chase as scripted was this incredible, relentless piece, and it’s really what gave me the confidence that I could do these POVs in Strange Days. That was my first glimmer of an unbroken sequence: even though there are cuts, it was almost constructed as if there were none.
What were the most complicated shots technically in Strange Days?
The POVs, because they had to be continuous and unbroken. I shot all the POVs to be unbroken if I wanted them to be. We would choreograph for days in preproduction. In the opening POV, we’re putting everybody into the refrigerator and we realize the cops are there and we have to exit, so we look this way and we see the other robber going up the stairs, and we look behind us and see there are cops out the window… You have a whole crew that’s equally choreographed: you pan and everybody drops, eighteen people, then you pan back and they all pop up again.
What went into the visual style of the POV sequences?
We had to build a camera to do the POVs, a stripped-down Arri that weighed much less than even the smallest EYMO and yet would take all the prime lenses. And I also needed remote follow-focus capacity—your eye is so light and quick and mobile, whereas with a forty-pound Panaglide, everything is wiping and blurring because of the sheer weight of the camera; so we needed a lightness to give it the flexibility of the eye. Working with cameras that are that flexible, I think, is going to revolutionize action photography, because you can do so much more. But these scenes required additional equipment, and we had to organize hidden cuts within the sequences to get in and out of the equipment. For instance, to do the jump across the roof: that’s with a helmet camera, and you can’t use that for the run up the stairs. I would go out with my Steadicam operator, Jimmy Muro, with a video camera and figure out where all the cuts would be; then I had to organize the action to enable me to make those cuts. To get into the helmet camera, I had to create a whip. You don’t want to create an arbitrary whip, so: I hear the cops behind me, I look back, there they are, I come back and now I’m in the helmet rig, I jump. Now I’m on the other side, I look up and down, and then it’s a descender fall with the helmet on. It has to make sense. It’s fun—it’s the ultimate chess game.
What about the Jeriko clip?
It was logistically very complicated because Iris [Brigitte Bako] is witnessing this event, which had a lot of dialogue, no coverage, no outs, a four-hundred-foot magazine so you have a little bit of latitude, and we could switch equipment when we needed to for the dialogue. You couldn’t record dialogue with this little camera, it’s too noisy, so we had to switch to Steadicam.
One of the best action sequences you’ve done is ironically very modest in scale and complexity—the final sequence of your episode of Wild Palms.
That’s Jimmy Muro, my Steadicam guy. It’s in the choreography, and I staged the action so that just as one event is starting to wind down, another one will be coming up in the corner of his frame that will stimulate the camera and it whips around. It goes back to painting. On that one, we’re running to the door of the van, he is put in the back and we whip back up to the characters on the balcony getting shot, and they come down to the scene down below. And countermoves—moving the action and the camera in opposing ways. There’s an organic quality that lends itself to those sequences as you’re blocking it, and it’s like you leapfrog the action one step ahead of the camera, and then the camera leads the next piece of action. That’s what that piece was a perfect example of. We basically did that in only a few hours.
The power of that conjunction of visuals and music rises to an almost transcendent emotional level, much the way Michael Mann sometimes does.
Kind of like a fugue state. I had fun. I did it really for Oliver [Stone, the executive producer]. It was an interesting challenge to work at that pace. We did eight to ten pages a day. There’s something kind of freeing about it, once you break through to that other side.
On features like yours it’s more like two or two-and-a-half-page days.
Yeah. It sounds luxurious when compared to the other, but not when the level of complexity and the photographic requirements are so much greater. You just need to be constantly changing angles and images. You have to satisfy the appetite of the viewer’s attention span and work within the dictates of that appetite, if you want to stay a step ahead of the viewer, constantly cycling images. Back to the old adage: Material dictates. At a script stage you know how far you can sustain or suspend something. A narrative is a momentum in and of itself. It’s like you’re skiing down a hill and there’s this avalanche behind you. How long do you want to pause? If the piece has inherent momentum, you have to be careful about your pauses. But you can’t have momentum without pause. The value of cutting has been painfully abbreviated in some of the bigger contemporary films that are cut in six weeks. You can make a good film that way. You can’t make a great film.
A great example of that control of momentum and suspension is the unusually long, ten-and-a-half-minute scene in the middle of Near Dark at the bar. I’m fascinated by how you structured it around four contrasting songs on the jukebox. It’s a scene in four acts.
It’s written that way, too. It’s an entire reel. In a way it’s a film within a film, with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s very lyrical in a way, its rhythm. Its strength is its patience. It’s ultimately about turning a bar into an abattoir, but it’s turning that process into a state of art. Hard to shoot. I always knew I was going to use the George Strait song at the end; I didn’t know what the other material was going to be when I shot it, but I knew I would find them. “Fever” by The Cramps I just stumbled on, put it in, and it was uncanny how it worked with Lance Henriksen’s performance and the way the light and the fan above his head worked, and how evocative it was of how seductive that world might be. The real challenge in that film was that at a certain point you have to identify with the antagonists and want to take that ride.
That’s true of all of your films.
I guess so. They become strange ad hoc heroes in a perverse way. At a fundamental level, they are just alternate family structures struggling to stay intact, the two fathers fighting over the same son. There’s always a sequence like that, like the surf Nazis shootout in Point Break. In both cases it’s the moment where the main character goes through the looking glass and can never return. In Strange Days it’s when Mace sees the Jeriko video or Lenny witnesses the Iris kill. It’s the end of innocence.
Your action sequences conform classical principles of attenuation and elaboration of action, arresting or expanding time. In real life, violence is often over in the blink of an eye.
Yes and no. You can take the liberty of a moment of suspension, when something puts you in shock or is cathartic. Time stands still. It’s perception, obviously. There’s two ways of looking at a moment and they’re both cinematic: Either suspend it and examine it as if under a magnifying glass, with great detail, or have it be instantaneous, blink and you’ve missed it—which is more realistic, but in the perception of reality. Suspension of time for me is by cinematic choice and what I would imagine an event to be like. I was in a tremendous near car accident once. The driver started to doze at the wheel at 5:00 a.m. on the freeway at eighty miles per hour. In seconds we went off the freeway, and we were heading for the side of an overpass, and I said something and then he overcorrected it and we did a complete 360 across six lanes of traffic in one direction and down the meridian and across the oncoming six lanes, and ended up going straight ahead. You saw these semis going by you, they were just blurs of light and sound and horns. It seemed to me an eternity in what was fifteen seconds. There’s just this sense of forever in a second. A collision of thoughts. I think it’s because your system is flooded with adrenalin and everything is on hyper speed. So it’s an aestheticization, a stylistic choice.
You’ve talked in the past about violence in terms of its inherent cinematic, kinetic qualities, and it’s clear that it’s useful to you as an expression of a certain kind of passion. But what kind of personal need does its representation satisfy in you?
It goes back to the voyeuristic need to watch and the Freudian idea that you want to view what you’ve been denied. You don’t want to watch what you can always see—you want to see something that is transporting in some way, either frightening or some other reaction. And that’s the idea of the SQUID in Strange Days. They’re accessible fantasies and it’s fundamentally human.
There’s a very strong graphic quality to your compositions, but also a very tactile, sculpted dimensionality them.
Probably because I love to shoot on location, which you pay the price for when you’re mixing, because there’s sound you can’t get rid of and performance lines you’re reluctant to loop. But I don’t know—it could be in the sense that I’m interested in trying to make it replicate something to the extent that you humanly can, rather than go completely into a fantastic fictional space.
Where were you born?
Right below San Francisco, a town called San Carlos. My father managed a paint factory in South San Francisco, which I guess seems like an obvious influence. As long as I can remember, I was drawing and painting—not much imagination there! My mother was a librarian. It was a fairly normal environment. When I first started painting, I loved the Old Masters. When I was thirteen or fourteen I was doing details of Old Masters, blowing up a corner of a Raphael. I loved doing that, taking a detail and turning it into twelve by twelve feet.
It’s interesting that you did something mediated.
I got very interested later on when I became more sophisticated about art, with Duchamp and the idea of found objects, which in a way is what filmmaking is. You’re taking a lot of elements that already exist, and it’s the context you’re putting those pre-existent elements into, the associations that you’re creating.
Especially genre films.
When we wrote Near Dark we were very conscious of taking a genre and turning it upside down, subverting it in some way—taking the vampire mythology and putting it in the West. You could say the same with Strange Days: it’s science fiction, but it’s also total noir. I always thought of it as a film noir thriller that takes place on the eve of the millennium, the turn of the century, and perhaps the end of the world [laughs]—in one sentence!
Before you made The Loveless you spent the seventies in the New York art world.
I’ve sort of had many incarnations! I came to New York through the Whitney Museum in the early seventies. At that time they gave fifteen people scholarships every year to come to New York and get your own studio. I had been going to school at the San Francisco Art Institute for a year and a half. I didn’t realize that my teacher, Sam Tchakalian, had put me up for the Whitney. All of a sudden he came to me and said, “If you want to go to New York and be matriculated at the Art Institute, and work within the Whitney Museum where people like Susan Sontag and Richard Serra talk about your work with you, you can.” I was nineteen and I was like, Excuse me? So I did that for a year and a half. At the end you had a piece of your work shown in the Whitney. Which was amazing. The art world at the time became very politicized, conceptual art moved into a political arena, so the work was more and more aggressive. I started working with Art and Language, a British-based group of conceptual artists, and we had a piece at the Venice Biennale one year.
I read that you worked with (video and performance artist) Vito Acconci.
I was doing a million odd jobs just to stay alive. One of them was helping Vito Acconci on an installation he was doing. He did these great, very assaultive performance pieces, and needed these slogans and phrases on film loops that would play on the wall behind him during a performance piece he did at [the] Sonnabend in a rubber bondage room he created. The job was to film these slogans. I’d never worked with a camera. I was starving to death. If I hadn’t been at the brink of economic disaster, I think I never would have had all these detours.
Were you in one of his videos?
I was in a Richard Serra video for about five seconds, and a couple of Lawrence Weiner videos, Done To and Green As Well As Red As Well As Blue. I would by no means consider myself a performance artist, I’m too self-conscious, it’s something I could never do. Lawrence’s work is less about performance in a classical sense—it’s kind of the gestalt of the moment. He puts you in a context and lets you run with the ball, and that’s the piece. There’s no script. They’re very fascinating wordplay pieces. In one I was trying to talk Italian with somebody. It was such a community, almost like a repertory without any kind of structure whatsoever. During that time I don’t think I saw a movie that wasn’t subtitled. I was really unaware of Hollywood per se, which may kind of protect me today. I think I’m still discovering it.
You were more associated with the New York underground film scene in the late seventies. You also appeared in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames.
You know, I’ve never seen it, although I’m very good friends with Lizzie. We always laugh about this. I played one of three somewhat militant girls in a scene. Art and film were not separated whatsoever—you were working in the same context using different mediums. It was never really thought of filmmaking per se, it was art.
At what point did you gravitate towards film?
I did this short film called Set-Up. I shot it before I went to Columbia. I went to Columbia because I had run out of money and I needed a cutting room, so I thought, Aha, Graduate School [laughs]! I loved the process, it was intoxicating, so I just dived into film, all periods. I just opened up Pandora’s box. I’d see everything, from going to 42nd Street to see a Bruce Lee movie to Magnificent Ambersons in Andrew Sarris’s class to Fassbinder at Lincoln Center. That would be a day. Year of 13 Moons—I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I saw that film.
What was Set-Up about?
This was the late seventies when conceptual art mutated through a political phase into a French structuralist phase. There was a kind of natural evolution if I think back on it. It was really a very overtly political piece, a bit incendiary in its own small context. On the surface it’s these two guys who beat each other up [laughs]—maybe nothing’s changed! The Village Voice called it the first skinhead movie. One guy was calling another a fascist, the other’s calling him a commie. It was very politically literal. And then the same images are deconstructed in voiceover by these two philosophers, Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky, both teaching at Columbia, discussing the material while you’re watching it. So there’s this kind of reflexive ideology thing going on. It sounds so kind of young and pretentious… but it’s only twenty minutes, so it’s pretty harmless. And the piece ends with Sylvère talking about the fact that in the sixties you think of the enemy as outside yourself, in other words a police officer, the government, the system, but that that’s not really the case at all, fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time.
That’s part of what’s going on inside Strange Days—an interrogation of the need for and dangers of spectacle.
The thing that’s so interesting is that it’s really a reflexive ideology, because you’re trapped in the spectacle just as the characters are trapped with their own spectacles (SQUID). We’re a watched society and a society of watchers. Strange Days [is linked to Set-Up] in some ways more than [my other films], because it’s really about understanding power structures. Again, I wasn’t really thinking about making a film, even though it was at night and beautifully lit. It was more of a text. But I drew it out, which is one thing that I still constantly go back to—I have to board a whole show. I have to see it and cut it first, every scene. And then I shoot it. Then it’s all right, I’ve put it into my head. In Set-Up I didn’t know anything about stunt coordinators, and I needed different angles. It had a very strange, kind of crude sense of where the camera should be and how it should be constructed. I knew exactly what I wanted, but I didn’t understand that you fake shots and fake hits and put sound effects in. I started shooting at about 9:00 p.m. and finished at 7:00 a.m., it was in an alley off White Street downtown, and it started to snow—and these guys were getting bloodier and bloodier. They were in bed for like two weeks after. I almost killed them. And then on the soundtrack they talk about the fact that they felt kind of exploited in the piece. So the film is constantly folding in on itself like a Moebius strip.
What was the nature of your collaboration with Monty Montgomery, who co-directed The Loveless with you?
Well, we wrote it together. Coming out of the art world, which is so ad hoc, I didn’t really know what directing was. But it was a very easy, effortless process because we were really thinking on the same page and finishing each other’s sentences, so the directing was very fluid. It wasn’t like, You do camera and I’ll do the actors. There wasn’t even any consultation. It was an interesting process, but I don’t recommend it, because you become too solipsistic, too protective of the material. I hadn’t embraced narrative at that point; I was still completely conceptual, and narrative was antithetical to anything in the art world. That was the big juncture, when you’re thinking of plastic or visual arts, you’re using the non-narrative part of your brain. So the thinking behind The Loveless was to suspend the narrative and create this visual tapestry with enough narrative to give you the illusion of a story percolating, kind of there but not there, held by gossamer threads.
The whole film feels like one long interlude, like material left over from a larger narrative.
It was very perverse. That film has one foot in the art world and half a finger in the film world. It was neither fish nor fowl, and I had no idea of making this as a calling card for the industry. What I was really interested in was a Kenneth Anger Scorpio Rising kind of thing—images of power and a skewed perspective of it…
The Loveless is somewhere between a Warhol aesthetic and stylized narrative. The way the actors function…
I was very interested in his material. Some of the more aggressive pieces like Vinyl, which is wonderful. I think of art as a somewhat elitist medium because it does require a little bit of understanding to appreciate a white-on-white square or Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black paintings. You can’t come to it cold—but you can with a film. And in a way, Warhol’s use of pop subjects—you could come to that completely cold, too. Everybody could have a different association. You would be mystified, but you wouldn’t be completely alienated by it. There would be recognition. I think my journey West, so to speak, has really been one that I think of as the pursuit of the Narrative. The Loveless was all about the rejection of it. I felt sort of sorry for the distributor, who tried to cut a trailer to make it seem like this action-packed motorcycle movie, and I just kept saying, “You’ve got to use truth in advertising!” I remember going to the Beverly Center when it was released in L.A. and there weren’t even posters on display. I went to the manager with a copy of the poster and said, My film’s playing here, would you please put a poster up?”
Rich and Strange: James Cameron Interviewed by Ray Greene. From Boxoffice Magazine, October 1995.
Judging by the press materials and the teaser trailer, Strange Days seems to speak to this amazing paradigm shift that we’re going through in terms of all these new technologies.
It does and it doesn’t. It’s definitely part of that wave, but I hope people are able to make the distinction that there is no “virtual reality” component in Strange Days. In fact, there are no computers at all, and most of what’s happening to us right now socially and psychologically is about advances in computing.
In premise, Strange Days reminds me of Brainstorm.
Well, Brainstorm was the primer, and this is the advanced course. Brainstorm had a lot of different, metaphysical elements in it, dealing with things like life after death. Strange Days is about memory, about the effect memory has on our day-to-day life. Secondarily, it’s about a lot of social issues, and the impact of living in what I think of as a “watched” society.
A “watched” society?
We’re a society under surveillance. And we all participate in that surveillance. At the same time that we are more watched and monitored than we have ever been as a populace, we are also watching more than we ever have as a populace. Look at the daytime TV shows, where everybody sort of voyeuristically wants to know what everyone else is doing behind the doors of their bedroom. And the Simpson trial, of course, where we’re morbidly fascinated by every detail as a society. Planetwide, with population increases and so on, we’re going to have to live our adventures more and more vicariously. We’re not all going to be able to have the adventure. Somebody’s gonna have to go do it, and then tell everybody else about it. And that’s sort of what filmmaking has always been about, and that’s what a lot of new media, I think, are going to be about.
So what Strange Days does, in that classic science fiction way, is to take current reality and extend it?
Absolutely. On the one hand, it’s a classic science fiction film. On the other hand, [director] Kathryn [Bigelow] has always rejected the term. She treated it as a very straightforward relationship thriller with political overtones, and let the technology weave itself into the fabric. As it goes on, you see the dark side of that same technology.
You’re most commonly thought of as a writer/director. But here you are, moving more and more heavily into the producing role.
Right. Which is a very different role, although they’re related. Now, I have produced for Kathryn Bigelow in the past. We did Point Break together, and found that it worked out pretty well. So she was a natural choice to do Strange Days with. I told her the rough idea of this thing that I had been writing, on and off, for eight years. Sheliked it, and she wanted to take it in certain directions, and I said, “Sure.” So I actually wrote it with her in mind to direct it. It was always a well-tailored fit.
Was there anything you had to unlearn to be a writer/producer, as opposed to a writer/director?
On this film, I said, “You know, if you guys don’t go over budget, then there’s no reason for me to go to the set, unless you ask me there because you want my opinion.” Well, they never asked, and I never went, except to go down so they could get a picture of me on the set. I got more involved in the editing process at Kathryn’s request. We spent many hours refining the cut, and we’re both very happy with it.
It almost sounds like your experience as a director informs your producing, in the sense that you’re protecting the other filmmaker’s vision.
Absolutely. Every time I go to open my mouth, I think, “What would I as a director think about what I’m going to say next?” So I find myself erring way on the conservative side of producerial input. There were certain cases on this film where Kathryn and I differed, and we’d talk about it, and she’d say, “Okay. We don’t agree.” And I said, “Fine. You’re the director. You make this final decision.” [Laughs] “But I’m lodging a formal complaint.”
We tend to overemphasize things such as gender these days, as if men and women see things wildly differently. Did you find that Kathryn saw things differently in gender terms as well?
I don’t think her tastes and my tastes are in any way gender-oriented. Quite the opposite of what you might interpret as a classic gender orientation. On this film, I was always pushing to make it more romantic, for example. And she was always pushing to make it harder-edged.
I’m really curious about your feelings on this current science fiction production boom. What seems to me to be going on is that science fiction has become to our time what the western was to the thirties. There are these major technological and cultural shifts going on, and we’re using science fiction as a way of dealing with it metaphorically.
Historically, science fiction has always been terrible at actually predicting the future. What it’s great at is giving you a different way of looking at your life now. All the brilliant minds working in science fiction never predicted the home computer and its impact. And yet look where we are now versus where we were ten years ago. I mean, we’re so in the middle of something that it’s very hard for us to look at it and get any perspective without stepping way outside and going to the future and looking back at it.
And that’s why there’s a science fiction boom?
I think people are waking up to something that science fiction writers have always known, which is that we live in a science fiction world. We all just vary on an individual basis as to how much we’re willing to admit that. Every new generation comes into a world the previous generation could not have predicted. And that’s been true for almost every decade of this century, and has never really been true for the previous three thousand years of civilization. We live in a time where the rate of change is so high that we can’t comprehend where it’s taking us. But we don’t care, because a human being is probably the most adaptable creature on the planet. If conditions change, we’ll find a technology or a process to help us adapt to it.
That’s very optimistic, and sort of the classical science fiction definition of man’s relationship to technology. “Whatever comes, we’ll find a way to figure it out and make it work for us.”
Yeah. I don’t think it’s even that we have to hunker down and come up with the will power. It just happens.
What surprises me about hearing you say such rosy things is that your futuristic films embrace the idea of positive change so ambivalently. There are three filmmakers who invented what we think of as science fiction on modern movie screens—Lucas, Spielberg, and yourself. And of the three—
That’s pretty damn good company. Especially considering I was driving a truck for a school district when they were already gods.
It’s certainly not an empty comparison. Where you separate company I think from those two guys is that your vision of the future tends to be full of much darker possibilities.
Oh, it’s much more cautionary. I think so. It’s not candycoated and all a big amusement park. Quite frankly, that’s just the way I look at the world. I mean, I think of myself as an optimistic paranoid. And I mean that very, very, very literally. I’m very optimistic about the human animal and our potential, and I’m paranoid about some of the darker potential inherent in these technologies. And who wouldn’t be, who’s been halfway awake during the latter half of the twentieth century?
How do you feel about what’s happening now in terms of this information delivery revolution? Is it all hyperbole? Do you see scary possibilities inherent in it?
All you have to do when you start getting carried away about how cool it all is is to ask yourself when have you ever had more than $100 cash on you? The rest of your money, everything that you own, sits in a computer. Let’s say that somebody created a virus that could wipe out all financial records. Our civilization could be destroyed faster than in a nuclear war. I love this [new computer] stuff. I love what it can do for me as an artist, I’ve embraced it wholeheartedly, I have a company called Digital Domain which can do state-of-the-art effects work, and it’s all great fun. But we’ve got to be careful. It’s moving fast.
My nightmare is a world in which a person sits down in front of a screen, and puts on a mask, and then gets a wonderful smell that smells like fresh air, and a beautiful 3-D image of a tree that’s almost as nice to look at as the tree outside his window, which he never looks at because he’s too busy staring at the screen.
Right. Exactly. It’s like we become sucked into this totally vicarious existence. But, you know, eventually, the novelty factor will wear off. The sad thing is, come back a thousand years from now, and we may need that computer image to remember what a tree looked like. We’ve got 5, 6 billion people on the planet right now. It’s probably going to double in the next twenty-five years. Who’s gonna have access to a tree?
It’s consoling to talk about the novelty factor. Because, come to think of it, when you look at movies, there was that time a hundred years ago when a man sneezing, or a train arriving at a station, could hold an audience riveted, without even a change of camera angle, let alone a plot. So there is a place we can point to when we’re examining the state of the digital arts where we can say, “Okay. This is still fairly crude. But it will probably follow a similar path, the potential for humanizing it and making it do wonderful artistic things is dormant in them, waiting to get out!”
It reminds me a little bit of the incredible optimism right before the First World War, at the end of the Edwardian age. Everything was bigger, faster, we’d invented light, there were motor cars. Somany things we take for granted now had just been invented. Everybody thought the world was just going to keep getting better. So what came next? We don’t remember this, but 11 million people died in World War I, and another 17 million died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
And in some ways, the intellectual bitterness that came out of that is with us to this day, I think.
Yeah. They weren’t in control of the world, they weren’t in control of nature like they thought they were. They got hit by a virus which they didn’t understand. Within the seeds of the carnage of WWI were all these great optimistic advances that they were making. And who knows how that allegory might play out in our lifetime? But we’ll be around to find out, I’m sure of that.
LOS ANGELES, THE CITY IN CINEMA: ‘STRANGE DAYS’
“Strange Days counts as a Los Angeles movie, a hard-boiled detective movie, a cyberpunk movie, and a ‘social issues’ movie, all of which came out in the shadow of the city’s 1992 riots. In an ideal setting for the subgenre’s mixture of ‘high tech and low life,’ gentleman-loser protagonist Lenny Nero deals in pure neural data against a familiar backdrop of a urban decay, economic woe, hate-filled policemen, unexplained fires, anxiety-driven millennial partying, and the Bonaventure Hotel. The video essays of ‘Los Angeles, the City in Cinema’ examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing—just like the city itself.” —Colin Marshall
THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘STRANGE DAYS’
“There is something about the power of single-take shots, Steadicam or otherwise, wherever they fall in a movie’s timeline. Contextually, from a November 1995 issue of American Cinematographer, ‘… richly textured and technologically groundbreaking… Strange Days [is] a noirish thriller that unfurls almost exclusively in the post-meridian hours… set on the eve of the millennium… tracks the dubious activities of a gang of fringe operators who dabble in a new kind of narcotic: ‘sensory recordings’ (SR).’ Executive Producer/Screenwriter James Cameron says he imagines SR as a futuristic offshoot of law enforcement technology, a ‘next-generation wire-tap.’” —Art of the Title
“This is an amazing shot. It was executed using a completely custom built 35mm camera weighing only 8lbs. That was mounted atop a modified Steadicam which gave it a more human-like POV feel, rather than an objective camera feel. There are a few edits hidden amongst the fast pans since production was not able to find one location that had everything they needed. The edits are hidden very well and the overall effect is incredibly convincing. These POV sequences are what Strange Days is based on. There are a number of them throughout the film. This setup was designed specifically for them.” —POV Robbery, SteadiShots
55 minute “opening POV sequence” scene analysis audio lecture with director Kathryn Bigelow:
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. Photographed by Merie Weismiller Wallace © Lightstorm Entertainment. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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