The /Filmcast Interviews are a series of interviews with movie stars, directors, and other key figures from the film industry. In this episode, David speaks with director D.J. Caruso about directing television compared to directing movies, working on The Shield, and the making of his latest film, Eagle Eye. You can experience Eagle Eye in advance by going to EagleEyeFreeFall. The full text of this interview is available for your reading pleasure after the jump.
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David Chen: DJ Caruso thank you so much for speaking with us today on the SlashFilmcast.
DJ Caruso: Absolutely, I’m glad to be here.
David Chen: So DJ I was looking through your IMDB page and I realized that I’ve actually been following your career for over a decade since you worked on VR5…
DJ Caruso: Oh my god, VR5 really, that’s fantastic.
David Chen: I’ve seen every episode of VR5 I think.
DJ Caruso: Did they get about 7 [episodes] or did they get 11 of them in? I don’t remember.
David Chen: There was like 10 [episodes] on the air I think but yeah.
DJ Caruso: Yeah, that’s right.
David Chen: That was one of the shows that aired on Fox Friday Nights back in the 90s and I guess my first question is: You’ve worked extensively in television and film. How would you describe the differences in being a director for both? Is there a medium that you prefer?
DJ Caruso: Well, I obviously prefer film because it’s much more of a director’s medium where you’re the man and the decisions that you make are…everyone’s based and supporting you and rightfully so. Television is much more of a producer’s medium because it’s the producer and the writers that have to maintain sort of the look and style and characterizations of their show, so as a director you kind of come in and help them and help them create it, but at the same time, it’s really their job to keep the vision in sort of one cohesive piece. And so I prefer film because I have the freedom, but the difference is, for me, and particularly going to The Shield, which is one of my best television directing experiences: I always look at television as sort of being in the gym, of working out really hard, and when I get to a feature, I feel like I’m doing the TV in between, it keeps me in really good shape, because you have to shoot 8, 9, pages a day sometimes in television and you get to a feature and you might have to go down to like two or three, which seems really luxurious, but at the same time it’s a lot more difficult because the composition and the expectations of what you need to do are harder. So I love doing both but I definitely do prefer film but I just think television, good television and great characterizations keep you really sharp.
David Chen: Can you talk a little bit about your work on The Shield? What was your experience in that show in particular?
DJ Caruso: Well, I had seen the tape of the almost-completed pilot that Clark Johnson directed. I thought he did such a phenomenal job and being a James Elroy fan and loving the other side of the cop and the dark side of humanity, I was really attracted to The Shield with Shawn Ryan. I ended up directing I think, of that first season, three of the first maybe like ten episodes or something along those lines and I actually just really felt like it was great television. It was pushing the envelope. I love shooting on the Super 16, handheld documentary feeling. It’s now you’re going back in years, right? I really feel like a lot of what was done on the Shield was so ground-breaking at the time and now sort of that handheld sort of shaky camera that you see even in the Bourne movies is a cousin to what was going on in The Shield, only out of necessity because the first season of The Shield, I had a couple days where I shot 11 pages a day. It was a great experience and it actually helped me there when I did the directing job on The Shield, I honestly didn’t even know what FX was, and so now that FX has become part of like the American, it’s become part of our culture and we have all these great shows that are FX it was fun being there at the beginning.
David Chen: Well, yeah, I mean the Shield definitely put FX on the map for sure.
DJ Caruso: Yeah, I always tell Michael Chiklis that if you go to the FX store which I’m sure there isn’t one, he would be like the Mickey Mouse that should be on the T-shirts you know, on the watches and stuff like that.
David Chen: Somehow, associating Michael Chiklis’s character with Mickey Mouse is a very disturbing image there.
DJ Caruso: Yeah, I know I just thought I’d be funny. It would be a little bald Chicky on those watches, and the shirts would be great.
David Chen: So you have a pretty diverse filmography here, from Dark Angel, Smallville, all the way to Two For the Money. What criteria do you use to decide which projects you’re going to work on?
DJ Caruso: Well, particularly when I was working or trying to work in television and do charter work with the best producers that you can, because you know it’s such a producers’ medium, I was fortunate enough in television to do R.H.D. which is a Michael Mann show, Dark Angel which was a James Cameron show, High Incident which was a Steven Spielberg show. I got to do Shawn Ryan’s show which was The Shield. When you get to be a little bit more, successful you can be slightly, a bit more selective so I feel like I was really fortunate with the TV that I did, and you know, Two for the Money, I’ve always been obsessed with sort of the darker side of gambling and what it can cause and ultimately the journey it takes you on and then at the end of the journey you realize you might as well just flip a coin no matter what you think. The Salton Sea was a very important movie to me because it dealt with some of the things that were going on in my family’s life at the time. It’s really the character and it’s really the main character if you can latch on particularly in the film, if you can latch on to that character and that journey, and that you can see that universal sort of light that you wanted to shed on that character that everyone else would be able to see, then that’s how I make my decisions particularly in films.
David Chen: Eagle Eye is being made off the script by Dan McDermott which is based off an idea by Spielberg, I’m wondering, can you describe your professional relationship with Steven Spielberg, because I know he asked you to work on Disturbia too, and can you also tell us how you first became involved in Eagle Eye?
DJ Caruso: Well what happened was when Disturbia had come out, and actually before Disturbia came out, Steven and and the gang mentioned they had something that they felt would be good for me next, that they were just going to do some other thing, and see what was going on, because believe it or not, at the time, not only did Dan McDermott write on it, then Hillary Seitz wrote on it, and then the last person that did the work on it before I got involved was J.J. Abrahams. So J.J. was working on it for a while, and when they made sure JG wasn’t interested in directing it because he was going to go off and do Star Trek then once J.J. got cleared, then they kind of bumped the script to me. I read it, had some ideas, I talked to Steve and the gang about it, and then we decided to see how we could get this movie made and make it for a decent price because the current script was one of the most ridiculous prices that nobody would make the movie for. So we got the movie down to a real manageable place in the budget where it made sense and finally got a green light. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great collaboration with Steven. I met him years ago when I directed High Incident, which was a show that he created and then also Disturbia was movie he really believed in and the first couple of scripts that I had read, weren’t quite what I wanted the movie to be, and very much like a tractor, he said to me, well then take this and make it yours and we’ll see what we can do. So, working with a guy like Spielberg is sort of a dream come true and making what – he is not one of them, he is the main reason I kind of got into the business and I’m doing what I’m doing. Between ET and Back to the Futures and the movies he’s made since first Indiana Jones and I swear to God, I still think Jaws and Alien are the greatest of like horror character movies ever made. So, it’s an honor to sort of be there and see him sitting in your editing room and you going, “Well, Steven what do you think if I did this or did that?” And having his opinion. He’s such a film lover, and such an enthusiast that it becomes really infectious. It makes you make a better movie.
David Chen: How involved was Steven in making the film?
DJ Caruso: He was really busy, initially up front obviously getting Indiana Jones ready and getting that into the theaters and then particularly he came by set a couple of times where we were shooting some stuff just as more of a Executive Producer saying “Way to go, you guys are doing great.” He particularly became very very helpful in the editing room when we had to make some decisions about laying the scenes and I would literally plug in scenes and get his comments and he would say “Look, I got a little confused here because of the shot, could you keep this shot,” and really very very helpful in the editing room. That’s where he kept particularly in Eagle Eye where he came in very strong.
David Chen: In the trailer we see that there’s a good amount of action in this film, and I’m wondering can you tell us your approach in terms of using practical effects versus CGI for the look of the film in the action scenes?
DJ Caruso: Well, it’s important because we’re kind of a movie that delves into a little bit of a science fiction of Big Brother spying on you and using that technology in sort of a cyberterrorist way. I think when I met with Bob and Alex, the producers and writers, I basically said that we need to counter this with a French Connection feel, so this movie is sort of the parallax view of French Connection, and grounded in reality, in visual reality. What l loved about the French Connection was there’s this beautiful visuals that Friedkin did but they made it seem like they were accidentally beautiful shots that so just so happened to be documentary style and you know they’re a little bit more controlled. So I wanted to have that sort of cinematic control but make us feel like we’re producing this in a documentary style without too much of a hand-held shaky camera. I sort of combined that with those elements and so that’s sort of how the look of the movie came out.
David Chen: I notice the film is rated PG-13. Was there any pressure from the studio to cut this as a PG-13 film or was it always just intended to be that way?
DJ Caruso: It was always intended to be PG-13 because like I said it never really borderlined, it never really bordered the R. There were a couple of things that could have been graphic and we dropped the F-bomb once instead of twice and certain things, but it was always the studio’s intention to be PG-13 because of the popcorn-fun genre element of the movie. They wanted to be sure it was accessible to everybody. Also now that Shia’s in the movie, too, they know that a lot of Shia’s fan base is in that teenage to younger 20 range.
David Chen: Before we go, do you want to tell us about what projects you have coming up?
DJ Caruso: Well, yeah, I’ve been working on for the past few months developing off a comic book Y the Last Man, working on the screenplay there with Carl Ellsworth who wrote Disturbia and I’m trying to get that and see if we can get New Line and Warner Brothers to make that a green-lit movie and try to get that in theaters by 2010.
David Chen: Very cool, very cool. Well, DJ Caruso it has been an absolute honor to speak with you here on the SlashFilmcast today. We really appreciate your time.
DJ Caruso: Oh, I appreciate it and thank you very much and I love the place, man, it’s a great site.
David Chen: Thanks.