Designing a Sci-fi Film

In an era when science fiction films are big-budget excuses to showcase the latest special effects technology, when mutant antiheroes and invading aliens dominate story lines, Gattaca is an anomaly. An elegantly minimalist morality tale about the effects of genetic engineering on society and individuals, Gattaca is part of the sci-fi tradition of presenting a vision of the future that serves as a pointed commentary on the contemporary world. For writer-director Andrew Niccol, making his debut with this futuristic tale, the exacting demands of envisioning the future became one of the biggest challenges."The worst thing about doing a futuristic film," said Niccol at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival, "is that people come up to you and say, 'What is the watch of the future? What is the pen of the future? What is the notebook of the future?'"And so, as well as having the story to deal with and all of the other technical aspects, you also have to answer a constant stream of those questions."In Gattaca, the details are particularly important. With a budget of $20 million, paltry by Hollywood standards (especially for a science fiction film), Niccol had to create a different world without a budget to build everything from scratch."In a way, I'm pleased now," reflected Niccol, "because if I had the budget to build everything, maybe I would've and (the end result) wouldn't be so familiar to people. Because, otherwise, you can emotionally check out of a story if everyone's flying around in a hoverscooter. You think, 'Oh, this has nothing to do with me.' " To create a distinctive yet eerily familiar look for Gattaca, Niccol worked with Dutch production designer Jan Roelfs. A frequent collaborator of filmmaker Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), Roelfs knew how to create a richly detailed and visually stunning environment on a small budget. Niccol and Roelfs looked to the architecture, fashion and industrial design of the 20th century to create the sparse and sleek near-future world of Gattaca."I dragged them into the future with me," said Niccol of the design elements they chose, using the common denominator that they were timeless classics (like the beautifully cut World War II-era suits and dresses that inspired the costume design). Niccol utilized many futuristic-feeling locations such as the rows of mirrored solar panels of Los Angeles County's KJC Solar Farm. The film's primary location, the Gattaca Corp., is actually the Marin County Civic Center, designed by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright."It was Frank Lloyd Wright's last building," Niccol explained, "and it was built in a time when people were still optimistic about the future and it has this sort of heroic, triumphant feeling to it. "We used it to sort of set the tone. We used the exterior and some of the corridors, but then there wasn't a space inside the building large enough, so we built the sets that reflected that style of architecture."The interior design of the Gattaca Corp., particularly the rows of half-moon desk cubicles, follows Wright's design into the next millennium."The building was all curves, and Jan Roelfs and I immediately embraced that," Niccol said, "because it's absolutely right that in a world where everything is vacuumed, there should be no sharp angles; there should be no corners for any dust to hide in." In the sterile world of Gattaca, a full DNA profile can be done from a drop of blood, a flake of skin, a hair or eyelash, and even the saliva from a kiss (in a funny aside, women are seen getting printouts on their dates).Despite this high-tech environment, Niccol tried to steer away from displaying too many futuristic techno toys. "I think we're tired of looking at technology in film," he said emphatically. "I think there are too many computer screens on film. If you can find another way to do it, it's more beautiful and poetic."While Niccol acknowledged that budget limitations spurred creativity, he also let out a small laugh as he said, "I'm afraid they're going to give me that small gift again."I have a problem that I write very expensive films," he added. "If I'd written My Dinner With Andre, it would be OK, but unfortunately, they don't occur to me, those sort of stories." The 32-year-old New Zealand-born Niccol -- who wrote and directed commercials in London before moving to the United States three years ago -- finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to make decidedly unconventional films within the Hollywood system. In addition to Gattaca, Niccol also wrote the upcoming The Truman Show (whose $80 million budget was entrusted to veteran director Peter Weir) in which average guy Jim Carrey lives unaware that his bland suburban existence is actually a 24-hour TV show. "I'm not sure that Truman is science fiction," said Niccol, displaying a flair for surrealism and a wry sense of humor. "It could be fact. "I mean, you don't know if we're all actors here and your job is completely phony," he added, waving to the impressive downtown Toronto skyline framed by a hotel window, "and this was all built for you." Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times.


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