So far, 2011 has been woefully lacking in the damn-that's-cool sci-fi department. "I Am Number 4," alas, just didn't cut it.
But this weekend brings us a sci-fi respite, before summer movie season begins, in the form of "The Adjustment Bureau." Based on a Philip K. Dick story, the flick's conceit is that there's a vast, supernatural force — the titular adjusters — that controls and guides the fate of humanity. For star Matt Damon, that means his quest to achieve political superstardom and bed Emily Blunt is propelled, and sometimes compromised, not just by free will, but by the adjusters dictating his fate.
The adjusters, played by the likes of John Slattery and Anthony Mackie, have abilities that range from "freezing" people to make behavioral changes to turning normal doors into geography-leaping portals. For all this high-concept trickery, though, the entire movie maintains a realistic feel — partly because of the filmmakers' aesthetic and partly because they weren't working on an "Inception"-like budget.
Writer/director George Nolfi (making his directorial debut after penning scripts like "The Bourne Ultimatum") gave MTV News a call to take us behind the scenes of the film's coolest elements.
Why Are the Adjusters Dressed Like "Mad Men" Extras?
Perhaps it's just because Slattery, a star of "Mad Men," rocks a slick-looking suit throughout, but many people have been wondering: Why do the adjusters looked like they just stepped out of the hit AMC show?
"I wanted the bureau to have a throwback quality to suggest they've been here forever," Nolfi explained. "They have to blend into our world and yet the audience has to be able to pick them out of a crowd. They're wearing suits that you'd just think, 'They're very well-dressed, that's a guy who reads GQ.' The suits and hats are all from different eras — '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s."
But not all adjusters wear suits — just the ones, for instance, who follow a suit-wearing politician like Damon. Each adjuster dons gear that allows them to blend in with the person they're following. "I cut out some scenes where other people from the bureau are much more informally dressed," the director said. "They're in black jeans and leather vests and baseball caps. They'd be following someone like me around, when someone in a suit and a fedora would be very obvious."
How'd They Pull Off the "Frozen" Scenes?
When Damon first, inadvertently discovers the existence of the bureau, the adjusters are in the process of "freezing" his co-workers in place and using wacky gadgets to do their work — including scanning brains.
"I didn't want there to be high-tech gear," Nolfi told us, adding that the scanner was not built by the prop department but rather was a found object. "That was owned by a collector. It was a shyster's tool kit from the '40s or '50s for changing people's moods. I liked that it was electricity inside a glass tube."
To achieve the "freezing" effect, Nolfi didn't have the budget to create entire CG characters, so he instructed his actors to stay as still as possible. "We then went in with CG to take out eye-blinks and arm movement — just stabling the actors," he said.
How'd They Accomplish the "Door" Trick?
One of the coolest recurring effects is how adjusters are able to open doors in regular buildings that then lead, thanks to their supernatural powers, to vastly different locations. Instead of walking out onto the street, for example, they suddenly jump to Yankee Stadium. Nolfi and his team employed a variety of visual tricks to accomplish the task.
"Early on, when you're just seeing that the room next door is not actually next to you but a totally different area, that's a simple green screen," he said. "It gets more complicated when you have to move people through those doors. When they're moving through a door, we'd build part of the set [with both locations] and then make a cut. The most complicated is what we call an Escher staircase at the end, which was a huge set we built that allowed a very large techno-crane to be moved around for a continuous shot."
Where Did the Idea for the "Case Books" Come From?
As the adjusters follow Damon around, they constantly refer to a book filled with shifting symbols that essentially provides a map for the politician's fate. The concept for what Nolfi dubbed the "case book" was born, once again, of the desire for a low-fi technology.
"It was part of this idea that they don't have fancy, whiz-bang technology, but rather they had this supernatural ability that flows through almost dated-seeming technology," he told us. "Instead of a computer tablet, which would be the way you go if you're making 'Minority Report,' we went with a book.
"In terms of what's in the book, the shifting lines and stuff," he added, "I had this conception of them being circuit diagrams. It harkens back to the old days."
How'd They Make Emily Blunt Look Like Such a Great Ballerina?
Ballet is certainly in the pop-culture ether. Just ask "Black Swan" star and recent Oscar winner Natalie Portman. Blunt plays Damon's love interest, an up-and-coming ballerina about to hit the big time. Like Portman, Blunt trained for months, six days a week, to twist and turn like a ballerina. In front of the camera for her main ballet scene, she did the majority of the dancing, while a pro subbed in for the most difficult moves.
What's most interesting about the scene is how different it looks from the rest of the film. That was no mistake.
"When the bureau was in control on the situations, the shots were elegant and controlled and formal and smooth," Nolfi said. "When they're not in control, it becomes more handheld. But for the dance scene, it didn't fit into either of those choices. We wanted to convey the beauty of dance: It's control and yet it's freedom. I wanted full body shots, the face and the feet. We moved the camera back and forth on a dolly so there was a sense of movement. It was Emily's moment, and she was unbelievable."
Check out everything we've got on "The Adjustment Bureau."
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