The characters are not people, but rough drafts of simplistic character-traits, and the actors (game as they all are) cannot create something out of nothing.
So this guy named Kerry Conran goes into his garage and sits down at his Macintosh and creates six minutes of images to show what he's thinking about, and the next thing you know he's directing a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Angelina Jolie. He must have been a good salesman.
"He's a terrible salesman," Gwyneth Paltrow said. "He's shy and quiet."
It must have been an amazing six minutes, I said.
"The six minutes looked so extraordinary," Paltrow said, "that you just thought, if I'm ever going to do an action adventure, this is it. It's unique. There's nothing rehashed about it, nothing formulaic. And like, wow, I can be a part of something that's actually new and redefining the genre."
And she could, and she was, and it did. "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," which opens Friday, is a movie of astonishing skill and heedless joy. And it is a seamless marriage between human actors and computer-generated images. Paltrow and Law and the other cast members acted their more sensational scenes in front of blue screens, which were later replaced with CGI. They couldn't see the robots or the skyscrapers or the airplanes or the fearsome weapons of mass destruction. They had to imagine them.
"There were days," Paltrow said, "when we were surrounded by the blue screen. Nothing was real. There were no props and no sets, and Jude was saying, 'The robots!' and we were looking at nothing and I was wondering, are we going to have egg on our faces? Or is this going to work?"
I said I loved the Fay Wray scene where Paltrow is dodging the feet of the giant mechanical men and always seems about to get squashed.
"That was Gwyneth running through a blue room," Law said.
"With big heels on," Paltrow said. "Because you couldn't see the robots, you were always wondering if you were overdoing it. You didn't want to look like a complete fool."
"You'd want to know where you were supposed to be looking," Law said. "You'd ask how big the robot was. This big? Even bigger? Way up there?"
"There were orange dots we were supposed to look at to line up perfectly with the effects," Paltrow said.
Paltrow and Law were visiting Chicago to do "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and we talked later the same morning at the Peninsula Hotel. They had only recently seen the completed movie, so now they knew what was happening behind them on the blue screen, and it was not your ordinary sci-fi thriller, but a kind of poetry of images.
"I was completely gobsmacked when I finally saw it," Paltrow said. "I thought it looked exquisite. We had spent all this time in front of a big blue screen having no idea what it would look like, and then to see how beautifully it was illustrated, and how it had such visual sophistication. Wow."
"It harkens back to a style of serials and a world that was the norm 50 or 60 years ago, and has slowly been lost," Law said.
"There's a sweetness," Paltrow said. "An innocence, when the world was simpler and a dame was a dame."
In the movie, which is set in a decade vaguely like the '30s, the villain of course wants world conquest, and only Sky Captain (Law) can defeat him. Polly Perkins is a newspaper reporter, played by Paltrow, who used to date the Captain and climbs into the second seat of his airplane for death-defying scoops.
The story hurtles fearlessly through awesome scenes, but what's magical about the movie is its look and tone; Conran, the first-time director from Flint, Mich., has created a visual feast that looks like every old "Buck Rogers" movie you've ever seen, while at the same time, it looks like nothing you've ever seen before.
What a leap of faith it must have taken, I said, to commit to this on the basis of an untried director's home movie. You're both always being pitched stuff that maybe has a better pedigree.
"It's a matter of just going with your instincts sometimes," Paltrow said. "If you saw his short film and you read his script, you thought, 'I'll be surprised if this isn't something special.'"
Do you have trouble with agents or advisers who want you to go with safer projects?
"Jude and I have always kind of cut our own path and done things that were not the most obvious. It took us forever to get him to be the star of a movie! He was forever hiding in character roles and supporting parts and playing baddies. All of Hollywood was clamoring for him to be the star of a movie for about seven years."
As a director, was Kerry Conran intimidated to be working with such high-profile actors?
"He evolved," Law said. "I remember watching him on the first day. Can you imagine this poor guy? Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow came out, and he was sort of speechless. I remember thinking, I've got to watch and see how this guy changes. And there was an evolution. He became more vocal and precise.
"Underneath his modesty and shyness was a real clarity of thought and a real sense of what he wanted and what he could get from this."
Another famous actor who appears in the movie is Sir Laurence Olivier, who died in 1989, and appears in a computer-manipulated performance. At the first word of this posthumous performance, eyebrows were raised, including mine. But when you see the movie, you see that using Olivier makes -- well, a certain sense.
"I'd like to think that Gwyneth and I would not use an idea like that as a gimmick," Law said. "Without giving anything away, it was because of the end of the film that it made absolute sense to use someone of great stature who is actually deceased."
I have one more question, I said to Paltrow. You have a new baby girl named Apple. Any relationship to the fact that "Sky Captain" started life on a Macintosh?
"That would make a good story," she said, "but her daddy [Coldplay rocker Chris Martin] picked the name. He just liked it."
Captain's log: eight fifth graders, one adult, one James Cameron movie.
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