Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) was a film bound to polarize audiences and critics alike. Loving homage or blatant rip-off? It really depends on whether you love or hate this movie. Personally, I was transported away to this cinematic dreamland for the entire running time. Kerry Conran’s labor of love is an unabashed tribute to the old pulp serials of the 1920s and 1930s (Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, etc.). It succeeds where previous pulp serial homages of the 1990s failed (The Shadow, The Phantom, Dick Tracy). Like those films, Sky Captain successfully captures the look and feel of these vintage serials but, most importantly, it also stays true to their spirit — something that these other films failed to do (The Rocketeer as the lone exception). The road to its creation is a fascinating one, from a black and white independent film to big budget movie released by a major studio.
A striking image opens the film: a gigantic zeppelin docks with the Empire State Building while the night sky is filled with lightly falling snow. The world’s top scientists have gone missing and ambitious newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow in Lois Lane mode) is covering the story for The Chronicle. She meets secretly with the last scientist who hints at a top-secret project. She soon has an idea of just how important this project is as huge, flying robots swarm over the city’s skies. They begin attacking the city, turning cars over like tinker toys.
Before you can activate your Commander Cody decoder ring, Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) and his squad of fighter planes arrive to save the day. It becomes obvious that Joe and Polly have a history together. There is a sexual tension between them as they form an uneasy alliance: she shares information with him in exchange for an exclusive scoop on the source of the robots and the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier). They are aided in their adventure by Joe’s trusty sidekick, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), a whiz technician capable of inventing a deadly ray gun, and Captain Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), Joe’s ex-girlfriend and commander of a squadron of flying fortresses.
Kerry Conran grew up on films and comic books of the ‘30s and 1940s and commented in an interview, “The stuff that was most visually striking were the covers of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The graphic images just in the covers, I thought, told stories on such a grand scale…The artwork of that era, they just dreamed up things on that level.” He and his brother, Kevin, were encouraged by their parents to develop their creative side at a young age. According to Kevin, their mom “didn’t buy us coloring books and have us color them in, she’d bring us blank pads of paper with pencils and you’d make your own picture and color it in, that sort of stuff, which didn’t seem like a big deal, but it sort of is. We always had a lot of support in that respect.” The Conran brothers were also influenced by the designs of Norman Bel Geddes who did work for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and designed exhibits for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Geddes also designed an Air Ship that was to fly from Chicago to London. Another key influence was Hugh Ferriss, one of the designers for the 1939 World’s Fair and who designed bridges and huge housing complexes.
Conran went to CalArts, a feeder program for Disney animators and became interested in 2-D computer animation. While there, he realized that it was possible to apply some of the techniques associated with animation to live-action. He remembers trying to “use the computer that was just emerging as a technology that was viable for filmmaking, and use a technique that was used traditionally forever – you know, the blue screen – but taken to a real extreme conclusion.” Conran had been out of film school for two years and was trying to figure out how to make a film. He figured that Hollywood would never take a chance on him — an inexperienced, first-time filmmaker. So, he decided to go the independent route and make the movie himself.
In 1994, Conran set up a blue screen in his living room and began assembling the tools he would need to create his movie. He was not interested in working his way through the system and instead wanted to follow the route of independent filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh. Initially, the Conrans had nothing more than “just a vague idea of this guy who flew a plane. We would talk about all the obvious things like Indiana Jones and all the stuff we liked.” Conran spent four years making a black and white teaser trailer in the style of an old-fashion newsreel on his Macintosh personal computer. Once he was finished, Conran showed it to producer Marsha Oglesby, who was a friend of his brother’s wife and she recommended that he let producer Jon Avnet see it. Conran met Avnet and showed him the trailer. Conran told him that he wanted to make it into a film. They spent two or three days just talking about the tone of the film because, according to Avnet, he wanted to “make sure we were on the same page, because he was going to write it. It wasn’t written at that point.”
Avnet and Conran spent two years working on the screenplay and developing a working relationship. Then, the producer took the script and the trailer and began approaching actors. In order to protect Conran’s vision, Avnet decided to shoot the movie independently with a lot of his own money. “I couldn’t protect him from the studios. I prayed we could shoot the movie and then show it to the studios. And we’re lucky, they all wanted it.” The producer realized that “the very thing that made this film potentially so exciting for me, and I think for an audience, which was the personal nature of it and the singularity of the vision, would never succeed and never survive the development process within a studio.”
When it came to casting actors in the movie, Avnet used his connections and reputation and started “looking for people who fit the look, looking for people who had the right theatrical pedigree, if possible, looking for people who weren’t over-exposed.” In 2002, he showed Jude Law the teaser trailer and the actor was very impressed by what he saw. He remembers, “All I got at that early stage was that he’d used pretty advanced and unused technology to create a very retrospective look.” Avnet gave him the script to read and some preliminary artwork to look at. Law: “What was clear was also that at the center was a really great cinematic relationship, which you could put into any genre and it would work. You know, the kind of bickering [relationship]. I always like to call it African Queen (1951) meets Buck Rogers.”
Avnet wanted to work with Law because he knew that the actor had “worked both period, who worked both having theatrical experience, who worked on blue screen, who hadn’t hit yet as a major action star.” The actor had just come off doing Cold Mountain (2003) and was intrigued at going from filming on real locations to working on a movie done completely on a soundstage. Law recalls, “At the time, there was no money attached, and he [Conran] was a first time director. It took us a year and a half to put it together and even then, we didn’t have a studio deal.” The actor believed so much in Conran’s movie that he also became one of the producers and used his clout to get Gwyneth Paltrow involved. Once her name came up, Law did not remember “any other name coming up. It just seems that she was perfect. She was as enthusiastic about the script and about the visual references that were sort of put to her, and jumped on board.” Paltrow said in an interview, “I thought that this is the time to do a movie like this where it’s kind of breaking into new territory and it’s not your basic formulaic action-adventure movie.”
Giovanni Ribisi met with Avnet and, initially, was not sure that he wanted to do the movie but after seeing the teaser trailer, he signed on without hesitation. Angelina Jolie had literally come from the set of Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) and agreed to work on the movie for three days. Despite her small role, she had conducted hours of interviews with fighter pilots in order to absorb their jargon and get a feel for the role.
Avnet went to Aurelio De Laurentiis and convinced her to finance the film without a distribution deal. Nine months before filming, Avnet had Conran meet the actors and begin rehearsals in an attempt to get the shy filmmaker out of his shell. Avnet recalls, “By the end of three days of rehearsals, I remember where he said something, describing the ice cave where the dynamite is, and I could see the actors looking really, really intently on him. I realized that he got them.”
Ten months before Conran made the movie with his actors, he shot it entirely with stand-ins and then created the whole movie in animatics so that the actors had an idea of what the film would look like and where to move on the soundstage. To prepare for the movie, Conran had his cast watch old movies, like To Have and Have Not (1944) with Lauren Bacall for Paltrow’s performance and The Thin Man (1934) for the relationship between Nick and Nora that was to be echoed in the one between Joe and Polly.
Working on a soundstage surrounded entirely by blue screens required a new way of looking at the acting process. Ribisi remembers, “The analogy that you say to yourself is it’s like doing theater or avant-garde theater. There’s just a stage and the actors and all of that. But no, it is different, and it’s something that actors are going to have to be getting used to and [they need to] develop some degree of technique for that.” Law echoed these sentiments: “It almost felt like make-believe playing, rather than limiting because I couldn’t see something specific.” Avnet constantly pushed for room in this meticulously designed movie for the kind of freedom the actors needed, like being able to move around on the soundstage.
Conran and Avnet were able to cut costs considerably by shooting the entire film in 26 days (not the usual three to four months that this kind of film normally takes) and working entirely on blue screen soundstages. After filming ended, they put together a 24-minute presentation and took it to every studio in June of 2002. There was a lot of interest and Avnet went with the studio that gave Conran the most creative control. They needed studio backing to finish the film’s ambitious visuals. At one point, the producer remembers that Conran was “working 18 to 20 hours a day for a long period of time. It’s 2,000 some odd CGI shots done in one year, and we literally had to write code to figure out how to do this stuff!”
Sky Captain is an absolutely gorgeous looking movie filled with eye-popping visuals and drenched in atmosphere. Everything is bathed in a warm sepia filter and captured in a soft focus lens clearly meant to evoke the glamour of classic Hollywood cinema. Sky Captain is a marvel of set design and visual effects. The movie’s elaborate backgrounds were created through a series of photographic plates and 3D animation. By creating an entire world through CGI, Conran raised the bar on these kinds of films. Now, filmmakers are only limited by their imagination… and their budgets.
The problem with most films of these kinds is that the actors are often overwhelmed by the striking visuals. Fortunately, Conran has assembled a strong cast. Jude Law does an excellent job as the wisecracking, square-jawed matinée hero while Gwyneth Paltrow is his ideal foil, criticizing him at every opportunity but you know that it is done out of love. Law remembers that he “tried doing it like an American using 1930’s speak, but it felt like we were sending it up and what we wanted to do was to play it for real, so people didn’t think that we were making a modern version of a 1930’s movie.” Everyone is clearly enjoying breathing life into these archetypal characters. High caliber actors like Law, Paltrow and Angelina Jolie take these intentionally cliché characters and make them interesting to watch.
Sky Captain has all the markings of a debut by a first-time filmmaker. There is a go-for-broke, let’s-cram-everything-in-this-one attitude that a first-timer has a tendency to adopt because they do not know if there are going to get another chance. Conran has said that his intention was to create something “almost innocent and fun, the things that inspired me in wanting to make movies, the qualities of why I wanted to go to the movies. You lose yourself and escape into a world that didn’t exist anywhere else but in the movies.” Sadly, Sky Captain failed at the box office thus insuring the unlikely prospects of a sequel. It is too bad because the movie presents a richly textured and detailed world with fun and exciting characters.