Guy Pearce, John Logan and Mark Addy

Logan's Run
"Time Machine" scriptwriter John Logan

"We came in with pretty strong ideas about the material and how to approach it in a fresh way that would make it interesting to a modern audience and also interesting for us to work on."-John Logan, scriptwriter, The Time Machine.

first in a series
by Bondo Wyszpolski
This interview first appeared in the February 7th issue of Easy Reader.
printed here with permission

How will it compare? To remake a classic horror or science fiction film is tempting on the one hand (everybody already knows the story), and dangerous on the other (mess it up, and all hell breaks loose). For example, once the word was out, it seemed that Tim Burton's version of The Planet of the Apes couldn't get into theaters fast enough, only to be promptly vilified by critics. Did later versions improve The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even Psycho? And despite several remakes of the H.G. Wells' novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, none surpasses in atmospheric splendor the 1933 film, The Island of Lost Souls. All of which brings us to The Time Machine, to be released by DreamWorks on March 8.

This is the story of a man who builds a machine that can move up and down through time. He leaves London on the cusp of the 20th century and journeys over 800,000 years into the future, where he finds that Mankind has bifurcated into the hedonistic but docile Eloi and the subterranean, brutish Morlocks, who cultivate the Eloi for food.

Despite noticeable flaws or limitations - aggravated by the passing of four decades - George Pal's 1960 film remains an audience favorite, cherished in particular by those who saw it at an early, impressionable age, or when it first came out (locally, it played at the long-defunct Fox Redondo in King Harbor). The film's principal leads - Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, and Alan Young - are credited to this day for conveying the charm and the excitement that H.G. Wells packed into his 1895 novella.
The remake - if we may call it that, although the term may prove to be inadequate - has more than a few things going for it. Directed by Simon Wells, H.G.'s great-grandson, and with the backup clout of Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks, the film stars Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential; Memento) along with Jeremy Irons, Orlando Jones, and newcomer Samantha Mumba. How it will fare - critically, popularly, financially - will be revealed soon enough, but one thing already evident is the caliber of talent behind the scenes.

We've spoken to several of the key players, from production designer Oliver Scholl to director Simon Wells, and over the next few weeks will be presenting the fruits of our conversation. We'll begin with scriptwriter John Logan, who spoke with us by phone from his home in Evanston, Illinois. His script for Any Given Sunday (1999) put him on the cinematic map. His contribution to Gladiator (2000) solidified his position, and presumably his work on The Time Machine and Star Trek: Nemesis (now filming) will only enhance it. Currently, he's researching material for a film on Abraham Lincoln to be developed by Spielberg and DreamWorks.

Q: How did you get involved in The Time Machine, how enthusiastic were you at the outset - and were you still as enthusiastic several months later?

John Logan laughs. "Ah, you've talked to other film people before, I take it! I was in London - still working on Gladiator - and Walter Parkes, the head of production at DreamWorks - came up to me out of the blue and said, Hey, how would you like to work on the remake of The Time Machine? And I thought about it for all of five seconds and I said, You bet! Absolutely would I like to work on the remake of The Time Machine. After [a project] as grueling as Gladiator, the idea of doing something really fun appealed to me and, also, I'm just an enormous fan of the old George Pal movie."
Despite the usual legwork and then the ongoing retooling of his script, Logan asserts that he's been thoroughly pleased with his involvement. "I can't say that my enthusiasm waned too much, nor my affection for the material, obviously, because it's great material to get to tackle. I can only hope I'll be just as happy when the movie opens."

Advance press releases have noted that Logan's script for The Time Machine is at least in part based on the screenplay by David Duncan for George Pal's film, but Logan paints a slightly different picture.
"The George Pal movie was pretty firmly etched in my mind - I've seen it a few times over the years - but mostly I went back to the original novel because it was always DreamWorks' intention to try to recapture some of its spirit of scientific exploration and curiosity. In the early days especially I spent a lot more time with H.G. Wells than with George Pal."

When asked if he studied other time travel movies, Logan replies that he did not: "One could probably spend their lifetime screening time travel movies or TV shows." Instead, he opted to stick with his primary sources - Wells and Pal.

Even so, he continues, from the start the plan had been to avoid imitating what had already been done. "We came in with pretty strong ideas, and in the initial months we were just talking about the material and how to approach it in a fresh way that would make it interesting to a modern audience and also interesting for us to work on."

This took about a year, Logan says, and he turned out a number of drafts. "They were all fun to do, and we explored a lot of different avenues because, clearly, if you look at something like time travel or temporal paradox or the conundrums that time travel going backwards and forwards can create for a character, there are a lot of opportunities, and we went down a lot of dead ends before we would backtrack and find our way again. Then, when Simon got involved, he really led the way in terms of shaping material and giving us all a path to follow."

Did you become attached to elements in your early drafts, or did you go into this project simply knowing that it's a collaborative effort?

"I only become attached to that which works best," Logan replies, epigrammatically. "One of the great things about my job is that I get to collaborate with really smart people. When Steven Spielberg comes into the room, and all the producers, and when you're tossing ideas around and the design people come in, there's a lot of interesting ideas to cannibalize from. So I've never been recalcitrant about changing things to make the final project better, and this is one of those rare occasions where the development process truly helped us to focus on the material we were working on."
Also, because Logan is serving as one of the co-producers of the movie, he's been involved in all decisions concerning changes and adjustments to the script, even down to the wire. And despite the collaborative nature of the whole-

"There were certain things in The Time Machine that I felt very strongly about, and I would fight for my ideas and we would get into debates and discussions - all in a very friendly way, I believe - about the most mundane minutia [as well as] the largest, sweeping, philosophical statements of the movie. One of the things that's so enjoyable for me about The Time Machine is being part of those discussions, going into the editing room with Simon and Wayne [Wahrman], the editor, and Walter, and looking at cuts and discussing scenes, and discussing how we're communicating certain things by the way the movie was being edited."

The brainstorming proved highly productive, such as in fleshing out the very nature of the time traveler himself.

"In our movie he's named Alexander [Hartdegen]," says Logan, "because we wanted to give him a name. He didn't have a name in the Wells novel, and he's sort of perfunctorily called George in the George Pal movie, but not significantly.

"The first thing that struck me in looking at the material was the lack of motivation for him to build the time machine in the first place. In the novel he [displays] a vague sense of intellectual curiosity and in the George Pal film he sort of doesn't like the time he's in - he doesn't like machines being used for war - and so he says I'll go and see a better world in the future.

"Neither of those struck me as incredibly dynamic or incredibly personal to the character. So, the very first thing we did with The Time Machine was to try to give that character an intellectual and emotional journey, a reason to build the time machine in the first place that was based on deeply personal events in his life. When you have an actor like Guy Pearce you have to give him something to play: He simply has to have reasons to be doing what he's doing."

When you work with actors like Guy Pearce, do they sometimes suggest a change in their lines?
"Absolutely," Logan says. "One of the great pleasures for me working as a dramatist is collaborating with actors, because they bring a whole set of experiences, a whole set of muscles, if you will, to the match. I spent a lot of time with Guy, talking through the scenes, discussing dialogue, trying different dialogue, and trying to satisfy his concerns about the integrity of the character as well as the script's concerns. And the same with Jeremy Irons or Samantha Mumba. It's the foolish writer who ignores an actor."

During filming, then, were you there with them on the set?

"I was there a fair amount - half to do my job and half because it was just a hell of a lot of fun." He pauses. "Because there's a bunch of Morlocks chasing Eloi; who would want to miss that?"
Special effects capabilities are a thousand times better than they were when George Pal made his movie, so did you take this into account when writing the script?

"Absolutely," Logan replies. "We were aware that we could do things that George Pal - simply given the limitations of when he was making his movie - couldn't do, things with our time travel sequences or our Morlocks. So that allows a writer the freedom to explore the wildest possible ideas because there's nothing you cannot film nowadays.

"But much more importantly, from my point of view, was the work we did on the ideas and the characters of the movie that deviate from both H.G. Wells and George Pal. The ideas behind the characters and the philosophical basis of the movie were much more important to me than 'Can't we make the Morlocks look scarier than they did in George Pal's movie.'"

In the book, and in the earlier film, the Eloi do not inspire confidence, and the reflective viewer might wonder why the time traveler is pinning all his hopes on them. Today's audience would presumably be more discriminating.

"Presenting them as sort of beautiful sheep; they're all blond in Grecian togas," Logan says of the Eloi, "is an idea that I don't think would play. We were always exploring, going back to the original H.G. Wells novel again, how two species could have evolved from the same human root, being the Eloi and the Morlock. We really looked at it scientifically as much as possible to think, All right, if we're taking a huge jump into the future, how might Mankind have developed and how would they be surviving, and what would their ecosystem be like, and how would that ecosystem relate to the social structure they lived in?

"For example, the Eloi are prey to the Morlocks. So it was Oliver [Scholl] and Simon who came up with the brilliant idea of putting their houses, their village, in a sort of defensive formation. It wasn't based simply on 'this would be a cool thing to see,' it was based on how people that were prey to predators would live."

And then there's the Morlock half.
"When we looked at the original movie and the novel we found an interesting conundrum in that the Morlocks exist in a very complex social system and yet they are characterized as these sort of proletarian brutes, and that didn't make much sense to us. So we came up with the idea of different castes within the Morlock society, and a much more sophisticated society with, if you will, a controlling intelligence behind it all, who becomes the character that Jeremy Irons plays in the movie. That was one area where we looked at what was there and thought that we could do it in a way that might be more contemporary and more interesting than those who'd come before us."

Originally, The Time Machine had been slated to open in December, 2001, but was delayed until February, then March. Often such delays are interpreted, by outsiders at least, in a bad light. I've seen no evidence yet that this is the case here; on the contrary, those I've spoken with seemed pleased.
"I'm delighted we moved to March," Logan replied when I broached the subject. He laughed. "As far away from Lord of the Rings as possible is my philosophy."

He says he'll be back in L.A. for the film's opening, although he's already seen it several times in an incomplete state. But all finished, and with a full house, that's something he's looking forward to.
"That'll be very exciting, because it should be a very audience-friendly movie. We weren't trying to be too rarified or too intellectual, although certainly we have ideas that we think are interesting and provocative. It is and should be at its core a great adventure."

Changing gears, I asked John Logan what his key to success is. After all, I pointed out to him, everybody out here wants to write a movie script.

"I can only speak for me," he says, "which is really two things. One is I work hard; I work hard all the time. I live in Evanston, I don't live there. And I take my job very seriously. I try to be very diligent and very tenacious in how I work. That would be one key to success.

"The other is the job of collaboration, not seeing directors or producers or designers or studio heads as the adversary, but seeing them as colleagues and allies in trying to make the best possible movie. Film is a director's and a producer's medium, and it's the wise writer who realizes that and is willing to work within those parameters.

"For me, part of the job has always been sitting in my attic, working at the computer. On the one hand, it's sitting across the table from Ridley Scott or Oliver Stone or Michael Mann or Simon Wells and sharing ideas. So I think the successful writer has that sort of personality, very introverted and very focused on personal private work, and [yet] very public and collaborative."

Logan explains that he attended Northwestern University because he wanted to study acting. However, "I quickly decided all that emotional energy was not for me, and just as a fluke I took a playwriting class - and I absolutely loved it. The minute I sat down to research my first play I said, Well, that's it, this is what I'm doing the rest of my life. I've never looked back from there."

Supporting himself by working in the university law library as a clerk, Logan wrote plays at night. "I did that for a decade," he says, "and was perfectly happy to do it. I never resented it; I never thought I was owed anything other than the chance to do hard work when I could."

You have a lot of energy!

"Well, I get up in the morning to a job I love. That gives you all the energy you need."

Next : Production Designer Oliver Scholl.

 

 

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