A/V Room









Cypher - An exclusive interview with Vincenzo Natali

Interview by: Jack Foley

Q. What drew you to Cypher in the first place? When did you first become aware of the script?
The majority of the credit has to go to Brian. As soon as I read it, I was impressed by how complex and how flawless it was. Brian and I had already been working together on developing a project with a Hollywood studio that went nowhere, but we remained friends afterwards.
He initially gave me the script to get an opinion, and my opinion was that he should let me direct it. I immediately knew it was a film for me. We started filming eight months after I agreed to do it, which was almost too fast, but then I guess it just felt like one of those things that was meant to be.

Q. How did you arrive at the look of the film, which is really quite distinctive?
I knew from the instant I read it that this was a film that had to be told from a first person perspective. It takes place in the main character’s head and that idea excited me, because Cube was a movie that was far more about being a group dynamic.
With Cypher, I wanted to design a look that accentuates the transformation the main character makes. The film evolves visually, along with Morgan Sullivan, as he turns into Jack Thursby, and, ultimately, into who he becomes. I saw it as being a highly stylised film and, as a director, it was really exciting to be able to create that kind of world.

Q. And how did you decide on the use of location, which is also quite striking?
One of the things that is unusual, considering that this is a sci-fi film, is that at least 80 per cent of it was filmed on location, because I felt it would be good to ground the movie in a kind of reality.
As much as the film takes place in a kind of skewed universe, I felt it was important to give it a sense of realness. And that was also a lot of fun for me as a director, because Cube was shot entirely on a single set, whereas on Cypher, we bounced from location to location, and were always somewhere new. For instance, one day we would be underground, then on water, then in the air. It was very liberating.

Q. How did you arrive at Jeremy Northam as first choice for leading man?
I chose Jeremy Northam for a lot of reasons, most notably because, after speaking to him, I felt that he really understood it [Cypher] and the character of Morgan. He is a wonderful combination of leading man and character actor, and I think he has that ability to transform himself in a way that most actors are not capable of doing.
If you were to show someone a scene from the beginning of the movie, and then from the end, I think that most people would not recognise him as the main man. And that’s testament to his ability as an actor.
And I think he wanted to do it because he had spent a lot of time in period costume and relished the idea of a sci-fi movie.

Q. And Lucy Liu? I mean, we get to see a different side to her in this. She still plays the icy persona so well, but there is also a warmer side to her in Cypher?
I cast Lucy for the opposite reason to Jeremy. I wanted her to bring her screen persona to this film, because her character is also playing an identity game, and wants to project the image of being the classic femme fatale. She wants to play into his head to see what it’s like to be a spy, in order to draw him into her own plan.
I also liked doing the non-traditional thing of casting a not so well-known male lead, and a female lead who everyone is very familiar with. But, ultimately, she does do something different from that established persona, as I think she is a warmer character than normal. She is a very, very bright and intelligent woman and I think she relished the opportunity to do so, and to make a slightly more independent film, away from some of the bigger projects she is better known for.

Q. I’ve read several reviews that make comparisons with The Matrix, as well as The Manchurian Candidate, and you yourself cite Hitchcock as an influence. But what they are saying is that Cypher is a more intelligent take on The Matrix, without the action. Given that The Matrix is rightly regarded as an all-time science fiction classic, how does that make you feel to have people say it is actually better?
I love the first Matrix film, and thought it was highly intelligent, so that is amazing to hear and very flattering. But if there is any similarity, then I guess it comes from the fact that both movies have similar influences, most notably in Philip K Dick.
When I read Cypher for the first time, it read to me as a more faithful Philip K Dick story than a lot of the films that are actually based on existing Philip K Dick stories. And I’m sure that the Wachowski Brothers were influenced by him as well.
As for The Manchurian Candidate reference, it also compared with another of John Frankenheimer’s films, Seconds, with Rock Hudson, which was also a paranoid thriller concerned with identity.
I felt this was a movie that paid homage to other sources, but I think it is the way that Brian takes all of those familiar elements and blends them together, that helps to make it so unique. In a way, the movie is a little like the character of Morgan; a blend of different elements, which ultimately comes into its own.

Q. The themes of the movie are quite powerful - those of identity, displacement, etc - how closely do you identify with those? And was that another reason for wanting to make it?
When Brian first mentioned the idea for Cypher, it was simply about a man travelling from convention to convention, and, no matter where he goes, it all seems the same; and over the course of his travels, he starts to lose his own sense of identity.
This was exciting to me - in a world controlled by large corporations, and drained of humanity, what happens to people? Do they lose their sense of identity?

Q. You’ve certainly had your experience of corporations, given that you admit to being in development hell following the release of Cube? But given that you have established yourself as a great director of intelligent, smaller-budgeted movies, would you leap at the opportunity of entering the mainstream?
[Laughs] I’ve certainly had some Digicorp-type experiences, yes. It [Hollywood] is a big scary machine. But I would love to do studio films, but it’s always difficult to find the right project.
That said, it’s also hard making films that have a lot of visual effects for very little money, and I am fortunate to have worked with generous people. But I keep dipping into the same well, and, at some point, I’m going to have to start paying them!

Q. I was at a press conference with Steven Soderbergh, for Solaris, in which he said that he wished directors would stop seeing the sci-fi genre as a Western. That was one of the reasons he made Solaris. And there does seem to be a return to more intelligent forms of sci-fi at the moment, what with this and Solaris, for example. Is that a sentiment you share? How do you perceive the state of sci-fi at the moment?
Science fiction is becoming so popular and so prevalent, but the thing is that it’s a very resilient genre; it absorbs other genres. You can make a science fiction film that is also a comedy, and a horror, and a Western, or a combination of all if you wish, and still put it under the science fiction umbrella.
It’s almost always a hybrid, and I’m just happy that, more recently, it has become a little more serious, and intelligent.
For me, science fiction really belongs in the realm of ideas, more than many other genres do, and so it’s nice to see some things that have been prevalent in sci-fi literature finally being turned into movies.

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