The alien next door: D.J. Caruso makes sci-fi debut with 'I Am Number Four'

Features

Back in the mid-’90s, when aspiring feature filmmaker D.J. Caruso was cutting his teeth in the world of television, he found himself working on several shows that didn’t seem quite ready for prime time. “There were days when I’d go in and there wasn’t even a script,” remembers the 46-year-old director, who went on to oversee such successful big-screen entertainments as Disturbia and Eagle Eye. “The writers would be changing episode seven because episode five didn’t make any sense, so new pages would come in and meanwhile I’d be told to find a location in a cemetery, even though they weren’t sure what the scene was going to be yet. There’s a lot of that in TV.”

Even when he graduated to more smoothly run televised machines like FX’s landmark cop series “The Shield,” Caruso found the pace of television production dramatically different from his feature-length gigs. “One thing I love about TV is that there’s an immediacy to it. On a show like ‘The Shield,’ you have eight or nine pages to shoot in a day, so you just go in with your cameras and try to get each scene as best you can. Doing TV is like being in the gym working out—if you can shoot nine pages in one day, you’ll be in great shape.”

The muscles Caruso developed from his television workouts came in handy for his latest multiplex assignment, I Am Number Four. Adapted from the young-adult novel of the same name, the DreamWorks-produced science-fiction adventure is perhaps best described as a teen-friendly mash-up of Starman and Superman, with a dash of Twilight tossed in for good measure. The story follows a seemingly ordinary small-town boy named John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), who, in fact, is one of the last sons of Lorien, a planet in a galaxy far, far away that was destroyed many years ago by another humanoid alien species, the warlike Mogadorians. Nine infants survived the attack and escaped to Earth, where they attempt to make new lives for themselves without being detected by the Mogadorian agents that walk amongst mankind.

As the title suggests, John is the fourth of these nine survivors and, like his fellow Loriens (to say nothing of Krypton’s most famous refugee, Kal-El a.k.a. Clark Kent), he finds himself developing superhuman powers as he nears adulthood. Naturally, his emerging talents—which include telekinesis and the ability to generate balls of light in the palms of his hands—bring him to the attention of the Mogadorians, who turn the peaceful burg of Paradise, Ohio into an intergalactic war zone in their attempt to cross another Lorien off their list.

DreamWorks head honchos Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider snapped up the film rights to I Am Number Four in the summer of 2009, when the manuscript was being passed around Hollywood well in advance of the book’s publication. (In fact, the novel, which was co-authored by Jobie Hughes and James Frey…yes, that James Frey, didn’t hit bookstore shelves until August 2010 when the film version had almost wrapped shooting.)

At first, Michael Bay—who knows a thing or two about directing special-effects extravaganzas starring warring alien species—expressed interest in tackling the project, but later opted to focus on the third chapter in his Transformers franchise. (He remains onboard as a producer.) So Spielberg and Snider called up Caruso, whom the Close Encounters of the Third Kind director had personally hand-picked to helm both Disturbia and Eagle Eye for the studio. “Steven knew that I was interested in making a movie that had the spirit of an old-fashioned Amblin adventure from the ’80s,” Caruso says, referring to such generation-defining films as E.T., The Goonies and, particularly, Back to the Future, which he describes as the perfect sci-fi movie. “I read the manuscript and the first few drafts of the script and said, ‘I think I can do something here.’ I felt connected to John Smith—he’s a disenfranchised youth looking for a home, but when he finds it, he realizes he can’t stay. That gave the movie a core theme I could grab onto within the canvas of an entertaining blockbuster.”

After committing to the project, Caruso did some additional work on the script penned by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon, eventually receiving a formal green light from DreamWorks in the spring of 2010. But their approval came with one crucial caveat. “They told me: ‘We want this movie to come out on Presidents Day weekend in 2011. Can you do it?’” Caruso admits that their request made him pause, as it meant that he would have less than a year to prepare, shoot and edit a $50 million sci-fi action movie that would be released day-and-date around the world. It was the shortest turnaround time he had ever had on a feature and brought to mind the kind of accelerated, demanding schedule he faced during his years in television.

“I really had to think about it,” he admits. “I’m a big believer in preparation and you can’t ever replace the prep time that you don’t have. But I said yes and dove into the film. We probably didn’t have enough prep time, but we made up for it with a lot of love and care.”

While Eagle Eye had given Caruso a crash course in big-budget action filmmaking, the sci-fi trappings of I Am Number Four meant that he’d have to master a new skill—the art of computer-enhanced special effects. “With Eagle Eye, we knew we had to go CG for some sequences, but most of the action was accomplished with practical effects. When we blew up a car or flipped a car over or crashed cars into each other, we used real cars and really destroyed them. But here, when the Mogadorians fire their blasters and energy orbs come out, nothing actually came out of the guns except for little sparks. So there was definitely a learning curve for me in terms of getting the practical effects to blend with the CG effects. Michael has been very helpful in that department; anytime I’ve struggled, he’s been able to explain how the effects should work in a shorthand I can understand. And then I have Steven, who is able to act as the audience police, telling you what story points viewers might or might not accept. It’s great to have partners like that who just want to help you make a great movie.”

Aside from being Caruso’s first foray into F/X-driven filmmaking, I Am Number Four marks several other firsts as well. For starters, it’s the first major Hollywood vehicle for Pettyfer, a handsome 20-year-old British actor whose highest-profile role to date was as the title character in the 2006 James Bond-riff Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, which was a modest hit across the pond but a washout here. During the casting process, Caruso viewed hundreds of audition tapes sent in from casting offices in L.A., New York, England and Australia and he says it was Pettyfer’s vulnerability that made him stand out from the crowd of impeccably chiseled and coiffed would-be action heroes. “There has to be a certain physical stature and build to John Smith and I felt Alex had those qualities. But what I really loved about him was that when he read, he expressed a certain lack of confidence about being able to pull this role off. I felt like that vulnerable attitude coming from a guy that looks like him and is as charismatic as him was an endearing quality. It’s something you can grab onto and root for.” Surrounding Pettyfer are a cast of fresh young faces designed to appeal to the teen demographic, including Callan McAuliffe, Teresa Palmer and Dianna Agron, one of the stars of the hit Fox series “Glee,” as Smith’s human love interest. For the adult roles, Caruso tapped character actors like Timothy Olyphant to play John’s guardian/sensei Henri (a part originally meant for District 9’s Sharlto Copley, until he had to back out due to his commitments to The A-Team) and Kevin Durand as a vicious Mogadorian commander. “I got to see an early cut of Robin Hood and thought Kevin was so much fun in that,” Caruso says. “Here, he reminds me of Christopher Walken if Walken was going to play an alien. He’s so off-balance and crazed—he was just a joy to work with.”

I Am Number Four is also the first release from the revamped DreamWorks, which now operates as an independent production company that releases its wares through a distribution deal with Disney. Even though it’s his third film for the company, Caruso says the experience felt different this time around. “The people are the same, but there’s a new philosophy and new money behind the company and, obviously, they have this new relationship with Disney. So I felt a bit more pressure to deliver for them because it’s their first film of out of the gate.” Which brings us to the movie’s final first: Should box-office fortune smile upon the film—and Disney and DreamWorks are both hoping it will—I Am Number Four could become the first chapter in an ongoing franchise that takes the place of the departing Harry Potter and Twilight series in the hearts and minds of teenage moviegoers. (The book’s publishers have already announced that they plan to print at least six more installments, with the second part, The Power of Six, set for a spring release.) Asked whether he was aware of the franchise possibilities while making the film, Caruso replies good-naturedly, “I would imagine that’s everyone’s hope when you launch any movie, except maybe for a drama—I don’t think they want to do a sequel to Blue Valentine! But when you’re in the I Am Number Four business, you would hope there’s a good chance that the film kicks off something. So you’re always aware of that in the back of your mind, but I felt like my primary responsibility was to make one good standalone movie. And at the end of I Am Number Four, if you liked the story and you’re interested in the characters, I think you’ll want to find out what happens next.”

To help turn I Am Number Four into the kind of hit that demands a sequel, Disney has launched an aggressive marketing campaign that includes lots of online content for its Internet-savvy target audience. Caruso says that he’s been very involved in the marketing side of the production, approving TV spots and consulting with the studio on how best to capture the attention of moviegoers. “It’s kind of like Disturbia in that we’re starting from zero. We don’t have a movie star, we have a concept and we want to get the concept out there so that people become more familiar with it. Obviously, the book is out there and growing, but I don’t think it’s at cult status yet. Hopefully by the end of opening weekend, more people will have seen the movie than read the book and that means they’ll go hand-in-hand, with each helping the other.”

Caruso’s interest in marketing stems in part from the experience of watching his first film—the 2002 crime picture The Salton Sea, which has gone on to become a cult hit in some circles—never receive the wider push he felt it deserved. “The sad thing with The Salton Sea is that the studio never expanded it. We had a pretty good first weekend and that made me think, ‘Oh, we’re going to play in more cities!’ But I never got to see a national campaign kick in. What I’ve learned about marketing over the course of my career since is that what you feel in your gut the first time is a good indicator of what will and won’t sell. I find myself going back to my first instincts whenever I see a spot. It either engages you or it doesn’t.”

Speaking on the phone in late December in between color-timing sessions, Caruso says that he and his team still have roughly a month of work left before they’ll deliver a completed cut of I Am Number Four to the studio, just a few weeks shy of its Feb. 18 release. (A late-inning decision to release the film in IMAX as well as regular screens added a few more days to the post-production schedule.) Not surprisingly, he’s hoping his next film will be smaller in scale and come with more preparation time—a movie like the one he’s spent the past few years developing at Paramount with Star Trek star Chris Pine and screenwriter Frank Baldwin. “It’s called The Art of Making Money and it’s based on the true story of a guy in Chicago that figured out how to counterfeit the $100 bill before the Russian mob or anyone else did. It’s a small, $25 million movie in the vein of GoodFellas. We’re still trying to get it together and we’re almost there. The only problem is that Chris is now the busiest guy in the world! So we’ll see where it falls. It’s a gritty drama that has the potential to be really popular.”

Better still, making it won’t require Caruso to feel as though he’s hitting the gym every day for a year. As any trainer will tell you, it’s always good to follow an intense workout with a relaxed cooldown.