Body double: Andrew Niccol adapts Stephenie Meyer's eerie novel 'The Host'
Novelist Stephenie Meyer specializes in impossible romances. In the Twilight series, it’s a love triangle between a vampire, a human and a werewolf. In The Host, Meyer creates a love rectangle, in which two guys fall in love, one with an alien soul and the other with a human, both living in the same body. Open Road Films will release the film on March 29, with hopes that the first in a would-be trilogy inherits a modicum of Twilight’s success.
Andrew Niccol was hired both to adapt the screenplay and direct shortly after the 619-page novel was published in 2008. “I loved it straightaway,” he recalls. “We always talk about those internal conflicts within characters; in this story it’s literally true, the fact that there are two spirits in one body.” In the world of The Host, an alien race has colonized the world by implanting their Souls into those of humans, obliterating the memory of the people who lived in the bodies before them. Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) escaped implantation longer than most, but she is finally caught. The Wanderer, a flitting white mass of a Soul that fits into the palm of a hand, is inserted inside her body. But the implantation goes awry. The Wanderer is unable to subdue Melanie’s presence, so they hear each other’s thoughts, memories and desires.
Two characters talking to each other inside their head may work in a book, but it poses more of a challenge onscreen. “Early on, I decided I would hear Melanie’s thoughts, the human host who is trapped inside, and I would see the Wanderer, or alien, speaking. It was just a way to make it more cinematic,” Niccol explains. It wouldn’t work just to have someone reading Ronan’s voiceover off-camera. “To make the scene be alive for Saoirse, it was important for her to be able to hear her voice in her head.” So Niccol “came up with a trick. We pre-recorded all of Melanie’s performance before shooting, and placed a hidden earpiece in the ear, so she could have a conversation with herself.” On set, one person’s sole job was to feed her those lines, “which is an art in itself because you have to have the timing of the actor.”
Seeing Ronan respond to voices in her head was a bit “eerie” for most of the cast and crew, except for maybe Niccol. “She would be wandering around the desert, babbling like a deranged person. It was kind of beautiful to watch.”
Ronan first caught Niccol’s eye in Atonement and again when she “came of age” as a child assassin in Hanna. “I find her a very truthful, empathetic actor. Because she’s playing an alien being, she had to be very likeable, and Saoirse is impossible not to like.”
Ronan’s two male co-stars, Max Irons and Jake Abel, stand to become teen heartthrobs with their roles as the love interests for the two female characters. Irons (the son of Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons) plays Melanie’s love, Jared, with a “roguish quality” Niccol admires. As Ian, Abel “is one of those few young actors who are sensitive enough to play the first man to fall in love with an alien soul,” Niccol assesses.
William Hurt plays Jeb Stryder, Melanie’s gruff survivalist uncle whose über-preparedness ends up working in his favor. He provides refuge for the characters in the movie, but also served a similar role for the young actors on set. “When you have a young cast, it’s important to have someone like William who can really ground the movie,” Niccol offers.
Rugged mountains, which hide a massive underground cave, provide much of the backdrop of the movie. While the cave was created with the help of set extensions and special effects, the mountains were real, courtesy of the New Mexico landscape. “I collect visual references before I shoot. It was the first time I ever found a location that was better than my best reference, it was so awe-inspiring.” These days, however, great locations don’t necessarily wow audiences—they just assume it must be a digital creation. “A lot of people said to me, ‘It’s not real, it’s CGI,’ they actually think the location is too good to be true. It’s a little disappointing because I had to drive a long way to get there,” Niccol says, with a note of indignation.
Over the phone, Niccol is quiet and contemplative. He takes his time before giving detailed, well-thought-out answers. On set, he confirms that his even-keeled demeanor stays intact. “I’ve never found that shouting helps something—I would shout if I thought it would help things, but it slows things down. I prefer a quieter set, and also a respectful set.”
His philosophy as a filmmaker also steers him to more modest projects. Despite the special effects and sci-fi setting, the budget for The Host was around $40 million. “No one loses their shirt on a movie I make. When you get into high budgets, there’s so much expectation the movie has to meet. It’s better to be more resourceful in a lower-risk project, and not put yourself in that position where you’re nervous opening night.”
Niccol usually directs his own work, with credits that include the celebrated sci-fi drama/romance Gattaca and 2011’s In Time; he also earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for The Truman Show. Those films led Meyer to Niccol when the producers were first looking for a writer and director for The Host. “I think the producer asked for her favorite sci-fi movies, and two of them were mine,” he remembers.
For the first time, Niccol wrote a screenplay and directed a project that wasn’t based on his original idea. “It was kind of liberating, being a director for hire,” he says good-naturedly. “Normally, with my own work, I can always choose to go in a different direction, but here, you had to stick to it and honor it, so it was freeing in a way.”
Ronan had two chairs on set, one for the Wanderer and one for Melanie. “As a joke, someone gave me two chairs, one with writer and one with director on it,” he recalls. “It’s true, those parts of the process are completely separate. On set, it’s really a director’s medium.” Once he’s on location, Niccol is of the opinion that “there’s a time to kick the writer off the set. I find myself talking about them in the third person. Because when you get out at that location, and the writer has written beautiful sunshine and it’s raining, you have to adapt. You can’t be precious to the work.”
Niccol was pleased to find out that Meyer, a producer, was also “shockingly flexible.” In the book, for example, the Seekers, who track down the remaining humans, wear black. Niccol convinced Meyer that white, with its religious overtones, would be a better choice for the film. “What I love about her is after doing all the Twilight movies, she understands the process. She cares about the book, but she’s not precious and knows they are very different animals.”
When Meyer did nix a change, it often had to do with the two as-yet-unwritten sequels to The Host. Niccol decided that Jake should strum a guitar and sing, even hiring a composer to write the tune. “I brought it to Stephenie and she said, ‘No, music plays an important part in the next book, you have to take it out.’ I had to take the guitar away from Jake,” he says with playful wistfulness. Even when writing the screenplay, he operated on a “need-to-know basis. Stephenie’s kind of a vault. You don’t get much out of her.”
Working with Meyer, Niccol has encountered many of her biggest fans. “Stephenie has such a profound effect on her audience, it’s almost shocking to see,” he notes. “It has the feeling of a cult when you encounter some of these people.” He compares his experience attending a Breaking Dawn premiere to “seeing one of those old Beatles concerts where the girls are screaming so much you can’t hear the music.” In preview screenings for The Host, big laughs and squeals required adjustments to the editing. “We will literally add frames so the audience has time to settle before the next important line.” So far, it appears that fans have been “happy with how faithful it is to the book,” Niccol reports with relief.
Niccol’s sci-fi movies focus not on creating spectacular futuristic getaway vehicles for the next chase sequence, but the human drama involved. Meyer’s story, with its emphasis on romance and the interactions between humans and alien Souls, reflected Niccol’s own preferences in the sci-fi genre. “I’ve always been more interested in humanity instead of technology. I guess that’s why I was drawn to it.” He also liked Meyer’s unusual and ambiguous take on alien invasion. “Often aliens are depicted as the enemy, but what if they’re better for the planet than we are, which is what it turns out in this case. They’re kinder, more polite, there’s no violence or hunger, and they’ve cured the environment. I found that intriguing that they’re more humane than the human beings.”
One of Niccol’s concerns on a sci-fi project is making sure it doesn’t date. Meyer has yet to write the sequel for the planned trilogy, making Niccol’s approach that much more valuable. “I try to avoid anything that’s of the now, that’s faddish, even dialogue that has a contemporary reference. The true reviews for a film are written five to ten years after. Then you know it’s still relevant.” The director speaks from experience. His 1997 film Gattaca was overlooked in America before being embraced in Europe and then finding its way back to the U.S. His screenplay for 1998’s The Truman Show now seems like an uncanny portent of the rise of reality television. “There’s even a psychological condition now, named after the movie, called the Truman Show Delusion. People have been diagnosed with a condition where they think that they are the star of their own reality show. I don’t know if I should be proud of having a disease named after me,” he says incredulously.
With her unusual love rectangle in a world with ethereal aliens, Meyer may be commenting more about the nature of love and companionship than appears at first glance. “You can comment more about today by going to a future time than you could if you were making a contemporary movie,” Niccol offers. “It’s sort of a Trojan-horse approach to getting ideas past people. You dress it up in another time, yet you’re talking about issues that are relevant to today as well. People think, ‘It has nothing to do with me, I’ll just enjoy the movie,’ then the ideas start to play on them.”
Niccol will likely make more movies between now and the sequel to The Host, and it’s unclear if he’ll be involved, though he expresses interest. “They’re great characters to keep exploring. The story is very rich and it’s a grander theme than her previous work. With Stephenie, it’s always going to be a love story, but here it’s a greater love: It’s about whether we can coexist with each other, even with an alien being. I thought it was a beautiful theme to explore.”