The director of Disturbia and Eagle Eyes returns this week with his latest project I Am Number Four, a sci-fi suspense thriller that highlights the life of a fugitive alien who is forced to confront his true destiny. Captivated by the story, director D.J. Caruso, alongside producers Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay, brought the project to fruition over the course of summer 2010. The well-spoken, charming filmmaker sat down with us for an exclusive interview where he discussed the making of the movie, the challenges he faced working with newcomer Alex Pettyfer, his upcoming projects, and finally, his family life and the ever-exhausting quest to maintain some balance.
Q: What was your initial vision for the film?
D.J. Caruso: It's kind of weird but [the script] reminded me of Back to the Future but in a much more stylized way. I think the vision I had was to [incorporate] this great science fiction element and still keep the movie grounded. [A] movie that I really fell in love with again and got reacquainted [with] was Starman. I remember Jeff Bridges' performance and Karen Allen, who I love very much…and to me, it's probably one of the best alien love stories you can see. I referenced that movie for how Alex [Pettyfer] would be related to Dianna [Agron].
Q: Teresa Palmer and Dianna Agron said the weather in Pennsylvania was horrible. How you do keep your cast and crew motivated under unfavorable circumstances?
Caruso: As a director, your enthusiasm has to spill out through everybody else, but most of the time it's a crew that I have been working with for a long time so we all pick each other up. There are days where I need a [pickup, too,] so there was definitely a great synergy. But it's pretty much the director's job to keep everyone motivated and focused, especially when you only have a five-minute widow to get a shot before a storm comes in…Pennsylvania is great but we did have a tough summer. The challenge of this movie was that about 75% of it was shot at night, and of course we are shooting a movie in the summer when you have the shortest nights.
Q: The lead role is played by Alex Pettyfer, a newcomer who's never played the lead role. What drew you to him?
Caruso: What I liked about Alex is that he's dynamic, good looking, and strong—but then what struck me was his vulnerability. Even in the very first reading, you could just tell this was a guy that wasn't overly confident.
Q: Did you notice growth in Alex?
Caruso: I know for a fact that if you have never been number one on the call sheet before, you really don't understand it. I think Alex [did come] to understand what that means, [and] the responsibility, and how not only is the director guiding [you], but you have a responsibility to the crew, [and] to the rest of the cast; not that he was irresponsible, but I think he discovered that halfway through the movie. It's like, "Wait a minute, how I perform on a certain day can dictate the whole way the day of the movie goes." It was interesting for me to see how he was sort of naïve about things at first and then [he was] really understanding [about] what it means and what it entails.
Q: It's always great when you see strong female characters in a movie and in this film you have two, played by Dianna Agron and Teresa Palmer.
Caruso: It's been something that I've been striving for because when I made my first movie The Salton Sea, I remember this journalist came up to me and just said, "OMG, the treatment of women is so atrocious." It just wasn't something that donned on me when I was making the movie. But having worked with Angelina Jolie in Taking Lives, I saw what a strong and dynamic woman can do. So, yeah, the women in this movie are very strong. Number Six [Palmer] comes into the picture right when John is barely figuring out his powers and she basically says, "Come on man, let's kick some ass. I'm not being chased, I chase them." So that's pretty liberating.
Q: Teresa mentioned being strapped to a harness at high altitudes. Did you ever get scared she might hurt herself?
Caruso: No, I wasn't scared. We had a great stunt coordinator. Once we figured out what her sequences would be and figured out the schedule, Teresa had the time to really commit and train for those specific sequences. She was incredibly prepared—it was phenomenal. I really wasn't scared; it was all her and it's really great to see her kick ass.
Q: Let's talk about your upcoming projects. Everyone is linking you to different films, so let's set the record straight.
Caruso: I'm still trying to get Art of Making Money going at Paramount. There's one in particular that I'm circling around—it's a graphic novel, but I can't say much. Then there's Dead Space. It's a project I'm very interested in. It's an amazing game. Wyck Godfery and I have been trying to crack it for a while and see what we can do for a movie. We've even thought about a prequel since the game is so amazing, but we just haven't written enough of the story to get it going.
Q: You're working with Chris Pine on the script for the Art of Making Money, right?
Caruso: He's dynamic, amazing, and an intelligent actor. We've been developing the screenplay together; even if the movie never gets made, we really hit it off. He's such an intelligent guy and comes from a great character perspective. He's an actor who loves to act; doesn't want to be a movie star, he just wants to act.
Q: Seems like you're not slowing down, so how do you balance your hectic work schedule with family time?
Caruso: The balance is really difficult but I just put family first. I realized my most important element and that's to be a great husband and great father—the movie element is right up there but at the same time I always try to take my family with me and include them in everything. But to achieve that balance…I will say that it is exhausting.
This may sound a bit corny but…you're sitting in the editing room [with] Steven Spielberg [and] making a movie; you see [your] one-sheet outside in a hallway and you realize that being part of that whole thing is what you dreamt about, what I dreamt about since I was in 10th grade. I made the decision, and I've been blessed to do it, and balancing is really difficult, but I wouldn't trade it for the world.