The year was 2002 when D.J. Caruso, best known at that point for directing episodes of “Dark Angel” and “Smallville,” unleashed The Salton Sea on audiences. The movie, about a drug-addicted police informant, starred Val Kilmer and received mediocre reviews from critics. It was the closest the director came to Hollywood at the time. “Director D.J. Caruso and writer Tony Gayton introduce scenes with images so weird they’re funny to begin with, and then funnier when they’re explained,” wrote Roger Ebert at the time.
In the years following, Caruso directed such Oscar-nominated thespians as Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke and Al Pacino in movies like Taking Lives and Two for the Money. Still, the 43-year-old moviemaker hadn’t defined himself in cinema. He continued his television work with directing credits on “Robbery Homicide Division” and “The Shield” until 2007, when his Hitchcock-inspired thriller, Disturbia, took in more than $80 million at the box office.
The movie, starring a then little-known young talent named Shia LaBeouf, was the surprise hit of the summer. So when it came time to cast his latest thriller, Eagle Eye, Caruso reunited with the actor who helped him make his name. The movie, which also stars Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson and Billy Bob Thornton, chases two strangers being controlled by a mysterious female voice that the audience comes to know as Aria. The voice, part of a government experiment, aids the Department of Defense in determining solutions for dealing with threats made against the United States. From the opening scene when the Defense Secretary (played by Michael Chiklis) is alerted to a national security threat to a climactic scene in the halls of government, Eagle Eye plays to the audience’s perception and fear of government and terrorism.
In the weeks leading up to the movie’s DVD release, MM spoke with Caruso about his career, his process and his latest movie.
Mallory Potosky (MM): The concept that Eagle Eye is based on isn’t as far-fetched as people might want to believe. Do you think that’s true?
D.J. Caruso (DC): I think that’s true. I think we definitely push it to the limits, particularly with the intellectual nature or the algorithmic thinking that our protagonist takes. But it’s really interesting to see what’s happening in the government and how, if you’re a person of interest, you can sort of be flagged and your life can be changed and technology can be used against you—particularly the opening scene. About a month and a half after the movie came out, there was a very similar situation that happened in Afghanistan. And you realize, yeah, you can make decisions from halfway across the world, from the bottom of the Pentagon, over whether you’re going to bomb something or not.
These two people [played by LaBeouf and Monaghan] were sort of catapulted into this national security emergency. It’s compelling and probably, obviously, a little bit far-fetched. But this stuff, 95 percent of what happened in the movie, could happen to you and I think that’s frightening.
MM: Because it is so real, because something similar happened in Afghanistan, how did you balance making it entertaining with the telling the truth about threat of cyber terrorism?
DC: Well, I think what you do in trying to make it entertaining is, for me, put [the audience] in the room with those guys when they’re making their decisions. If you go back and watch the movie, you know all the report recommendations [come from Aria], processing this information, telling them not to do what they did. But it’s the world that you live in now and the way that warfare goes and the way that these terrorists are out of our reach and out of our sight. As a filmmaker, it’s my job to put you, the audience, in the room or feel the feeling of the character or the tensions that they’re going through; I think that’s really the best I can do. I never really thought, ‘Well, how does this compare to what happened?” I was always very surprised later on when reading through The New York Times about how accurate our scene was in retrospect.
MM: How do you guide an actor through a scene like those in the beginning? It has the potential to be kind of hokey. Actors don’t always portray government officials well.
DC: Well, we always had the Department of Defense with us the whole time, in every one of those scenes that involves them. Jumping off them was great and they were even involved in helping us with the dialogue and stuff. They would say, “In this case it wouldn’t be a general, it’d be a colonel, and he’d be a chief of staff.” It was kind of embarrassing, but I think when you guide the actor, in any scene, for me it’s about coming in with a clear point of view. Chiklis makes the decision that, “I’m not gonna let this happen.” But it’s more important than anything that Chiklis doesn’t make that decision prior to coming in that door; that he has to be in the scene and process all this information, whereas Bill Smitrovich, the other actor in the scene, basically wants this to be done at all costs. He believes it’s the right thing to do and he wants it to be done. So it’s nice to have those conflicting points of view—anything dramatic you have to—and then to have those actors to play those [points of view].
But, also, my thing with the actors…but particularly Chiklis, he’s really the new eyes in the scene and that’s exactly who we [the audience] are. He’s almost representing the audience at that point, in the perspective that we take all the stuff in and not make any decisions until we feel we have enough information to make that decision. Because if an actor comes in and says, “We’re not doing it… We’re doing it,” then there’s nothing really dramatic.
MM: It’s your second time working with Shia LaBeouf and your first with Michelle Monaghan. What made you think that they could both play these characters?
DC: Well, I knew when I initially got the screenplay from Spielberg, right after Disturbia, that the character of Jerry was much older. He was almost 28, 27 years old and we kind of stuck with that for a while. Then, as I started developing the screenplay over time, it dawned on me that Jerry should be much younger. He should be at that part of his life, kind of exactly where Shia was. And it wasn’t just because of Shia. It just felt like the character, the way he was behaving and where he was in life—searching for answers and sort of hiding out and not trying to be in his brother’s shadow—felt more like a 22-year-old, 21. And then I shifted and once I got back from there I just felt like, God, this would be a great role for Shia because it would be a young adult sort of coming out for him as opposed to the teenager battling pimples. This should be about a young man learning from his journey and his life.
I had always been a big fan of Michelle’s from a movie called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—it’s one of my favorite movies. And I just thought, I have to work with this girl. When I read the character and read the role, I felt like she’d be perfect. I got her and Shia, we had dinner, we sat and talked and we had a beer and it just felt like this was the right thing to do. They’re both the same kind of actor—very naturalistic, very accessible and at the same time I saw those two together and just sitting as the director, across from them at the dinner table, I just knew it was going to be a good combination.
MM: Early in your career you directed smaller movies like The Salton Sea and now you’ve got larger movies opening big numbers at the box office. Have you continued doing what you’ve always done and just chosen projects that have struck a chord with larger audiences lately?
DC: I’ve always kind of chosen projects that strike a chord with me—in place and character; I feel like there’s a journey in there for them. You know, Salton Sea was much more of a personal film and did all the things on the personal side of my life that still felt like a dramatically, thematically and hopefully entertaining film dealing with darker issues and darker themes. Then you get your movies like Taking Lives and Two For the Money, which were sort of darker, genre-type movies, but they were trying to get character. For me, it’s all about the character and any movie that I consider has a character or lead character or caricature which I feel I can relate to; I have to find a reason for me to be the one to make the movie and usually, 99 percent of the time that’s gonna come from the character and not the spectacle or genre. So, in each one of those movies, I think I’d like not to be sort of pigeonholed as a filmmaker.
After Disturbia people said, “Well, I’m not sure he can really do action movies with character.” Now, I know I can do that. I just know a couple things: I love to see a good comedy but I can never make one—it’s just not in me. And two, I’ve never been a big fan of the romantic comedy, so I know that’s something I get far, far, far away from. So it’s really looking for the right character and the right situation and the right genre—that’s sort of what influences me on what movie to make.