Born in Capetown, South Africa, Antony
Hoffman learned the art of moviemaking as a documentarian, shooting
guerilla footage of his country’s notorious mid-1980s riots.
After a fruitful stint at AFI shortly thereafter, Hoffman went
to Europe, where he immersed himself in directing commercials,
music videos and short films. He returned to the United States
in 1991 to work as a commercial director and has been here ever
since. All along, Hoffman’s ultimate goal has been to work
in film. This winter, he got his chance. As a first feature, Hoffman
was given the opportunity to direct the recently released Mars
adventure, Red Planet. Here, Antony talks about how it
feels to make a big budget movie as your first feature, and the
difficulties of bringing the fourth planet to life on screen.
Scott Essman (MM): How
did your involvement in Red Planet come about? Your previous
work was certainly not situated in features, and it wasn’t
in the sci-fi genre.
Antony Hoffman (AH): I
read a script called Alone about three years ago by Chuck
Pfarrar. It was about a man who gets stranded on a planet and
the woman who must save him. There was something at the root of
it that just intrigued me-the idea that we are alone as mankind.
The idea I pitched to the studios was a human drama with a six-to-eight-person
crew, based on all of the facts I could find. I wanted to go to
NASA to get it right. I didn’t want to make a science fiction
movie-I wanted to make it science fact.
MM: How did you go
about selecting locations for the film? It must have been difficult
finding the right look to stand in for Mars.
AH: I wanted to shoot
in Iceland. I actually scouted it by myself in five helicopters.
I was obsessed with it because that is where NASA astronauts did
their training. Eventually, though, the decision was made not
to shoot in Iceland, so we chose the Australian outback and Jordan
for our primary locations. We shot first for 12 days in Jordan
and about 75 days in Australia, with 60 days in the outback and
15 nights in a huge quarry outside of Sydney. It was like a big
sandbox with six huge Musco lights all around the ridge. The problem
was the rain, so a lot of shots were under these huge tarps. Our
locations were not as spectacular as I wanted, but it ended up
MM: How did the actors
react to the harsh conditions on location? Was it hard for them?
AH: Very hard. Just to
be in a space suit in 125-degree weather was hard. If you look
in their eyes in some of the shots, they look ragged. That’s
not something that you can direct! Australia was hardcore-major
dust storms and giant flies that would dive right into your head.
We had to put these huge fans up and put chemicals on the ground
so that we could shoot. You would just get a great take and a
fly would come into the shot. There was extra money in the budget
for fly removal so that we could take them out digitally! It was
also a logistically extremely hard shoot. Because of the rain,
we’d constantly go back to cover sets from locations and
MM: How crucial was
CGI to telling this story effectively?
AH: CG is unbelievable
now. In terms of the way you want things as they appear in your
mind and when you storyboard a shot, you have much more control
over a CG element than I’d have ever thought. Year after
year, it keeps getting better. Cinesite did a remarkable job with
the robot in the movie, AMEE. She really looks scuffed up, and
she has weight to her, which is the hardest thing to create. On
set, we had a little broomstick with a handle on it. We had a
stand-in model for one or two shots, but we didn’t have AMEE
worked out yet when we were shooting.
MM: It must be extremely
difficult to set up a shot and shoot set pieces knowing that the
visual effects that were crucial to the scene won’t be added
until much later.
AH: There were so many
effects that our Visual Effects Supervisor, Jeff Okun, wasn’t
given the go ahead until July, even though we had been editing
since January. It was a case of the studio not knowing how good
the movie was, so they didn’t want to spend the money on
the effects until then. So in the meantime, we did pre-visualizations
and cut them into the footage. My director’s cut-which
took 12 weeks-was purely a dramatic piece of what I had shot.
The movie was originally budgeted with 150 effects shots, but
we ended up with 962!
MM: Do you think that
it’s difficult to shoot an effective sci-fi movie at a time
when audiences seem much more sophisticated?
AH: I think you have
to have the instinct of who the audience is. To me, the movie
is about man playing God. Changing another planet is radical thinking.
I loved that theme. Also, these characters are combat soldiers-they
don’t know why they’re there, though they are fighting
the battles. This is the premise that I worked on. When they are
in the foxhole, they debate these moralistic issues like ‘why
are we here?’ It was a Vietnam Platoon analogy. When
the whole billion dollar mission is stripped down, no matter how
advanced we get scientifically, we are back to where we started,
and repeat ourselves. If you’re stranded on Mars, the whole
principle of faith amongst each other and trust amongst people
is explored. That is the movie that I wanted to make.