Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
October 12, 2004
In the science fiction thriller The Final Cut, society has the technology to implant devices into the brains of humans that will record their memories from birth to death. Known as the Zoe chip, this controversial landmark of man's ingenuity is removed upon the demise of the implantee, and the lifetime of memories it contains is edited by a "cutter" into a Rememory--a film-like storyboard that is played at the deceased's funeral. But how truthful is that summary of one person's life when it is ultimately just the vision of the cutter, who manipulates fragments of memory as he or she sees fit?
The Final Cut stars Robin Williams, Mira Sorvino, and Jim Caviezel, and is the feature film debut of writer/director Omar Naim. In this exclusive interview, Omar discusses the making of this cautionary tale set in a world not unlike our own.
RadioFree.com: I understand you quit your day job to pursue your dream of writing this script. What was this day job?
OMAR: I was an assistant to a producer.
So you already had a background in the movie business?
Yeah, but he was doing a lot of web stuff that year. He was very independent. I wouldn't quite call it a Hollywood job. He really does things on his own. So I really didn't know anybody in Hollywood through that job. [laughs]
Was the uncertainty of this career move frightening, or were you at a point where you were eager to take the risk?
I really felt that I wanted to take this risk with this script. I had ideas before for scripts and I told them to people, and they were, [lackluster] "Oh yeah, that's all right." But this one, people seemed to really like and I felt quite confident about it. I told this story to my mother and my father. They said, "That's a really good idea. If you want to leave your job, we will support you for a couple of months to write this script." So I'm blessed with that. And as soon as I finished it, I felt, "This is a film I will make one day, and I am now in pre-production." I didn't know if I would make it for very little money in Lebanon or Europe or in the States. I no idea, I just knew I was going to make it. [laughs] Not "make it," but make the movie.
The inspiration for this movie came while you were editing other films?
Yes, I was editing my thesis film, which was a documentary about the Lebanese civil war. And the Avid was brand new at school, and I was the only one on it for like nine months. So I became the resident Avid guy. And I got to really know the editing process and slowly started to realize how sort of manipulative it is, especially in the documentary context. Everyone realizes this, but I hadn't edited before...
[laughing] Actually, I don't know if "everyone realizes this." There are a lot of people who take Michael Moore as fact instead of satire.
Well yeah, but Michael Moore realizes it more than anybody. Michael Moore knows more than anybody how manipulative things can be, and he's playing that card. He's embracing the fact that you're manipulating people. Whatever, I don't know. [laughs] He's "counter-manipulating"! But meanwhile, I was also away from my family and thinking I would probably be seeing less and less during my life--we live in different parts of the world--and thinking maybe I should shoot these really long interviews with them to sort of have their stories. And then I realized that's really morbid, that's not them, that's an image that's going to replace my memory of them. And then slowly, that idea sort of came from there.
So how reliable is your own memory?
Terrible memory! It's a part of the reason my documentary's about memory, something I'm really obsessed with. Because I feel like day to day I'm losing these moments of my life that are gone from my head. My memory is not as good as it should be. I have a younger brother very close in age, and part of the idea of this film came from me spending years thinking that I did one thing, when in fact it turns out he did it, and I wasn't even there! And I sort of stole his memory and made it my own. I think people do that all the time. But when you have someone right there with you to tell you, "No man, you weren't even there!" you start really questioning everything. To me, it freaks me out. [laughs]
How did you end up shooting this film in Vancouver? (And I ask as someone who loves that city.)
I love Vancouver. Well, budgetary reasons dictated shooting in Canada, and we wanted a sort of timeless quality with architecture and everything. I know that doesn't immediately leap to mind with Vancouver--it's so green and pretty. But it's much more malleable in that way than Toronto is. Toronto looks like a "big city!" And I didn't want that at all. And it turns out that they have great crews. It was a great experience shooting there.
Was the weather cooperative?
Extremely cooperative! [laughs] I had perfect weather all the way through shooting. I mean, it really cooperated with us. And it was an unusual summer. Their weather was not supposed to be that way. So the cosmos adjusted for our lighting needs. [laughs]
Is the story of The Final Cut set in an alternate reality, near future, or distant future?
It's an imaginary present. [laughs] I've been thinking about how to describe it. I think it's an imaginary now. It's an alternate now with some elements from the future and some elements from the past and some elements from the present, but it's sort of a metaphorical place. It's something that people do a lot in theatre and in books. I find it would speak more to the human experience if it wasn't defined as a futuristic thing, because it's not about speculating about what the future's going to be like, in any way.
And it's easy to connect with because it's sort of grounded in today's reality...
Great! Thanks, that's what we had hoped would happen!
Distributor Lions Gate and theater chain AMC are rolling this film out digitally. Is it upsetting that your feature film debut is being used as a kind of guinea pig, or do you think it lends itself to the digital format?
Well, it lends itself a little bit. A lot of it's shot on video. The Zoe footage is shot on video. It's always exciting to be taking part in a new technological step. [laughs] They let me make the movie, I'm not upset in the least.
I always have trouble articulating the visual difference between film and video. Can you describe those visual differences?
It's much more of an emotional quality, I think. The film is shot on Super 35, very filmic with all the things that film's good at--warm colors and darkness. It can handle darkness really well, and texture. Video looks like the opposite. Video's cooler and it's bluer and flatter. To me, they're both 2-D images, but film has a sort of fullness that video doesn't quite have. It's also very easy to make them look exactly like each other now. I deliberately went very video with the video, and very film with the film, to create that contrast.
Did you envision certain actors while you were writing this script, or did you leave it completely wide open?
Um, I envisioned a mutant, imaginary actor. I didn't cast it in my head. But while writing it, the name of the character, Alan Hackman, comes from a combination of two actors who, in the late '60s/early '70s, would have been great: Gene Hackman and Alain Delon, the French actor, who has a great sort of reserved quality. So I took Alain Delon's first name and Gene Hackman's second name, and we have Alan Hackman. But I didn't really cast it until the time came. I wanted to leave myself open. I like planning the hell out of certain things and leaving a lot of things open for new ideas to come in and reinvigorate me and the whole movie.
You know, I was going to ask you specifically about the name "Alan Hackman."
It's not a pun. [laughs]
I thought "hack" alluded to his job as a cutter/editor, and maybe even the notion that he's a little phony, in the sense that he's covering up something from his past. But now you tell me it's just Gene Hackman!
But it took months until people were like, "You know, this could be really interpreted in a totally different way." I'm like, "Well, you know, I can't help that." [laughs]
Just tell people you were working it on all different levels. You'll look more ingenious.
That's right. [laughs]
Did you have a lot of say in the casting, or did actors just start coming onboard once they read the script?
I had a lot of say. The studio basically said, "Here's a list of like thirty actors who we'll make this movie with." Because they felt they needed an actor of a certain caliber for them to really be willing to take a chance with me. Fine, makes sense. And the idea of Robin came about. The character was written a little bit younger than Robin, but when the name Robin came up...well, okay, this is really interesting because he's such a warm guy in a lot of ways, and so human. And the character isn't quite like that. I mean, he is, but he's struggling with it. And I thought it would be an interesting conflict. I thought it'd create a full human being if I cast Robin. And he's had an amazing life experience that compensates for my minimal one up until this point. [laughs] There's only so far you can go with imagination and research. And Robin read it and saw my documentary and loved both of them, and we talked for a long time, had a very quiet, serious conversation about the things in the script. I liked he wasn't into the technology. The movie's not about the technology, it's not about the ethics of the technology. It's a way to get into a very human problem, which is, our perception of who we are is based on a totally subjective perception of life. And that's such a frightening concept to me. [laughs] And that sort of got him into it.
And isn't there also an element of lucking out, in that the cast was available and willing to sign? Or did you just look at the list and demand [pounds fist on table], "Bring me Mira Sorvino!"
No, no, I totally lucked out! With the crew, with everybody. All the actors were not doing this for their usual amount of money, and they did it because they liked the script and they wanted to work with Robin as well. And they liked me. They liked my vision, or whatever it's called. [laughs] And I had a great cinematographer, and that also made them feel like, "Okay, we can't be sure if he can handle the camera, but at least Tak is here in case he can't." But I can. But, they needed insurance, they had it.
One scene makes use of split-screen. I usually find that really annoying, but I thought it worked very well in your movie. Did you consciously decide to only use it once so as not to overdo it, or was there a point when you thought you might use more of it?
I'm like you. Most split-screen I find a little silly. I'd never thought I would end up using it in this film. But when I sat down to storyboard that sequence, it's like, "What am I trying to communicate in this sequence?" I'm trying to communicate the sort of massive amount of information this man needs to take in, and that he's literally getting swallowed by other people's lives. And I just found that technique to be the best visual way of communicating that. And I think as long as you use film techniques like that with very specific reasons, they won't seem silly. It's nowhere else in the film because it only makes sense there to communicate a very specific thing.
Alan's high-tech editing equipment (coolly dubbed "the Guillotine") has a wooden frame. That's an interesting image. How did that come about?
I had wanted the Guillotine to look like a combination of a flatbed Steenbeck editing machine, the old style, and then the Avid with the computer side. So the shape of it was in my head. I had a brilliant production designer, and we started talking, and I told him, "Look, I want this guy's home to look like a womb. I want an organic, warm, prison." Because when you have a prison that you've created in your own mind, it doesn't look like a prison. The words I used were organic and comforting. And James said, "Well what do you think if we made it out of wood?" And I'm like, "Wow, this guy's awesome! What a great idea!" It sort of has the same film versus video dichotomy that creates an interesting friction. Something about a digital technology in a wooden body, I found very different, but I thought really worked with the idea of the film. And part of creating this world of timelessness...we wanted to create a world where there was a greater value given to handcrafted materials than in the world we live in now, which I don't like that side of it. [laughs] I'd love if computers looked like that, but they would burn down apparently.
[laughs] What was the significance of the name Zoe? Is it named after someone or is it an acronym?
Well, "zoe" is the Greek root word, it means life. So it's a "life chip," which makes perfect sense. And it also was an allusion to the zoetrope, which was like the grandfather of movies. And for me, this is also a movie about movies--the place of movies in our lives and how they've sort of taken over religion. The visual image has replaced the religious ritual.
In a scene where Alan is hooked up to a computer, the music seems reminiscent of The Matrix. Were you or the score's composer going for that kind of atmosphere?
I don't think so. We never brought up The Matrix once. We hardly talked about any science fiction movies with the music. We talked about Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock scores and things like that.
No matter what you do, you're going to get the bad reviews along with the good. This being your first feature film, how are you handling the criticism that just goes off on you?
It's hard at first. It hurts your feelings. But then you see other ones that are ecstatic, and then you go, "Okay, this is the world. I'm just like this." You remind yourself, "I've gone off on movies that people love. Destroyed them!" So accepting that not everyone has your taste and the world is full of opinions...I don't know, frankly, maybe I should stop reading them after a certain point. [laughs] But also they can be very constructive. After getting past the sting, the ones that are well written can be very helpful.
What interests do you have outside of film?
I love to cook. I love to read.
Ah, the setup for an old standard: "Read any good books lately?"
Yes. I just finished Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides' book. It's so good. It won the Pulitzer prize last year. It's got a Greek immigrant story on one side, and one of their kids is a hermaphrodite. So it's sort of an interesting look at a cultural identity crisis and a sexual identity crisis. It's a fantastic book, you should totally check it out.
At least no one can say the story is cliche!
No, it's very original. There's nothing quite like it. [laughs]
So what's your next film project?
I don't know. I feel like I've been pregnant for two years, and I really have no thoughts of sex until the baby pops out. [laughs] It's been pretty consuming up until this point. I've been writing a lot of different things, and I've been reading stuff, but I have no specific...
Would you be more apt to staying in the same genre, or trying something totally different instead?
I love science fiction, but it's not all I want to do. I'd love to do different things. I love musicals, I love comedies. Love to make a great, black, satirical comedy. The world is ripe for one! [laughs] I like all kinds of movies. I'm surprised how difficult it has been for me to decide what I want to do next until this thing comes out. I really don't know.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thanks a lot!