Commentary Commentary: Dark City

Remember that movie that came out around the same time as The Matrix and it was like The Matrix only not really, because The Matrix had cool guns and shit? Yeah. That movie was Dark City. Now you remember it. Granted, there are a lot of us who love Dark City, its story and ideas and the brilliant execution in how the city looks and feels. But, even those of us who love this movie didn’t see it the way director Alex Proyas intended it.

That’s why, for this week’s Commentary Commentary, we’re looking at the track Proyas laid down over his director’s cut of Dark City. Chances are there will be more talk about why the film was changed before it was released to theaters than anecdotes about shooting and the underlying subtext. This DVD includes two other commentary tracks, one from writers Lem Dobbs and David Goyer and one from film critic Roger Ebert. Yes, that one has always intrigued, and it will surely be featured in this column somewhere down the line. However, this week we’re listening to the director and all he had to say about this director’s cut of his film, Dark City. There are no machine guns, no Oracle, but it’s still damn cool.

Dark City (1998)

Commentators: Alex Proyas (director, writer, story by), test audiences, feedback, and added CGI. Also a very thick, Australian accent.

  • The differences in the theatrical and director’s cut start right off with the opening shot. The theatrical version of Dark City begins with Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber providing voiceover narration explaining the Strangers and the basic premise of the film. Proyas, wanting the film to be told from John Murdoch’s perspective, that of someone who has absolutely no idea what’s happening, thought the opening worked better without the narration. He left the brief scene – a reshoot, as the push-in on the hotel and Murdoch awakening in the tub was originally the beginning – with Sutherland in, but the narration has been taken out.
  • Feedback received on Dark City‘s early test screenings were so dissimilar that Proyas realized then that his film would never be universally appreciated or even understood. He wanted to make a film that was open to interpretation, but he also understands how the studio has to look at a film, that they are going for the biggest audience possible. He goes on to explain how easily you can gauge an audience’s opinion when they’re watching your film. “I knew I was in trouble when I looked across the aisle and saw a couple of guys in particular who were really not there. They were not in the movie.” He does say there were no walk outs, just a general sense of not understanding what was going on. Of course no one walked out. They knew Jennifer Connelly would be showing up any minute.
  • Continuing the topic of test screenings and the studio’s reaction to feedback on Dark City, Proyas notes this was the first time in his career someone told him he had to “dumb it down”. The director had heard this expression before, but he never thought a studio would actually say it to a director. He goes on to explain his theory of appeal, that “not every film has to appeal to everybody” and how watering a film down to make it more appealing to everyone loses the film’s original intention. He does feel the director’s cut of Dark City would have done as good as if not better at the box office than the theatrical cut.
  • The shot of Murdoch looking at his fingerprint and how the print spirals in the camera was added for the director’s cut. Proyas’ intention with showing the print was to show how Murdoch is evolving and “adapting to his circumstances”.
  • Proyas felt the tuning effects, the spiral that comes out of Murdoch’s forehead when he’s tuning, were heavy handed and not to his liking. He mentions how special effects, particularly CGI, has improved in the last 10-15 years. The director’s cut was a way for him to improve on these effects. We can all thank Proyas for not going full Lucas on Dark City and adding farting aliens or something. Thank you, Alex.
  • Some of the ordering of shots in the early scene where William Hurt’s Inspector Bumstead is investigating the murders has been reworked. There was originally a quip he made about the dead prostitute that made some test audiences think he was a cold character. Proyas didn’t think the line was that important, and he wanted the audience to connect with Bumstead, so the line was cut.
  • There were additional scenes cut for the theatrical version. Proyas mentions he would like to add these scenes back in some day but the resources weren’t available to make that happen. He does note that the most important scenes, the ones that he felt served Dark City the best, have been put back in.
  • The moment with the prostitute’s daughter has been added. It’s a setup for a moment later on that had also been cut, when Bumstead and Jennifer Connelly’s Emma – GRRRROUUUUURRR – finds the daughter and sees her drawing of the Strangers. Proyas liked how uncomfortable the little girl made Murdoch in the early scene. He also liked how it adds depth to the characters, how this prostitute has a life outside of what is going on. Right. Because prostitutes have lives. Please, no hate mail.
  • Proyas brings up influence, how Dark City‘s look was influenced to an extent by other science fiction films, but the story was influenced by science fiction literature. Proyas notes the two films that influenced him to become a film maker were Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey. “They weren’t filmed plays. They were movies,” Proyas says. “You couldn’t express those any other way than in cinematic terms.”
  • The director wanted the film to look real, not highly theatrical like Tim Burton’s Batman, which he mentions by name. He wanted it to feel like a documentary that had been filmed in this real world. As much naturalistic lighting as possible was used even though the entire film takes place at night. Street lamps were used as much as possible for the exterior scenes.
  • “It’s an incredibly complicated concept,” says Proyas during the scene when Murdoch first confront’s Emma. The director discusses his character’s memories and how they should or shouldn’t work according to the Strangers as opposed to how Murdoch’s memory is working. He isn’t acting like he should, therefore everyone he encounters begins to not act as if they should. The director mentions what is going on in Emma’s head, and how she isn’t able to react to Murdoch as she normally would, because he isn’t acting like he should be based on his memories. Proyas is right. It’s complicated. Hope you’re not lost.
  • Proyas feels most movies are straightforward, very simplistic, almost one-dimensional narratives. He finds it refreshing when something new comes along, and it was his intention to have Dark City be one of those movies that change the pace of the norm or expected.
  • Proyas mentions he knew who Rufus Sewell was before Dark City, but he also recognizes how most audiences didn’t at the time. He felt it was important for Murdoch to be played by someone people didn’t recognize or already have an understanding as to who he is. This was a conscious choice given how little Murdoch knows about himself and how little the audience knows about the character early on as well.
  • The Strangers have created a world that is very generic. Naming the location Murdoch is trying to get to Shell Beach adds to that. As Proyas points out, every city in the world must have a location called Shell Beach. Likewise, all the stores and restaurants in Dark City are named simply by description. There is no identity to any of them. Also next week’s Commentary Commentary will be from the director of Movie: The Motion Picture.
  • A concept in filming Dark City was to use long lenses in the beginning, show minute details of the world, and then open up to give a broader view of it. Proyas notes this was incredibly complicated to pull off, and the idea was scrapped as production began. He does mention deep focus and utilizing space as you would if you were filming a horror movie were used to add to the uncomfortable tone of the film.
  • Some have asked Proyas why the Strangers didn’t get rid of Walenski, the former investigator who went mad and who knows something otherworldly is going on, earlier. The director points out that leaving him in the experiment was something of an experiment in of itself, to see how Walenski would react and how people would react to him.
  • The original concept for Dark City was to be from the point of view of the investigator. The character would be looking into a case and gathering clues, but the clues and data he gathers would stop making sense. Eventually the investigator would find the clues lead him to a much bigger story of what’s going on, how it pertains to the whole world, not just the case he’s currently on. This character also eventually went insane in the early versions of the script much like Walenski does in the finished version.
  • Proyas doesn’t think of the Strangers as evil. He thinks of them more as “tragic villains”, what he feels are the best kind of bad guys. They do what they feel they must in order to survive, and they must use human beings the way they do to find a way to continue their own species. Just remember this if you ever wake up on a strange planet. That eight-eyed beast with claws and fangs isn’t trying to eat you because it’s bad. It’s just hungry. Cute little fella’.
  • The director isn’t sure what the functionality of the face covering the Strangers’ time clock is. He supposes it’s representative of a human face, the thing the Strangers are trying to figure out with their experiments. He does mention it reminds him of The Wizard of Oz.
  • Proyas mentions a misconception about Dark City, that some people think the Strangers have the ability to alter or stop time. This isn’t true. They only have the ability to change the city, and they can, through a telekinetic power of suggestion, make people fall asleep. It’s a sort of hypnosis inside their injected memories that causes everyone in the city to fall asleep at the same time every night and stay asleep until the Strangers are done with their tuning of the city.
  • The word “tuning” was thought up by Proyas, but there was some debate on this. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs wanted to use “the occasion”. Proyas wanted a word that would suggest an altering, but he also felt the word “tuning” was obscure enough as to sound almost alien.
  • Every set in the city was a built set. Nothing was filmed on location. Proyas mentions this was very important, because it gave him free range to play with angles or make walls or ceilings slightly off skew. This was also designed to affect the audience psychologically. The director finds it far more effective when a set is subtle rather than grand sets with thousands of extras. He takes the same stance on computer effects, how effects work better if they’re part of a whole, not the entire thing. Again, Proyas wins this debate over Lucas every step of the way.
  • It was a surprise to Proyas that Kiefer Sutherland ended up in the Dr. Schreber role. Sutherland mentioned to the director that when he received the script he didn’t understand why it had come to him. He thought it was a mistake and that they had wanted his father, Donald, instead. Proyas didn’t take Kiefer Sutherland in the role seriously at first, but met the actor anyway. This meeting completely turned Proyas around in his opinion for the role. Schreber was originally intended to be someone older, but the director recognizes it works better if the character is younger, someone who has their life ahead of them but this world is all they know of a future.
  • The spiral in Bumstead’s coffee cup is added for the director’s cut. “No one got it in the original test screenings,” says Proyas. However, he felt it important to show that the Strangers are affecting this world they’ve created both intentionally and by accident. Showing the swirl in the coffee cup after the tuning is an indication that something not right is going on with the world.
  • Proyas began writing Dark City in 1990, shortly before he directed The Crow. He admits some of the design and city aesthetic ideas seen in The Crow were shared between the two projects. After that film was a hit, studios began asking him what he projects he had up his sleeve he wanted to work on. Dark City bounced between a number of studios mostly due to disagreements they had with how Proyas envisioned the final film and the specific ideas he had for it.
  • Neptune Kingdom, the location in the film where Murdoch goes and finds his uncle, was based on Lunar Park in Sydney. Evidently the park still exists, but, according to Proyas, it’s been run down over the years. Here’s hoping Dark City and this commentary helped Lunar Park’s attendance numbers. Probably not.
  • “As we sit here in this room recording this dialogue, who knows whether we actually did experience day time earlier on today or whether that was just a false memory. You don’t know,” says Proyas, which means that if you’re reading this at night, you might have something to worry about. He also mentions later on how the idea of injecting memories and controlling things with your mind could become a reality soon with the right technology.
  • According to Proyas, all of the actors, at least the main ones, did fully understand what was going on in Dark City while they were shooting it. The director mentions William Hurt, in particular, understood the story and the ideas within better than even he did. Of course, he did. The guy was in Altered States. He’s still bouncing in and out of being that freaky monkey looking thing.
  • Proyas was always reluctant about showing too much of the aliens that live inside the Strangers’ bodies. He feels that if we saw them too much, it would end up coming off hokey and completely unrealistic. Earlier versions of the film were designed so that we would never see the aliens at all, but Proyas felt it necessary to give a physicality to what was controlling the city and everyone in it. He knew it was necessary to show the aliens, but worked towards showing very little of them and only in fleeting moments. Proyas also said something about Richard O’Brien being able to act like an alien, which isn’t really a shock, is it? He shows up in that wall of monitors in Men in Black, doesn’t he?
  • Mr. Sleep, the child Stranger, was played by twins, a boy and a girl. The siblings loved shooting Dark City. The girl, in particular, couldn’t wait to get into costume every day. They were also big Rocky Horror Picture Show fans, and were in awe of Richard O’Brien while filming alongside him. As Proyas notes, the only real difficulty with working with the twins was in getting their head shaved.
  • The scene with Murdoch, Bumstead, and Dr. Schreber in the car has been extended for the director’s cut. Dr. Schreber gets increasingly frantic until Murdoch psychically forced Dr. Schreber’s glasses to begin to melt around his head. It was removed from the theatrical version mainly because Proyas wasn’t happy with how the effects look. They were able to redo it with better effects and include it here.
  • Proyas left the Stranger’s reasoning behind the city and the experiment as simply “They’re looking for the human soul” in order to keep an air of mystery about them. “The film was more about the impact they had as a result of that experiment on human beings, so…if it begged for more answers then I always thought that was a good thing.” Proyas felt leaving the audience in the dark on a lot of the what and why of the Strangers made it a much richer film. He didn’t want everything answered. Again, point Proyas in this completely fictional sparring match between he and George Lucas. Really, Lucas isn’t gonna win this one, guys.
  • When Murdoch and Bumstead burst through the wall and it is revealed they are simply floating in space, test audiences were confused. They didn’t think it was realistic that everyone wouldn’t be sucked out from the hole Murdoch and Bumstead create. Proyas thinks it makes sense given what we’ve seen the Strangers be able to do up until this point, but the effect of the force field was added to appease this kind of confusion.
  • According to Proyas, the ship and the city are not stationary in space. They are actually travelling somewhere. It’s only mentioned here, because it’s not even anything I personally have ever thought about with this film. It’s a good question, though. Where the hell are they going?
  • Leading from the bit about the ship going somewhere, Proyas mentions there are ideas for a sequel to Dark City. He was interested in seeing what happened with Murdoch’s character now that he’s able to control the world he’s in. Proyas also wanted to look into whether or not this power ever corrupted him. He does mention later in the commentary that he doesn’t think the power would drive Murdoch to turning evil, but he addresses this is a psychological question more than a narrative one.
  • The metallic cage Dr. Schreber is wearing near the end of the film was inspired, as was the character’s name, by “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” by a German judge, Daniel Paul Schreber, who suffered from dementia praecox.
  • The original ending for Dark City was much different from what ended up in the final film. Originally there was a trial. Proyas describes it as Kafka-esque. Murdoch was originally put on trial for the murders of the prostitutes. This eventually devolved into “bizarre existentialism”, and Proyas wasn’t satisfied with it. He then came up with the idea of the city having an edge and having the characters discover what they would find once they reached to that edge.
  • Proyas mentions his fascination with water, how he loves shooting water. As he states and as you might be able to tell, he enjoys shooting scenes in bathrooms. One day during filming, the production team had wet down a street to make it look more visually appealing. William Hurt was confused why, if the Strangers had a fear of water, would the streets be wet all the time. “And my response to that, of course, was, ‘Well, because it looks cool,’ which I don’t think was a great answer.” Proyas also notes the Strangers have a fear of water, but since it’s a human necessity, they couldn’t construct the city without water.
  • The scene at the end with Murdoch and Emma – now Anna – on the pier was one of the only days production shot an exterior. It was the only time of shooting where they filmed outside of a sound stage, and Proyas mentions how odd it was to see his production team and actors working in the daylight. Go figure.

Best in Commentary

“I’ve never really understood the concept of infinity. I think it’s something that human beings find very hard to grasp, and I guess in my simplistic human mind I feel like there’s got to be a boundary to all this somehow. There’s got to be an end to it all.”

“For me Dark City is a film of hope and optimism. It has a firm belief in the individual winning out over the mass mind, and I think that’s a very important feeling to have in this world.”

Final Thoughts

The director’s cut commentary on Dark City is a solid one. Alex Proyas is very gifted in expressing his visions. Most of the commentary delves into the film’s theory as opposed to anecdotes about shooting. There’s very little of that here. ome of it does fall into play-by-play commentary but it usually comes with an added explanation of the subtext, what Proyas was going for with a particular scene.

A lot of his commentary is regarding a character’s mind-set and why they are doing what they’re doing, much better than typical, one dimensional commentary. Some of the subtext and character’s motivations are easy to sort out without the commentary, so some of it comes off as dispensable. He does go over three or four different times how the original concept was from the perspective of William Hurt’s character, but even in this reiteration Proyas finds a way to dish out new perspectives and ideas he was working with while writing the film.

The commentary begins with Proyas explaining the differences in the theatrical and director’s cut and the dealings he had to contend with regarding test audiences and feedback. This dissipates after a while. It would have been interesting to hear two commentaries from Proyas, one focusing on the film itself and the other focusing on the testing, the reactions, and the director’s cut. However, what we’re left with is every bit as solid as the film itself.

Learn more in the Commentary Commentary archives


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