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Shortly after completing their first movie, in 2004, Kerry and Kevin Conran received an invitation from George Lucas. The Star Wars mastermind would be hosting a summit at Skywalker Ranch, his production facility-cum-small town in San Francisco, gathering some of the most forward-thinking people in the movie business to discuss the future of film. James Cameron was there, as were Robert Zemeckis and Brad Bird. The brothers were newcomers, but that day they were treated as peers; each of their fellow directors told the Conrans how impressed they were with what they’d accomplished. Their work, they were told, was way ahead of its time.
How Kerry Conran saw Hollywood's future
- then got left behind
The Telegraph ~ July 16, 2015
Over a decade ago, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow laid the foundations for today's effects-driven blockbusters.
Why haven't its creators made a film since?
Angelina Jolie in 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow'
Credit: Paramount/Everett/Rex Features
Then why don’t you know their names? The fact is, every effects-driven movie you watch this summer - ie, all of them - will owe them some kind of debt. It could even be argued that the Conrans laid the groundwork for pretty much all the big event unveiled at this year's Comic-Con. But time and Hollywood have forgotten the Conrans. Their part in the creation of the modern blockbuster has been all but forgotten.
In the late Nineties even fewer people knew those names. Kerry Conran was working on a magazine doing design work, and his brother, Kevin, was employed as a freelance illustrator in the advertising industry. Keenly interested in the adventure serials of the Forties, Kerry came to his brother with the idea of making a film called Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the story of a pilot who, along with a plucky reporter named Polly Perkins, pursues a mysterious man who is terrorising a retro-futuristic world with giant robots. And they were going to do it in a way nobody had ever tried before.
Kerry Conran with Gwyneth Paltrow
on the set of 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow'
Credit: Snap Stills/REX Shutterstock
“Kerry had been immersed in computers since the onset of Apple,” says Kevin, who would become the film’s production and costume designer. “There was an established way to make visual effects films and it was very expensive, and Kerry saw another way.” His brother’s idea was cheap. He wanted to direct an entire film on blue screen and add all the scenery and effects elements afterwards, eliminating the need for costly sets or locations. Any scene he could imagine could be built inside the computer and the actors dropped in. Commonplace now, revolutionary then.
“We had no money so we were going to basically handcraft it,” says Kevin. “We worked for six or seven years making this little six-minute short… We then spent a lot of money making 25 of these elaborate wooden boxes that were riveted together and contained [the short on tape]. We thought if we sent out 25 we might get interest from one person, but we only ever wound up needing to use one box.” The first recipient of a box was producer Jon Avnet, whose work included Risky Business, Fried Green Tomatoes and The Mighty Ducks. Avnet jumped at it, and in 2002 they began pre-production on their first feature film.
Avnet’s connections helped gather a stellar cast, led by Jude Law as Sky Captain, Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly and Angelina Jolie as a one-eyed air commander, signed up mostly on the basis of the teaser and the promise of working on something completely new. “We honestly couldn’t believe that we’d assembled all these people,” says Conran. “Jon did a great job selling it… Almost everyone was onboard immediately. Everyone was on our side and it was great.”
All was going excellently. Despite using an entirely new way of filmmaking, the shoot passed smoothly. “We were basically left alone as an independent movie for 18 months,” says Conran. “And even when Paramount came on as distributor they rarely bothered us, except for moving up our release date.” The film’s premiere was brought forward by six months to September 17, 2004, which caused “absolute panic”. But the crisis was averted by farming the effects work out to 13 digital effects houses around the world - another commonplace strategy unheard of at the time. The film was set to debut at the end of the summer season, instead of in the quieter, less confident post-Awards season. Sky Captain was now a big deal, a harbinger of a new digital age.
“Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow is unique,” says Ian Freer, Assistant Editor of Empire Magazine and a fan of the film. “While it’s a film steeped in the past — it references everything from The Wizard Of Oz to German Expressionism — its production predicted the very future of moviemaking. If films like the Star Wars prequels had previously built sets in a computer, no one had built entire movies in a digital environment. It basically birthed the idea of a digital backlot that could blend actors within a computer generated environment."
In a year that would see the release of mega-budget movies Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, The Day After Tomorrow and Harry Potter 3, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was one of the most anticipated. It looked unlike anything else coming out in 2004, indeed unlike anything else that had come out ever before. Huge things were expected. “It was exciting,” says Kevin. Tomorrow would be a very different world.
Talking about what happened after the movie’s release, Kevin begins to sound weary, and wary. He rarely speaks about his experiences making the film, and his brother, still stung, no longer discusses it at all. Despite several requests, made via Kevin, including an offer to conduct the interview by email, Kerry declined to participate in this feature.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow concept art
Credit: Kevin Conran
“I never put any expectation on [opening weekend],” says Kevin. “It’s funny, a friend of mine was a publisher at Daily Variety and they track all those numbers. They know what they’ll be before the weekend’s over, which is some sort of weird voodoo. He told me what numbers we were looking at and he seemed disappointed. I didn’t really care. "Mine and Kerry’s motivation for this was to make the movie. We weren’t thinking about getting rich or any of that stuff… The thing is, I realise now that people were looking at us like some kind of giant summer movie tentpole, like Spider-Man. We were never making Spider-Man. We weren’t trying to compete with those movies. We were quirky and little.”
While Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is far from perfect, with some stiff line readings and uneven plotting, there’s much in it that is wonderful. Visually, it’s never dull, throwing up military bases in the sky, elephants that fit in the palm of your hand, dog fights through the streets of New York. Any faults are a result of too many ideas, not too few. It received mixed reviews, but some raves, notably from the late critic Roger Ebert, who said the film, “reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s like a film that escaped from the imagination directly onto the screen”.
But a few great reviews don’t make a difference if your numbers are bad, and Sky Captain’s were very bad. Cinemagoers, perhaps put off by its black and white visuals or comic-strip tone, stayed away: the film made just $15.5 million on its opening weekend. This would have been fantastic if the film had used the tiny budget for which the brothers had originally asked, but the reported cost of $70 million made its eventual worldwide takings of $58 million a catastrophe.
Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain
Kerry and Kevin's robot concept art
Credit: Kevin Conran“I take great issue with that [budget figure] personally and I’d like someone to show me where all that money went,” says Kevin. “I don’t support those numbers and I never have. We walked into Jon Avnet’s office that first day and he said, ‘What do you want for the production?’ and we said $3 million. We could have done a version of this film for $3 million. It would have been black-and-white and sans name actors… “But even still, this whole thing was going to be under $20 million. How it went from 20 to 70, you tell me.”
Hollywood accounting being the mystical, deliberately obtuse art that it is, it’s impossible to pinpoint just what Sky Captain’s actual cost was, but a different budget figure might have changed the Conrans’ careers. On a budget of around $20-30 million, a $57 million box office total would have been seen as, if not stellar, at least reasonable. As a comparison, Hellboy, released the same year, had a reported budget of $66 million and grossed $99 million worldwide. It got a sequel. The Chronicles of Riddick, again released the same year, cost a reported $105 million and grossed $115 million. It got a sequel, albeit nine years later, and is considered a cult hit. Yet the stain of a flop stuck to the Conrans and wouldn’t rub off.
Their careers after that were blighted by what appears to be poor luck more than anything. The brothers were given a second chance, put to work on a version of John Carter of Mars by Paramount head Sherry Lansing. They worked on it for over a year – you can see a test reel on Kevin Conran’s website - but when Lansing left the studio it was canned by the incoming studio head Brad Grey. A Japanese animation company showed interest in producing a 20-episode animated series based on Sky Captain, but after an apparently promising meeting the project stalled.
“There were huge disappointments,” says Kevin. “If Sherry, who was always a champion of ours, had stayed at Paramount I feel like we might have made two or three John Carter films, but things change.” (John Carter was eventually produced by Disney, directed by Andrew Stanton and considered a financial disaster, even by Disney, who publically blamed it for significant losses in the financial quarter ending March 2012). “I remember Kerry with nothing but fondness. He was always a lovely man and extremely talented and I’d take the chance on him again,” says Sherry Lansing, who now heads The Sherry Lansing Foundation, which raises funds for cancer research. “Kerry was [untested] when he came to us but we saw what they were doing with Sky Captain and it was groundbreaking. It was astonishing…and I remember they did some wonderful work on John Carter”.
Asked why she thinks the industry forgot the Conrans, Lansing is stumped. “I don’t know how to answer that,” she says. “But sometimes it happens that when you’re the one breaking new ground you’re the Vincent Van Gogh. You’re not appreciated in your own lifetime.”
Kevin Conran, and by his inference his brother, seem unusual in the realm of Hollywood’s sad stories in that they don’t really blame other people for their misfortune. Every explanation given by Conran points to something he and his brother got wrong, or failed to understand about the Hollywood game. Conran never once suggests anyone else is culpable. Trying to get him to talk about his and his brother’s achievements is like trying to get a straight answer out of a politician. He just can’t blow his own trumpet. When the subject of the greatest endorsement of his career comes up, that call from George Lucas and the subsequent summit, he evades the question and paints himself as the loser.
“It was entirely surreal and continues to be so,” says Conran. “It feels like something that didn’t really happen… George Lucas personally invited us, flew us up there, put us in his place for a long weekend, with all these amazing luminaries, who were genuinely interested in hearing what we had to say. It was unbelievable. I remember the first morning we went down to breakfast. We walked into the dining room and there’s this big table in the middle and it’s George and James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis and Brad Bird, Caleb Deschanel, Robert Rodriguez to name some. “Kerry and I were so intimidated we went and sat at a separate table. We didn’t know what to do! They all turned around, almost en masse, and were like, ‘What are you idiots doing over there? Get over here!’ Then I’m sitting next to Robert Zemeckis.” Conran laughs, but then goes quiet for a few seconds and sighs. “Much to my eternal embarrassment we never stayed in touch with any of those guys.”
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Sky Captain concept art
Credit: Kevin ConranThis may be part of what kept the Conrans out of the Hollywood playground, their inability and discomfort with hustling or acting as if they belong. The brothers have never been good at self-promotion. In a New York Times interview from the set of Sky Captain, the reporter noted that the first two things Kerry said to him were, “I’m shy” and “I am basically an amorphous blob of nothing”.
Kevin is no more self-aggrandising. “We’re a couple of weird guys,” he says. “I wish we’d been smarter, better guys about staying in touch. I can’t believe we haven’t kept some kind of connection to George Lucas. What a couple of dummies. And he was so gracious… “I remember – and I don’t tell you these stories from any place of pride, because they’re kind of embarrassing – I won an award for costume design and afterward they give you your trophy and whisk you to a back room for pictures. I remember standing there and this excited, energetic guy comes running up to me and says, ‘Hey! I love what you do! What are you doing next? We should talk about what you’re doing next?’ And I said, ‘Oh maybe we’re working on John Carter, I think’. He says, ‘OK, let’s talk some time!’ and he leaves. Then the representative from Paramount comes over and laughs at me and says, ‘You don’t know who that was, do you?’ It was JJ Abrams. That’s embarrassing.
“I don’t read the trades,” he continues. “I don’t know who anybody is. I don’t keep in touch with anyone. I just stay in my studio, working on projects and Kerry does the same. That’s pretty dumb. We were in this rarified air for a moment and we never really took advantage in the way maybe smarter people would.”
Kerry Conran has not directed a feature film since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. He made a short film, Gumdrop, in 2012 and told the website Reel Film News that, “I’ve probably been working over the past six years on two particular projects that are just now about ready to go… I can’t say much more about it than that, but I believe very soon I’ll have much more to show”. There have been no further announcements and Kevin declines to expand on his brother’s behalf.
Kevin Conran has worked in the art department on films including Bee Movie and Monsters Vs. Aliens, and as a production designer on Dreamworks’ Dragons, a TV spin-off of the hit movie How To Train Your Dragon. As he muses on where the Sky Captain experience has led him, he says. “I think sometimes that there’s a world where we might have made this thing for $3-4 million and there would be a whole different story to tell.“ Kevin would never say this himself, but the Conrans’s contribution to cinema is huge. “You can absolutely draw a line from Sky Captain to the look and feel of many of the big blockbusters we see today,” says Ian Freer. “Its use of a digital backlot is now the dominant M.O. for production design. Films like 300, Sin City, Avatar and Alice In Wonderland have all created worlds built on the ideas put down by Conran."
As much as the big budget movies have taken the techniques the Conrans developed, still very few people have really done what they set out to do: eradicate the need for giant budgets on fantasy films. Their plan was not to make things better for James Cameron or George Lucas, it was to give opportunity to the guys nobody had heard of – guys like them – and to have moviemaking be restricted only by your imagination not your bank balance. “Conran crystallised the idea of the one man film studio, taken up by the likes of Robert Rodriguez and Gareth Edwards (director of Monsters and later Godzilla),” continues Freer. “But there are other ways in which Conran was ahead of his time. Sky Captain is a film built entirely on nerd love by a nerd director. With its in-jokes, old school visuals and pastiche of old genres, Sky Captain is the ultimate ‘geekgasm’ years before the word was invented.”
Though still reluctant to take much in the way of credit, Kevin Conran wishes there were more who’d take the chance he and his brother did. “I think there’s a real opportunity and it’s still there…to do it the way we planned, but with today’s computers and software. If you commit to the path that we were on, you can really do some amazing things with smaller budgets.”
So does he regret what happened and the path they took? “I refuse to look at our film as a failure. I can’t. There’s no way. I still get emails every month from people thanking me for making the movie and saying they love the work. It’s a decade later. It worked for the people it worked for… Guys like Lucas and Cameron and Brad Bird and Zemeckis, all these people liked the movie and that has to count for something.” He waits a few seconds. “Making this was a magical experience and I hope to replicate it some day”.
Kevin pauses again and then his voice is softer, a little squeak of the boy who watched amazing adventures with his brother and dreamed of a world where they might make their own. “You hope that tomorrow is going to be the day the phone rings.”
Re-visit our 2004 ERB News Page for the news items
on the Conran projects
An exclusive news release to ERBzine from Danton Burroughs
of ERB, Inc., Tarzana
This item was picked up by International news services:
Conran and Paramount Team Visit ERB, Inc. Tarzana Offices
Tarzana, CA ~ Thursday, December 2, 2004
The Hillmans lunch date with Kevin Conran in Tarzana
nod to Frank Frazetta in Sky Captain
Evolution of the John Carter of Mars Project
John Carter of Mars Paramount Project Pre-production
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