Equilibrium (2002)

Crimes:

  • Stealing its content so extensively from Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, and Logan’s Run, and its look so thoroughly from Blade Runner, The Matrix, and German Expressionist films, that it feels more like a Best Of Dystopian Futures anthology than an original movie
  • Valuing flash over substance, and glossing over it all with a pompous humorlessness that makes the story risible
  • Laying all the groundwork for the writer-director’s subsequent, even more style-obsessed, far more vapid Ultraviolet (also a CTOTD subject)

Defender: Writer-director Kurt Wimmer

Tone of commentary: Calmly but obsessively, endlessly regretful. Wimmer explains that his $20 million flop about how rogue enforcer Christian Bale wakes up and fights his drugged, emotionless society is meant as a fable, not a literal story. (The film brought in $1.2 million in domestic theater release, though it found a cult following on DVD.) He identifies his many German locations, talks about shot choice and lighting and editing, points out costuming and composition details, and discusses how his personal philosophy affected the story. He offers his thoughts on “whipping ass,” and how boring it is when hero/villain fights are protracted or the hero gets hurt, since everyone knows who will win, so the hero should just get it over with quickly and cleanly.

He also tells a cute story about inventing the film’s groundbreaking “gun kata” martial arts in his backyard, after checking to make sure his family wasn’t at home, and the neighbors weren’t looking over the fence: “I remember thinking ‘Am I crazy? Do I actually have the balls to hang a movie on this concept, which may not work at all?” He says the idea for the gun kata came out of his regret that cinematic gunfights stopped evolving after American movies stole Hong Kong action movies’ idea of giving combatants two guns, and Hong Kong movies stole American movies’ idea of having combatants hold those two guns sideways while shooting.

At another point, he explains that studio testing found that women liked Equilibrium “fractionally better” than men, which he considers unheard-of for a science-fiction action-adventure: 

“I’ve often wondered why. Sometimes I think it’s because first of all, there are many women out there who would like their boyfriends to look like [protagonist] Christian Bale. But more importantly, I think there are many women out there who would like their boyfriends—who should look like Christian Bale—to go through this journey, what’s essentially an emotional journey of getting in touch with his feelings. And when he starts kicking ass at the end of the movie, he’s doing it in the name of emotion, which is something women can get behind, as opposed to the reasons men usually kick ass in movies.”

But mostly, he points to shot after shot after shot and discusses what he did wrong. He praises the overall look of the film, and he watched his first dailies with tears in his eyes, thinking, “I am making a real movie at last” (after more than a decade as a screenwriter), but he can’t let go of all the things that could have been better.

What went wrong: Hoo boy. Just a sampler:

• “Originally, this scene was supposed to take place on his roof. He was supposed to wake up and be so overcome with emotion that he runs upstairs, bursts out onto his roof, and sees the sun rise. But as usual—and I’ll be flogging this all throughout this commentary, budget-budget-budget—as usual, we didn’t have the time or the money for a separate location or a move.”

• “When I watch these fight scenes, I kind of cringe a bit, because I know we could have done them so much better, but we had so little time to shoot this, and oftentimes we only had one take.” The crowd scenes also make him cringe, because he feels he executed them entirely wrong.

• The camera battery failed twice during a shooting of the burning of the Mona Lisa. Wimmer could only afford two copies of it, “so I didn’t really get any footage of it burning, which was disastrous. The battery failing twice in this circumstance is really the cinematic equivalent of the hangman’s rope breaking twice in a row.”

•  He never meant for the Tetragrammaton, the symbol of his Nazi Germany-like totalitarian society, to look like Nazi Germany’s symbol. It looked fine on small props, but when he saw it on a flag toward the end of the film, “I said ‘Oh Christ, it looks like a swastika,’ but I was stuck with it, and I had to go with it.”

• He agonizes for several minutes over how there are too many steps in a character’s office, in an effort to keep the windows out of the background, so he wouldn’t have to pay to design views out of those windows. His set designer argued at length about the proper number of steps, but Wimmer regrettably had to overrule him.

• Lighting entire combat scenes with gunfire was an idea that came from necessity, not style: “We certainly didn’t have the time or the money to film anything that was choreographed.”

• He chose Berettas as the gun of choice for his soldiers entirely because Berettas can be modified for top ejection of spent shells instead of side ejection. He wanted an overhead shot where protagonist Christian Bale shoots someone, and the spent shell pops up and hits the camera lens. But he didn’t have enough time or money to get that shot, and “ultimately, it was a fair amount of work and expense that didn’t pay off in any sense.”

• Two different people play Bale’s wife because the model they hired to play her for one scene “was nowhere to be found” for later shoots, and they couldn’t afford to reshoot the earlier scene. 

• Special-effects supervisor Uli Nefzer was told to build a false wall for agents of oppression to take down during one scene. “Being instructed to build a wall, like any good German, he set off to build a wall. And the idea was that these two guys were supposed to be able to go through this wall in about 3.8 seconds. Well, we get there, and they put their crowbars into this wall, and it turned out, 10 minutes later and two bags of film, they were still going at it… We had one of the rare moments of levity, laughing at that on set.”

• A key scene where Bale hears Beethoven for the first time sends Wimmer on five minutes of breast-beating: “I always thought, and I still do, I feel that I failed to a large degree in this scene, that it doesn’t have the power or resonance that it could have, or it should have. I’ve obviously looked at this scene a lot. And there are other scenes in the film that I feel like could have been done better, but all of those scenes, I know how I would have shot them differently, if I could go back. But this is the one scene where I have no idea how I could have made it better. I just know that it could have been better. I just think I just sort of reached the limits of my filmmaking ability in this particular scene.” 

• Also in regards to that sequence, he wanted to use Herbert Von Karajan’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, played by the Berlin Philharmonic; he used that recording for planning and shooting. In post-production, a producer told him “You have selected the most expensive arrangement of this music in the world—it’ll cost us $75,000 to use the 90 seconds you want.” They had $1,500 for the rights, and Wimmer was “forced to scratch around in the bargain bins” for a cheap version of the Ninth, then re-cut the scene around it. Wimmer apologizes for the inferior version.

• For a combat scene shot in a Berlin municipal building, the setting was perfect, but the floor had to be covered, and the floor coverings had to be mopped between every shot “because they picked up footprints like you wouldn’t believe… it was an incredible time-eater. So keep that in mind, first-time directors: reflective black floors. They look great, but man, they can kill you.”

• One prop photo involved an actor in casual clothes instead of an enforcer uniform, and Wimmer could not decide what to have him wear. He put the decision off until the day the prop had to be produced, and still regrets the choice to dress the actor in flannel: “That picture is an example of the creative bankruptcy at its best.”

• “This was the best we could do, by the way, in terms of our resources, in terms of creating a sumptuous and hypocritical office.”

• “I always wish we would have opened the doors a little longer, and we would have held on that shot, with all those dead guys out there.”

• “I always regret not using a more strident sound cue to introduce Taye [Diggs] there. These are the things you tend to obsess about after the fact, the little things that drive you nuts.”

• “This is one of the few shots that I went back to get again. I generally didn’t have time, even if I wanted to, or there would have been plenty more, I promise you that.”

Comments on the cast: As a perfectionist and a visual stylist, Wimmer has far more to say about his technical crew—many of whom he name-checks in stories—than about his actors. He does say that he was concerned Christian Bale didn’t understand his own character, after Bale suggested a possible interpretation for a scene that went against Wimmer’s intent. To this day, he says he’s unsure whether Bale, in that conversation and others, “was simply testing me, or just fucking with me. We’ll never know. He has a very dark sense of humor, and at this point, in retrospect, I’d say 50-50.” He does, however, praise Bale as “a dead-on athlete” whose skill made it possible to get through one fight scene five times in 30 minutes after Wimmer “ran out of time, as usual.”

He also says that antagonist Taye Diggs was the first person he cast. Since people in Wimmer’s totalitarian society are supposed to be artificially emotionless, some viewers objected to Diggs’ near-perpetual smile, but Wimmer says he cast Diggs specifically for that smile. “I thought that anybody who had a smile that perfect had to be lying about something. I found his smile, as dynamite as it is, to be insincere, and to me, a smile that is passionless, that has nothing behind it, is even more empty than nothing.” 

Inevitable dash of pretension: Wimmer keeps referring to himself as “the director.” Because of the budget limitations, he provided character voices himself, used his own hands for close-up shots, and did his own opening narration, but in each case, he says “that’s the director’s voice,” or something similar. In one scene where he appears as an extra, he says, “The unfortunate about to get shot over there is the director. I don’t know why it is, but directors always want to get shot in movies. We really enjoy it.”

He also explains an early shot of Bale basically staring into the camera: “It never ceases to amaze me how a lot of directors just throw away the introduction of the lead character. I really feel that the audience needs a naked moment, unobserved, to look in the character’s eyes to decide who that person is, and what they think about them, and to decide whether they really like them or not.”

But most of the pretension comes up when Wimmer wanders off into the movie’s philosophy. He acknowledges the debt to the films listed above, plus Alphaville, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange, Gattica, THX 1138, Judge Dredd, and more, but says none of those films are about socially inflicted numbness the way his film is, or about the “dangerous idea that I see growing daily around me, that some people’s feelings are dangerous and need to be censored.” This leads into a strange lecture about how he’s uncomfortable with hate-crime laws. He worries that “when a government body starts telling people who they can hate, it is… the beginning of telling them who they can love.” 

Finally, after 100 minutes of ruthless self-criticism, he ends the commentary with a brief, brittle word for his detractors: “You know, in the final analysis, this film was eviscerated by the critics. It was really vilified in a measure that I’ve usually only seen reserved for established directors who have made a $100 million flop. And I don’t fully understand it. But you know, I believe in chivalry still, and good, bad, and black and white. And I don’t think it’s a movie for cynics. But I’m not a cynic, and so that’s why I’ll hopefully be making movies forever. I’m out.”

Commentary in a nutshell: “For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t have Christian run with greater urgency here. It bugs me every time I see it.”

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