Considering that teenage wizards and vampires have collectively grossed well over a billion dollars at the box office in the past year alone, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to franchise the concept of teenage aliens.
Which brings us to an anonymous industrial warehouse hidden in the woodlands of Western Pennsylvania, 40 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. Inside, something even more secret than alien conspiracies was taking place: a spirited and industrious film crew was busily cobbling together a set for the upcoming DreamWorks action-adventure film I Am Number Four, the story of a young, humanoid extraterrestrial hiding on Earth from a rival species seeking to hunt the last nine of his kind into extinction.
Alex Pettyfer, the dashing 20-year-old British actor who has so far managed to slip under the radar of American audiences (not for much longer, though), plays alien Number Four, aka John Smith. John’s been on the run for years, repeatedly changing his identity in order to evade his would-be killers, and slowly learning to master his developing powers under the protective watch of his guardian and father figure Henri (Timothy Olyphant).
“He’s very James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause,” said Pettyfer about his character. “He’s a guy who’s lost… he’s just kind of trying to find who he is as a person and I think most teenagers go through that.”
Or, to summarize his role more simply: “I’m a teenager and I got superpowers — how much cooler can it be?”
I must admit, that does sound pretty cool. So when I was invited to visit the cast and crew on location, and bear witness to super-powered spacemen doing battle in the middle of a dense and foreboding Pennsylvanian forest, I packed my bag and hopped on the first identifiable flying object I could find.
Unfortunately, when I arrived, fickle Mother Nature had other ideas. Thanks to a relentless rain that practically rusted out the Steel City that entire weekend, the awesome outdoor alien smackdown I was primed and ready for was washed out and postponed. Instead, I was ushered indoors — hence the aforementioned warehouse — to watch a far more intimate and character-centric scene involving Pettyfer and his romantic lead, Dianna Agron (you know her as Quinn on Glee).
Oh well, I guess that’s okay too. Such is the always unpredictable art of filmmaking. Producer David Valdes, whose credits include The Green Mile and Unforgiven, likened the experience to having a baby. “You do your best to go through the gestation period…and then pretty soon the baby starts growing up and doesn’t [always] do what you want it to do, Valdes said. “We shouldn’t be here tonight; we should be out in the woods shooting. You just have to rock and roll with it.”
Despite the last-minute bait-and-switch, my set visit was a fascinating inside look behind the scenes at a film with the potential to be epic in scope and adventure, especially with a creative team that includes DJ Caruso (Disturbia, Eagle Eye) as director, and Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers) and Steven Spielberg (need I really list his résumé?) as producers. Of course, with high expectations also comes pressure, considering this will be the first movie released under the new Disney-Dreamworks distribution partnership.
“It’s a movie about identity and trying to figure out who you are,” said Caruso of I Am Number Four, which is adapted from a soon-to-be-released novel by the same title. “It’s that battle between who you want to be and who you have to be.” Of course, he left out the best part: warring aliens blasting each other with light beams that pulse out of their hands! (Can you tell I’m still ticked about missing out on the fight scene?)
ALIENS IN THE ATTIC
Inside the cavernous warehouse, amidst the percussive sounds of carpentry and smell of freshly-coated spray paint, was a series of set pieces in various stages of completion, including what appeared to be an attic space doubling as a girl’s bedroom. The room was decorated with photographs and cutesy knick-knacks picked out especially for Agron’s character Sarah, who like her Glee persona is a formerly popular high-school cheerleader who suddenly finds herself a social outcast — although in this case, she chooses to distance herself from her old friends.
A withdrawn loner, Sarah finds herself taking an interest in John, the mysterious new kid in school. “She’s very fascinated by him,” explained Agron, “and they realize they have quite a special bond.”
Just prior to the bedroom scene, John and Henri are having their first real sit-down Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Sarah’s parents, until the teens slip upstairs for some alone time. It is here in the attic where John forms a connection with Sarah, learning more about her obsession with photography and identifying with her profound sense of alienation (pun totally intended).
“He gets to see a little bit into her soul and her past,” said Caruso. “She’s this very free, artistic spirit. And he starts to see some of her photographs and gets a little too close, and gets a little too into some of her pain.”
Sarah ponders going away to college to escape her life and make a new home for herself, but the road-weary John, tired of running, reminds her that a place only feels like home when it’s full of people who care about you. “It’s the first time you see my character open up,” said Pettyfer. “Basically, he’s falling for a girl.”
As the talent took to the set, someone passed me a set of headphones tuned into the frequency of the actors’ mikes. I took turns watching the action live and through the camera lens of Oscar-winning director of photography Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), best known for his numerous collaborations with Guillermo del Toro.
Prior to shooting, Navarro described his experience working in and around this tight attic space. “The architecture of the set is very cumbersome and it becomes very challenging to do adequate lighting,” explained Navarro. “The ceilings and the walls are part of every shot. It has all the disadvantages of being on location and very little advantage of actually being on the set, because the room is really limited to the four walls that we’re in and that takes a lot of work to make it look right.”
Fortunately, tonight’s scene was used previously to rehearse the actors, so the crew was already familiar with its intricacies. “It’s a scene that’s very intimate and it opens up who these characters are to each other,” said Navarro. “So right now we’re sort of pulling our hair and seeing how we can piece it together — very calmly piece it together.” And piece it together they did.
As the shoot continued, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be treated to an amazing alien battle royal, the least the actors could do is accommodate me with a blooper-reel highlight. Alas, there were no pratfalls, no flubbed lines, not even a clichéd “I’ll be in my trailer!” temper tantrum. It all went smoothly as Caruso led his talent through a series of minor line variations and subtle directions, i.e. how John should fool around with Sarah’s favorite camera.
“It’s amazing to find a man who is so fatherly on the film set… Probably ’cause he has five kids,” said Pettyfer of his director. “The vision that he’s got for this movie is just gonna blow everyone’s mind.”
SO WHAT DID I MISS, EXACTLY?
While I don’t know precisely what the postponed fight scene would have entailed if it had been shot that evening, I did learn that there is going to be a lot of alien fisticuffs in this movie. And much of the action involves Australian actress Teresa Palmer, who plays super bad-ass Alien Number Six.
Palmer wasn’t on set during my visit, but I did meet with her earlier that day, along with her alarmingly cute Shih Tzu pup Luna. Judging from her infectious smile and taste in cuddly animals, Palmer doesn’t particularly come off like a tough chick, but when the camera’s rolling, apparently it’s a whole ’nother story.
“I believe I have the coolest part in the movie,” said Palmer, who starred this past summer in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “It’s very much like an Angelina Jolie kick-butt role. She takes no crap from anybody. She’s a highly skilled martial artist, she drives around a bright red Ducati…and when you’re first introduced to her in the film, I think as an audience member you question what side she’s on.”
“I’m usually a damsel-in-distress character so this time it’s the total opposite,” she enthused.
Strangely enough, Pettyfer approached Caruso early in pre-production and suggested Palmer for the role of Six. Caruso immediately gestured to a nearby photograph, “and there was a picture of Teresa and it said ‘6’ above it. She had already been cast,” said Pettyfer. “And then I came in the next day and I was like, ‘We’ve 100 percent got to get Dianna Agron from Glee.’” Once again, it was already done. So if this acting thing doesn’t work out, it looks like Pettyfer has a bright future as a casting director.
To prepare for her role, Palmer trained in a variety of combat techniques, often getting competitive with Pettyfer, who had his own personal regimen. “That girl just wants to kick ass,” said Pettyfer. “She’s a machine.”
Not long into her training, Palmer’s instructors had to prepare her for a particularly challenging stunt, which they filmed for Caruso’s review. “They told me that I would be on a wire and I would have to jump up in the air as I pulled the wire up, do a back flip and land on one of the enemies’ shoulders and slice off his head,” recalled Palmer. “I did it in about 13 takes.” Wow. Okay, seriously, can anyone top that?
“I get to fall off of a building,” Agron volunteered later that night.
Oh come on, that’s the best you can do?
“Yeah, I uh…I’m not that much of a baddie,” Agron admitted. “I know I have a stunt double. I shouldn’t say that. I should say it’s gonna be all me. If it looks really complicated, it was all me.”
In addition to intricate stunt work, movie-goers should also expect a healthy dose of special effects.
“We’ve got some very cool things that you guys are going to see,” promised Pettyfer, who insisted the film would stand apart from the Twilight saga. “You see that set right there?” he added, pointing to one of the larger structures under construction. “In a month that’ll be finished and then… it will be gone, because it’s gonna be blown up.”
Damn, forget the fight scene. Why couldn’t they have invited me that day?
I Am Number Four opens in theaters February 18, 2011.