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Andrew Niccol - on making GATTACA

by Douglas Eby

In bringing to life his vision of a future society obsessed with human perfection, Andrew Niccol brought a number of disciplines into his screenplay, from eugenics to forensic science to social engineering. Niccol says an interest in these areas is "hard to avoid at the moment. You can't pick up a newspaper without seeing something."

But he also feels this is not just a science-driven narrative: "It's still an old-fashioned story in a sense, of the triumph of the human spirit. Although it has these modern trappings, it's still a man who beats the odds. They just happen to be genetic odds. That aspect interested me as much as the science."

The core idea of GATTACA is that genetic engineering has progressed to the point where potential parents can preselect not only gender and protection against genetically based diseases, but physically and socially desirable traits such as intelligence, stature and a long lifespan, not to mention great abs. Wanting to fulfill his dream of becoming a deep-space navigator, joining the elite of Gattaca Corporation, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) must disguise his "invalid" genetic heritage: he was born the old-fashioned way, not laboratory perfected. But with everyone's DNA tested daily via various bodily fluids, it takes a major and complex subterfuge for him to pass as perfect enough.

The title of the film refers to a genetic sequence that exists in every human being, Niccol points out: "Guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine. The society in the film has adopted that sequence as their city's name, as sort of their tribute to genetics. So it's the name of the city, and a corporation, and I guess you could say, a state of mind."

Niccol, a director of commercials in Britain, makes his feature debut with GATTACA, and notes his career trajectory is a "fairly well-trodden path now; you have the Scott brothers, you have Alan Parker, a lot of people come from, I think, especially English advertising because there's more of an obligation to entertain in those commercials. They really are sort of thirty second, sixty second, films. It does help."

In the opening of the film is a quote of a writer Willard Gaylin: "I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to." Niccol agrees his film may be a cautionary tale on one level, but notes there is undeniable value in genetic manipulation: "How could you ever look a parent in the face who has carried the gene for Huntington's Disease, for instance, and say 'We should never tamper with the human genome.' It's just ridiculous, because for inheritable diseases this is a Godsend. The problem lies in crossing that line from health to enhancement, and then where do you stop? Crooked teeth: is that a genetic defect? Is premature balding? Where do you stop? And everyone will have their own line that they will draw, as these things become more and more possible.

"And these possibilities do exist. I never put a date on the film for that specific reason. Right now you can choose the sex, and there are many inheritable diseases you can prevent by conceiving your child in that Petri dish. And more and more there will be a strange social pressure that will exist on us when we conceive a child the old-fashioned way: people will say 'Why did you burden your child with this disease?' So there will be another strange social stigma attached. But ultimately we may get to the point where we make the gene pool so narrow that we, in effect, become extinct. Maybe there's some genetic advantage that short bald men carry, and we will have eliminated all of them."

One of the aspects of "perfecting" the human being genetically that Niccol is concerned about is that it may come from individuals: "I don't think governments will dictate this" he speculates. "We will embrace it, and say 'Of course, we want to improve ourselves; we want to give our child the best start; we want a healthy, happy child.' And the trouble is putting these expectations on a child -- and we already do. We sing to the child in the womb, hoping to get another Mozart. But here, [with genetic engineering] maybe there's a more precise way of achieving that."

One of the employees of Gattaca Corporation, and also Vincent's love interest, Irene is played by Uma Thurman, who has been quoted that she appreciated the specificity of detail in Niccol's script, and the story about conquering the human gene, but how "in the end, this conquest can't really take away any of the problems of human nature." Irene is a "valid", a person artificially conceived to be as perfect as possible, but still has a slight heart defect preventing her from being a space traveler for the corporation. Niccol recalls when he first spoke to Thurman about the role that she "had a wonderful take on how to play Irene, and that was that she 'firm in her frailty'; she was one of those people who was absolutely sure of what she couldn't do, which is interesting. There was no self-pity there, which was great. She just was saying 'This is what has been prescribed for me, and I know these are my limitations.' And especially for Uma Thurman to be saying that; I mean, if she's not a perfect genetic specimen, then what hope is there for the rest of us?"

In developing the script, Niccol filled notebooks with drawings: "I'm told this is not the normal way to do it", he says, "but since nobody told me the correct way before I started... I mean, I start with a big, blank wall and fill it up with images as I go, and revise those as I go. But this is a visual medium, so often the best way to explain to a designer or props person is by showing them. And I hopefully get their input, but I have quite specific ideas." Niccol recalls initial meetings with production designer Jan Roelfs (THE JUROR; LITTLE WOMEN; Academy Award nomination for ORLANDO) where they were discussing cars for the film: "It's very difficult to design the car of the future. Especially when you don't have the money to do so. And we both mentioned a car at almost the same time: the Studebaker Avanti. A strange thing happened with Studebaker over the years: they had these very sort of rounded, bubble-type shapes, very curvy, then they gave the design to Raymond Loewy, and for just two years they had the Avanti, and then they obviously get cold feet and immediately revert back to the old design. But that's a car that was so ahead of its time."

Comparing the challenges of directing commercials, which he's done for a number of years, and directing a feature, Niccol finds it is "just a marathon, almost a survival test. Making a commercial is a quick hit, but making a film is stamina. If I could recommend anything to anybody it would be just to go through survival training immediately before embarking on such a thing. Especially when you're attempting to create the future, because every object... people come up and say 'Well, Andrew, what is the pen of the future; what is the light bulb of the future.' And when you don't have the money to create those things, I just decided to drag a lot of the past and the present into the future with me, and use classic designs."

One of the central locations is the Gattaca Corporation headquarters building, for which Niccol chose the very stylized Marin County Civic Center north of San Francisco: "There's a classic case of sort of necessity being the mother of invention" he comments. "At first, we were confined to Los Angeles, and we couldn't find a building within the thirty mile limit they like to give you that would embody the philosophy of Gattaca. So just moving up the coast a ways, you have this building that's sort of slightly heroic in its architecture. We chose it because also it was from a period when people were optimistic about the future. That doesn't really exist anymore. Also the curves of the building really helped, so when we designed the sets, we could reflect all those curves: it's a world where there should be no corners for dust to hide. It's such a precise, manicured world, where you imagine any hair follicle can give you away."

One of the aspects he appreciates about his previous directing of English commercials, Niccol says, is working so much with actors: "There are very few dialogue commercials in America, I notice. I think it's also because advertising, as are movies, are becoming very international, so you don't want dialogue that needs to be translated. There are a lot of images here, but in Britain it's far more dialogue, so you get sort of at ease working with actors."

As another design detail, a "bit of fun" as he puts it, Niccol has public address announcements in the Gattaca Corporation headquarters building done in Esperanto: "I thought perhaps it's such a frighteningly optimistic culture that you have this language whose name translates as 'one who hopes.' When I talked to people involved in Esperanto, they hope they can keep it alive. The intention was that no one would ever have to give up a language; this would serve as a common second language. It would be used for flight control, or in politics. It's such a beautiful, idealistic concept."

Another way the production took advantage of its budget limitations, notes Niccol, was in the way many scenes were shot by Director of Photography Slawomir Idziak (THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE; BLUE): "He was a great part of the collaboration for me, because we couldn't reconstruct the world, so we sort of painted it: we heavily filtered the film and put this yellow cast over a lot of the exteriors to give it, you could say a 'jaundiced look', or you could say a 'golden look.' But it just changed the look of any contemporary features that strayed in front of the camera." Niccol appreciates the attitude that the cinematographer had about production: "When we first met he talked about story. To him, that was the most important thing, before technique, which we talked about last. It was quite refreshing."

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