With his latest futuristic thriller hitting cinemas, expatriate New Zealand director Andrew Niccol talks to Michele Manelis about his unconventional film ideas and working with Twilight writer Stephanie Meyer.
Andrew Niccol takes the term "time is money" literally in In Time his new sci-fi thriller.
Starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, the film is set in the not-too-distant future where the ageing gene stops at 25, marking the last year of life.
The wealthy can buy or inherit more time while the common folk must work in order to afford another day of life, a premise which might seem to spin from the current state of the world's economy. And, while the New Zealand-born writer-director is sipping tea in Beverly Hills, protesters in downtown Los Angeles are marching, placards in hand, declaring, "We are the 99 per cent."
The serendipity isn't lost on him. "I know. I just picked up the newspaper. It's very current, isn't it? There's this vast inequality and no middle class anymore. The movie is definitely an extrapolation on today, but it's also about the obsession with youth. That's why it's loosely set in Los Angeles, the capital of staying young forever."
Surely, the search for the elusive fountain of youth is as old as time itself and certainly not restricted to inhabitants of LA?
"No, it's certainly not, but it's not uncommon to see a beautiful woman walking down the street here, and she turns around and she's 60. You find yourself going, 'Oh, what happened?"' he laughs.
In Time is Niccol's fourth feature as director since his writing-directing debut Gattaca in 1997. He also co-wrote and co-produced The Truman Show, earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay plus a Bafta award.
"I don't work a lot because I have expensive and unconventional ideas. You can go into a studio and have an unconventional idea, or you can an expensive idea, but that combination is a difficult one. So for me, it means, life is going to be hard," he says, smiling. "But, I can't change what I like."
There seems to be a common thread between his high-concept first movie, set in a world where genetic perfection reigned supreme and his latest effort, In Time, where youth is power.
"Yes, In Time is the bastard child of Gattaca. I realised way back then that the ultimate goal is to live forever. The holy grail of genetic engineering would be to find the ageing gene and switch it off. It's the perfect metaphor for living in the moment. If you have a literal body clock, it's reminding you that every second counts as you're watching it tick down. I think we could all benefit from having one."
In Time also stars Cillian Murphy and Olivia Wilde, given the premise the entire cast had to be in their 20s, or at least appear that way.
"Shooting the movie, the atmosphere was very strange. I'd be looking through the monitor and I'd see a crew member walking across who might have only been around 40, and I'd go, 'Who the hell is that?"' he recalls. "I became very ageist on that set because everyone needed to be young."
Born in Wellington, Niccol moved to London in his 20s and began directing television commercials. He then relocated to Los Angeles to begin a career in filmmaking.
"I've become a cliche. I live between LA and Manhattan," he says. "My family is in New Zealand and I visit them often."
"What I like about coming from New Zealand is the distance ... and the thing is, I always like to be a foreigner in a place. I've been so long out of New Zealand now that I've spent more time out than in. I'm a foreigner here in America, which is good."
Niccol sees a slight irony at having departed New Zealand to eventually become being an established director in the US. "Well, Peter [Jackson], done very well, hasn't he? He's turned Miramar, a street where I lived once, into a suburb of Hollywood," he says. "Actually, I have a friend working on The Hobbit. My mother keeps saying to me on the phone, 'Why aren't you here?' And the thing is, I'd go anywhere that the story takes me. I've made films in New York, South Africa, the Czech Republic, anywhere."
His next project will be as director and writer of The Host, adapting the best-selling novel by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer about aliens inhabiting human life forms.
"It's a liberating feeling that I'll be directing something I haven't had to make up. It'll be fun. But I have to say, Stephanie gave me her 650-page book to adapt. That's a workout to start with but I've managed to get it down to a script and there are two more movies coming after the initial movie," he says. Clearly, he enjoys a challenge. "Well, yes. At first I thought, 'this is going to be impossible'."
Despite his a resume full of altered realities or futuristic ideas, he doesn't see himself as a sci-fi fan. "I wasn't a sci-fi buff growing up, although my dad is. I didn't even know I was making science fiction when I started my career. I just thought I was telling stories. I didn't know which shelf my movies would end up on in the video shop," he says. "And now that I know, video stores are a thing of the past."
Who: Andrew Niccol, NZ-born writer director whose past credits include Gattaca, The Truman Show, The Terminal, Lord of War
What: In Time, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried
When: Opens at cinemas Thursday