‘I Am Number Four’ Director DJ Caruso Traces His Film’s Strange Journey, Beginning with James Frey’s Literary Incubator
February 18, 2011
“I Am Number Four,” which opens across the country today, may hold the record for speediest journey from novel to screen. At this time last year, before the book had even landed a publisher, Dreamworks had already optioned the rights to the sci-fi coming-of-age story about a race of aliens inhabiting earth as teenagers, co-written by James Frey and Jobie Hughes under the nom de plum Pittacus Lore. Shortly thereafter, screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar were hired to adapt the book and D. J. Caruso (“Disturbia”) was brought on to direct what everyone hoped would become an all-media teen sensation à la Twilight and Harry Potter.
When the book was eventually released last August, it immediately landed on The New York Times bestseller list. But it failed to ignite the kind of multi-generational furor that begot the Twi-hard Nation. Then in November, New York Magazine ran a hard-hitting piece accusing James Frey of exploiting young novelists, like the one with whom he co-wrote I Am Number Four through his recently launched Full Fathom Five publishing operation. According to the article, Frey encouraged MFA writing students to send him their most commercial ideas for novels, the best of which he’d commission for a pittance and then require writers to sign contracts entitling them to a small fraction of the book’s eventual earnings. Unfortunately, the New York Magazine piece was much more widely read in media circles than the book itself.
The filmmakers have had to work hard to fill the screen with enough excitement to distract from the pyrotechnics surrounding the source material. Any publishing industry controversy is unlikely to impact the film’s success with its target audience: teenagers. The film’s secret weapon lies in its leading man, British newcomer Alex Pettyfer, who stars as the title character, an alien in heartthrob’s clothing, who has spent his life bouncing from one high school to the next in an effort to flee the mercenary aliens who have been hunting him down ever since his, um, number came up.
On the eve of the film’s release, Word & Film caught up with director D. J. Caruso to discuss his approach to bringing this much-buzzed-about book to the big screen.
Word & Film: Your film is opening in theaters today. Are you nervous about how audiences will respond?
D. J. Caruso: Oh yeah. Opening day is probably the worst day for a director. Because now you have absolutely no control and you always want to have control. Every project is like your little child that you’re sending out into the world. And you hope you taught it everything it needs to know. But you always think you could have done better. At times you can’t stand it; at times you love it. At times you think you’re brilliant; other times you think you’re a hack. You’re all over the place.
W&F: What did you connect with emotionally in this material?
DJC: I was really drawn to the protagonist: Number Four. He had this disenfranchised youth thing going for him, kind of like James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” He didn’t want to put roots down; he was afraid to make attachments. And I liked the hook that he finally finds a place he really wants to stay, in this little Norman Rockwellian town where he finds the girl. But ultimately he has to understand that his destiny is a much greater calling and he has to decide that who he wanted to be and who he becomes are not the same person.
W&F: In your previous films you’ve found a way to make the genre elements secondary to the more emotionally driven coming-of-age story. Is that something you did here as well?
DJC: That’s what I was trying to do. My biggest contribution to the “Disturbia” script was that I was trying to make it a coming-of-age story that happened to be a thriller when you get to the third act. I tried a little of the same technique here where you get to know the characters and when it ultimately becomes a big sci-fi firefight in the end, you hopefully care about the characters more than you might have otherwise.
W&F: An alien is a perfect metaphor for what feels like to be a teenager. You must have found a lot of creative ways to mine that material?
DJC: I’m sure James Frey had that in mind when he and Jobie Hughes conceived the story. And it was a nice anchor for me to get the actors involved. It’s always nice for me to find some core emotional theme for them to latch onto. For instance, Alex could draw from his own experiences as actor always changing projects and moving around to various shooting locations to play a character who was always changing towns.
W&F: What clinched it for you in terms of casting Alex in the role?
DJC: I love Alex’s vulnerability. In the audition I felt he was an incredibly vulnerable guy for someone who is as strikingly good looking and dynamic as he is. That to me was really refreshing because that combination — many times, you get one or the other. He also has a great physical presence that helps you believe that he can become a warrior at the end of the movie.
W&F: How did this project find its way to you?
DJC: The manuscript was sent to me last February. The book hadn’t come out yet and I actually received a manuscript with writing and circles and typos. Then I asked to see if they had an outline to book two, because I didn’t want to do anything that would be counter to what their plans were for the franchise. It was kind of an odd process. It’s not normally done this way. It’s normally done where the book’s been out for a couple years and there are so many fans who have all these expectations for what the movie’s going to be. I had the opposite situation where I didn’t know what the expectations would be because no one had read the book yet.
W&F: Did it come across as though it had been written with the intent of having it adapted for the screen?
DJC: You’d have to ask James Frey. But I believe that he believed this series could potentially become a film. And obviously because they optioned the first manuscript. I think if they had written down an overall plan I bet this would have been part of the overall plan.
W&F: Did you ever meet James Frey or his co-writer Jobie Hughes?
DJC: They came to the set one day when we were shooting in Pittsburgh. And we kept them apprised of all the official drafts. We always gave it to him and got his thoughts and feelings on what we were doing.
W&F: What were your biggest challenges in making this film your own?
DJC: Blending the coming-of-age story with the sci-fi element that comes in at the end of the movie. I was always trying to make sure the emotional element remained strong even when the genre and 3-D monsters kicked into high gear near the end, so it wouldn’t feel like two different movies.
W&F: What’s next for you?
DJC: I don’t know. It’s probably going to be something a little more adult and R-rated and dark. I want to see if I can graduate from making movies that take place in high school. I can always go back and visit but I’m ready to get out into the adult world.
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