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THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

As Big Brother watches, he's watching back

September 21, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Some writers encamp at coffee shops. Others lug their laptops to leafy parks or hushed university libraries. When D.J. Caruso came to Los Angeles, though, he found some of his best creative hours were spent amid the hustle and bustle of Union Station. Watching the parade of people with suitcases and train tickets spurred his imagination.

Caruso, whose latest film, a combustible thriller called "Eagle Eye," opens Friday, recently returned to the din of the venerable depot, smiling as he watched the waves of arriving passengers, among them an elderly man in an electric-blue silk suit and a woman with twin boys, sullen and tethered by leashes like a pair of sad poodles.

He loves the architecture of this rambling edifice, as well as the fact that "Blade Runner" was shot here, "but my favorite thing is watching the people who get on and off trains, watching them greet each other," the 43-year-old director said. "I would watch them and make up stories for them. Everyone is going from point A to point B. There are times when it gets quiet and then there's a surge of people. Each person is a story, and I love thinking about that."

Humble beginnings

Caruso IS writing his own Hollywood story now, and there have been quite a few plot twists. The Connecticut native got his start in town as an intern in the product placement division at Disney, which is not quite an elite academy for auteurs, but he ended up meeting director John Badham ("WarGames," "Stakeout"), who became a major mentoring figure. Caruso worked on episodes of "Smallville" and "High Incident," but his major breakthrough was "The Salton Sea," the drugged-out 2002 neo-noir film that divided critics with its nihilism and squalor but established its young director as someone to watch.

The films that followed were mixed affairs, and Caruso is the first to admit it. There was "Taking Lives," with Angelina Jolie on the trail of a serial killer, and "Two for the Money," the gambling film starring Al Pacino. The big success was last year's "Disturbia," the suspense film that started a string of career-shaping roles for star Shia LaBeouf. The $18-million film pulled in $117 million worldwide, which led directly to Caruso and LaBeouf re-teaming for "Eagle Eye," which has the young star portraying a man on the run from a shadowy government power that has framed him as a terrorist.

"It's a big, fun popcorn movie, but it does have this underlying theme about our love for technology," Caruso said. "We used to fear Big Brother, and now we're inviting it into our life every day. We've opened up ourselves to be monitored and, in some ways, manipulated. And based on what I've been told by people at the Department of Defense and the FBI, there are already computer systems that are making decisions about us, about who we are and how we behave. So for me it's great to have a movie that is fun, but it does have these messages beneath the surface. Someone told me today that 'Eagle Eye' is like 'WarGames' on steroids, and I really liked that."

From idea to screen

Steven SPIELBERG is an executive producer of the film and came up with its central idea -- that every device around us that has a computer chip can be used as a weapon. LaBeouf's character, along with a single mother played by Michelle Monaghan, essentially spends the whole film running for his life, sort of like the cast of the old Alfred Hitchcock film "The Birds," except this time the chirping threats are cellphones, not pigeons.

"Steven had the idea about 10 or 12 years ago; he wrote it down but then sort of filed it away," Caruso said, as he sipped coffee at a table next to Traxx, the station's restaurant. "Steven saw technology would eventually reach this point. He is definitely a technophobe, which is interesting considering the films he's made. A few years ago he tried to resurrect the movie."

Early on, J.J. Abrams (of "Lost" and "Fringe" fame) worked on the script and mulled directing the film, as did Spielberg himself. There are four writers credited on the final script (Abrams is not among them), but Spielberg said Caruso was the strongest hand in the film.

"Sometimes a director has a take on a story that impresses the studio even as much as all his previous films," Spielberg said. "That's how I felt after hearing from D.J. when he read an early draft of 'Eagle Eye.' This movie was in his DNA."

Perhaps, but considering the personalities involved and the path of the project, it's reasonable to wonder how much of the final product truly reflects Caruso.

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