Director/producer Ivan Reitman has made comedies about frat houses and haunted houses, boot camp and summer camp, mismatched twins and twin 'presidents'
However, it has taken him until now to tackle a genre in which he has held an enduring interest. "I have been a great fan of science fiction ever since I spent Saturday afternoons as a kid watching classic sci-fi thrillers like it came from Outer Space (1953) War of the Worlds, The (1953) and Invaders From Mars (1953)" Reitman reveals. "I had always wanted to do a contemporary science fiction movie-but in my own language, which is comedy. When my partner, Tom Pollock, gave me Don Jakoby's original script called 'Evolution,' I thought it was a very clever, new alien threat to the world. "
There was one aspect of Jakoby's "Evolution" screenplay that didn't quite fit in with the director's vision: in its first incarnation, it was a dramatic science fiction thriller. That didn't deter Reitman, who saw its comedic potential even within its end-of-the-world scenario. Reitman began working with screenwriters Don Jakoby, David Diamond and David Weissman to develop the action thriller into an action comedy.
The humor notwithstanding, the real scientific theories upon which Jakoby had based his original premise remained largely intact. In fact, the central hypothesis ofthe story is one held by an admitted minority of scientists, but one that the filmmakers found fascinating.
Executive producer Tom Pollock offers, "Some scientists venture that life travels from one planetary system to another by way of meteors that crash into a previously lifeless planet. It's called panspermia-a great word-and there's no reason to assume that life didn't start that way on this planet. The majority view is still that life somehow evolved from the bubbling primordial ooze, and then there's divine creation.. but I kind of like the panspermia idea. It resonates with me. "
"Comedy is the crux of the film," Reitman notes. "But it's just as important in a movie like this to give the proper weight to the science fiction aspects. The science is somewhat twisted and exaggerated because it is fiction and a comedy, but it's based in truth. It has to make some sense for the audience to get caught up in the ride. I'm always trying to walk that narrow line between the fantastic and the absurd, between being broad and being realistic. "
The task of striking that balance was carried over to the cast, led by David Duchovny who affirms, "The comedy couldn't undercut the believability of the characters as scientists. That was one of the challenges of the part that made me want to do it: how do I make him credible and incredibly goofy at the same time?"
Duchovny stars as Dr. Ira Kane, who is the first to discover the meteor's alien stowaways and the first to understand the significance of their rapid development. "He's a former government scientist, who has fallen into disgrace and wound up a teacher at a community college in Glen Canyon, Arizona. Ironically, it's there that he makes the major scientific discovery that could change his life," Duchovny remarks.
Reitman acknowledges that there will be obvious comparisons to Duchovny's star-making series role on "The X-Files," though, in casting him, the director reveals he was thinking more of the actor's much earlier comedic turn in the comedy Beethoven (1992), which Reitman produced. "I remembered David as being this handsome guy with a wonderfully wry sense of humor and wit-very intelligent, very verbal and very funny. I also saw his more recent work on 'The Larry Sanders Show,' so I had every confidence in his ability to play broad comedy. "
Partnered with Duchovny in the film is Orlando Jones, who stars as Ira's friend and colleague, Harry Block. A geology professor at the college, Harry doubles as the women's volleyball coach and, admittedly, has more interest in spiking balls than speleology. That all changes when he is called to investigate the meteor crash site and drags Ira along for the ride.
Jones says, "Harry and Ira work together at the college, but are clearly waiting for something better to happen in their lives. They see the meteor as an amazing event and as an opportunity for them to step up to the next level; I mean they're discovering alien life on Earth. Then, of course, they start to figure out that might not be such a good thing. "
Producer Daniel Goldberg notes that Duchovny and Jones were fast friends on and off the set. "From the second they met, they were having lunch together and going to each other's houses. Their characters are supposed to be old friends, so it was great that they had that dynamic from the start. "
"I may be prejudiced, but I think David and Orlando are an inspired pairing," Reitman agrees. "They are both really smart, but they could also be equally silly at times, and they have this wonderful energy that sparked off each other."
Duchovny and Jones took every opportunity to inject that mutual silliness into filming, some of which Reitman encouraged.. and some of which he didn't. "Orlando and I would do a scene and try something 'under the radar' to see if we could get it by Ivan. Just when we thought we'd gotten away with it, he'd turn and say, 'By the way, you know that thing you did there? Don't do it again. ' We never got away with it once. Not once," Duchovny laughs.
Jones, who calls Reitman "one of the great comedy directors of all time," is quick to qualify that their inability to slip something past Reitman didn't preclude the director from allowing his cast to stretch creatively. "Ivan's incredibly disciplined, in the sense that he knows what he wants, but at the same time, he's like a big kid on the set. We'd do a take and he'd laugh and say, 'I loved that- now let's try something totally different. ' It was such a treat because he encouraged us as actors to try new things. In my experience, there's nothing better than that. "
Duchovny and Jones reserved some of their creativity for practical jokes, most often at the expense of their younger co-star Seann William Scott. "They really took Seann under their wing like a little brother, which is much like their relationship in the movie, but most of the time, it was a trap," Goldberg recalls with a grin. "They were setting him up for another one of their practical jokes. They were relentless, but Seann loved it, and everyone, including him, had a lot of fun. "
Scott plays Wayne, a hapless fireman wannabe, who comes close to being pulverized by the meteor when it crashes into the Arizona desert. The ensuing alien invasion gives Wayne his dream shot at putting out the ultimate fire. "He's probably not the brightest guy in the world and is not all that coordinated, but he's got a big heart," Scott allows. "When he teams up with Ira and Harry, he gets to fight off aliens and help save the world and, probably for the first time in his life, have a purpose. "
The actor adds that it was the first time in his own life that he got to play a character whose age didn't end with 'teen.' "Wayne is more of an adult role, more of an average guy that you can relate to. He has a crappy job as a pool boy and wants to do something else, and now he has this one opportunity to do something really meaningful. I just feel really lucky to have been given the part, and I'll always be grateful that Ivan had faith in me."
Reitman had every reason to have faith in Scott, having produced the comedy Road Trip (2000), in which the actor starred. "Seann made a big impression on me as Stifler in American Pie (1999), and I really got to know him on Road Trip (2000). He's very likeable, very funny, and I think he's on his way to having a wonderful career. What's great about him in 'Evolution' is he's not playing a kid who's mixed up in any kind of teenage angst. He's an adult dealing with the bigger issues of life like having a career, being successful, saving the world," Reitman jokes.
The guys might have preferred to save the world on their own, but it is impossible to keep a discovery of this magnitude under wraps, and it isn't long before the government swoops in to take over. Leading the way is Allison, a beautiful but all-business epidemiologist from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), played by two-time Oscar® nominee Julianne Moore.
Allison has little respect for Ira when she first learns of his checkered scientific past, but she soon figures out that they won't have a very long future if they don't join forces. "Allison is kind of a braniac, but she is also a klutz," Moore smiles. "She trips over herself all the time, which I found endearing. She's kind of a misfit, so it makes sense that she ends up siding with the other misfits in the group. "
Best known for her dramatic work in films, including the recent hit thriller Hannibal (2001), Moore jumped at the chance to do what she describes as "a straight-up summer comedy," noting, "It's something I haven't done before, and I also knew I could rely tremendously on Ivan Reitman. He has an extraordinary sense of comedy. He listens to the rhythms of the lines to find what's funny. "
Reitman, in turn, calls Moore "one of the greatest actresses of her generation," adding, "The terrific thing about Julianne is that she's fearless. She's willing to try anything, which added so much to her role, especially the physical comedy. "
Some of the characters in "Evolution" weren't cast; they were created. A team of visual effects wizards, led by visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, worked with Ivan Reitman to design an ever-evolving assortment of alien creatures, which were then digitally rendered in the computer.
"Phil Tippett was the perfect man for the job," Reitman states. "He worked on the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993) and the giant alien insects in starship Troopers (1997) and what I noticed about both was that he gave them a sense of weight and of being in real space. That's what I was looking for in this film. "
For months prior to production Tippett and Reitman met to determine the genesis and progression of their alien invaders. Though the creatures' alien origins gave the filmmakers enormous creative license, applying the basic theory of panspermia, they basically tried to stay along accepted evolutionary paths: from single cells, to multi-cells, to flatworms, to amphibians and reptiles, to birds and mammals.
"It was very collaborative," Tippett remarks. "We created hundreds of different creature designs. Some of our evolutionary paths met dead ends, so we'd back up and go in other directions until we found the look and feel of what these phantasmagorical beings should be within the context of the story. "
"I got such a kick out of working with Phil," Reitman says. "He really loves these creatures. He loves getting into their heads-getting a sense of what they are like, how they would respond, how their bodies would move, how much displacement is there in the ground as they walk- I think, in some sense, he thinks of them as real. "
Approximately 80 percent of the visual effects were handled by the team at Tippett Studios. They began at the drawing board with sketches and artists' renderings and then proceeded to 3-D maquettes that were digitized into the computer and, finally, computer animated. Just a few of the creature creations coming out of Tippett Studios included alien variations on spiders and dragonflies, walking logs, tentacle trees, a seemingly adorable alien "dog," a large winged creature, and a giant amoeba.
Taking designs done at Tippett Studios, a portion of the digital work was also accomplished at PDI/DreamWorks and Sony Imageworks. PDI/DreamWorks was responsible for the meteor hurtling through space and crashing into the earth, as well as the uni-cell and multi-cell organisms seen through a microscope, while Sony Imageworks handled the computer rendering of the squirmy flatworms, which were the next stage of the alien evolution.
Apart from the computer, Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. provided the creature make-up effects for the primate-like aliens. In some instances, physical models of dead aliens were needed. KNB EFX was responsible for making the necessary props for those scenes, including the lifeless flatworms and winged creatures, and the dead "dog. "
Despite being involved in the visual effects process from start to finish, Reitman remains astounded by the results. "I am constantly amazed by the sense of reality that today's visual effects present. It's incredible to see some huge creature walking through your frame, interacting with real actors on sets where you know it wasn't really there. You can't believe your eyes. It becomes a new kind of truth. "
The sets were designed and built by production designer J. Michael Riva. The centerpiece of his work was the meteor crash site, which almost overnight becomes an otherworldly ecosystem in which the alien life forms begin to thrive. "The major challenge was to come up with a concept of what the environment would look like on another planet. Unfortunately, I have never been to one, so we had to use our imaginations. We also took our inspiration from the work of several different fantasy artists," Riva notes.
The enormous cavern set was constructed on two huge soundstages at the Raleigh Manhattan Beach Studios. The meteor cavern underwent four major transformations, beginning as a benign environment in warm desert hues, reflecting the story's Arizona setting. As the alien ecosystem begins to take over, the palette gradually shifts to a more saturated underwater color scheme.
Riva and costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers worked together to ensure that the actors' wardrobes would not clash with their surroundings. A close collaboration also developed between the production designer and cinematographer Michael Chapman on the lighting of the cavern set.
Appearing to come from some alien greenhouse, but actually springing from the imaginations of Reitman, Riva and the design team, an array of flora, consisting of 12 giant plant and tree species and 20 varieties of smaller plants, flourish inside the cavern. In fashioning this world, Riva and his group utilized a somewhat eclectic collection of earthbound objects, including 3,000 different dog and cat toys, 17,000 marbles, hundreds of feet of tubing, beach balls, and a host of other unusual items. "Basically, if it looked interesting and like it could grow out of an alien presence, we foamed it, painted it and used it," Riva laughs.
In stark contrast to the cavern's organic environment is the sterile, controlled atmosphere of the government research facility. An old aircraft manufacturing warehouse in Downey, California was turned into the interior of the domed research center that the government builds over the cavern to house and study the meteor.
The exterior dome of the facility was constructed on location in Page, Arizona. Not long after it was built, it was blown to smithereens in a spectacular explosion, perfectly planned and executed by special effects supervisor Burt Dalton and his team. The explosion was pulled off with a series of seven separate blasts, timed only milliseconds apart.
Despite being in Arizona, the scheduled day of the explosion sequence was cold and windy, which jeopardized the filming. Cold temperatures made the fuel reactions unpredictable, and the wind threatened to send smoke over the camera placements and obliterate the shot. Nevertheless, the decision was made to go ahead.
Reitman knew there could be no second takes, so he and cinematographer Michael Chapman positioned 15 separate cameras to capture the explosion. Nature cooperated, as the winds died down moments before Reitman called "Action," and the blast went off without a hitch.
"You know, I like these kinds of big effects films, but what's more important to me are the characters," Reitman offers. "The humor is in how the characters react when you put them up against this kind of threat. One of my favorite things to do in films is to take what we think of as a 'common man' and allow him to beat overwhelming odds where more experienced people have failed. It's been a central theme of many of my films, and I think it's a central theme in 'Evolution. ' Here we have a couple of simple guys working at this community college in the middle of Arizona, who, for once in their lives, get to deal with something truly monumental, and they rise to the occasion and succeed. "