Is this going back to blockbusters where you're creatively comfortable?
I'm creatively comfortable on everything I do these days. I acclimate really quickly into a new genre. I always find familiar things from my own comfort zone that I carry over into a new genre. This to me is a hard movie to make. This was very difficult. It was a very large mount – this many special effects, this many extras, this much action to do a story that is more of an odyssey than a narrative. This is a journey, an odyssey. It starts in iron-bound New Jersey and moves to Boston, Massachusetts. It's not a long trip but it seems to take forever because there are a lot of obstacles along the way.
Is it fair to call it a Jurassic Park-style adventure?
No, it's a lot darker than that. Jurassic Park was a bit of a romp. This is more of a…I have a real hard time pigeonholing my own films. I leave that to others to do it much better than I do. Certainly they do it time and time again, so I hate to give them any ammunition. I'd rather bury the lead and let them dig it out. So I'm just gonna say that it is darker than Jurassic Park, but it is no less entertaining.
You started very late in the summer for release the following summer. Did that feel pressurised?
We started very late. I felt that we were insane. I thought I was insane even to assume that it could be done. But I had my same crew, this was our ninth picture together. In a way, these efforts have been successfully carried out in my favourite era. In the '30s, '40s, '50s, a film like this would have actually been finished three months ago. I gave myself a lot of shooting time, 72 shooting days, which is the most I've had in about 15 years. I think my last longest schedule was Schindler's List, which was 73 days. So I gave us a lot of shooting time because of all the special effects photography. I had to front-load the movie to give ILM a head start, so I think the first nine weeks of shooting, every day there was an effects shot. We were shooting wildly out of continuity. It was a little hard on all of us.
With that sort of schedule, you must have locked the script before you started.
Yeah, you gotta be happy, and I had a wonderful screenplay. David (Koepp, the screenwriter) gave me the script in a piecemeal fashion. He first gave me 80 pages to whet my appetite before he finished it. I committed on the basis of those 80 pages. Then a month and a half later the next 55 pages showed up. I got to Tom to read it, he flipped out, went bananas. He said, "When are we making this?" I said, "I'm making a picture in Europe in the next couple of months so I guess we'll do it next year." He said, "I tell you what. Why don't you move your movie ten months and I'll move Mission: Impossible 3 ten months and we'll do this now." And he kind of talked me into it, and that put the pedal to the metal. But fortunately, my production designer who was working on my European project just switched over to War of the Worlds, and I just brought most of my crew from my European project over to War of the Worlds, and we had a crew already hired. We just changed the payroll.
I gather that you used lots of pre-visualisation (animated storyboards) on this film, which you haven't done before.
There was a lot of pre-viz. I had not done pre-viz before like that. I did one shot on Minority Report like that, the spider sequence. That was the first time I ever designed a shot like that on pre-viz, which I like to call electronic storyboarding. I sat with my brilliant pre-viz artists under the leadership of Dan Gregoire, who'd just come off Episode III, and I borrowed the entire ILM pre-viz team. I've since hired them; they are part of my company now, because George isn't making any more Star Wars movies. They're doing Transformers now – we're starting that, and Michael Bay intends to direct. So this was the first time I really got to explore the 3-dimensional world of storyboarding. I storyboarded in 2 dimensions and suddenly I was able to move my camera and not have to do seven thumbnails showing a camera move, a crane shot. I could actually do the cran shot right there in real time, record it and put it up for the rest of the departments to see, so that they were all on the same page.
You're famous for storyboarding – does this mean you're abandoning it for its electronic successor?
I didn't storyboard Schindler's List; I didn't storyboard Saving Private Ryan. There are a number of films I didn't storyboard. I did storyboard AI and I did storyboard the special effects chase sequences in Minority Report. Where there is a chase scene, I'm going to storyboard that; I'm not gonna come onto the stage unprepared because an action sequence takes a lot of storyboarding. I felt however on Saving Private Ryan that I wanted to action to inspire me as to where to put the camera – the same way being shot at inspired the veterans to survive and prevail. I wanted to have more of a spontaneous reaction to shooting Saving Private Ryan in utter continuity. It's the first and last picture I shot the whole picture in continuity. It's different when it's make-believe. When it's make-believe, when it's ultra-fiction, then I'm gonna storyboard. Because on a film like War of the Worlds, I owe history nothing.
You've brought back the red weed mentioned in the novel, but left out of subsequent adaptations. Why?
I loved the red weed that was in the original book. The fact that the invaders are reaping but they are also sowing the seeds of their own environment. In the rubble of what they've destroyed, they're planting the seeds to grow the red weed. In fact, they're attempting to terraform our planet into their planet as they harvest humanity. That was directly out of the HG Wells book. I liked the idea of tripods rather than flying saucers. Many sci-fi films have involved invaders from the skies. These invaders do come from the skies, but they are able to resurrect these giant tripods, and that was right out of the HG Wells book.
So you weren't a fan of George Pal's boomerang-like UFOs?
I loved the George Pal boomerang. I thought the boomerang was way ahead of its time. I'd never seen anything quite as modern as those boomerangs – it was an amazing piece of 21st century art set in the 20th century. I was really a fan of those, but I just didn't want to do flying machines. You know, we've seen that in every invasion movie America has ever made about martians and aliens. Even ET has a rather lovely bauble. Close Encounters had an even lovelier bauble that descended and brought love and communications. But for the first time in my life I'm making an alien picture where there is no love and no attempt at communication.
But it's not just the aliens that don't communicate here – it's the survivors too.
I just think it's that kind of story that, in real life, if this really happened, there would be no radio communication, there would be no television, there would be no cell phone service, automobiles would not work in infected areas, they would work in areas that wouldn't be affected by these big EMP bursts. The first great need would be food and water. The second great need would be information. And we don't give much of that.
Have you been having fun with the "They're already here" tagline? It's inspired lots of conspiracy theories.
I have been. It's really interesting, all sorts of different ideas. Some are right, some are wrong. Somebody said that, "They're already here" means it's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They're inside hundreds of thousands of Americans and those Americans are going to kill their neighbours, like in 28 Days Later. That was the most wild speculation I heard.
So do you feel more at home in science fiction than in other genres?
I'm always coming back to science fiction. I began my career with science fiction, I just love it. This is the first time I've made scary science fiction. This is one of the scariest movies I've ever made. Not scary in terms of a shark coming out of the water and eating you alive, but scary in the sense that if this could really happen, it would go something like this. At the same time, I have so many more stories I want to tell beyond this genre – not so much in terms of aliens invading this planet, but stories that are beyond fiction.