INTERVIEW Knowing director Alex Proyas

If you've seen the trailers for Knowing, don't think you know what it's all about. “There are some really big sucker punches in the movie, quite a few major reveals that haven’t been touched upon in the trailers,” director Alex Proyas tells SFX. “The trailers effectively give you the set up and a flavour for the first half of the movie. It takes a very interesting set of twists and turns in the last half that I hope people will be surprised by. If you’re looking for something different that doesn’t do what you expect this genre or this type of film to do, then I think you'll be rewarded in this film.”

Should we trust him? Probably. Proyas has a track record of Sci Fi and fantasy movies that have turned out better than they have any right to be (or indeed, looked likely to be from their prepublicity): The Crow, I Robot and the glorious Dark City (another film that’s hardly a sloucher in the twisty-turny department). So while the trailer for Knowing may seem muesli of familiar elements (The Omen, The Medusa Touch, Next and any Emmerich landmark-trouncing extravaganza), there's every reason to hope that Proyas created a movie that’s more than the sum of parts once again.

In the film, Nic Cage plays a teacher who discovers a sheet of paper filled with mysterious numbers in a time capsule buried at his school 50 years ago. Soon he realises that the numbers are dates that have coincided with major disasters – and there are more dates to come. Armed with this knowledge, can he change the future?

SFX: How did your involvement with Knowing begin?

Alex Proyas: "Knowing was a spec script that was written probably in the late ’90s, I think, and it floated around Hollywood for a while. Quite a few people tried to get the thing made and I guess didn’t succeed. Then it came to me about four years ago, and the funny thing is, as I was reading it, I was thinking, ‘God this seems familiar…’ I realised that I had actually read it the first time it was making the rounds. But I guess I had a completely different viewpoint on it, and I suddenly saw a direction forward that really excited me. I could see a really great movie in there that I really wanted to make.

"That’s always the key for me. Y'know it's very rare that I get a script that I completely, ‘Yeah, let’s start shooting next week!’ It's always I just see something in it I can just take on and develop. And because I’m a writer myself, and I often write and co-write with others, I want something that I can elaborate, and find more and more good ideas in there.”

SFX: So what was it you saw in the Knowing script that sparked your imagination?

Alex Proyas: "Initially it was the hook of this time capsule that could predict the future, effectively. That sparked my interest. But the more I dug into it, the more philosophical aspects came out. It evolved very much to be a movie about the hope that we pass down through our kids to the next generation, and the whole notion of a spiritual odyssey on the part of Nic Cage’s character. He starts off the movie believing that there is no purpose, no meaning, no structure to the universe. He's a very pragmatic guy. But then through these numbers that he discovers, and the course of events, he starts to believe that there may be some meaning. Or, at least, he finds his own sense of meaning in the universe, which is kind of an interesting arc for a character, I think.”

SFX: You've been quite vocal about how much you loathed the experience of working on I Robot and all the studio interference. With Knowing, did you get more of your own vision on screen intact?

Alex Proyas: “Well, look, I'm not dissatisfied with I Robot. That’s why when that film came out I didn’t make a big fuss about what an unpleasant and repugnant experience it was working with 20th Century Fox. I didn’t want to put that notion out because then people kinda assume that you’re unhappy with your movie and I didn’t want people to think that, because I wasn’t. But it cost me heavily in terms of my own state of mind, and health even. The arguments and the battles that took place to get that movie anywhere near how it turned out, were so costly to me personally that I'll never forgive those f**kers for what they did to me. I mean, they've done it to other filmmakers as well. I'm not the only one. It's just that I'm someone people are happy to listen to carp on about how unpleasant they were.

“But in the case, it was just completely the other end of the spectrum. This time round I've been blessed with some really nice, supportive people at Summit who have let me do completely me thing. I mean, every movie is hard to make, but all the challenges on Knowing were the correct ones, which were how to make a movie, not how do deal with political crap.”

SFX: Massive disaster sequences seem almost commonplace in blockbuster movies now, thanks to CG. How did you make these moments seem fresh and original in Knowing?

Alex Proyas: “My intention was to make them very realistic. I feel that there is a tendency to glamorise disasters in blockbusters, and I wanted to make them brutally horrific, and make you feel like you’re actually witnessing a real event. So I guess that was the twist. Partly because I wanted that visceral aspect and partly because I thought it would give the movie part of its emotional punch. But also, for me, I am very conscious of violence in movies of any sort, and I feel that, in a way, if you soft-pedal those moments and make them Hollywoodised, then it cheapens them and makes them feel more exploitative. So that's my rationale for why I wanted to make the movie as brutally real as I possibly could.”

SFX: You seem to make films that people come away more impressed than they thought they were going to be? Why do think that is?

Alex Proyas: “That might be the nature of the fact that people don’t hold science fiction in high regard. I don’t know what it is about the genre but it is not treated very seriously. When Peter Jackson won so many Oscars for Lord Of The Rings, I was jumping up and down. Apart from the fact that I Know Peter and I think that he’s a great guy, I was also very happy for the fact that this genre had suddenly become mainstream and acceptable as dramatic form. But that was fantasy and obviously based on a renowned novel. Science fiction, I feel, still has a bit of a bum wrap, you know? It's partly because a lot of reviewers have seen a lot of very bad science fiction movies, ones that cheapen the genre and use it for all the wrong reasons. For me, what I love about the genre is that it is about ideas, and it’s actually quite rich with thoughtful concepts. It’s kind of my mission, I guess, to try – if I can, in terms of film at least – to elevate it to the point where people accept it as an intelligent art form in itself.”

Knowing is released in the UK on 25 March

Read about Alex Proyas’s Tripods movie