Alex Proyas talks Knowing

The Nicolas Cage-starring Knowing proved a hard film to characterise when it hit cinemas earlier this year. After starting out as a thriller about a list of numbers that formed a code revealing the dates of half a century of disasters, the third act turns into something completely unexpected. So with the DVD out next week, we thought it was a good time to talk to director Alex Proyas (the man behind The Crow, Dark City and I, Robot) about it. [If you haven’t seen the movie yet, POSSIBLE SPOILERS ahead].

Did Knowing jump out at you as soon as you read it?
I’m notorious for taking av ery long time to commit to projects, and this was no exception. In fact, the script came to me twice, and it was the second time round that I actually committed to it. When I got it the second time I’d actually forgotten the story. I actually started thinking, “This is terribly familiar, I know the story,” and I eventually realised I’d read it four or five years earlier. It had evolved a little bit by that stage, but the basic premise was the same – the whole notion of the time capsules and the premonitions. It had changed and I had changed, and we were in some kind of alignment, because I saw something in it that I found really exciting. The quest for truth that the Nicolas Cage character is on really intrigued me and still intrigues me. It just seemed to suddenly come alive as a project for me.

The last act is, to say the least, rather bleak. Did you have to fight to keep it that way?
I was lucky because the studio that financed the movie, Summit, who are fairly new on the scene, took it on on the basis that we would not change the ending. I knew the ending was going to be contentious because it certainly comes out of leftfield and it’s certainly something that people haven’t seen in a disaster movie before because usually someone saves the day at the end. I knew that a big studio wouldn’t have been brave enough to let me do that. They might have agreed to it upfront and then they would probably have been horrified when they saw the final film. To this studio’s credit they were completely supportive of this movie, they knew I was making it for that reason, because I really liked the way it ends, and they were completely on board with that and let me do what I wanted to do from the very beginning. I was very fortunate with that level of support.

It almost feels like two films – a mystery in the first half, a great, big disaster movie at the end. Did you look at it that way?
I don’t think it’s like making two films. The reveal in the movie is very organic to the piece and we put in a lot of clues through the story. The film’s a mystery. [To say it was two movies] would be a bit like saying The Crying Game’s a different movie because the person you thought was a woman is not a woman, and I don’t think that’s the case with Knowing. There’s a lot of very specific clues through the film that, personally if I was watching the movie, I would know from a very early point what was about to happen. I guess that’s because I’m an analytical guy. When I saw The Sixth Sense, the moment Bruce Willis reappeared after he’d been shot which is in the first 20 minutes of the movie, I leant over to my wife and said, “He’s dead.” I guess I just have that sort of brain where I like being set up as an audience, and I look for that. It’s a joy having to solve the puzzle.

By the end of the movie there’s a lot of religious imagery. Would you say it’s a movie about faith?
It’s only there if you want it to be. That’s the whole point of the movie, that it can be interpreted in two different ways, and it has been. It’s been interpreted very vehemently in two completing conflicting ways. I’ve been called either a spiteful athiest or religious zealot, and I’m neither and I couldn’t possibly be both. The intention is that you can take your own interpretation of events. So, without giving the ending away too much, you can interpret it on a purely scientific science fiction level, or, if you choose to, you can interpret it on a kind of quasi-religious Biblical level, but nothing is overtly stated either way and it’s amazing how passionate people have come about interpreting it in their own way. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about any ideology in the film. It’s really about people making their own conclusions.

Most of your films have been extremely stylised, but Knowing is very much in the real world. Did you have an itch to do something different?

Everything I do I hope that I can push myself into a different direction. I was aware of that and I embraced it as a kind of reality based story and I wanted it to feel as naturalistic as I could make it. It still falls into the stylistic mode from time to time because I just can’t help myself, I suppose, but on set we referenced movies like The Exorcist, because it’s a very fantasy-based story but done in a very believable and realistic fashion – I think that was partly the basis of the power of that film, and so I guess I wanted to strip away Hollywood glamour, and certainly in terms of the disaster and the violence that takes place in the movie, I wanted it to feel very raw and try not to glamorise it.

You’ve been linked to a Dracula prequel movie and a big-screen take on The Tripods. What’s next on your slate?
I don’t jump on to other things straight away. There’s always other projects you’re developing and I have numerous ones, but apart from anything else I do like some downtime and right now I’m enjoying not working. I need to make sure that every film I do has something unique to offer. Not just for audiences, but for me as a filmmaker and something that is meaningful for me in some way, so therefore I do tend to take my sweet time before getting my next project done. But who knows? Sometimes things jump out of the woodwork at you and you find yourself attached to something quicker than you think.

Knowing is out on DVD from Monday 3 August.