Strange Days (1995)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, story by James Cameron
Produced by James Cameron, Steven-Charles Jaffe
Running time: 145 minutes
Should I Care?
For all those movie geeks wondering how cool it would be if James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow ever made a movie together — a sci-fi epic conceived, co-written and produced by the creator of The Terminator, Titanic and Avatar, say, put under the pressure cooker direction of the filmmaker who brought us The Hurt Locker — then fan boy, have I got a movie for you. Strange Days latches onto three potent ideas weighing heavy on the minds of its filmmakers in the early 1990s: better-than-virtual reality playback technology, police brutality and what the party of the millennium was going to look like. On a gut level, the movie is Space Mountain meets cyberpunk, grabbing us and rocketing us into a near future we end up being thankful to just be visiting. It’s a stiff shot of espresso, thick with brutal violence and sleazy characters that held little to zero appeal for audiences at the time, but at the very least, this is an exhilarating vision, more remarkable that it went into production before anyone (except maybe Cameron) had ever used email before.
Whether the writing or the editing is at fault (Howard E. Smith cut the movie with an uncredited Cameron), there is too much tech noir and not enough cohesiveness to make the film great. Juliette Lewis plays a super skank for all time and though fun to watch slink around, her character is never a girl we believe Ralph Fiennes would be smitten with. Fiennes — posed to become a star following Quiz Show — plays a sort of magician, tantalizing but difficult to care about behind all the smoke and mirrors. He’s paired with a chiseled Angela Bassett who seems capable of busting his nose open at any moment. The obligatory music biz subplot and shots of a militarized Los Angeles don’t feel very genuine, but as evidenced by cyber junk like Johnny Mnemonic, The Net or Virtuosity, Strange Days is not only more powerful than it needed to be, but deeper. Substitute YouTube for “clips” and the filmmakers might have been onto something here. Graeme Revell and French techno group Deep Forest take us into the near future with a musical score that’s nothing short of sublime.
So, What’s This About?
At 1:06:27 am on 30 December 1999, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) samples the wares of a hustler (Richard Edson) who procures the illegal drug of the near future: “clips”, mini-discs formatted by the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID), an apparatus that when fitted atop a user’s head, records directly off their cerebral cortex, using the optical nerve as a camera lens. Developed as an upgrade on surveillance wires, SQUID also permits users to “jack in” to clips of people’s personal lives and experience them raw. A former vice cop, Lenny is now a black market operator who traffics in these clips. He spends his personal time reliving happier days through clips of his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), a rock singer who left him for music mogul Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Lenny’s remaining friends are a wily ex-cop turned private eye (Tom Sizemore) and stoic bodyguard Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett) whose protection service caters to VIPs visiting anarchic Los Angeles.
As millennium celebrations near and tensions between Angelenos and the LAPD boil under the surface, a prostitute friend of Faith’s named Iris (Brigitte Bako) begs Lenny for help. While he uses the encounter as an excuse to contact Faith, Iris is raped and strangled by a killer who records the act with a SQUID and taunts Lenny by sending him a clip of the murder. Lenny and Mace discover that Iris was in possession of a clip of her own: the execution of a militant rapper named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) at the hands of two rogue police officers (Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fichtner) during a traffic stop. After the same cops come after Lenny and Mace, Faith admits that her record producer boyfriend’s paranoia drove him to use Iris to spy on Jeriko One with a SQUID. Mace considers going public with the clip of Jeriko One’s shooting, even if it ignites a revolution and burns L.A. to the ground. With Philo holding his ex-girlfriend, Lenny intends to trade the clip for Faith. But as the year 2000 approaches, nothing is what it seems.
Who Made It?
In 1985, James Cameron became intrigued with the idea of giving the film noir genre a high tech polish. Taking a central element of the genre, a big city loser seeking redemption, Cameron set his tale against a doomsday scenario rising out of the New Year’s Eve celebrations of the year 1999. He scribbled less than five pages of notes and put the script idea — which he was calling The Magic Man — aside. Cameron rapidly transitioned from the unexpected success of The Terminator, his first real film as a writer-director, to one groundbreaking science fiction thriller after another: Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, placing him among a filmmaking elite after five credits as a director. In late 1992, with millennium approaching and Cameron already committed to direct True Lies next, he pitched The Magic Man to his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, who’d just directed an action film Cameron script doctored and executive produced titled Point Break.
Kathryn Bigelow grew up in Northern California. Planning to emulate her father — an aspiring cartoonist who managed a paint store — Bigelow studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and through a scholarship to the Whitney Independent Study Program, moved to New York. One day, she took in a double bill of Mean Streets and The Wild Bunch and decided to study filmmaking. A well received short film at Columbia in 1978 titled The Set-Up led to a feature film in 1982: the brooding motorcycle melodrama The Loveless, which Bigelow cast Willem Dafoe in his first film. Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break placed her in the rarified air of women directing action films in Hollywood. Budgeted at roughly $42 million, Strange Days was Bigelow’s most ambitious project to date. The intense mix of sci-fi, film noir and social commentary failed to draw a wide audience, but has grown in status as a cult classic among critics and moviegoers.
How’d They Do It?
Nine years before Strange Days would go into production, James Cameron started with what amounted to five pages of handwritten notes. In the introduction to the published version of his “scriptment”, Cameron wrote “In this preliminary sketch, the story consisted of a street hustler, a loser name Lenny Nero, who is squired around the urban decay of future L.A. by an unwilling limo driver, a woman named ‘Mace’ Mason. He is a black market buyer and seller of human experience, recorded and played back directly into the brain, and he enters a dance of death with a psychotic killer, who seems to be homing in relentlessly on Lenny’s ex-girlfriend, Faith, whom Lenny has difficulty protecting because she won’t have anything to do with him. I called it The Magic Man, because Lenny can get you anything, like magic. I never got around to writing it, at least not that decade. The remarkable thing , when I look at those pathetic handwritten scrawls now, is how the basic template of the story never changed, despite the long odyssey of getting from those notes to a shooting script in 1994.”
He continued, “Sometime in late 1992 I pitched this idea to Kathryn Bigelow. It had lain dormant all those years as one of those things that I knew I would get around to sooner or later but never did. I began to worry that if I waited too long, the millenium would no longer be far enough off to be science fiction. So with two directing projects looming in front of me (True Lies and Spiderman) which would take me into the mid-nineties, I decided to let another director take over a piece that was near and dear to me. Kathryn, with her edgy visual style, was the obvious choice.” In addition to being her ex-husband, Cameron had enjoyed collaborating with Bigelow on Point Break and trusted her ability to shoot a film on schedule and on budget, which was more than Cameron could say for himself. He added, “In addition, she is that aria raris in mainstream filmmaking — a director who cares deeply about the characters while approaching the material with an intensely visual style. Fortunately, Kathryn liked the pitch and turned down her other offers, agreeing to sit and wait while I wrote the script.”
Discussing her fifth film for the press kit in 1995, Bigelow recalled, “It was a tremendous piece that offered so many opportunities. When I first became involved with Strange Days four years ago, I saw a way to draw one possible future, think about it and maybe derail it; imagine it and feel it as you watch. Is this the end of the world or the beginning of another one? That’s the core of Strange Days and what moved me –compelled me — to make it. Those themes, and these characters: a hustler with an undiscovered conscience and a guide through the underworld who has the strength, and the love, to survive. The interlocking story of Lenny and Mace becomes a parable in noirish disguise, a story about the pervasive need to watch, to see. It calibrates the fragile balance between viewer and viewed, screen and audience, spectacle as medium and subject. It puts us all in the picture.” Bigelow waited while Cameron labored over a draft for what was turning into the most densely plotted and character driven script he’d attempted.
Cameron recalled, “I couldn’t crack the plot to save my life. Kathryn had added her own spin to the piece, opening up the story and giving it thematic weight by having the murder tapes lead inexorably to an explosive incident involving the LAPD and a potential race riot of Biblical proportions. This concept fit well with my idea for a megaparty that teeters on the edge of complete social collapse, but it was proving very snaky trying to integrate it with the film noir erotic-thriller love story.” Over five weeks beginning in January 1993, Cameron broke through eight years of creative dithering with what he came to refer to as a “scriptment”. Running 131 pages in this case, Cameron elaborated, “So what you have in your hands is at once a kind of pathetic document; it is as long as a script, but messy and undisiplined, full of cheats and glossed over sections. But it is also an interesting snapshot of formatting a moment in the creative process. It contains notes and references and textures that do not exist in the finished script. It takes the time to gaze around at a grim future world and paint it in neon colors, it gets the mood first, then tells the story.”
Due to his commitment to True Lies, Cameron wasn’t available to translate his scriptment into a first draft screenplay, He hired Jay Cocks to whip a script into shape. “Between Jay and Kathryn, ideas flew like crazy — visualize whirled peas. Their restructuring of my unweidly piece was efficient and focused, while retaining the style of the meandering, quirky dialogue. They wrote it down to a manageable length and shaped it into Kathryn’s vision. Though Jay and I did very little writing together, we are both proud of the collaboration.” Cocks had worked with Bigelow on an unproduced Joan of Arc epic titled Company of Angels that had Winona Ryder attached to play the martyred warrior. Of Strange Days, Cocks recalled, “We didn’t want to do tech and glitz. We wanted to do street. And we wanted to give a very vivid sense of a city in terminal social disorder. And a society really on the razor’s edge.” He added, “I came to this from more of a Raymond Chandler angle than a William Gibson angle.”
Finding camera equipment capable of simulating the near future world of Strange Days from the point of view of someone jacked into a SQUID became a formidable technical hurdle to bound before production could begin. In a lecture on the film’s opening sequence which is packaged as an audio commentary on the film’s laserdisc and DVD releases, Bigelow explained, “No existing camera was going to give me — I tested every camera out there, even the smallest, lightest one that was available to me, like an IMO, would give me that would replicate that kind of incredible mobility that the human eye has. When you just look around the room and you take for granted the kind of very fragile flexible mobility that the human eye has. So, we started out by realizing no camera would accomplish this that existed out there so we had no build a camera. This was about a year before we started to shoot. And we built a camera that literally could fit in the palm of your hand. It weighed 8 pounds, it was 35 millimeter, with interchangable lenses — prime lenses — and we outfitted it with a kind of modified Steadicam rig, which enabled you to give you the kind of fluidity of Steadicam.”
Bigelow added, “So I needed, if we simply did it handheld, you’d be throwing up in the audience watching that, I mean literally, you’d need airsick bags. I mean, this was just one challenge in making this. So what I did was I gave it a, there’s a piece of equipment that I used for Point Break — there’s a foot chase in that — called the pogo cam, which is a camera that weighs 18 pounds, which is gyro stablized, but it has no through-the-lens eyepiece, it has just a kind of wire on top of the camera so you kind of vaguely know what you’re framing. So I wanted to kind of give the Steadicam a pogo attiude and the pogo cam is just something you simply run with, it’s on a stick, camera’s on a stick, and it has a gyro stabilizer at the bottom. We kind of adapted some elements from the pogo cam to the Steadicam with this new 8 pound camera and there we finally had — this I’m talking a year, with a lot of experimentation — to finally have a camera that could execute this which I know looks really simple. But it wasn’t.”
Strange Days commenced shooting June 1994 in Los Angeles, with Cameron and Steven-Charles Jaffe producing under Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment banner for 20th Century Fox. The 80-day schedule called for 77 days of night photography, including the massive New Year’s Eve bash. On Saturday, September 27, a four block area at 5th and Figueroa in front of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel became New Year’s Eve 1999. Concert promoters Moss Jacobs and Philip Blaine were put on the payroll to organize an event, which featured performances by Dee-Lite and Aphex Twin and many more techno groups. With tickets running $10 a pop, the event was set to kick off at 9pm and run until dawn. Between 10,000 and 12,000 revelers showed up, two stadium sized video screens were brought in, several hundred fireworks exploded, 2,000 balloons released and a half-ton of confetti showered the scene. Jaffe recalled, “We had several hundred people organizing this, from our crew to security people to the police. It took a behemoth effort to pull this all together.”
Screened at the Venice Film Festival in September and New York Film Festival the following month, Strange Days opened October 1995 in the United States. Critics seemed won over by the director, if not her film. Janet Maslin, The New York Times: “One thing for certain about the furiously talented Ms. Bigelow: No one will ever say she directs like a girl … Only when it comes time to justify its excesses and deliver on a promise of wider revelation does the otherwise audacious screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks look too specific and small.” Steve Davis, The Austin Chronicle: “Although there are some exhilarating moments here, they’re offset by frequent distractions: Lewis’ standard (and now boring) weird performance, an occasional lack of logic in the story line, a tendency to go operatic, and the overall feeling that the movie is unsure of where it is going.” Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “Strange Days does three things that will make it a cult film. It creates a convincing future landscape; it populates it with a hero who comes out of the noir tradition and is flawed and complex rather than simply heroic, and it provides a vocabulary … At the same time, depending more on mood and character than logic, the movie backs into an ending that is completely implausible.”
With $7.9 million at the U.S. box office, Strange Days was lumped in by The New York Times with several “big budget flops” released around the same time: Assassins, Jade, The Scarlet Letter. In an unspecified interview, Bigelow maintained, “If you hold a mirror up to society, and you don’t like what you see, you can’t fault the mirror. It’s a mirror. I think that on the eve of the millennium, a point in time only four years from now, the clock is ticking, the same social issues and racial tensions still exist, the environment still needs reexamination so you don’t forget it when the lights come up. Strange Days is provocative. Without revealing too much, I would say that it feels like we are driving toward a highly chaotic, explosive, volatile, Armageddon-like ending. Obviously, the riot footage came out of the L.A. riots. I mean, I was there. I experienced that.” She added, “The toughest decision was not wanting to shy away from anything, trying to keep the truth of the moment, of the social environment. It’s not that I condone violence. I don’t. It’s an indictment. I would say the film is cautionary, a wake-up call, and that I think is always valuable.”
Where’d You Get All of This?
Strange Days Press Kit
Strange Days. By James Cameron. Plume (1995)
Strange Days. DVD audio commentary by Kathryn Bigelow. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2002)