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Brad Peyton on How Jennifer Lopez Shaped the Netflix AI Movie

Brad Peyton on How Jennifer Lopez Shaped the Netflix AI Movie

Brad Peyton had his work cut out for him on the set of his new sci-fi action film, Atlas. The Canadian director’s new 2071-set film centers on Jennifer Lopez’s Atlas Shepherd, a data analyst whose deep mistrust of AI is tested to the extreme when she must rely on an AI-driven mech suit to survive after the latest attack by an AI terrorist (Simu Liu’s Harlan). 

Having fled Earth nearly three decades earlier, Atlas is finally able to track down Harlan’s distant whereabouts on an alien planet. But just before a team of mech rangers can deploy on a mission to capture the villainous humanoid, Harlan attacks their ship in outer space, forcing Atlas to take refuge inside a mech suit that can land her on Harlan’s home planet. With Lopez’s character now inside a pilotable machine that traverses the surface of an inhospitable planet, Peyton and co. had to create a bevy of complex and detailed VFX shots that put the filmmaker through his paces like never before.

“[Atlas], overall, is the most complex movie I’ve ever made,” Peyton tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I jokingly say this, though it’s true, but Avatar is probably the most complex movie you could make. It’s a lot of completely imagined and created reality, but ours is one step below that because there’s a lot of imagined augmented reality.”

Peyton wrapped principal photography in November 2022, just as the discourse around artificial intelligence started to become one of the most controversial issues in the entertainment industry and its eventual labor stoppages of 2023. While AI was never the focal point of the film for Peyton, he seems to align with the position of his film that it can be an effective tool if used properly and in tandem with a human being. 

“I had conversations with a couple of futurists. And with AI, it all seemed to come back to the same place. AI is a tool, and much like a hammer, it can be used for good or for bad,” Peyton says. “So it was important for me to build a story that showed both the extreme of the bad and the extreme of the good, and that was baked into the DNA of the screenplay and the story I wanted to tell. And, yeah, once we got into post, I felt very lucky that [the AI conversation] started bubbling up in a way.”

Peyton also helped design a futuristic world, including that of Los Angeles, and like most films set in the future, Blade Runner and Back to the Future Part II have some degree of influence on how to portray or not portray such advancement on screen. Case in point, he even got to include a prototype for a 2030 DeLorean in a shot outside Atlas’ L.A. apartment. 

“It’s sneaky and not shown too much, but … there’s a little bot changing a tire on the 2030 DeLorean,” Peyton reveals. “They’ve designed it already, and they lent it to us to put inside the movie. So I guess you could call it a time machine, but I got to put a prototype for a future [DeLorean] in the movie.

Peyton dropped by THR’s offices six years ago where he made it known that he’s literally seen John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) over 365 times, and while discussing Dan Trachtenberg’s well-received Predator prequel, Prey, Peyton shared that he, too, has his own take on a Yautja story that he’s dreaming of making someday.

“I also have a version of Predator that I would really like to see. I obviously can’t talk about it, because no one’s inviting me to go do a Predator movie yet,” Peyton says. “But I actually really liked [Prey]. Anytime someone can come in and reinvent a franchise — but also keep the great elements that we love from the original — you have to applaud that person. So I think [Dan Trachtenberg] did that in spades.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Peyton also looks back on the short-lived San Andreas sequel, before offering his response to a recent report regarding the on-set behavior of his frequent collaborator, Dwayne Johnson.

You wrapped Atlas in November 2022, so you started post-production right when the AI conversation began to dominate this town. How did that discourse affect your choices in post?

Not greatly, to be honest with you. The script is really the blueprint for the themes and the topics, and they had long been settled on. In all honesty, the whole topic of AI was secondary to the movie I wanted to make, which is about a woman learning how to trust. Atlas [Lopez] shut herself off from relationships, and the two most important things to any meaningful relationship are trust and respect. So she was not trusting whatsoever, and that’s what drew me into the movie. The AI component of it, I simply didn’t want to repeat what I’d seen in other cinema, and I’m a big science fiction/fantasy person. I’ve devoured that stuff since I was a little kid, and in most cinema, the AI is the evil robots from the future. It’s definitely the bad guy. 

We worked with a couple futurists on this movie, and I really wanted to talk about how to depict Earth and L.A. I didn’t want to do sand dunes; it’s not Mad Max. (Laughs.) So I wanted to get in on a fundamental, realistic level of where things are really going to go, and I had conversations with a couple of futurists. And with AI, it all seemed to come back to the same place. AI is a tool, and much like a hammer, it can be used for good or for bad. It’s not one thing. The only place where it’s truly all good or all bad is in our imaginations because it’s a tool to be used. 

So it was important for me to build a story that showed both the extreme of the bad and the extreme of the good, and that was baked into the DNA of the screenplay and the story I wanted to tell. And, yeah, once we got into post, I felt very lucky that it started bubbling up in a way. I was like, “Oh wow, we just got timely in a completely unique way that you couldn’t plan for,” but it didn’t really affect too much of the execution, I don’t think. 

Jennifer Lopez as Atlas in Atlas

Netflix

Knowing what you know now about AI, if you were to develop Atlas today, would you still make the same story decisions that you made two or three years ago?

Yeah, probably. I don’t think I would change much, because, again, my focus was a lot more on Atlas’ arc. It was not that focused as a statement about AI. I was really focused on someone who has to learn how to trust, and that’s where I put almost all my emphasis. 

So I don’t think I would change much, but let’s be honest, every time you go through a creative process, you’re like, “Oh, I wish I’d done this.” But there isn’t a wholesale thing where I would go, “Okay, I would change all this,” not that I have really spent any time thinking about it. I was just more focused on executing Atlas’ story and her relationship with Smith [the AI driving her suit] and how to make that an emotional experience, rather than the good AI versus the bad AI. 

I was also trying to balance the nuance of Atlas living in a world where her alarm clock is AI, but she doesn’t want to engage it. She also gives out paper [briefings] to the rangers, because she doesn’t trust the neural links. So I tried to balance this world out, and make it feel real and grounded, but I focused more on my narrative and my emotional storytelling. I rarely go into a place of like, “Oh, how would I do it differently now?” I just go, “Okay, this is supporting the narrative I want to tell.” 

(L to R) Brad Peyton (Director/Producer) and Jennifer Lopez as Atlas Shepherd on the set of Atlas

Ana Carballosa/Netflix

You’ve worked with a few heavy hitters including Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa and now Jennifer Lopez. What’s the key to working with these types of movie stars who command a room to such a degree? 

I don’t know how everyone does it; I just know my approach to it, and I try to earn their trust by being in it with them. I try to be as direct with them as possible, and I try to service their end mission. My role, as a creative, is to support all the other creatives. I’m there to try to get the best from them, for them. So I need to get on the same page with them, earn their trust, and then really support them. There’s no games with me. There’s no, “I’m trying to have a dinner party and invite you.” There’s none of that stuff. It’s just, “I want what’s best for you while you’re at work, executing a movie.” And when they get a sense of that, I think they are willing to engage you, because they know, and you know. that you only have their best interest at heart.

As you touched on, you got to design the future including a futuristic Los Angeles. Given that you thanked DeLorean in the credits, did you sneak a time machine in there somewhere?

There is one. It’s sneaky and not shown too much, but the scene where [Atlas] leaves her apartment, there’s a little bot changing a tire on the 2030 DeLorean. They’ve designed it already, and they lent it to us to put inside the movie. So I guess you could call it a time machine, but I got to put a prototype for a future [DeLorean] in the movie.

Is there something futuristic that your team designed that you’d actually want to see developed in real life?

I would drive a mech suit all day, every day, if they could somehow develop that. And as I was shooting, the other thing that hit me was her alarm clock. I like it a lot better than my alarm clock. It’s prettier and nicer, but it also plays chess with you and tells you that day’s humidity. So I would love to have that alarm clock.

Jennifer Lopez as Atlas in Atlas

Netflix

How challenging were the mech suit sequences where Jennifer is mostly having stressful and emotional conversations with someone voicing Smith the AI out of frame?

Well, the movie, overall, is the most complex movie I’ve ever made. I jokingly say this, though it’s true, but Avatar is probably the most complex movie you could make. It’s a lot of completely imagined and created reality, but ours is one step below that because there’s a lot of imagined augmented reality. And what I mean by that is we would shoot plates of an organic place with certain actors in it, and then we would shoot an element of Jen and put those elements together with a CG character that she’s inside of and CG elements on top of it. 

So just trying to communicate your vision to separate units — like visual effects units, secondary directors, art departments, everything — and trying to get all of these pieces in sync was the most complex thing I’ve ever done. If anything is out of sync, it’s not going to line up, and it’s not going to be able to stitch together. And there’s probably a thousand shots that are put together that way. There are very few shots that are not put together that way. 

The Jen component of it all was very rewarding, but also very challenging. I only got the mech suit two days before we went to camera, so we had to figure out how to record on the fly. There were two mech suits. One of them was put up on a big hydraulic gimbal that moves so you could augment ten different walk and run cycles. And what I then realized about Jen is that she’s one of the most intuitive actors I’ve ever worked with. I’m also an intuitive creative person. I choose my camera positions based on a feeling I get when I look through the lens, and I recognized Jen as the other side of that [intuition]. 

So rather than doing the standard of setting up cameras, recording a scene and changing lenses to then record another part of the scene, I realized that I needed to give her as much space to play as possible. So when we got to the mech suit, we ended up setting up four or five cameras at once. When I would block the scene with her, I’d give her a little map of where to move and what positions each camera was for. If she was exasperated, I’d say, “Hey, can you play that up there? I want to put a camera out here to see that moment.” But a lot of times, we would just record the entire scene in one go, because I could let her be free and intuitive inside of the mech suit. I’d never spent seven weeks recording entire runs of scenes with five cameras and no coverage before moving on.

I didn’t even tell her where her eyelines were because I didn’t want her to be overwhelmed by this. She’s already in a mech suit, and she has to reverse engineer the walk cycles to look like she’s driving it when it’s actually driving her. She also had to do these heavy and emotional dialogue scenes and emotional scenes. So to free her up, I was like, “I’m not going to tell her where to look. She can just be intuitive and emotional, and let the tech go away.”

I have to give credit to her history as a performer. She’s a solo performer and dancer who’s used to going on stage and performing to stadiums full of people. She’s the main object, and as much support as her dancers are or the tech is behind her, she has to be out there in this very vulnerable place like she was here, where she’s acting opposite no one for weeks on end.

So, going into this movie, I never could have imagined filming it this way, but I had to figure it out when I got the suit two days ahead of time. What makes you a real professional and good at your job is when you go, “I know it’s not working, and I’m not going to fool myself, so I’m going to adapt.” And because of that, the movie ended up being exponentially better, and Jen delivers an amazing performance.

What’s the story behind Smith’s voice actor?

Greg [James Cohan], who voices Smith, is a great story unto itself. He was brought in as a day player. He was actually there to just support Jen, but when I heard his voice, I chose him. That was how I pictured Smith talking, and I knew that I could direct him to be how I pictured Smith being, which is basically Siri to superhero. He starts off very didactic and very matter of fact, and by the end of it, he’s like, “Ah, shit.” He’s like Danny Glover to Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He’s got his own kind of movie star role.

(L to R) Sterling K. Brown as Colonel Banks and Brad Peyton (Director/Producer) on the set of Atlas

Ana Carballosa/Netflix

So you had a background actor audibly congratulate Sterling K. Brown’s character on his Oscar nomination since filming coincided with his real-life nomination?

(Laughs.) One of the rangers came in for ADR, and he was in the background of a scene talking to Sterling. It was just chatter in the background, and so I had his character congratulate Sterling’s character for the Oscar nomination. If you go in and really listen, you can maybe hear it, but I don’t know. So I recorded us congratulating Sterling, and then I sent it to him and said, “I’m putting this in the movie, but you probably can’t hear it.” It was still fun to do as a little Easter egg.

You told THR six years ago that you’ve seen Predator over 365 times, so did you and Sterling talk about that franchise at all? (Brown starred in 2018’s The Predator.)

No, but I’m going to see him for dinner, so we’re going to go there tonight. Most of the time on set, I’m so absorbed and present in what I’m doing. It’s a lot to take on, so I don’t actually have a lot of those conversations. I’m usually hyper-focused, and then when we’re done, I can actually become a real person. A lot of times, actors will meet me when I’m not shooting and they’ll be like, “Oh man, you’re way more relaxed.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, I’m not shooting five pages of intense action and helming this gigantic movie.” So I have not actually picked Sterling’s brain about Predator, but I’m going to now.

Just out curiosity, can I get your quick impression of Prey since you’re clearly invested in this franchise? 

I really liked it. I thought it was super cool. I also have a version of Predator that I would really like to see. I obviously can’t talk about it, because no one’s inviting me to go do a Predator movie yet. But I actually really liked [Prey]. It was really fresh and innovative and interesting, and anytime someone can come in and reinvent a franchise — but also keep the great elements that we love from the original — you have to applaud that person. So I think [Dan Trachtenberg] did that in spades.

I was a bit surprised that San Andreas (2015) didn’t continue in some form. I know that shoot was physically taxing on you, but did a sequel idea ever get very far?

There was a script, but there wasn’t a lot of time spent on the script. I don’t really recall because I quickly moved into doing Rampage, but there was a script that existed. So there were a lot of conversations about developing it, and there was an initial approach, but it was also a long time ago. So I don’t really remember exactly how far we got with it.

Brad Peyton and Dwayne Johnson on the set of Rampage

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

You’ve made three movies with Dwayne Johnson [including San Andreas], so that would suggest that you work well together. However, there was a recent report about his lack of punctuality on various sets including your Rampage (2018) set. What do you recall about his behavior during your 2017 production?

Dwayne has always been a terrific collaborator, and I had a great experience with him on Rampage and the other projects we worked on. I always felt that Dwayne respected me and gave me his all. I worked with him three times and I’d love to do it again.

Lastly, you and Rian Johnson both sing the praises of editor Bob Ducsay. Is there a particular sequence in Atlas where he was especially invaluable? 

Bob was incredibly valuable to me on this movie. He’s one of the people that I hope to work with for the rest of my career just because our sensibilities and our approach to narrative filmmaking are so similar. He really gets inside of [the story] and challenges everyone in the same way that I do of delivering the best work you can.

The biggest component of innovation on this movie came with Smith’s avatar, and that was an invention that Bob and I both came up with separately but also simultaneously. Initially, we didn’t have an avatar for Smith. I just had Atlas speaking to Smith, and then two or three days into filming, I was like, “Man, we need a visualization of Smith so that we can connect with him in a visual way besides Atlas speaking to the room.” 

So Bob and I started mocking this approach up of an animated Smith avatar, and he spent so much time nuancing the modulation of the voice. We called it “Circle Smith” when we were developing it, and I want to say that a lot of it was Bob. As much freedom as I tried to afford Jen, I also gave that freedom to Bob. 

But I didn’t burden Jen with [the Smith avatar]. I wanted her to continue the process she was on, but once we got into post and Bob started cutting scenes, he really took these ideas and ran with them. So the end result of the animated Smith avatar was from Bob and his team taking the runway and beginning to develop it as I was shooting. It was such a huge invention, and it impacts the movie in such a massive way.

***
Atlas hits Netflix on May 24.

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