Sometimes filmmakers and/or film lovers sit down to talk about the movie they’re watching, and it’s called a commentary. Sometimes our Rob Hunter listens to that commentary and shares the most interesting and entertaining parts. Welcome to Commentary Commentary!
Ask people to name their favorite Michael Crichton film, and not a single one will say Looker (1981). Expand it to a top three, and I’d wager it still wouldn’t show up. Top five, though? Yeah, some of us weirdos would easily drop this goofy-ass sci-fi movie into a Crichton top five.
The film was recently released to Blu-ray from Warner Archive, and it includes a commentary track from Crichton himself. I believe it was recorded for the film’s 2007 DVD release, which means it was one year before his unfortunate passing. He’s obviously an intelligent man and a fascinating filmmaker, so of course we gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
Commentator: Michael Crichton (writer/director)
1. This film came about after he had written the novel Congo (1980) and entered into pre-production on a film adaptation. They had to cancel the film, though, as they quickly realized it was impossible to find gorillas to use for the film. “Gorillas were an endangered species,” he says, and they still are. While that film would have to wait until the mid 90s to actually get made, he decided to use the unexpected free time to focus on something that was “much more 20th century.”
2. The main themes going into Looker include our exaggerated focus on physical beauty, the power of advertising, and the increase in artifice.
3. Plastic surgery hadn’t been as much of a focus in features back then, as “at the time… it was something you weren’t meant to talk about.”
4. One of the things he’s noticed in movies over the years is “an enormous change in pace.” He recalls having wanted to cut this film faster, but it’s a product of its time.
5. The light “gun” that causes people to lose time is meant in part as a metaphor for TV commercials themselves as viewers back then often found themselves entranced. He credits Tivo with changing that. Audiences at the time were perplexed “for the better part of an hour,” but modern viewers seem to catch on much quicker.
6. Crichton was thrilled that Albert Finney wanted to do the film saying “he had done some films, not a whole lot since Tom Jones,” but of course that’s just silly. Finney followed up that 1963 film with several features before Looker including great ones like Two for the Road (1967), Scrooge (1970), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Wolfen (1981).
7. Susan Dey wanted to introduce her character with a chewing gum bubble, but Crichton was concerned it would take too many takes. “She did it again and again perfectly.”
8. There were concerns regarding the cityscape backdrops glimpsed outside the windows of the various sets, “but it turned out okay.”
9. He says people found it outrageous upon release, but it only took less than a decade after its release for some of its sci-fi elements to find a home in the real world. “Sometimes I get in trouble because I have the feeling I live in the future, but I don’t actually. I think things have already happened when they haven’t happened yet, but they’ve happened as far as I’m concerned or I think that it’s so self-evident that they’re going to happen that I begin to behave as though they already happened. And for better or worse other people aren’t like that.”
10. The film was developed at Fox and meant to follow Congo, but after he told Sherry Lansing (then head of the studio) that Congo couldn’t happen it “put me in bad odor at Fox.” They put the film into turnaround, and it went to The Ladd Company who “made it immediately.”
11. The title popped into his head one day, and while some are struggles that never quite feel right, this one is perfect in his eyes.
12. One of the toughest elements of the script was coming up with all the fake corporation names. “It’s getting hard.”
13. He had a very specific look for the beach house in mind and spent an excessive amount of time trying to find a real one that matched his imagination. They failed, and he had to rewrite the scenes.
14. The beach scene teases the idea of beautiful women still feeling insecure, and the concept leads him to recall the film’s director of photography bringing his pitbull named Pig to set that day. “He leaned out of his trailer at lunch time and goes ‘Hey Pig!’ calling his dog, and every woman on the beach turned around. And I was like ‘no no, you’re not pigs.’”
15. Dey wasn’t exactly thrilled at having to do the scanning sequence in the nude. “Unfortunately it just took days and days and days. Poor girl.”
16. These were busy times for Crichton as he found himself alternating between writing novels and working on films, and the early 80s in particular saw his interest in the latter increase while his literary output was less enthused. “After Congo there wasn’t another book until Jurassic Park which was seven years later.”
17. He acknowledges that the film feels exaggerated and cartoony by design as audiences probably wouldn’t have gotten the point had it all been played straight.
18. The flash meant to indicate the light gun had been used was added in post-production. Initially it was just the minor changes in backgrounds or on clocks that were designed to let viewers know that time had suddenly passed, but Crichton felt that audiences had been trained to ignore small background changes as part of the movie-making process. That bled over into other elements as well that saw Crichton making plot points more explicit than he’d otherwise planned.
19. His goal with the gun and other objects was to not have them be futuristic-looking. The film was meant to be in the present, and he didn’t want the “sci-fi” objects stand out from the otherwise traditional lab sets.
20. He had Finney doing all of his own stunts after learning how much better it was for the film while making The Great Train Robbery (1978) with Sean Connery.
21. “I suppose this kind of flash [from the gun] is prelude to Men in Black (1997) or something,” he says, “I don’t know.” Oh, he knows.
22. The sequence where Finney’s character is ambushed by shooters armed with real guns sees them having fogged the room so the light gun can’t work. It makes Crichton recall how Pacific Islanders first dealt with invading Europeans who had guns by planning their battles for rainy days which would ruin the gun powder.
23. He sometimes thinks of dialogue as something of “an effects track” meaning you don’t always have to listen to it. It makes the films feel like silent pictures to him. “Almost half of my first movie, Westworld, was essentially silent in that way.”
24. This film ended his “interest” with stalking as a narrative point. “It has advantages and it has disadvantages, but all in all I’d rather see things happen. There’s a lot of stalking here.”
25. Looker is the only one of his films to have gone over schedule and budget. “It doesn’t look like it was a difficult film, and it shouldn’t have been.” Studio scheduling had other plans, though.
26. The car chase ends with Finney’s Porsche in a fountain that’s located in Echo Park. It was a 2nd car, one used just for this scene, and he worried about the logistics as it makes no sense how the car could have jumped over the fountain wall and into the water. “But it was sufficiently weird that I guess audiences just let it go.”
27. He’s no fan of long takes. “My preference is for the energy on set to stay up.”
28. Crichton’s father was a journalist who felt no one should ever have to read another person’s handwriting. He made sure his children learned to type at an early age, and that saw Crichton’s move into word processors nearly seamless. Publishers were very impressed.
29. He received flack for killing off Jennifer (Leigh Taylor-Young), but “it was kind of a problem, there wasn’t anybody else to kill, I guess, and there’s also that weird issue about, you know, what is the culpability of someone who’s a hanger-on and do they really need to die?” He answers his own question by adding that “movies really are morality plays.”
30. The third-act sequence with Finney’s character being stalked through the automated sound stages reminds Crichton why he wanted composer Barry De Vorzon to do the score. They liked his “electronic edginess and kind of pop sense” for the film, and he recalls asking the composer if he had meant to feature the repetitive electronic beats through this whole sequence. “He was right.”
31. He pays attention to test screenings as he wants his films to be understood. “It’s one thing if they don’t like it, but if they really don’t get it then that produces a different sort of response because I think audiences what tell you if they don’t understand it.” It’s a problem he’s encountered before up to and including Twister (1996). Test audiences liked it well enough, but “they had no idea why these people were chasing tornadoes, and so as the movie went on they liked the movie less and less because it just seemed like they were crazy people.” Additions were made to explain what the characters were doing and why, and everyone was happy.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“It’s literally superficial.”
“I wanted my credit over a dog with his tongue hanging out.”
“It’s interesting, in terms of research, I don’t recall really doing any.”
“Boy those were the days when you did stunts by doing them.”
“I think at the time of this movie most people didn’t know what ‘digital’ meant.”
“Our bad guy in this movie does look like Tom Selleck.”
“I’ve never gone out and bought a feminine product because I saw an ad.”
“There’s a lot of stalking here.”
Odds are most viewers will land on the side of Looker being too cheesy and lightweight for its own good, but the film embraces its silly sci-fi plot with such sincerity that I can’t help but enjoy it. Toss in an always game Albert Finney, an eternally entertaining James Coburn, and some shenanigans with a light gun, and you have a harmless slice of genre fun. Crichton gets it, and while he has the dry delivery of an educated man his enjoyment of the material is contagious.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.