Computer technology has become a major part of modern Hollywood movies. Almost every aspect of them has been passed through various computers and software refining the finished product and delivering astonishing results. But how does this new high-tech reality affects the artists involved? Versatile character actor William Fichtner is with us today to discuss these very issues along with his latest TV & movie projects. Mr Fichtner has become a well-known figure through blockbusters like Armageddon, Contact, Black Hawk Down, Go, Equilibrium, Heat, Perfect Storm, and many more.
“Today’s big budget action movies usually use ‘blue screens’ and computerized special effects in one way or another” Fichtner noted. “I worked with a bluescreen a few times, notably in Armageddon and Perfect Storm. However, depending on the production values and money spent, a bluescreen movie can have different results for actors. Personally, I don’t notice if there is a bluescreen or not, the crew makes it a believable environment to work with“. However, it is not the same for everybody: “My friend Ewan McGregor [editor’s note: co-stared in Black Hawk Down] told me that he had a completely different experience with the bluescreen in Star Wars. In his case there was a ‘1-1 acting’ with lots of bluescreens and so the challenge was different.”
Regarding computerized special effects, Mr Fichtner believes that they add a great value to today’s high-budget movies; that they are not merely there to fill in the scenery that but they do improve the overall quality and viewing experience: “they create things unlike anything you have ever seen before: explosions, fire, even the sense of speed. For example, watching the 3 recent Star Wars is an amazing experience, creating lifelike scenes out of this world.”
However, these big budget hi-tech movies are not for every director. “Indie films will always have low budgets and new directors will have to experiment with real objects rather than using computers. For example, why digitally recreate a farmland or woods when you can shoot in a real such place for cheaper? It’s all about the human experience and the storyline and that’s what makes a movie great, ultimately“, he said.
While Fichtner is not a computer gamer himself (his older son has an XBOX though: “I lasted 30 seconds playing against him“, he said) he lended his voice to 3 computer games, including ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Wing Commander: Prophecy’. “There is a rough cut of the animation done at the point we record our voices, and it’s really fun to do. It’s great seeing these techie people pushing the envelope in computer technology and actors ultimately being a part of it. I don’t play computer games but I sometimes just play with some pinball machines, as they remind me my college days“.
We asked Fichtner if he believes that in the distant future actors will be completely replaced by digital creations and he responded that this “sounds a bit crazy. I don’t want this to sound off in case someone reads this article 50 years from now and by that time such technology has materialized, but I don’t think that machines can be ‘human’-enough. The experience to be human, the emotions you get when the camera is rolling is an amazing thing and I conceive it as part of a gift of life. Machines can helps us create lifelike experiences, but they are not life themselves. If anything, competition from machines can raise the bar and can push actors to try harder“.
Fichtner had lots of roles in his career that he is proud of. He loved being in Armageddon when it was shooting in Cape Canaveral and had the opportunity to be one-on-one with NASA people. He also loves his role in Perfect Storm, but he thinks that his favorite role might be the one in Black Hawk Down. He loved the fact that both his roles in Perfect Storm and BHD are based on true stories and real-life people. “There were affected lives and families. I actually met the people involved in the stories and it was such a gratifying experience. It was an honor to portray these characters“, he said. However, Fichtner said that he would have loved to explore more the role of Col. Sharp in Armageddon: “Take me up to space, I am really excited about all this stuff!” he enthusiastically noted. It is not the money he cares when he picks a role either “Many times I picked small roles on purpose, even when I was offered a bigger one. It’s the story that I am interested about and where I can get the character to“.
His latest movie is UltraViolet. Geeks will recognize its director, Kurt Wimmer, as the director of ‘Equilibrium’ in 2002. “Kurt is a really smart gentleman. I had a really good experience shooting UltraViolet 1 1/2 years ago in Hong Kong and Beijing.” Milla Jovovich plays “Violet”, a woman with a blood-eating disorder, set in a futuristic world. “Milla is unbelievable“, Fichtner says. “She has an inner torque, she is a super hero. I don’t think anyone could have played her part better than she did, she was unbelievable, just like in Joan of Arc. She has such a commitment. I play Garth, a super-techie guy who is taken with Milla’s character, but she is one notch above the ladder for him. I play a good guy this time, and I think that no matter what other roles I ever might portray for Kurt Wimmer, he will always ask me to play “good, underground guys“. Fichtner played the leader of an underground resistance movement in Equilibrium. “This film had a huge internet underground following, of mainly teenagers. Many times I am stopped on the street by 19-year olds shouting “hey dude!”, remembering me from Equilibrium, in specific“.
However, career success was not always easy for Fichtner. The medical drama MDs in 2002 was canceled after only few episodes. “The best 4 episodes we shot never went on air“, he regrets. The show was placed in an unfavorable time slot against other –already established– medical dramas and “the TV network was never really behind us. Gary Tieche did a great job putting everyone on the same page, but if your network doesn’t support you as much as they should have, there is not much you can do. At least I had a great time with John Hannah while on the set“.
Fichtner will be seen in two upcoming TV series. On 28th & 29th of May he co-stars with Paul Newman and Ed Harris in “Empire Falls,” a tele-movie for HBO. Fichtner plays sheriff Jimmy Minty in the film, a guy who doesn’t fit-in well in his small Maine hometown. “Paul Newman is such an amazing person” Fichtner says. “He is now 80 years old and he still has so much energy for car racing!“.
Later this year Fichtner will star in ABC’s new sci-fi action drama series “Invasion,” in which aliens are using natural disasters to cover up their invasion on Earth. He plays the sheriff in this show too. “I saw the finished pilot just a couple of weeks ago and I am very positive about it; it’s really good” he says. “The director has done a phenomenal job on it, and the cast is great, especially the Canadian actress who portrays my wife in the series“.
On the big screen, Fichtner has been busy this year. His new movie ‘Crash’ is just out while later this year “The Chumscrubber” will be released in the theaters (August 5th) and sometime this fall “Nine Lives” will be released too. If you can’t wait until then, there is always “The Longest Yard” which opens this week, where Fichtner portrays the sadistic Captain Knauer, the captain of the prison guard football team in a match set against inmates (Adam Sandler plays the captain of the inmates). Fichtner also has a very small cameo appearance in the upcoming film ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ (with Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie).
However, “his best work he ever did as an actor” was for Moguls, he claims. Citizens of a small town, under the influence of a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis (Jeff Bridges in the leading role), come together to make a porno film. Fichtner portrays the… producer of the alleged film. “This is the kind of comedy that I love, it’s the favorite thing I ever done. Distribution of the film has not been set in stone yet, but it will happen one day, and more people will be able to enjoy this kind of comedy“.
Fichtner also shot an Indie film last year in New Mexico with Guy Pearce. It is called ‘First Snow’ and it will be released next winter.
When our discussion shifted back to computers again he noted, “there is talk in the house of buying a Mac. We do have a PC already. I am not much into computers though. My wife and older son know more about it than I do. A friend phoned me recently and he said ‘didn’t you get the email I sent on February?’ and I replied ‘no, I checked my email in January though’. I guess I am old school… While shooting Black Hawk Down in Morocco we were usually hanging out at an internet café and it was taking me eons to type up a paragraph. My colleagues gave me the nickname ‘Chicken boy’ for that. I also have an iPod that I am not fully using. I know I should though.”
Our last question was the classic: Star Wars or Star Trek, and why? Fichtner says “Tough call, Mr Spock was so great! I grew up with Star Trek, I was about 10 years old when the original Star Trek aired, old enough to sit myself in the couch and watch the starship Enterprise. When it came out in 1967 the technology used raised the bar. But then I was in college [Fichtner studied criminal justice before he started studying drama] Star Wars came out and it was mind blowing. It was so oh-my-God! I have a soft spot for both of them and hopefully ‘Invasion’ will be as successful and have a 5-year run on the TV networks ultimately creating a franchise of its own.”