The Dark Tower — Interview and Review

When Comic-Con was in town, I got a call asking if I’d like to interview Nikolas Arcel, the director of The Dark Tower. He’s also know for King’s Game, Island of Lost Souls and A Royal Affair — which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Oscars.

After the interview, I’d get to hang out at the Dixie Pig. Well, it was the Tipsy Crow in the Gaslamp, changed to look like the place in the Stephen King novel. And any time there’s an opportunity to talk to a talented director, and get free booze afterwards, I’m in. Here’s the conversation.

JOSH BOARD: First, I have to ask you about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I loved it. Since you’re the screenwriter, did anything about how it turned out upset you? I always hear that writers get mad with how their words and certain things get edited out; or were you happy with the director’s vision and how it all turned out?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: I really liked the vision and how they edited it. The casting was great. Noomi Rapace is terrific, but…I always thought it was a little bit long. I thought 10 minutes could’ve been cut out of it. I always tried to get the director to cut it.

JOSH BOARD: Oh wow. I thought most screenwriters would feel the opposite, no matter how long the movie is.

NIKOLAS ARCEL: No, no. I’m a director at heart and most directors don’t want them to be too long.

JOSH BOARD: On the subject of Dragon Tattoo…sorry to hear about Michael [Nyqvist, the Swedish actor who also appeared in John Wick and Mission: Impossible]. I’m assuming you knew him.

NIKOLAS ARCEL: I did, yeah. I didn’t know him anywhere near as well as the other people on the film. It was sad news.

JOSH BOARD: I have to ask about Don Winslow, because he’s a local author out here [lives in Julian; writer of Savages, The Kings of Cool, The Death and Life of Bobby Z]. You’re doing The Power of the Dog, right?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Nope. Not anymore. Two years ago I was attached to that.

JOSH BOARD: What about Rebecca [Hitchcock movie based on the Daphne du Maurier novel]  Are you still attached to that project?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yes, I’m still doing that.

JOSH BOARD: That’s interesting. Are you worried about tackling a classic like that?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yeah, I seem to set myself up for some really long falls. First, The Dark Tower, and now this. I always had a love for the novel, and the movie as well. It’s adapted more from the novel than the film. Some of the themes that were in the book they couldn’t get done because it was sort of…touchy.

JOSH BOARD: Yeah. I’m guessing in 1940, a lot of things seemed a bit risque.

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yes. The risque stuff.

JOSH BOARD: Tackling a Stephen King novel…makes me think about the few times over the years I’ve heard him say that he’s never been happy with how his books have turned out on screen. I think that was all in the early ‘80s, though. Mostly after The Shining. I have to think he liked Misery and The Shawshank Redemption.

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yeah, and Stand by Me.

JOSH BOARD: And that. How could he not like how that turned out? But…does it worry you what he’d think of this movie, or…was he involved in the making of it?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: He was really involved in this and the whole process. As late as two weeks ago, he wrote me saying he just saw the finished film and he gave a thumbs up. He said, ‘You remembered the face of your father,’ which was one of the things from the novel. It was used as a positive thing in the story.

JOSH BOARD: As someone that hasn’t read the series, are people like me, that aren’t familiar with this, going to be confused? Watching the trailer…it looks like an awful lot is going on. It’s really ambitious, and looks like someone could be confused delving into this world.

NIKOLAS ARCEL: No, totally the opposite. What we worked really hard on, is doing the opposite. We wanted to invite everyone into this universe, and to make sure the non-fans know what’s going on. Now, some of the fans are going to say ‘Where’s this, where’s that?’ We’re waiting a little bit, to have other things in later installments, if we’re fortunate enough to make them.

JOSH BOARD: But you are combining elements from the other novels, right?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yes we are.

JOSH BOARD: You must be thrilled to have gotten Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yes.

JOSH BOARD: You realize that with Elba in this role, it’s going to reignite all this talk about how he would be a good James Bond.

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yeah. Possibly…you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.

JOSH BOARD: Since everyone is going to ask about those two in interviews, I’ll instead ask you about another actor in this movie that is a really interesting talent — Jackie Earle Haley. What was it like working with him, a fellow director?

NIKOLAS ARCEL: He is nice and so down to earth. A complete gentleman. We talked about directing, and how to work with actors, and different techniques. He has a fairly small part in this film, but it was a pleasure to work with him. I’ve been a fan for a long time.

JOSH BOARD: On the subject of directors, what was the whole thing with J.J. Abrams? It seems like a few years ago he was attached to this movie.

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yeah, he was. Then Ron Howard was attached for awhile. But then he stayed on as producer. It was really helpful having him as a producer. He could come in and say so many wise and smart things. That was really fortunate for me.

JOSH BOARD: Tom Hanks used to always tell David Letterman how nice he is when he makes suggestions, and how he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings when he’s asking you to do another take. He would imitate his voice and say ‘That was good, that was good, but…let’s do another one.’

NIKOLAS ARCEL: Yes, he’s very nice and has a lot of good advice. He’s a perfect gentleman.

THE REVIEW

After talking with the director/co-writer, and talking to my friend Leslie Perlis (who insisted on me taking her to the screening), I was excited about seeing this.  When we compared notes afterwards, I realized this movie works better for people who have read the numerous Dark Tower books. It’s not like I was confused watching this, but we hardly know anything about the “gunslingers” or “seers.” Sometimes that’s a bit more refreshing, instead of awkwardly giving us boring exposition. I was also pleasantly surprised that it didn’t just become a John Carter from Mars, or more recently, another Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally get a goofy looking CGI demon chasing a boy through an old amusement park. More often than not, the special effects works well. The visuals of the portals that take people to different realms, the slow motion bullets, or shattered glass, all of it exciting. The set designs could’ve been better, though.

Jake (Tom Taylor) has strange visions, that coincide with violent earthquakes. His visions show children being tortured, as devices are strapped to their head like Nicholson being electrocuted in Cuckoos Nest. The man in black (a playful Matthew McConaughey) needs to use their fears (or something in their minds) to help blow up the Tower, which is an edifice that protects the world from evil.

We’re told Jake has “the shine.” It’s a word that Stephen King really needs to retire from his stories. I swear, the amount of books that use that, portals, and the same things over and over, get tiresome. And I haven’t read a King book in 25 years!

Often times during this, I thought about better movies. When Jake is forced to see a psychiatrist because of all his disturbing pictures — I thought about a similar scene in Sixth Sense. When the man in black walks back to his lair, it reminded me a lot of Darth Vader. He makes demands on his minions, and if they don’t do it, he kills them. Or he messes ‘em up really bad. Yet think about how much fun you had watching Star Wars. The sets were a lot more fun, the story more interesting. Both had cliche moments, but you laugh a lot more in Star Wars and love the adventure. This had a few humorous moments, but not enough. Most of those involved the “fish out of water” material, like the gunslinger enjoying his first Coke (his can of “sugar”), or dealing with the staff of a hospital.

There were plenty of times watching this that it felt like it would’ve worked better as a series on one of the pay channels. Certainly they could explore more of the themes that are merely touched upon. We get the sense that there’s a lot more mythology here that we just don’t get enough information about (there’s a throw away line about guns being made from the sword of Excalibur).

Elba and McConaughey are in fine form. Perhaps Elba could’ve been given a bit more to do than grimace. But hey…he was a badass at loading that pistol.

McConaughey, who my friend thought should’ve been more scary and less sexy, worked for me like that. There’s nothing creepier than a woman coming home and seeing him cooking dinner in her kitchen, complete with green apron. It makes me think of other movies where a scary person is cooking, while talking about what horrific things they intend on doing (Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal, Benico del Toro in Savages; both bad movies, but incredibly powerful scenes).

The film was rather conventional, and needed much livelier dialogue. At an hour and a half, I was never bored, but…watching a boy and a gunslinger walk around the desert isn’t the most interesting thing in the world, either.

I’m giving it 2 stars out of 5. My friend that loved the books would give it 3 stars.