- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 24, 2002

NEW YORK A summer movie season that began with one comedy about a movie-business hoax, Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending," is nearing its conclusion with another, Andrew Niccol's "Simone.

The writer-director of "Simone," a 38-year-old transplant from New Zealand, revealed a distinctive aptitude for seriocomic fables about deception and falsified identities as the writer-director of the science-fiction allegory "Gattaca" in 1997 and the futuristic television satire "The Truman Show" in 1998.
Mr. Niccol, now a full-time resident of Los Angeles, takes a similarly playful and speculative approach to the career crisis of a director played by Al Pacino, who resorts to fabricating an actress with computer-generated imagery when his chosen leading lady proves a selfish liability.
During a weekend of interviews at the Regency hotel hosted by New Line Cinema, Mr. Niccol acknowledges that friends have told him about the similarities between "Simone" and "Hollywood Ending" but pleads firsthand ignorance of the Allen comedy.
"The only thing I can say in my defense," he reflects, "is that 'Simone' has been in the can for a year. I swear we should have been out first, but that's another Hollywood horror story.
"The delay reflects New Line's obsession with 'The Lord of the Rings,' which merely represented their entire future, of course. It's kind of a compliment, since New Zealand saved the company. Single-handedly, as a nation, we did it. Or Peter Jackson did it.
"The film changed the whole New Zealand economy not just by encouraging a new flow of tourism. The $300 million that New Line injected into the economy while Peter was shooting the 'Rings' trilogy changed the value of the currency."
According to Mr. Niccol, his second feature didn't cost significantly more than his first. "I'm still trying to make a dime look like a dollar," he says. "If you don't have a huge star in the film and it's not an action blockbuster, you will always be struggling to get it made.
"Al Pacino is considered risky outside the crime genres, and he doesn't have a gun in his hand in 'Simone.' The weapon of choice is a computer keyboard. I don't think the audience has seen that before, and I hope they find it intriguing."
Mr. Niccol also resists the idea that his movies to date share discernible themes. "I think it's more accurate to say that 'Gattaca' and 'The Truman Show' were just scripts that attracted studios and got made," he explains. "I don't really look for themes. In fact, I'm superstitious about that. I think if I began to analyze why I'm attracted to certain things, it would inhibit further interest."
The idea for "Simone" evolved from "just seeing what is now possible and realizing how unreliable images can be," he continues.
Mr. Niccol singles out the millennium celebrations as a crystallizing influence. "I was struck by the moment when CBS covered up the logo of NBC on a live shot from Times Square," he recalls. "I thought, well, things are really up for grabs, even in on-the-spot journalism.
"It used to be that the still image was suspect. It could be doctored. Now moving images are just as vulnerable. I'm interested in the blurring of truth and fakery, I guess.
"Viktor Taransky, the Pacino character, is not so sinister because it's clearly an entertainment phenomenon that he's manipulating. We need to be alarmed by the uses and abuses that are more likely to occur in documentary or journalistic areas. You could turn on the TV in a few years and see an actor or reporter without knowing if he, or more probably she, were real or a fake and maybe not care by that time."
Copyright protections of various kinds are supposed to protect the images of both living and deceased performers. Mr. Niccol enjoyed carte blanche when fabricating Simone, but a playful end credit lists 16 performers who evidently contributed one feature or another to her appearance.
There's an impossible-to-trace male ringer in the group: Ernest Borgnine. The last name on the list is an unknown of sorts, Rachel Roberts, not the late English actress, but a living Canadian model who served as the flesh-and-blood double for Simone.
Despite this roster, Mr. Niccol coyly insists, "The studio keeps putting this gag order on me. All I can say is that Simone is definitely made up of more than one person, and I will add that she is a career opportunity for one of those."
Mr. Niccol observes with a chuckle, "Many times actors don't want to know if they're being altered slightly by digital touch-ups. It's become an extension of lighting and makeup to some extent. Now there's an electronic dimension to those refinements. And it's arguable that the electronic corrections may be healthier for the performer than some things found in cosmetic jars. In the same way that people become addicted to cosmetic surgery, you could become addicted, or accustomed, to having your image doctored and spruced up.
"Digital animation has made it possible to stretch an actor to make him look slimmer. I can image some performers coming to rely on that. Without naming names, here's another example: There's a well-known pop star who has her body sculpted frame by frame for her music videos. She participates in those sessions. She stands over the shoulder of the digital artist. I imagine she has a contractual right to participate in the process."
Mr. Niccol worried a bit about stretching the credibility of plot situations. "The story escalates to more and more ridiculous lengths," he observes. "At times I thought it might be going too far, especially when Simone is becoming this huge pop star, but I tended to fall back on one of Pacino's lines, 'It's easier to convince 100,000 people than one person.'
"At those huge stadium concerts, the performer onstage looks tiny to most of the audience. They're watching the Jumbotrons more often than not. So they go to a big spectacle and watch TV.
"When there's an atmosphere of mass hysteria and delusion, people see what they want to see. It becomes a self-perpetuating lie in the movie, which I quite enjoy.
"People start lying for Taransky. He doesn't have to twist arms. People want to say they've met Simone, had dinner with her, even slept with her to make themselves look better. That's part of the fun of it. The ultimate irony is that Taransky tells such a successful lie that no one wants to believe the truth."
Mr. Niccol's early professional aspirations took him from an advertising agency in Wellington, New Zealand, to a branch of the company in London, where he began working on accounts that involved writing and supervising television commercials. He has found the move to Los Angeles comfortable.
"It's the capital of make-believe, obviously," he says. "I try to be there and outside some of its snares as much as possible. You don't have to become part of the Hollywood scene, writ large. It's a choice. I tend to have expensive ideas and somewhat unconventional ideas. Those things don't necessarily go well together in a studio system, so I always have a selling job on my hands. 'The Truman Show' didn't change that."
Mr. Niccol believes his relative independence also may have spared him the sort of disruptive vanities that cost Viktor Taransky his leading lady in the early episodes.
"I've been too lucky," the filmmaker says. "I think the kind of projects I do wouldn't attract actors who are only in it for the paycheck. I've only worked with people who were sincerely drawn by the scripts I'd written. So I've been very fortunate, but I hear horror stories all the time. I had to tone down the events I describe because no one would believe the most outrageous true events. They're also so petty that you hesitate to describe them."
Will satirizing them act as a deterrent?
"Maybe," Mr. Niccol comments. "I always try to think of our business in perspective. We're making diversions for people on a Saturday night. We're not fighting fires or curing diseases. At the Academy Awards, you hear people saying how brave, how courageous, a performance was. Whenever I hear that cliche, I think, 'What? It's nice to be recognized, but let's have some perspective.'
"A friend of mine won't use the word 'awards.' He calls all these things 'prizes.' I think it's a useful distinction. If you say, 'I won a prize,' it's harder to attract a lot of flattery. 'That's good' or 'That's nice' will be adequate to the occasion."

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