Andrew Niccol has made his name with a series of movies that take contemporary modern-living concerns, and stretch them to an inventive extreme. Yet despite coming up through the world of advertising, he is wary of self-promotion, telling one interviewer that “there seems to be too much attention on the teller rather than the tale.”
Born in Paraparaumu on the Kapiti Coast, Niccol moved to England at the age of 21. There he spent 10 years writing and later directing television commercials.
Niccol first won attention in Hollywood with an ambitious script about a man trapped in a fictional world. But studios were unwilling to gamble $60 million plus on an untried filmmaker. Instead Niccol made his assured directorial debut with low-budget science fiction film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law. The film’s plotline — of a future where one’s genetic make-up can limit one’s opportunities in society — gave early notice of a filmmaker more interested in concepts than spectacle. Critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas.”
Five months after Gattaca finished filming, noted Australian director Peter Weir (Gallipoli) rolled camera on The Truman Show, the project that had first won Niccol attention in Hollywood. His concept was of a man who is long unaware that his life is being watched and manipulated for a hit television show. When Weir came on board, he encouraged Niccol to lighten the tone of the script, and the locale was moved from New York to a smaller town.
Cleverly predicting the rise of ‘reality TV' (Big Brother and Survivor both debuted in America within two years of the film’s release), The Truman Show melded many issues, including voyeurism, celebrity, powerlessness and media manipulation. “I used to think this story was ludicrously far-fetched,” said Niccol in 1998. “Now I start to wonder”. Buoyed by an ad campaign that made the film sound far less sophisticated than it was, and fuelled by the star power of Jim Carrey in his first serious role, The Truman Show grossed more than US $260 million internationally.
The Washington Post called it “as endearing as it is provocative”, and “one of the smartest, most inventive movies in memory”. Newsweek found it “miraculous”. Weir, Niccol and actor Ed Harris were all nominated for Academy Awards, and Niccol took out the 1999 BAFTA for best original screenplay.
Niccol was now determined that “everything I write, I want to direct.” In 2000 he did just that with S1m0ne, further exploring how far the media might be prepared to bend reality for the sake of entertainment. In this case a director (Al Pacino) secretly creates a perfect multi-media star on a computer. S1m0ne failed to have much box office impact, though it has continued to ignite passionate online debate. Those who found it ridiculous may have been interested to hear about Japanese girl band AKB48: in 2011 it was revealed that their newest recruit was actually a digital composite of six existing members.
Niccol came up with the idea for Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004), inspired by the case of a homeless man who spent years living between states in Charles de Gaulle airport.
In his own films he was also briefly turned from predicting the future, to the present day; 2005’s Lord of War explored the world of arms dealers. Niccol was fascinated by “the type of human being who could sell AK 47s like they were vacuum cleaners”, and fail to care about the consequences of their actions. Lord of War charts the rise of a Ukrainian immigrant (Nicolas Cage) over several decades.
Feeling he should get “as much of the detail right as possible”, Niccol met real-life arms dealers, even borrowing a number of their tanks for use in the film before they were onsold to buyers in Libya. His team found their US$40 million budget through non-American sources, after being turned down by Hollywood studios (Star Cage argued that the fact nobody wanted to make the movie was "all the more reason" it should be made). At one point during the multi-national shoot, Niccol wondered if he was going to have enough money to finish.
Variety reviewer Robert Koehler praised Lord of War for tackling a burning, complex contemporary topic with “ferocity and filmic energy”. Koehler was not the only reviewer to compare the film’s “gallows humour” to classic novel Catch 22 — though he was less convinced by the film’s “ragged shifts in tone”.
Niccol has described his 2011 feature In Time as “the bastard son of Gattaca”. The future depicted in this thriller is one in which ageing stops at 25. The youth-focused story apparently made finding funding a refreshingly easy process for the director, after recent attempts at getting some of his more “unconventional ideas” through Hollywood. Starring Justin Timberlake, In Time is set in a future where rich and poor are segregated; while the rich can switch off the ageing gene, for the poor, time is literally money. “If you have a literal body clock, it's reminding you that every second counts as you're watching it tick down,” Niccol told the NZ Herald. "I think we could all benefit from having one."
Niccol followed In Time with his adaptation of 650-page young adult bestseller The Host, by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer. The story involves a post-invasion earth where an alien has taken control of the body of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan). Niccol won better notices for his next film Good Kill, which was nominated for the top award when it debuted at the 2014 Venice Film Festival. Empire magazine called the film a "complex, satisfying character study turned combat thriller". Rolling Stone argued that Ethan Hawke's portrait of an ethically-compromised drone pilot marked one of his best performances to date.
Niccol was next set to develop a script based on board game Monopoly.
Tom Cardy, 'Dancing with the Devil' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 24 March 2006
Roger Ebert, ‘Gattaca’ (Review) - Chicago Sun-Times, 24 October 1997
Ian Freer, 'Good Kill - Full Metal Console' (Review) - Empire. Date
Todd Gilchrist, ‘IGN Interviews Andrew Niccol’. IGN website. Loaded 15 September 2005. Accessed 17 July 2015
Sheila Johnstone, ‘Interview: The clevering-up of America’ - The Independent, 20 September 1998
Rita Kempley, ‘Truman’: The Camera Never Sleeps’ (Review) - The Washington Post, 5 June 1998
Robert Koehler, ‘Lord of War’ (Review) - Variety, 7 September 2005
Michele Manelis, ‘Andrew Niccol: An eye to the future’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 21 October 2011
Gill Pringle, 'Nicolas Cage' (Interview) - Pulp no 49, March 2006, page 62
Claudia Puig, 'The Human Show' - LA Times, published in Sunday Star-Times, 14 June 1998, Page F1
Peter Travers, 'Good Kill' (Review) - Rolling Stone, 14 May 2015
Jane Witherspoon, ‘Perfect Pop Star Is Revealed As Digital Fake’. Originally on Sky News website, then on Yahoo website. Loaded 3 July 2011. Accessed 17 July 2015
‘The Host : The Movie’ (Press Release) Stephanie Meyer.com website. Loaded 27 June 2011. Accessed 17 July 2015