Andrew Niccol made his name with a series of movies that take contemporary concerns, and stretch them to an inventive extreme. As Verge writer Tasha Robinson put it in 2018, "Niccol specialises in high concept stories about the way technology affects society". Although he hates to analyse his own work, Niccol admits to having an interest in how technology is used and/or abused.
Despite coming up through the world of advertising, Niccol 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 thanks to an ambitious script about a man trapped in a fictional world. But studios were unwilling to gamble $60 million plus on an untried director. Instead Niccol showed he could direct a feature with low-budget science fiction film Gattaca (1997), 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 (Dead Poets Society) rolled camera on The Truman Show, the project that had first bought Niccol to Hollywood's attention. His concept was of a man who is unaware that his life is being watched and manipulated for a TV show. When Weir came on board, he encouraged Niccol to lighten the tone, and change the setting from New York to a smaller town.
The Truman Show cleverly predicted the rise of reality TV — Big Brother and Survivor both debuted in America within two years of the film’s release. It melded themes of 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 featuring 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", "one of the smartest, most inventive movies in memory". Newsweek went for "miraculous". Weir, Niccol and actor Ed Harris were 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 bend reality, for the sake of entertainment. In this case a director (Al Pacino) secretly creates a perfect multimedia star on a computer. S1m0ne failed to have much box office impact, but it ignited passionate online debate. Those who found the plot ridiculous clearly hadn't heard about Japanese girl band AKB48: in 2011 it was revealed that their newest recruit was actually a digital composite of six existing members.
Niccol was also involved early in the development of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004). The film was inspired by the real life case of a man who spent years living between states in Charles de Gaulle airport.
In his own films, Niccol turned from predicting the future, to the present day. Lord of War (2005) charts the rise of a Ukrainian immigrant (Nicolas Cage) who becomes a highly successful arms dealer. Niccol was fascinated by "the type of human being who could sell AK-47s like they were vacuum cleaners".
Keen to get "as much of the detail right as possible", Niccol met a number of real-life arms dealers. He even borrowed 50 tanks before they were onsold to buyers in Libya, and bought 3000 Kalashnikof AK-47s for one scene, "because real guns are cheaper to get than fake guns". The film's US$40 million budget was found outside the United States, after Hollywood studios failed to sign on (Cage argued this was "all the more reason" it should be made). At one point 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 described In Time (2011) as "the bastard son of Gattaca". The thriller depicts a future where ageing stops at 25. The youth-focused story made the search for funding comparatively easy, compared to some of the more "unconventional ideas" he'd tried to get Hollywood to bite on previously. 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 by adapting 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 (Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan).
Niccol won better notices for his next film Good Kill, which was nominated for the top award 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. Next came sci-fi thriller Anon (2018). The "cautionary tale" follows a detective (Clive Owen) as he tracks a killer in a world where technology has made solving crime routine.
In June 2021 Niccol found himself in the headlines after announcing he planned to write and direct a film about Jacinda Ardern's leadership of New Zealand, after the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. Niccol said that the movie would be "not so much about the attack but the response to the attack…how an unprecedented act of hate was overcome by an outpouring of love and support".
Profile updated on 11 June 2021
Tom Cardy, 'Dancing with the Devil' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 24 March 2006
Roger Ebert, 'Gattaca' (Review) - The Chicago Sun-Times, 24 October 1997
Ian Freer, 'Good Kill - Full Metal Console' (Review) - Empire. Date unknown
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' - The LA Times, published in The Sunday Star-Times, 14 June 1998, page F1
Alex Ritman, 'Rose Byrne to Play New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Andrew Niccol's 'They Are Us' - The Hollywood Reporter, 10 June 2021
Tasha Robinson, 'Gattaca director Andrew Niccol on conformity, technology, and his new Netflix film Anon' (Interview). The Verge website. Loaded 3 May 2018. Accessed 30 June 2021
Peter Travers, 'Good Kill' (Review) - Rolling Stone, 14 May 2015
Jane Witherspoon, ‘Perfect Pop Star Is Revealed As Digital Fake’. Originally published on Sky News website, then on Yahoo. Loaded 3 July 2011. Accessed 17 July 2015
‘The Host : The Movie’ (Press Release) Stephanie Meyer website. Loaded 27 June 2011. Accessed 17 July 2015
Lord of War - Audio Commentary with Director Andrew Niccol (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005)
The Making of "Lord of War" (Documentary) Writer Jorge Romero (Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2005)