February 20th, 2020


New film to digitally resurrect James Dean in new role

Sonia Rao

By Sonia Rao The Washington Post

Published Nov. 8, 2019

Among the many movie quotes repurposed into memes is that from "Jurassic Park," uttered by Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." He meant it in reference to the park full of dinosaurs, of course, but the sentiment has filtered into all sorts of ethical debates since - this week, one spurred by another movie.

The production company Magic City Films announced Wednesday that it would be digitally re-creating James Dean, the legendary actor who died in a 1955 car crash at age 24, for the upcoming film "Finding Jack." The Hollywood Reporter states that Dean will play a "secondary lead role" in the project, adapted from Gareth Crocker's novel about the thousands of military dogs abandoned at the end of the Vietnam War.

South African filmmaker Anton Ernst, who will direct the film alongside Tati Golykh, told the publication: "We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean. We feel honored that his family supports us and will take every precaution to ensure that his legacy as one of the most epic film stars to date is kept firmly intact. The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make."

Dean rose to icon status for his performances in the 1955 films "Rebel Without a Cause" and "East of Eden," the latter of which landed him one of the first posthumous acting nominations in Oscars history. (He earned another best actor nomination in 1957 for "Giant.")

Public reactions to the notion of resuscitating Dean's short career have been largely negative, with some pointing out that it wouldn't truly be Dean on-screen.

"This is awful," actor Chris Evans tweeted. "Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple new John Lennon tunes. The complete lack of understanding here is shameful."

Actress Julie Ann Emery wrote, "Yeah, that's not James Dean. It's his face on a motion capture performance and an 'anonymous' actor providing voice pattern and choices. I'd like to know how it will be credited. How the real actors will be paid. And how little this team understands the acting craft."

The late Robin Williams' daughter Zelda, at one point sharing a GIF of the "Jurassic Park" quote, tweeted her criticism of the casting news at length. Robin's trust notably restricted the exploitation of his image for 25 years after his death, preventing a situation similar to Dean's from occurring. Zelda reminded her followers of this, writing that she believes "we should let the great performers of the past rest. They took their bows themselves."

"I have talked to friends about this for YEARS and no one ever believed me that the industry would stoop this low once tech got better," she wrote in another tweet. "Publicity stunt or not, this is puppeteering the dead for their 'clout' alone and it sets such an awful precedent for the future of performance."

Visual effects have resurrected the images of other film actors. Paul Walker died during the making of "Furious 7," so VFX artists superimposed his face onto his brothers' bodies. VFX techniques were also employed when Oliver Reed died while filming "Gladiator," and when Nancy Marchand died during the "Sopranos" run. "Rogue One," the Star Wars movie written as a lead-in to the original trilogy, used digital effects to bring back Grand Moff Tarkin, the Death Star commander played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994.

But in all those cases, the late actors had already consented to playing the characters. Dean's role in "Finding Jack" would be more similar to Audrey Hepburn appearing in a 2014 chocolate commercial, but as a major character in a feature-length project. The music industry has grappled in recent years with, as a recent Washington Post article put it, "the spectacular, strange rise of music holograms." (For example, a digital projection of Tupac Shakur joining Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's Coachella set in 2012.)

In addition to Dean's family, CMG Worldwide represents hundreds of other deceased celebrities: R&B artist Aaliyah, rocker Jerry Garcia and actors Burt Reynolds, Christopher Reeve and Ingrid Bergman, to name a few. Despite the criticism, CEO Mark Roesler expressed a desire to further explore this CGI technology.

"This opens a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us," he said.

Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.