As one of the most iconic names in Hollywood history, actor James Dean is known almost as much for what he never did than for what he actually got to do. While he did act in multiple television series early in his career, he only starred in three motion pictures — “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant” — before dying in a car crash in 1955 at the age of 24.
It seems that these three films proved insufficient for Hollywood, as he is being “resurrected” using computer-generated imagery to posthumously star in a Vietnam-era action-drama, as initially reported by The Hollywood Reporter on Nov. 6.
Directed by Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh, “Finding Jack” is based on a Gareth Crocker novel detailing the abandonment of over 10,000 military dogs after the Vietnam War. Dean will reportedly be portraying the character of Rogan, described as a secondary lead in the film.
Although Ernst and Golykh’s production company Magic City Films received permission from Dean’s family to use his image, this announcement received massive backlash on social media, including responses from celebrities like Chris Evans and Zelda Williams — daughter of late actor Robin Williams.
I’m sure he’d be thrilled 🙄This is awful. 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. https://t.co/hkwXyTR4pu— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) November 6, 2019
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. 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. https://t.co/elS1BrbDGv— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) November 6, 2019
Ernst responded to the criticism, saying that he was “saddened” and “confused” by the backlash and that his team never intended the decision to be a marketing gimmick.
With the initial commotion over the announcement having died down and with the movie still going forward with Dean in the role, it’s a good time to examine what this all means for the future of performance in film. First of all, the motivations and intentions of the directors in “casting” Dean in “Finding Jack” are crucial to how this decision should be looked at.
Ernst’s comments on the original announcement shed some light on this subject, as he said that he and Golykh did extensive research in the casting process, considering many actors before settling on Dean.
“We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme[ly] complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean,” Ernst said.
It would seem that Ernst and Golykh did their homework in considering this production choice, but what does “searched high and low” really mean? Did they actually audition actors for the role, or were they planning on using Dean from the start? It’s a bit hard to believe that literally no actor currently alive could play this role better than a CGI recreation of a long-deceased Hollywood heartthrob.
A new report on Wednesday, Nov. 20, from THR revealed details on Ernst and Golykh’s casting process, and it does not cast them in a good light. Before settling on Dean, the duo apparently were interested in recreating Elvis Presley for the role, but they were denied the rights to his likeness by Presley’s estate. They also apparently kicked around the idea of adding yet another deceased Hollywood icon, Paul Newman, to the film.
This report contradicts any of their initial comments about how casting James Dean isn’t a gimmick. “Searched high and low” can be roughly translated to saying this technology was always a part of their plan, and the only searching they did regarded which famous dead actor’s rights they could obtain for this project.
At its core, this is exactly what’s so unsettling about this whole situation: the lack of respect for these actors and for the specific, personal power of an individual’s performance. With the initial announcement, it was stated that while Dean’s image will be used, a different actor will be voicing him. So, how will this film in any way feature a performance by Dean besides a CGI-created phantom of his iconically stoic figure? As Williams tweeted, he’ll be no more than a puppet, his ghost being manipulated without any creative autonomy from the man himself.
Technology has certainly added much to the film industry — motion capture and CGI have contributed heavily to creating notable films such as “The Planet of the Apes” series and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Netflix film “The Irishman,” in which Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are digitally de-aged. But this technology can go too far, and this film is a prime example of crossing the line between utilizing tech as a useful tool and an uncanny force of resurrection.
A dangerous precedent is on the verge of being set. Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide, the company that represents Dean’s family along with those of over 1,700 other famous personalities, indicated Dean is not the only figure who may be resurrected in the future.
“This opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us,” Roesler said.
If bringing back a deceased actor to star in a movie he or she didn’t agree to do isn’t the line, then what is? How long will it be until this is what a performance is — one generated entirely from a computer? While Ernst, Golykh and everybody else involved with this project claim it as an opportunity for the world to witness a famous figure come back to life, it feels more like a form of creative grave-robbing — stealing jobs from living actors, enjoyment from audiences and, most importantly, privacy and peace from the deceased.