She strides catlike, silently, slowly, towards the library, peering to her left and then her right. Is she being watched? Ahead of her is the portal, just a few steps away, and then she..."Cut!" She stretches, walks back to the entrance of the library and moves again towards the portal. You want her to make it... you hold your breath, focused on the scene wondering what will happen once she does reach it... but again... "Cut!"
It is a bone-chilling, grey November day and I am at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, Germany watching Oscar-winner Charlize Theron shoot a scene as Aeon Flux for her upcoming sci-fi film of the same name.
It is day 54 of a 62 day shoot and the secret world of "Aeon Flux" is about to be discovered.
In 1991, MTV's Liquid Television premiered a series of shorts about a skimpily-clad killing machine. The show was cool, dreamy, violent and perfect as a concept for a full length feature film. With series creator Peter Chung's blessing, director Karyn Kusama ("Girlfight") is bringing "Aeon Flux" to the big screen later this year starring Theron, Marton Csokas as Chairman Trevor Goodchild, and Caroline Chikezie as Freya, Trevor's right hand woman. Whereas Aeon and Trevor play a game of mental chess, Freya is the muscle.
"Aeon Flux" is set 400 years in the future, where what is left of the earth's population lives in a walled city called Bregna, a monotheism of existence. Disease has wiped out much of humanity and a congress of scientists now governs the world. Aeon is a top operative in the Monican rebellion and when she is sent on an assassin's mission, she discovers something within her that could be the ultimate secret of the world. Trippy stuff.
It is here on the Babelsberg set that we encounter the first surreal experience. There is Aeon Flux standing over by the library but wait, there is another Aeon Flux walking past you at the very same moment. In their dominatrix inspired black lycra/leather outfits it is hard to tell them apart. However, one of them is the stand-in, and the other is uber-actress Charlize Theron. How to tell them apart? Theron has a slower, more methodical stride and unlike her doppelganger, her jet black short, symmetrical hair doesn't come off at the end of the day. This is an actress so committed to her role that she refused to wear a wig that could perchance fall off during an action sequence. Just as she channeled serial killer Aileen Wuornos for her Oscar-winning performance in "Monster," Theron has become Aeon, ditching her former blonde, blue-eyed Grace Kelly look for another that she can confidently kick ass in.
Adding to the surreal feel, there is history here at Studio Babelsberg. You can feel it resounding around you. Erected in 1911, the studio is one of the oldest in Germany with filmmakers such as Fritz Lang ("Metropolis") and Alfred Hitchcock shooting here in 1924. However, there is also a darker side to this property, as thousands of Nazi propaganda films were produced here under Hitler. Today, with new backing, the soundstages are bustling and home to recent films like "Enemy at the Gates" and "The Pianist" and, now, "Aeon Flux."
A walk through the soundstages of Studio Babelsberg reveals what Karyn Kusama likes to call a "visually bracing" style. Aeon's cement structured bedroom is minimalist and Bauhaus with a flat hard bed hanging from the ceiling. It is a bedroom that could easily belong to a chic artist's loft in the meatpacking district of New York... or an assassin's flat 400 years in the future. Nearby is Trevor Goodchild's ultra-masculine bedroom, with sunken sitting area and his stark white lab filled with brightly colored liquid test tubes and Technicolor plants that don't exist in nature... yet.
When leaving to meet director Karyn Kusama, I peek inside a soundstage filled with cherry blossom trees so enormous and so spectacular that I wonder how they grew such extraordinary specimens in a German winter. Before leaning in to inhale the heady scent, I'm told that these trees are entirely man made down to the very last blossom leaf. Look for a row of these trees in a central scene of this film. Each soundstage contained equally stimulating images. It would have not been surprising to see a spaceship filled with elves eating coconuts. It was that extraordinary.
The walk across the large studio lot resembled a stroll through a university campus and meeting director Karyn Kusama was more like meeting a young, cool graduate student than your average big budget director. Kusama has a fresh take on moviemaking. Why did she choose to direct this film? Because she said she finds Aeon an interesting, flawed, ambiguous heroine who behaves irrationally at times.
"I thought there was something in 'Aeon Flux' that was particularly fresh and had the opportunity to be really visually beautiful and bracing... to interpret on a narrative level," said Kusama.
"I feel like that is sort of something that has been missing from a lot of sci-fi recently. It's sort of become so much about the grey, dark Apocalypse, and we had the opportunity to tell a story that is quite a bit brighter on the outside and darker on the inside."
When asked why she considered Theron for the role, Kusama said, "In 'Monster,' she could play someone who had a tremendous amount of pride and humiliation and violence and tenderness in her soul at the same time. I found it to be her most committed, honest performance I think I had ever seen. That commitment to ambiguity to some degree is why I think she is perfect for this role. On her ability as an action heroine, Karyn admitted, "It's hard to find stunt doubles as good as [Charlize] is."
However, there is, of course, the subject of Theron's injury last fall in a somersault stunt which halted production and made news. When an accident like this occurs with the lead actress, it can mean havoc for a shoot as large as "Aeon Flux" but when the cast was asked about their reactions to Theron's injury, their feelings about their co-star were clear. Simply put, they were worried about her as a person and friend and they sent their well wishes.
When asked about it, Theron said, "It was an accident. These things happen... Nothing bad came from it. I'm healed up completely, and I think in the long run we used it to our advantage to come back even more prepared and ready to make sure there were no kinks anywhere. It was a little frustrating. There's nothing worse than being in the middle of a film and having to take six weeks off. But for me you can't take it off because your mind is still completely connected to it. That was a little hard but in a way very good because I could utilize that time, because for three months before starting this film I focused on the physical aspect. I really spent that six weeks thinking about where that woman is going. I used it to my advantage.""
It is getting colder and darker in Potsdam. Theron has put in a full day on the cold set in her barely-there costume, but her energy is high as she wraps a scene. She notices that I have been observing her all day and she takes time to thoughtfully answer each question. What drew her to this script?
"The elements that really attracted me are the fact that at the end of the day it's bottom line a love story," Theron explains. "It's a human story and the struggles and the things that this so-called futuristic story takes place in had all the elements of human struggle that I'm really interested in. I'm not interested in playing a robot. These are real people struggling with the things I think a lot of people can relate to."
It's getting late and Theron is being whisked away but I wonder: Will she be the next big action hero? She smiles a grin somewhere between innocent and mischievous and says, "That's going to be me! Watch out, Arnie!"