Simon Wells was finishing up his codirecting chores on DreamWorks’ ”The Prince of Egypt” in 1998 when he learned Steven Spielberg was thinking about helming a new version of his great-grandfather H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel. So he went to DreamWorks cochief Jeffrey Katzenberg with an appeal. ”If Steven drops out — could I do it please?” says Wells, who was born in 1961, 15 years after his famous relative’s death. ”I mean, I think I could be right for it.”
Spielberg eventually opted to make ”Minority Report” instead, and DreamWorks (coproducing with Warner Bros.) decided to gamble on Wells, even though the animation vet had never directed a live-action feature. He won the studio over with his proposed tweaks to the story, such as giving inventor hero Alexander Hartdegen (”Memento”’s Guy Pearce) a dead girlfriend who motivates him to venture into the time stream. Nevertheless, just as in the novel, Hartdegen ultimately travels 800,000 years into the future, where the last vestiges of humanity, the Eloi, are threatened by the cretinous, subterranean Morlocks.
Wells acknowledges a debt to story elements introduced in the 1960 film adaptation, though the new production design marks a quantum leap forward — from a 70-foot-high, 240-foot-wide cliff face with a cascading waterfall to the time machine itself, a three-ton assemblage of gears, mirrors, and gold-plated metal. Contrary to reports, Wells says production was not shut down earlier this year because of script problems, but he did have to hand the directing reins over to Gore Verbinski (”The Mexican”) for three weeks, after collapsing from exhaustion. ”When you burn the candle at both ends,” says Wells, ”you reach a certain point where there’s no candle left.” The cast managed to roll with the punch. ”Gore’s an amazing director,” says Samantha Mumba, the Irish pop star making her acting debut as an Eloi beauty. ”Besides, by that point, everyone just wanted to get it done.”
Currently overseeing the film’s 500 F/X shots, Wells says the experience hasn’t soured him on directing. ”I think my next picture will be slightly smaller,” he says. ”But then, almost anything would be after this.”