by Ray Pride

Simone is about the ideal of perfection. While writer-director Andrew Niccol's second feature is about female beauty and how our celebrity culture fashions it, it's also about Al Pacino's line readings. There's perfection.

Pacino's first outright comedy, Simone seems at first to be a standard Hollywood satire, in love with the lore of backlots and star spats and "creative conflicts." A hissy-fit by a patronizing starlet (Winona Ryder, heartbreakingly winsome even when playing a jerk) leads to the shutdown of Sunrise, Sunset, the newest project by all-but-down-and-out director Viktor Taransky (Pacino). Even studio exec and ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener) is about to give up on him, and Viktor has only the love of his 15-year-old daughter Lainey (the radiant Evan Rachel Wood) to fall back on. "I can't work with a fake!" he yells as he realizes he may be genuinely ruined.

Enter a computer genius who dies and leaves behind a piece of software for Taransky, "Simulation One," or "S1m & oslash;ne." A virtual actress in a hard drive. Someone who will do everything the way a director would want: Paging Dr. Frankenstein. With the production of Eternity Forever, a silly art film, Simone's a star, Taransky's in control, and everyone wants to know: Who is Simone? Where is she? And just who is she sleeping with?

Working with cinematographer Ed Lachman (Erin Brockovich, The Virgin Suicides) and production designer Jan Roelfs (Gattaca, Orlando), the 39-year-old New Zealander, who began as a director of commercials before selling the script of The Truman Show, has created another exquisitely detailed fable about how we use beauty in our lives. "Reality is grossly overrated," he jokes, before one of his trademark laughs or giggles.

"Our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it," Taransky says at one point, and like Truman Show and Gattaca, Niccol's script is often on-the-nose about its themes and concerns, allowing other elements to bubble to the surface. "That's what I think when [interviewers] say, 'Oh your film's just about this, everyday people aren't going to get the nuances of the script.' Fortunately, they do."

There are many scenes where Pacino is left to duel with his creation and his own scary feminine side. "He's also very subtle, so the bigger the screen, the better. Great actors have great timing," Niccol says. "So you shouldn't be surprised by what he's done. That's why DeNiro can be funny, too."

While the movie suggests a world gone gaga over the idealized composite, Simone, Niccol cast three other exemplars of beauty: Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder, as gorgeously lit as she's ever been, and the magnificent Evan Rachel Wood. "She's a truly frightening actress, to be that good at that age," Niccol agrees. "I did some looping of the beach scenes. I have this thing where I shoot movies near water, and it makes a racket and so I did some looping on that scene at the beach and she could nail a line every time. The loop was perfect technically. A little more melancholy? She was great."

Without giving anything away, she winds up being the hero of the piece. "She's the only adult in the film, is my view," Niccol says. "Another thing about her: What I realized in casting is that she looks absolutely nothing like Pacino or Keener. But I said, forget it, she's just too good to pass on, y'know? When you watch the film, you immediately buy it because it's such an emotional connection."

Niccol is obviously fixated on elevated ideas of elegance and beauty on screen. I ask what he wants to bring to movies with the heightened look. "I dunno. There are some people who would not be considered classic beauties, Alan Arkin, Ernest Borgnine, who also makes a cameo in Simone. I suppose the connection [in my two films] is some sort of quest for perfection."

Taransky is drunk for most of the movie. Is that so the soliloquies are essentially to himself when he's speaking for Simone? "Yeah..." he hesitates. C'mon, alcohol's everywhere. Niccol laughs a long laugh. "I think it came out of Al Pacino. He wanted the character to be a drinker." He's not shaggy, he's just ragged, softened. "Slurred and stuff," Niccol says, nodding.

Music is important to Niccol, from the grand, sad swell of Michael Nyman's work in Gattaca, to Carter Burwell's quieter, even sadder score for Simone. "But both composers are sort of minimalist. I pushed both of them to be as emotional as they've ever been. I'm a romantic, I suppose. Hard as it may be to believe!"

I once heard Burwell say directors hate hearing temp tracks, especially of their own work. "I played him temp tracks, and his own music!" he says. But there's a danger in getting caught up on a pre-existing track. "Temp love. I suffer from it as well. You get used to hearing it, the music means something to you, gaining meanings against the image."

The man whose produced scripts are about creation has one last insight to his process: "But it's just such a great thing to bring new music into the world. For me, that's one of the best parts of making films." No laugh this time, just a proud smile.

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