Along with Marlon Brando, Hollywood icon James Dean is credited with changing big-screen acting as we know it. His raw, naturalistic performances in movies only three films — East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant — made him a seismic star in the 1950s, and influenced an entire generation of actors who came afterwards. Unlike Brando, we never got to see where Dean’s career would have gone after his initial burst of celebrity: the actor was only 24 years old when he died in a car accident in 1955.
But through the magic of digital technology, we’re on the cusp of seeing an all-new James Dean performance in the upcoming movie Finding Jack. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the directors of this planned Vietnam War-era drama have secured the rights to use Dean’s likeness from the actor’s surviving family. “We feel very 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,” remarked Anton Ernst, who will co-direct the film with his collaborator, Tati Golykh. “The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make. We do not intend to let his fans down.”
Based on a 2011 novel by Gareth Crocker, Finding Jack follows a young soldier named Fletcher, who has only been able to maintain his sanity amid the horrors of war by taking care of an injured dog, Jack. As the U.S. military presence in Vietnam neared its end, the military infamously disposed of military canines through abandonment or euthanization. But Fletcher refuses to surrender Jack, and embarks on a difficult journey to protect his best friend. One of the people who helps him along the way is Lt. Rogan, the character that the directors want Dean to play. “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,” Ernst told The Hollywood Reporter.
Preproduction on Finding Jack is expected to start on Nov. 17; as of now, the role of Fletcher remains uncast, but Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren has penned a tune for the film. Meanwhile, Dean’s return to the big screen will reportedly be accomplished via CGI, with the F/X artists using archival footage and photos for reference and a voiceover actor recording Rogan’s lines. While the Star Wars blockbuster Rogue One first dipped a toe in these waters by digitally resurrecting Peter Cushing to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin, Finding Jack will be the most extensive “performance” by a deceased actor yet. And if it works, it could open the door to more posthumous on-screen appearances. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Mark Roesler — CEO of CMG Worldwide, which represents the Deans, as well as the families of such deceased celebrities as Burt Reynolds, Bette Davis and Christopher Reeve — who said: “This opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us.”
But should it? Both audiences and filmmakers are wrestling with that question. When Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Ang Lee last month about his latest film, Gemini Man — which employed digital technology to create a younger Will Smith — he didn’t express an ethical objection to doing the same thing with a deceased performer, but did caution that the technology wasn’t where it needed to be for it to be successful. “I think we can crack it, but we’re not there yet. Before that, I don’t think it’s a good idea. You might do a brief moment, but to sell a story or a situation without a [living] person driving the performance, I don’t think it’s believable.”
On Twitter, film lovers are generally in agreement that a new James Dean performance isn’t a good idea. Not surprisingly, celebrities—whose own images could potentially be open to posthumous usage—are being particularly vocal about the issue, led by Captain America himself, Chris Evans.
But civilian film fans are equally opposed to CGI-assisted posthumous performances.
You might say that they’re rebelling against this idea with good cause.
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