Directors respond to backlash over casting late actor James Dean

James Dean may have been dead for the past 64 years, but that apparently isn't enough to put an end to his film credits.

Hollywood production company Magic City Films recently said it had obtained the rights to digitally recreate the Rebel Without a Cause star's likeness in an upcoming Vietnam war epic — tapping a British Columbia-based VFX company to do the graphics work. 

Adapted from Gareth Crocker's novel, Finding Jack is a live-action movie about the U.S. military's abandonment of canine units following the Vietnam War. The filmmakers announced Dean's role in the production on Wednesday, with the digital Dean to be assembled by Academy Award-nominated Image Engine Design. The studio would use CGI generated from old footage and photos, though Dean would be voiced by another actor. Directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh are to begin shooting Nov. 17, and wrap on Nov. 11, 2020.

After their announcement, the filmmakers were met with a near immediate online backlash from both moviegoers and A-list stars. On Friday, Golykh defended the choice to "cast" Dean, saying he didn't understand the negative reaction.

"We never intended for this to be a marketing gimmick," Golykh told The Hollywood Reporter, saying he was both "saddened" and "confused" by the negative comments. 

"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."

In an email, Ernst said they "tremendously" respect Dean's legacy.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"The movie subject matter is one of hope and love, and he is still relevant like the theme of the film we are portraying," said Ernst. "There is still a lot of James Dean fans worldwide who would love to see their favourite icon back on screen. There would always be critics, and all we can do is tell a great story with humanity and grace."

Ernst said they have received positive feedback on the film's script and their casting choice from members of the industry. 

 "Anyone that is brought back to life — you have to respect them," Ernst told The Hollywood Reporter when asked whether their casting choice crossed a line.

"I think the line should be … you must always honour the deceased's wishes and try to act in a way that is honourable and full of dignity," Ernst said. 

Actors and fans outraged

Digitally manipulated posthumous performances have made some inroads into film, though they have been largely roles the actors already played, including Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing, who first appeared together in Star Wars and were prominently featured in the franchise's 2016 spin off Rogue One. 

There have been similar resurrections in the past. Late actress Audrey Hepburn's likeness was digitally reconstructed in a 2014 Dove Chocolate commercial, and Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Marlene Dietrich were briefly featured in a 2011 Dior commercial. 

But the prospect of James Dean, one of the most beloved former movie stars, being digitally resurrected for a supporting role in a feature length film was met with outspoken criticism. Chris Evans, the Captain America actor, was among those who called the plans disrespectful and wrongheaded. 

"Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple new John Lennon tunes," said Evans on Twitter. "The complete lack of understanding here is shameful." 

Zelda Williams — an American actress, director and writer, as well as daughter of late actor Robin Williams — also spoke out in criticism. Taking to Twitter, Williams compared the casting choice to "puppeteering the dead for their 'clout'."

"If all it takes is money & a distant relative's permission, the future is GRIM and full of corporate ghosts," Williams wrote.

Williams' comments were taken as especially poignant by some, as her father Robin Williams famously restricted the use of his image for 25 years after his death. 

Williams and Evans were far from alone, with Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood, Grammy winner Diane Warren, and Canadian actor Devon Sawa all voicing their disapproval.

"They couldn't give this role to an actual human?" Sawa tweeted.

A Canadian connection 

Reanimating Dean through old footage and photos would be a herculean effort, which would require thousands of hours of effort to put him back on the screen. 

And, most likely, it will be a Canadian VFX company putting him there.

Image Engine Design — a Vancouver-based visual effects studio that has worked on big name productions like Spider-Man: Far From Home, District 9 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom — will be partnering with South African studio MOI Worldwide to bring Dean back to the spotlight in the independent film, Finding Jack, through the use of CGI, according to The Hollywood Reporter. 

Image Engine is perhaps most famous for its work on Game of Thrones, including the infamous "loot train" scene and creating Daenerys' fiery dragon Drogon.

Various news agencies reported that Image Engine executive producer Geoff Anderson will oversee the work done to bring Dean to the silver screen. Anderson has previously worked on Zero Dark Thirty, Chappie, Skyscraper and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu.

Though Image Engine declined to confirm or comment on their work on Finding Jack, spokesperson Sepi Motamedi told CBC in a statement that they have designed and worked on digital actors on past films, most notably Logan, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Motamedi also stated the studio is currently working on an additional film featuring a digital actor, but cannot name it at this time.

John Harrell/The Associated Press

Image Engine and MOI would work directly with the filmmakers and Magic City Films, who bought the rights to Dean's image through CMG Worldwide. That company represents Dean's family, along with the intellectual property rights associated with many other deceased personalities, including Neil Armstrong, Bette Davis and Burt Reynolds. 

Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive of CMG, defended the usage of Dean's image, saying the company has represented his family for decades. Noting that Dean has more than 183,000 followers on Instagram, Roesler said the actor still resonates today with audiences. 

"James Dean was known as Hollywood's 'rebel' and famously said, 'If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live after he's died, then maybe he was a great man. Immortality is the only true success,"' said Roesler. "What was considered rebellious in the '50s is very different than what is rebellious today, and we feel confident that he would support this modern day act of rebellion."

Dean had just three leading roles before he died in a car crash in 1955 at the age of 24: Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant.