James Dean hasn’t been alive in 64 years, but the “Rebel Without a Cause” actor and Indiana native has been cast in a new film about the Vietnam War.
The filmmakers behind the independent film “Finding Jack” said Wednesday that a computer-generated Dean will play a co-starring role in the upcoming production. The digital Dean is to be assembled through old footage and photos and voiced by another actor.
Rights to Dean’s likeness were acquired by the filmmakers and the production company Magic City Films through Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide. The 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.
Digitally manipulated posthumous performances have made some inroads into films. But those 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 2016 spinoff “Rogue One.”
But the prospect of one of the movies’ most beloved former stars being digitally resurrected was met with widespread criticism after the news was first reported by The Hollywood Reporter. 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.”
Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive of CMG, defended the usage of Dean and said the company has represented his family for decades. Noting that Dean has more than 183,000 followers on Instagram, Roesler said he still resonates today.
“James Dean was known as Hollywood’s ‘rebel’ and he 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.”
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. Directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh are to begin shooting Nov. 17. In an email, Ernst said they “tremendously” respect Dean’s legacy.
“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 favorite icon back on screen. There would always be critics, and all we can do is tell a great story with humanity and grace.”
Dean had just three leading roles before he died in a car crash in 1955 at the age of 24.
The Hollywood Reporter said the recreated Dean will play a “secondary lead role” in the project.
“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 said. “We feel 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. The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make.”
Dean rose to icon status for his performances in the 1955 films “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden,” the latter of which landed him one of the first posthumous acting nominations in Oscars history. (He earned another best actor nomination in 1957 for “Giant.”)
Public reactions to the notion of resuscitating Dean’s short career have been largely negative, with some pointing out that it wouldn’t truly be Dean on-screen.
Actress Julie Ann Emery wrote, “Yeah, that’s not James Dean. It’s his face on a motion capture performance and an ‘anonymous’ actor providing voice pattern and choices. I’d like to know how it will be credited. How the real actors will be paid. And how little this team understands the acting craft.”
The late Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda, at one point sharing a GIF of the “Jurassic Park” quote, tweeted her criticism of the casting news at length. Robin’s trust notably restricted the exploitation of his image for 25 years after his death, preventing a situation similar to Dean’s from occurring. Zelda reminded her followers of this, writing that she believes “we should let the great performers of the past rest. They took their bows themselves.”
“I have talked to friends about this for YEARS and no one ever believed me that the industry would stoop this low once tech got better,” she wrote in another tweet. “Publicity stunt or not, this is puppeteering the dead for their ‘clout’ alone and it sets such an awful precedent for the future of performance.”
Visual effects have resurrected the images of other film actors. Paul Walker died during the making of “Furious 7,” so VFX artists superimposed his face onto his brothers’ bodies. VFX techniques were also employed when Oliver Reed died while filming “Gladiator,” and when Nancy Marchand died during the “Sopranos” run. “Rogue One,” the Star Wars movie written as a lead-in to the original trilogy, used digital effects to bring back Grand Moff Tarkin, the Death Star commander played by Cushing, who died in 1994.
But in all those cases, the late actors had already consented to playing the characters. Dean’s role in “Finding Jack” would be more similar to Audrey Hepburn appearing in a 2014 chocolate commercial, but as a major character in a feature-length project. The music industry has grappled in recent years with, as a recent Washington Post article put it, “the spectacular, strange rise of music holograms.” (For example, a digital projection of Tupac Shakur joining Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s Coachella set in 2012.)
In addition to Dean’s family, CMG Worldwide represents hundreds of other deceased celebrities: R&B artist Aaliyah, rocker Jerry Garcia and actors Burt Reynolds, Christopher Reeve and Ingrid Bergman, to name a few. Despite the criticism, Roesler expressed a desire to further explore this CGI technology.
“This opens a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us,” he said.