Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Director D.J. Caruso Recalls His Days at Norwalk High School

High SchoolsSchoolsMoviesD.J. CarusoEthan Hawke

In the new sci-fi flick I Am Number Four (based on the young adult novel of the same name), a handsome but misunderstood space alien (played by Alex Pettyfer) crash-lands on Earth, being hunted by the same villains that destroyed his home world. While here he faces an even scarier reality: high school.

And if the high school in I Am Number Four seems familiar, well, it probably is. Its director D.J. Caruso grew up in Norwalk, attending Norwalk High School and having an incredibly typical high school job. “I delivered the Norwalk Hour,” he says, “I don’t know if that paper still exists.” The director, who also helmed slick thrillers Eagle Eye and Disturbia, says that his early years in Connecticut inspired some of the feel of I Am Number Four’s high school and fundamentally shaped who he is, including his decision to become a filmmaker.

“Basically, where you grew up is pretty important,” he says. “I’d go down to the beach and sit there and try to figure stuff out. It helped me realize what I wanted to do from an early age. … It was always inspiring, on a really clear day you could see Manhattan, and no matter how much you like your town you’d want to get out of it some day.”

As for his own high school experiences, Caruso says, “Even though I was a jock and an athlete, I always felt l was on the fringe, on the outside, by choice, which I think is healthy. And we deal with that in the movie.”

Caruso has had a career largely shaped by mentorships. He got his start directing episodes of Steven Spielberg’s short-lived “progressive cop show,” “High Incident” (if you don’t remember it, you’re not alone). Next, he helmed Black Cat Run, a “little, $2 million” action film for Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont that aired on HBO. “He had seen a short film I directed.” Darabont went on to produce Caruso’s first theatrical feature, the underrated film noir Salton Sea. (It’s kind of a junky, drugland take on Memento.)

Years later, Spielberg was watching Caruso’s Taking Lives, a serial killer movie with Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke. There were scenes in the film that “really scared him and scared his family,” says Caruso. This led Spielberg to hire Caruso to direct two DreamWorks thrillers, 2007’s Disturbia and 2008’s High Incident.

“It’s an honor” to work for Spielberg, says Caruso. “Particularly when he’s your hero and the reason you got into the business is because of some of the movies he made and now you’re sitting in the same room with him.”

After Michael Bay left the director’s chair to shoot the third Transformers film, Spielberg picked Caruso again for I Am Number Four. With an ending that’s less definitive than it is elliptical, it could be the first in a series of books and films. If the movie’s a hit (and, judging by the reaction at the screening I went to, it’s going to be huge), Caruso will also return for the adventures of the alien outsider in a high school that seems, very much, like Norwalk High.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun