INT: Andrew Niccol
This week filmmaker Andrew Niccol (GATTACA, THE TRUMAN SHOW) explores the murky world of international arms dealing with LORD OF WAR. A fictional story based on real-life events, the film chronicles the exploits of Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian immigrant who rises to the top of gun-running world after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Just getting the project off the ground proved a Herculean feat for Niccol. Given the controversial subject matter, studios were predictably hesitant and financing was eventually secured from foreign investors. Attracting top-notch talent, however, was easy, as Nicolas Cage and Ethan Hawke eagerly signed on for far less than their usual rates.
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You tackle a pretty serious subject - arms dealing - with a good deal of dark humor, giving it a quality very similar to that of Dr. Strangelove. Was that intentional?
Yeah, that was intentional, just to be a little subversive and make almost like a "how to" film. How to be an arms dealer. I thought it would be a more interesting way to do it than a typical story structure. There's something subversive about doing it that way, getting into the mind of someone who's basically a sociopath.
I just felt that the world of arms trafficking is so absurd. There's just sort of a macabre absurdity to it. You have two mortal enemies from different nations go to an arms faire - the fact that it's called a faire, like it's a carnival or something, is already strange to me. And then they'll go to the same vendor, buy the same munitions, go back to their separate countries and come out of their corners fighting. And you just think wow, they were so genteel and civilized in this setting and then suddenly they...it's just nuts. I felt that you just sort of had a little bit of that tone to convey that. Because to me it's just absurd.
How were you able to do research on these people? Did you base Nicolas Cage's character on a specific arms dealer?
Nicolas Cage's character is based on five different arms dealers, so he's sort of a composite character. But you'd be surprised how much access you can have. For instance, all of the tanks you see in the film are owned by one guy in the Czech Republic. And I said, "I need 50 T-72 Soviet Tanks and I need them on Tuesday," and he said, "Sure, I've got those. No problem." One of the interesting things about this guy is that he's really efficient - far more efficient than my crew. When he said they were gonna be there on Tuesday, they were there on Tuesday, at 9am. He said, "There's only one catch. In December I'm gonna sell these to Libya, so I need them back." And he was serious about it. So all of those tanks you see lined up in the movie are now in Libya.
Did you write this with Cage in mind?
I don't write with anyone in mind, but as soon as I finished I thought, "Who can make the devil charming?" It's Nicolas Cage.
I just like that this (character) can compartmentalize. I would say, "You're responsible for tens, hundreds of thousands of deaths." And he would say, "I'm not responsible for any death, because I never pull the trigger." And it's only when he does pull the trigger that it becomes a nightmare for him. He has an interesting code of ethics. I also think about why good things happen to bad people. One of the reasons I think he can succeed is he's not encumbered by the moral questions that we might have. He can just keep forging ahead. He doesn't have these crises of conscience that we might have.
One of the charming aspects about him is that he wants to be liked. He wants to be a good businessman, so he learns the local language. There's something interesting about that for me, and it also makes him more authentic as an international businessman.
How much of this film is based on real events and how much is fiction?
There's a precedent for almost everything in the film. These guys do change the names of their ships out at sea. They do try to pass off military helicopters as rescue helicopters. All the business at the end of the Cold War is obviously real. They do snort "brown-brown" in West Africa. I almost left that (scene) out because I felt people aren't going to believe it. They'll think it's something I made up, but it's actually real.
Part of the difficulty of combating this is that you never know whether the deals they are doing are legitimate or illegitimate, because there are so many loopholes. That's why Ethan Hawke's character looks so tortured through the film and Nicholas Cage's character doesn't, even though Ethan's character is doing the chasing.
And you also use real countries, like Sierra Leone.
I made sort of slight choices...I'd use the country but I wouldn't necessarily...I'm make up a composite dictator. I wouldn't necessarily name names because there'd been enough despots back to back in that country that we could take traits from a couple of them.
Given the controversial subject matter, how difficult was it to get this project off the ground?
We sort of had the timing from hell, because we submitted the script a week before the latest war in Iraq and for some reason Hollywood studios didn't want to touch it at that time. They felt it was too controversial.
And you ended up with independent financing. How were you able to create such a polished look with a relatively small budget?
I never get huge budgets so I didn't have a huge budget this time either. So I had to be more resourceful. It's a strange thing that for once, I could line up all of those tanks on that runway. Normally what you do is you start with three tanks and you use replication and you computer-generate the other tanks. But here they were so available, I could use real tanks. And it was cheaper to get real tanks in the Czech Republic than to make the fake ones that I would normal use computer-generated imagery to do. In fact we had to call NATO and warn them about that scene, because it looked like a weapons buildup in the Czech Republic. Anyone who's looking in a satellite photograph would go, "Shit. What's going on in the Czech Republic?" So we didn't want anyone taking us out.
Do you consciously seek to tackle controversial/cutting edge subjects?
I mean, I just write what interests me. You just have to go into it hoping other people are interested as well. I can't go into a film if I don't think it has some kind of timelessness to it. And for these guys, these arms dealers are not so interested in the war du jour, because they know there's gonna be another one next week and they know that violence is part of human nature. One of the things that's interesting to me about them is that they are not necessarily violent themselves, but they see the violence in human nature and they exploit it.
How does being a foreigner affect your point of view?
I think it helps. There's sort of a perspective that you get from just geographic distance, where you can just look at the world - and it's not just America - it's because I guess New Zealand also has American and British influences, and so as soon as you're born there you feel like an outsider. So I think it helps.
How does it feel when a project is taken away from you and handed to someone else to direct, like with The Truman Show?
But it hasn't quite worked like that. My biggest mistake, going back to The Truman Show, was that I wrote my most expensive film first. And you just shouldn't do that. I remember talking to the studio head at the time and she said, "There's no way for a first film that we'll give you a budget of $80 million. But we would give you $20 million." So I went off and wrote Gattaca and made sure it was $20 million. So they let me make it.
And Spielberg ended up directing another one of your screenplays, The Terminal.
The Terminal was a different beast again because I felt it was too close to the themes of The Truman Show, another sort of prisoner in paradise. So I didn't want to write it for that reason. Also I didn't want to direct it because I thought it would just be a path I've gone before. But those have been happy collaborations. I haven't yet had someone sort of snatch the baby out of my hand.
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