INT: John Cusack
Political satire has been used to entertain, outrage, and even enlighten audiences from the beginnings of performance art. From Shakespeare to Charlie Chaplin, it has always stirred controversy for filmmakers. And with WAR, INC., the latest from John Cusack, it continues to do the same. But for Cusack and company, it has been a labor of love, with a ultra low-budget (Hollywood standards anyway) and a message presented in a unique, funny and a little bit startling way.
Before getting the chance to talk shop with John, I read several of the negative reviews for the film. It is even rated somewhere in the mid-twenties over at RottenTomatoes.com. But luckily I got to see the film myself before the interview, and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed it. It is a funny and irreverent take on the current political situation. While not everything worked for me, for the most part, I found the chaotic nature that it presents to be fresh and exciting. I loved the performances, especially from the always great Joan Cusack. I also found the almost awkward nature of the humor to be very addictive. But more than anything, I respect the way Mr. Cusack is offering up the film (which he also produced and wrote) to audiences through MySpace and Facebook. I think in time, this may be a doorway to many other productions that don’t fall into the “summer blockbuster” category.
After watching the film, I was able to talk to John one on one via phone. I had never had the opportunity to speak with him before, but I’ve always had a healthy respect for his career. He has done a number of films that are some of my favorites, from SAY ANYTHING to THE GRIFTERS to EIGHT MEN OUT and many, many others. His resume is incredible. But I had no memory as to him going out of his way to talk about one of his films as he has with this. And when we spoke I found him to be a fascinating gentleman and frankly, a pretty cool guy. He is honest and speaks his mind, while still offering up some of the old Cusack charm that has given him a very successful career. I really had a great time talking with him in regards to his belief in WAR, INC., I found it to be very strong, and it will be interesting to see how well this film holds up with their “guerilla” advertising.
WAR, INC. might very well be playing somewhere near you, but then again, it might not. You can find out where by going to www.myspace.com/johncusack. He can also be found on Facebook. Both of those sights offer up all you need to know on the film. I loved the humor and the irreverent nature of the piece, yet it is clear than many will not like what the film has to say. John and I spoke about that, the nature of the casting and of course, marketing a satire such as this in limited ways. But it seems while many critics are not on board, the film has found a number of supporters throughout its run. It’s really worth checking out, and if you live in the following markets, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle or Austin, you will get your chance this coming Friday the 13th… your lucky day.
First off, I actually like WAR, INC., yet found quite a few negative responses on RottenTomatoes.com. Where do you think that comes from? You’re obviously really proud of the film…
Well, a lot of the people we’ve had see the movie, there’s a lot of snarky kind of stuff, and it’s alright. I’ve benefited from that kind of stuff before so you can’t really be surprised when you make a movie like this and it isn’t that kind of critical darling. You know, [Bob] Dylan went acoustic and got booed, and I’m sure punk rock wasn’t very popular with the easy listening crowd [Laughing]. And you know, if you look on our MySpace page, which is where we have people who… some of the best and brightest political thinkers and comediennes and musicians, and people who have written kind of seminal books on Iraq and privatization and all this stuff. They all think the movie is, you know, either good to really good to visionary. So if a couple people who sit in movies and do junkets all day think the movie sucks, you know, I don’t know… I would kind of respectfully remind them that the mainstream press has been wrong about a lot in the past eight years.
Some of the reviews I’ve read do seem to be sort of “liberal bashing” the film…
Oh, I think that the amazing thing is… that’s what is so interesting about it, you know, their comment is that it’s not funny or too close to home or it’s not funny enough… like I even had one of the reviewers came up to us afterwards and said, ’I want to show this to movie to my film class. It’s this very radical film…’ right? Then he reviews it and it’s awful.
Yeah! So I mean, it’s like one thing to say you’re doing an experimental, out-there kinda film, it’s another thing to go against the herd when you think the herd has got a little mentality of starting to diss something, you know. So there is a little of that and then there's a little bit of that thing which is, I don’t know if a lot of people are viewing the movie and maybe they haven’t read quite enough about what is going on in Iraq and how crazy it is. How crazy it is with Blackwater and all of that. You know, they have these holding areas in Kuwait where the troops decompress, and they have like, JVC video stores in ‘em and like Pizza Hut and all these like, little cities for holding areas. And they give the soldiers, like Halliburton dollars, like ‘funny money’. They can get like JVC computers and shit and like Pizza Hut and go to the movies or whatever and they dock that from the soldiers pay. Now in the meantime they are giving six hundred million in contracts to Blackwater, at like, double or triple the rate of the soldiers, and they got all their equipment, and they got all their stuff. The amount of insanity is so insane over there, that I think the only way to tell it is to really kind of craft absurd with a mixture of sophistication and stupidity.
So you may not like the style that we did in the movie, and you may think you can’t go from soap opera to melodrama to black comedy to slapstick to surreal. But that’s what we wanted to do and that’s what we did, because we wanted to mix all those things up. And I think some of the critics just say, oh well, it’s this kind of movie and this is what it is, and they don't even sort of look at it and what it’s saying. And I’m like, alright, you may not like the fact that satire is also meant to ridicule and just because it’s not WEDDING CRASHERS… WEDDING CRASHERS isn't the only kind of humor there is. And I don’t want to bash critics, I’m not bashing critics per say, but I’m saying that some people have… you know there’s some stuff that kind of snarky, on-line kind of snarky reviewers that… but even in some reviews like New York Times or whatever it is, where they’ll do these reviews and they either are building it up or they’re trying to tear you down in such a way that has nothing to do with the movie. It’s hard to take those seriously, I think. It’s like, are you talking about the movie or are you trying to break up with me [Laughing]? You know, it’s a little too much about the reviewer being a tastemaker. But I still love when people write about movies in the context of culture and where we are at… I just think it’s a little bit of a lost art, you know, real criticism. And I don’t mean everybody has to like my movie, my crazy punk rock movie, they don’t…… I expected going in that a lot of people wouldn’t. But I think with this movie it’s going to be like, this painting may not look like the present but give it time and it will.
It actually reminded me of… did you ever see the film back in I think 1979, WINTER KILLS?
It kind of reminded me of that with its mixture of dark humor, a strong political satire. In it’s day, that was an incredibly controversial film.
Yeah, I remember how anti-structural that was and how crazy that really was.
There seemed to be a similar reaction with WAR, INC.
Well, I think it’s like, to me, we had some really, really great staunch defenders of the movie, and we’ve had people who’ve really hated it. But it is, as you said, a lot of liberal bashing. The right wing has just started to come after the film and that’s probably because it’s kind of doing well.
Do you think maybe the hatred some people are expressing for it may just be because it is in the now and they don’t want to be reminded of it?
I think a little bit of that and I think it takes some pretty hard shots at media and kind of intellectual criticism I guess, in a way. Because, you know, we plant a journalistic experience and it sort of shows you a propaganda machine. They have their own Brand of America Trade Show and you sort of get a notion of mainstream press, with a complete compliance to these corporations and are in fact an extension of a corporate state. So I think there is that. And I just don’t think people want…… I like stuff that makes you… I like humor, satire or absurdity…… I like that feeling you get right at the edge of uncomfortable. I think the movie is funny and fun and brings up all your senses that subversion should be fun and all that, but I also like that space where, should I be laughing or groaning? Is this funny? I think it’s funny but what does it mean that I'm laughing right now? I like that area. I think that is an interesting area to be in. Like, is this a Telemundo soap opera or a black comedy or surreal movie or is this a sincere, naturalistic film? I don’t know [Laughing]. We sort of like that. You know, there is no reason to do a movie for like, five million bucks in Bulgaria unless it is this provocative and takes risks.
There are moments where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they are going there.’ Especially the near ‘beheading’. Damn, that was biting satire. I found it to be insanely inventive and a lot scary.
Yeah, well it’s interesting because some people who sort of ‘get it’’, have been people who get it in a deep way. And the people that have been hating it, I haven’t looked at RottenTomatoes, but I’m sure that people… I mean, on the MySpace we got people from like Naomi Klein to Bill Maher to Sarah Silverman to the chief correspondent for “60 Minutes”, you know, Lara Logan… this list of people who goes kind of on and on who have seen it and given us quotes who are really, really smart people. These guys are pretty bright, these cool artists and thinkers and people so…… the interesting story is the chasm between people who like it and hate it and that is one thing in the press that isn’t getting reported. Everybody goes, ‘well, everybody hates it.’… well, not really, there are a lot of people that liked it, but they just sort of report that it's gotten horrible reviews. But we got a good review in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Time Magazine. But no one ever says that, they just say that everyone hates it. And that’s alright, people are finding it and they can make up their own minds.
Well the one thing that I really think is great, the way you are selling this. You're going out there… I’ve never seen you do this for a film. Ever. Whose idea was it to just use MySpace and basically go to the public and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this movie. Go see it!’?
Well, you know it sort of evolved and I think the nature of the film, it’s so controversial, we were so not gonna have the usual backing for this. And we had some people that came on board that are pretty cool people. We had like a journalist at Vanity Fair that saw it [Vicky Ward], we had Arianna Huffington saw it and loved it, and she is really supporting [it] on her space. But mostly it was people like MoveOn.org or CrooksandLiars, a lot of the activists, political groups… we had a lot of these people who write about politics and culture and foreign affairs, who have never talked about movies before, calling and saying we want to do a story on this movie. All the press kind of came from the outside in. People who were writing about politics and culture and stuff, but never about entertainment, wanted to cover it. And that drove the mainstream entertainment people to look at it and take it seriously in a way. Because at first, no one wanted to look at it or review it or see it, and everyone was sort of like, ‘…what? No, we don’t want to do this.’ People started to sneak around it and then all of a sudden people were like, ‘oh, we better take a look at this.’ But it was very interesting, nobody wanted to touch it in the mainstream media for three or four months.
Well did you expect when you were writing it… did you think you would have a better reaction, a worse reaction, or kind of what you expected?
It’s kind of turning out to be what I expected. But you don’t really know what’s going to happen, but I couldn’t have imagined that…… I think we would have done something wrong if we didn’t have a lot of people hating us. I don’t think we would have pressed the right buttons or hit the right nerves, you know. And people can attack the aesthetics all they want, but I think that people don’t like it for reasons beyond, that are just, ‘Oh, I don’t like the style.’ or, ‘I don’t like the tone shifts.’, you know. They don’t like it for a deeper reason.
It is good to take a risk with a film. And I actually did like the change in styles throughout. It felt sort of dreamlike in some ways…
Yeah! No, that’s exactly what we… you know, Mark Leyner, he writes very incredibly these sort of fever dreams, and you know, he would… that would delight him. And that is like his aesthetic if you ever read his books. He has these novels and stuff where he does write these weird fever dreams with rapid tone shifts. And he never explains them [Laughing] or warns you that they're coming, he just puts them all in. I mean, he’s just a very provocative person. So Jeremy Pikser and I, and the actors all were interested in doing a different… you know, you can’t want to do something different and then say, well why is everybody telling me that this is something that not everybody gets. By definition, you’re doing something that’s outside…… you don’t know if it’ll work, it’s outside your comfort zone, it’s outside your understanding of how things work.
How much were you involved in the writing process?
Oh, I was there the whole time. It was me and Mark and Jerry.
Obviously this wasn’t your first time out in the context or writing the script. What was it about this particular story? I’d read that you had Naomi's book…
Well, no, actually Naomi’s book was made about the same time we were making the War. Then the statue fell and then it was kind of like the height of Bush when he was telling people, you know… there were kind of lackeys on the post saying you better watch what you say and giving all those McCarthy type threats. And we sort of were looking into what they were doing. And we sort of knew what the neo-conservative ideology was. You know, privatize everything in sight, because the world is a business. And we own it, you can work here, you know, that's basically it. And then when they started to actually try and expand this kind of version, this version of free market where free markets aren’t really free, and we’re going to have to start feeding this ideology, like we’re just gonna have to literally invade a country and blow it up so we can make the money rebuilding it. So then we were thinking, well you know, they say you’d better watch what you say… well I don’t want to look back and think, you know, during the darkest eight years in American history, I made romantic comedies and made a lot of money. This is what I do, I make movies so I’m going to do something that… it’s what I can contribute aside from voting and stuff like that.
So it kind of came out as a sense of activism, and outrage, and this film plays a role in that. No one film is of that much importance but I think reclaiming your sense of outrage and you’re going to call things what they are. You know, that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to do that in a kind of experimental way. And people are really responding to that, you know, we have a lot of enthusiasm on that MySpace, as you can see. And it’s not like 20th Century Fox is going to want to buy this movie and put it out, so it was going to be us and whoever wanted to back it. And we knew it was going to be a grass roots, political based activist case thing. And if people would hopefully find it and hopefully find out that it’s a really fun, crazy movie and the more you watch it, the more you start to get. And like I said, it’s like a painting you get and the more you see it, the more you’re going to get, and the more stuff you are going to see in it, I think. And we found that to be true actually. So that’s really nice too.
Well when I watched it, I read a few of the bad reviews and some of them didn’t seem like they were giving it a fair shot.
Yeah, I don’t think so either, I mean I haven’t read a lot of them because, you know… but, I think that if you are going to give… there's more ideas in five minutes of WAR, INC. then there is in five big studio movies combined. So you may like the pyrotechnics, or the superhero, that’s cool or whatever, but everybody says I want a movie that takes some risks and has some ideas in it and takes some shit head on. And then you get one and the only thing we can work out is a pretty low-budget, punk rock movie, you know. I mean, I call it that just because it was like, well we have this script and we don't have enough money and we don’t have enough props, we have one tank. We can shoot it in Bulgaria and we got about a third of the money we had when we made GROSSE POINTE BLANK fifteen years ago. We were like, ‘F*ck it! Lets go do it. Lets just go there and do it.’ So we did it and so people who dig it are really digging it. And the other people are, you know…… well you can go see IRON MAN and give it a good review. I’m sure IRON MAN was cool.
Now tell me about casting Hillary Duff as the pop star. That seemed like a risky move just because of her pop princess image.
Yeah, yeah, that was.
She did a good job.
Yeah, she’s really good.
How did her name come about when casting? Was there ever the idea of maybe getting an unknown for the part? Or was she at the top of your list?
No, you know, it was weird, it was one of those things where we were talking about… there was all these things about corporate brand. So we had heard that she wanted to, you know, that she’d liked my movies and knew about me and she had heard about the script. They said she wanted to read it and they thought she'd like it. And I said, well okay, what does that mean, Hillary Duff is a pop star, I know, with Lizzie McGuire, okay so what does that mean… I was trying to figure it out. Well she is kind of like a huge one woman industry, you know, she’s like this big deal so I thought, that’s kind of interesting having someone who is a young pop star play a version in a fictionalized country, that wants to be what she already is in America. Well, you know, maybe kind of a sluttier version, because she’s kind of a good girl with a wholesome image. She’s not like one of these vixens… So I thought that was pretty interesting, so she read it and she wanted to do it and she went into it gung ho. She was ready to go.
Yeah, I was surprised to see her in that role which seemed pretty risky for her. I really wondered how her fans would accept it.
Yeah, she’s very courageous. She’s a very fearless kind of person. And really, really good.
Now with the rest of the cast, how much were you involved in that process as producer?
Oh, it was all me, my friend Jeremy and Mark, you know. And that was it… yeah.
With it’s first two weeks in limited release, you did some terrific numbers. As it opens wider, what are your goals to keep it moving?
Well I think that we… unfortunately it’s a small company with a limited budget so we don’t have commercials everywhere, and we’re trying to generate as much press as we can. I don’t think a lot of people knew that it expanded last weekend. It all happened so quick so we couldn’t get the posters in the theatres. So I’m thinking that we’ll wait to see what happens this weekend but it might be something that just happens playing in a few theatres in cities. And you know, if we can pack those, then I think we can kind of expand a little larger. But now, I don’t think we have the resources to open it nationally, one big swoop in like, six hundred theatres. [At least] right now because we don’t have the… there is no real advertising budget to do that. But if we can keep the grass roots thing going, I think we can we can put it in two, three, four, five, maybe ten theatres in the city, and go for that, and then have some fun. And if we can keep it going, I’m game to play it all the way up to the Republican National Convention and play it in the parking lot outside. So it all depends on how far we can push it and keep it going you know. If people keep going and we can keep some full theatres in these art houses and people keep rallying around to it, you know, the skies the limit. I’ll push it as far as we can go.
It's amazing to see you do this, because literally, I’ve never seen you take on so much responsibility in regards to one of your films.
I’ve done it before, but I tried to do it kind of behind the scenes a little bit. Usually there is a big company spending a whole bunch of money pushing the movie, whatever… but this one, it’s… you know, it’s a very, very limited budget and they are doing the best they can. They are cool people and everything but they can’t go buy TV commercials, they can’’t go out and do all those things. We’re just doing it grass roots, it’s just something that we are going to see how far we can take it. If we can get it nationally, it’ll be a pretty cool story and it can maybe help… it’ll be the first one like that, that will work that way. You know, we’re giving it directly to the fans and we are saying, here is our group of people and here is what they think. And you know, here’s what the mainstream critics think. Here is why we’re doing it, here is the information behind it, go read these books and then tell us what you think. Go to the theatres, are you guys getting it? If you are, call back and tell us what you think, tell the MySpace guys what you think. And we’ve gotten these great reactions from people, like it’s a party in the theatre. They’re groovin’ on it and once people watch the movie, nobody wants to leave afterwards, they all want to hang out and talk. It’s a cool vibe. And there are other fun things that we are going to do, like a guerilla poster run with Robbie Conal. We’ll download the images and have people put ‘em up themselves or something. But we’re trying to work some of that stuff out too. We’ve got all these people and all these cities that want to do it like Seattle, Boston, you know, San Francisco, Chicago… everybody wants to get weird with the movie.
Well like you said, I think describing this as a “punk rock movie” is a very good analogy. That is what it feels like…
That’s the spirit of it. We made it and it’s like, I hope we offend a bunch of people. There’s some offensive shit going on too.
Now as an actor, how much of it is your responsibility to be political. Because there are critics that say actors should not tell people how to live their lives, they shouldn’t tell people who to vote for. What is your take on that?
My take on it is everybody should do whatever the hell they want. I express myself and see the world as I see it and I’m going to put that into my stories and my art, and be as truthful as I can with what I see and feel. So if anyone else has different opinions, you know, bring it on. Let’s go. Whatcha got? But the idea that these people are saying… I don’t even know what “being political” means. But I will say, in 2008, if you don’t feel like you’re a bit of an activist, I don’t know when you ever will be. We’re talking about a time when people… with outsourced torture for profit. These people left the constitution in shreds. So you don’t want people to be political, why? Because I put make-up on and speak in front of a camera? When sometimes I speak my own lines, sometimes I speak other peoples lines? Are you talking about me or Bill O’Reilly? Its like such a joke. So their opinions should matter, but I shouldn’t express myself? Are we twelve? You know, that’s not how it works. I express something because that’s how I feel. And you don’t have to like it, you can do whatever you want with it.
Yeah, you can turn the TV off.
Actually, you don’t even have to listen to this conversation. You can walk away. It’s like what is that… the expression police [Laughing]? You know… ‘Don’t express that!’… okay……
[At this point, he is called back to set, currently shooting the film SHANGHAI]
Well, thanks man.
Yeah, thanks a lot man, it was nice talking to you.
Nice talking to you too.
Let me know what you think. Send questions and/or comments to JimmyO@joblo.