|Interview with Stephen Gaghan: Drilling for answers to "Syriana"
|by Peter Sobczynski
Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning author of “Traffic” and the writer-director of the acclaimed geopolitical thriller “Syriana” talks about writing a mammoth and complex screenplay, directing a mammoth and complex production throughout the world and the mammoth and complex negotiations required to get a major studio to pay for it all.
With its multi-story approach to a single subject, “Syriana” may remind some viewers of “Traffic,” the 2000 film that took a similar approach to the subject of drugs in America. This is more than just a coincidence because it was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for writing “Traffic” for Steven Soderbergh. A story this complex and convoluted would be a challenge for even the most skilled filmmaker–let alone one whose only previous directing job was the lame Katie Holmes thriller “Abandon”–but Gaghan does a highly impressive job of juggling all of his various plot threads. His approach is an interesting one–he just plunges right into the muck while trusting that the viewer will be able to sort things out for themselves. At first, the onslaught of characters and information is a bit overwhelming and some of the early scenes can be confusing but they eventually become clearer as things progress.
Recently, Gaghan, who recently announced plans to write and direct “Blink,” an adaptation of the Malcolm Gladwell book that is set to star Leonardo DiCaprio, sat down to discuss “Syriana,” the questions it raises about the international oil industry and how it affects people throughout the world and the challenges of getting such a complex and controversial project through the studio gears.
When did you first become interested in screenwriting as a profession?
I got into it by accident. I was working at the “Paris Review” in New York and I was writing short stories and poetry in my 20s. I had spent six weeks writing the first sentence of a short story–I think I was having a bit of a breakdown and I was drinking a lot–and I decided to take a crack at writing an episode of “The Simpsons.” I spent six weeks on one sentence and suddenly I wrote 80 pages in two days. Then I decided to write an episode of “Seinfeld” and then finished out the week with a screenplay. I had this huge stack of material and I realized that I might be a dramatist instead of a short-story writer because it happened so easily–not that the quality was that good because it wasn’t.
I decided to go out to L.A. and pursue it full-time and I got rejected for a bunch of years but I stuck with it. I didn’t love movies at that point–I was always a book person–and I slowly came to movies in a more serious way and I have been doing it seriously for the last fifteen years.
Had you always planned on moving into directing as well?
Pretty early on. I was fortunate because I nabbed a couple of jobs on TV. At first, you are just excited to see something that you have written produced. For me, it was “New York Undercover” and “American Gothic” and “NYPD Blue” and by the time I was writing for “NYPD Blue,” I started to think about the way that the script was being translated. At first, it was so exciting–a kid from Kentucky getting my stuff on television and my mom photographing my credit at the end of the show. Slowly, you start to think about how it isn’t really quite the way that you saw it but there is all this technical stuff that seems to stand in the way between the imagination and the translation to the screen and you don’t quite know how that works. I was actually quite fortunate early on–I had dinner with the Coen Brothers because I had written a screenplay that I was thinking about directing and I was very nervous. Well, I was nervous to be talking to the Coens anyway because they are kind of idols of mine. I had a fear of that technical translation process and Joel Coen said, “Do you know your story?” I
“Yeah, yeah-I wrote it.”
“Then you can direct it. All the rest of it, you’ll learn within three weeks and you will have experts to help with every technical decision and all those problems will be gone in three weeks.”
Then Ethan says, “And then a whole new set problems will come up that you will have no idea how to handle.”
I can’t separate writing and directing in my mind in terms of how they apply to this art form. When I am thinking things up, it all occurs visually–right down to the color palettes of the walls and the suits of the actors. It isn’t just dialogue–I take exposition very seriously. All of that can change on the day and if you get there and things are different, you have to really be listening to what the actors are bringing you.
Although many have compared “Syriana” to “Traffic” because both take a single hot-button topic–drugs in “Traffic” and oil in “Syriana”–and explores how it affects a wide range of people in big and small ways. However, “Syriana” feels like a far more complex film in many ways. For starters, “Traffic” had the advantages of the framework of the original British mini-series and the fact that most audience members know at least a little something about the drug business. However, “Syriana” doesn’t have such a framework and while people certainly know what oil is, it is doubtful that many know the complex machinations between governments and corporations that are such a big part of the oil industry. Can you talk about your initial idea for “Syriana” and how the screenplay eventually developed?
While I was working on “Traffic,” I went to the Pentagon. At that time, in 1998, counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism were in the same office in the Pentagon. If you wanted to see who was fighting the war on terror and the war on drugs–both wars of abstraction, in my opinion–you’d go to the same office and see the same guy, a very smart guy with three bachelor degrees. I have a couple of cars out in L.A. with big engines and I was thinking about filling them with gas and wondering why our gas was so much cheaper than gas in Europe. I was pondering this and I started thinking about the user/dealer paradigm for the oil business–I knew it occurred with drugs and I thought it applied to the oil business. If you are visiting a drug dealer, you are sitting in his kitchen and he is doling out drugs while his kids are in another room watching cartoons all the time–they are malnourished because they are eating nothing but Ho-Hos. However, because of that relationship and the need of the user, you are never going to hand a parenting manual to your dealer. I thought that was applicable in some ways to the consumer/producer nation relationship–consumer nations were rarely going to hand a parenting manual to producer nations in the oil business. We have had 50 years of that, maintaining the status quo and not wanting to unsettle things in the Middle East by saying that autocratic and tyrannical leaders are fine–if not fine, then at least tolerable.
All of this was kicking around in my head and then the buildings came down on 9/11 and it just seemed to me that it brought all these issues right to the center. I was scared personally and since I had to fly a lot right after that, I was always nervous–I was nervous going to the mall. This guy was talking about getting our airplanes out of Mecca, which begged the question of what our airplanes were doing in Mecca. I realized that we had troops in 130 countries at that point and I had never really thought of America in that way. All these strange things were percolating. There were American military jets flying through Italy and one sliced the wires of a gondola and killed a bunch of people and Clinton promised there would be financial reparations for these people and it never happened. In this book I read, this guy hypothesized about imagining what would have happened if things had been reversed–what if it was the Italian military flying out of their Italian military base in California and sliced a gondola there and killed 40 Americans? Imagine what the response in America would have been–we’d have been furious.
I was thinking about this mass of things and I was sent this book by Bob Baer and in it, there was this section about campaign-finance reform. It was a CIA officer’s memoir but there was a little section of an oil middleman testifying in front of the Senate campaign-finance reform subcommittee. He came without a lawyer–he was a Lebanese-American educated at Harvard–and stood up and they said “You gave $300,000 to the Clinton White House and slept in the bedroom–isn’t this terrible?” He said, “Are you kidding? Sleeping in the White House is useless. I got pictures of myself with Bill Clinton shaking hands and hanging out. All over the world, where I do business, no one knows who I am–I have 3000 oil stations named after me in Europe but that doesn’t translate. I go around the world and they see pictures of me with Clinton, that gives me instant credibility. That 300 grand was the best money I’ve ever invested in my business and in the next election cycle, I plan to double it.”
Well, I thought, the cat is out of the bag. How do you buy the electoral process? How do you buy access and what do you do with it, particularly in the oil business? You may want a pipeline or you may want to stop a coup. I was very interested that a CIA officer was writing about this, that he knew this man and that their lives had crossed paths. I wanted to meet him because while the book wasn’t exactly a movie, I thought his life might be interesting. I met Bob and it turned out to be completely true. He was fascinating–he had a Rolodex filled with oil billionaires from around the world. Where the information business takes you in that world is very interesting and I thought there was a movie there.
Narratively, “Traffic” operated under certain principles. The storylines were separate and at the end, each of the characters were relatively untouched by the characters in the other stories and they did not affect each other. There were common themes but the stories were color-coded and set in different worlds–the upper-middle-class world of Ohio is very different from Mexico–and in the end, Michael Douglas saves his daughter and that is incredibly hopeful. When I set out to think about this world and research it, what I saw everywhere was self-interest, the fallibility of human nature and greed. I thought that in a world in which a man in a cave in Afghanistan can bring down the World Trade Center, we are in a much smaller world that the one that “Traffic” posits. Most people haven’t been into the oil world or the world of the CIA or foreign policy on any serious level.
I thought that could work to our advantage because we are all in this country and the country is taking a radically sharp turn in the wake of 9/11–fifty years of bi-lateral foreign policy has been tossed out for a unilateral policy. We start one war in Afghanistan and another war in Iraq and we are also talking about Syria and Iran. Things are accelerating rapidly and we are saying that it is our job to fix messes all around the world. This is a huge shift and if you are an American, you know what is going on. People are dying in Iraq every single day and I’m thinking that when most people contemplate the evening news, myself included, they get very depressed and confused every day. I wanted to turn this to our advantage by starting from a place where you are just inundated with story. The stories all have beginnings, middles and ends and they are free-standing while crossing over each other in ways. I had the thought to create the sensation in the audience at first of good and interesting scenes but the sense of “Holy cow, what is happening?” About 45 minutes in, you’ll find that as the stories start to cross, it makes a little more sense and in the end, the things that are happening affect everyone in the movie and they should affect everyone in the audience as well.
How much of that structural overload in the opening third was on the page and how much was added or subtracted after filming once you got a sense of how much information an audience could absorb?
That is the continual process. I wanted to put in as much information as possible without breaking the camel’s back. I went past the edge and then I would pull back a bit. I would show it to my smart friends and was watching them watching the movie. You can really feel people being taken along and you can feel people giving up. It was hard–it took a very long time to find that exact point and you are trying to imagine where that point would be for millions of people around the world. What I discovered is that you can handle four stories but not five. You have to engage emotionally. It is done very carefully–talk, talk, talk, explosion, talk, talk, talk, tragedy–and things happen that are relatable to everyone. Paddy Chayefsky said that drama is emotion when you are writing a script–if you read a page and feel something, it has a chance and if it doesn’t, you have to crumple it up and write a new page.
Considering both the complex and potentially controversial nature of the material, how difficult was it to get Warner Brothers to pony up for the likes of “Syriana”? After all, it is well-known that “Traffic” had enormous difficulties getting produced as well–as I recall, it was dropped by one studio just before pre-production was scheduled to begin.
On “Traffic,” we were financing pre-production out of our own pockets up until three weeks before shooting. It had been at Fox 2000 until they said no and it was nowhere for nine months. This was similar but because of “Traffic” and the fact that Steven Soderbergh was producing and I was writing and directing, we got a little bit of credit in the bank because we had already done this kind of story before. It is hard to get any movie made but this was very difficult. I take a very long time to write and I do many drafts. When the script was done, some very good actors were interested and people were calling to say that they wanted to be in the movie–some of them were big stars.
I think there were three or four critical junctures where the movie could have just gone away. Into one of those George Clooney leapt. He came on board and had a long-standing relationship with Warner Brothers–he has been there for 15 years and he and Steven have made a lot of money for the studio and that helped a lot. It isn’t a clear-cut decision-making process. There are many people involved with the decisions at the studio and there were many things going on with the project and the script. Then George Clooney came in and Matt Damon came in and if you have George and Matt working for scale, then everyone else will work for scale and you have a movie that makes sense. Once that happens, the leverage shifts in the equation–the studio still holds all the cards but if you have a project where you firmly have two of the top eight actors working for scale, that movie makes sense as a business model.
Your first effort as director, 2002's “Abandon,” was obviously a much simpler film in terms of scale in comparison to “Syriana.” What was it like as a director going from a relatively straightforward and simple narrative like that to a film with multiple storylines, a large cast, numerous languages and locations all around the world?
Oh man, it was unbelievable. We shot over 200 locations on four continents in five languages with over 100 speaking parts. Logistically, if I had realized how big it was, I never would have done it because I would have been too freaked out. However, the problems are the same. In many ways, “Abandon” was a far more difficult movie because what I was trying to do and what the studio was trying to do were totally different. With “Syriana,” there was no escaping it–if you read the script, you knew what we were trying to do. The problems of executing are the same no matter what the movie is. In every scene, you are trying to get to the dramatic core of the scene–you may have 100 extras or 1 principal but you are trying to hone in on what matters the most in that scene. Those problems have nothing to do with scale. The deepest and hardest problems to solve have nothing to do with size, scale, bells & whistles or anything–it is a conceptual problem revolving around how good the filmmakers are at understanding at what it really happening. Generally speaking, there are only one or two things that matter and you have to find them and focus on them. If you spend your time on anything else, the scene won’t work and it won’t be in the movie.
The single most difficult thing to do here was to direct crowd scenes in multiple languages. You have to move people who speak Arabic, Urdu or French and usually only one of them. You have translators who are trying to translate what you are saying but it doesn’t exactly translate. You are trying to get everyone to move here and do this and the sun is coming down. You find out that 30 people are being spoken to in one language and they only know a different one that is maybe 60% similar, so they understand maybe 60% less 30% or so that is lost in translation–they are walking around in different directions while you are asking for them to just stand there and not look into the fucking lens.
One of the interesting and ironic touches of the screenplay is that while all the characters in the film have a duplicitous nature to one degree or another, perhaps the least ambiguous of the bunch is the CIA agent played by George Clooney, a man whose entire career is dedicated to putting up false fronts and pretending to be someone he isn’t. Can you talk about developing the more ambiguous characters such as the ones played by Jeffrey Wright and Matt Damon, both of whom who wind up acting in ways that seem completely at odds with their behavior earlier in the story?
I though of the characters played by Matt and Jeffrey in the same way–one is a lion that everyone thinks is a lamb and the other is a lamb that everyone thinks is a lion. Matt is a sheep who everyone thinks is a lion. Jeffrey is a lion who is trying his best to disguise himself as a sheep. Bob and Wasim are exactly the same. When Bob starts out, he is the furthest thing from an innocent that you could possibly see. He knows how the world works, he kills people and does it as the means to geopolitical ends. He doesn’t question it but he is murdering people. Wasim is just a guy who wants to have a job and maybe bring his family over. By the end, obviously, Bob is a guy who wants to do just one good thing and doesn’t even know how to do it because the world is so complicated. The opposite has happened to this kid–he has been subverted into this method of destruction in a really tragic way that I think is very true. They have corporatized martyrdom–they advertise it on billboards and sell it to people as a viable career option. It is deeply fucked up in ways I can’t imagine. They have billboards in Iran where they have 14-year-old martyrs in fields of flowers selling it in the way that we would sell copiers.
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originally posted: 12/27/05 22:05:39
last updated: 01/06/06 03:14:53