Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Early Friday morning, on my way to Malibu, and I’m desperately trying to keep one eye on the road while I finish reading some research material I’ve downloaded from the Internet. I’m concerned that I’m going to sound like an idiot when I interview Stephen Gaghan, writer/director of the pulverizing new film SYRIANA, so I find myself overdoing it on the prep ahead of time.
I’ve spoken with Gaghan before, but never in person. Over the years, we’ve had occasion to chat on the phone, and I’ve always thought of him as bright. Seeing SYRIANA, though, I find that I’m suddenly intimidated by how smart he really is. TRAFFIC played like a movie written on instinct, written from the gut, written from some hard-lived experience. SYRIANA is dense, challenging; it bombards the viewer with information, never giving you a chance to disconnect. It’s scary-smart, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what sort of culture bomb it is when Warner Bros. unleashes it later this month. I'll warn you right here... it's impossible to talk about this film without talking about some of the story elements, but even though there are sizeable spoilers in this interview, this film is impossible to ruin with discussion. It's an experience you just have to have in a theater with the best fucking sound system you can find. Seriously.
I park across the PCH from Gaghan’s house and wait for a gap in traffic to run across the street. It may be November, but it’s gorgeous outside, clear blue sky overhead, and even though the jacket I have on is thin, it’s still a little on the warm side. Once I walk inside, I find myself in a small courtyard, where Gaghan’s two kids play while his assistant and a Warner Bros. publicist welcome me. We chat for a moment while he finishes a phone call, and then the door suddenly opens and I find myself face to face with him. He’s tall, thin almost to the point of gaunt, and his hair is peppered with grey. We shake hands, and I follow him into the living room, where his writing desk is set up.
I settle into the seat across from him, and despite having an amazing view of the beach and the Pacific Ocean through the window by his desk, I find as we speak that I’m more drawn to the gigantic LAWRENCE OF ARABIA poster that takes up most of the wall.
As I set up my tape recorder, Gaghan reads me an e-mail he just got from Graydon Carter, editor of VANITY FAIR, who saw the film the night before. There’s a line in the e-mail that is evidently a fairly common refrain among those who have taken an early peek at the film, saying it’s great but it won’t make a dime, and making a crack about how it’s “too sophisticated for those red-state punters.”
STEPHEN GAGHAN: [laughs] I am a red-state punter.
M: It’s funny. I think people are going to adopt this film politically on either side of the argument, whatever argument you’re having. That’s one of the things that hit me right off. It’s real easy to insert your own politics into this film, and it’s real easy to miss that there are many other points of view being offered.
SG: That’s what I was hoping and, god, that’s such a great way to put it. “Insert your own politics.”
Gaghan took a moment to write the phrase down.
M: Listen, I loved the movie. I thought it was extraordinary. It’s sinking in more as I get distance from it, and I look forward to seeing it again. Especially now that I hear that what I saw wasn’t finished. I guess there was some temp track still in it, some edits that weren’t quite done. I had no idea. It felt finished. It felt complete. What really struck me is that I don’t think it’s a film about oil or about politics or even about the intelligence community. I saw this as a film about anger, and the way anger gets turned inward, and what do you do with it? In your case, you can take your anger and go make SYRIANA, a big-budget film with George Clooney and Matt Damon, and that’s how you channel your anger. But what can other people do? Do you become a terrorist? Do you kill someone? Do you just give up and sell out? What is it that you do when you’re that filled with rage?
He didn’t respond at first. He just sort of looked at me, then shook his head.
SG: I need to write this down because... I really need to write down what you just said. Honestly, I... let me just write that down, and then I’ll explain why.
For the next three or four minutes, I wandered around the room, browsing his DVD shelves, while Gaghan busily typed on his laptop. I was pleased to see that he organizes his shelves the same way I do, just randomly tossing DVDs on as they come into the house, eschewing all attempts to place them in any sort of alphabetical order. I also took the opportunity to look at his bookshelves, which were crammed with non-fiction material.
M: I love looking at people’s bookshelves.
SG: Almost all of this is... a lot of this has to do with this movie and... this is where I work. Almost all of these are from the last few movies. The war on drugs. The Alamo. Oil. Intelligence. There are a few novels or historical books that I thought were really relevant. I mean, DECLINE AND FALL is unbelievable. The guy talks about King Mithridates. King Mithridates could be Saddam Hussein. In 80 B.C., Caesar is Bush, and Mithridates is Hussein. It’s exactly the same paradigm, and it’s been going on for over 2000 years. It’s so funny. I mean, I’m not so well-educated that I can really talk about it, but when I read that, I was like, “Wow.”
He went back to typing for another couple of minutes, and once he was finally finished, he snapped shut the cover of his laptop.
SG: Okay. I haven’t talked to that many people yet. I’ve talked to maybe ten people, and nobody’s come close to saying why I did it. Because it’s been four years since I started writing it, you kind of forget in the shooting and in the post, especially when you’re in collaboration with a multi-national corporation, what you’re really setting out to do and what that complete early energy came from. I was pissed off. I mean, I was really pissed off. You’re exactly right. I remember sitting there thinking weird kinds of thoughts. “Is capitalism a zero sum game?” I don’t know, but is it? Y’know, Marxists would say that capitalism’s a zero sum game. A capitalist would say... look, a Marxist would say “If you dig a 500 foot hole in Indonesia, there would be a 500 foot tall pile of wealth in America. The world’s totally in balance. Wealth’s not created or destroyed. It’s just moved around from the have-nots to the haves.” Well, that’s interesting, but is it true?
Capitalists would say, “Are you kidding? Look what we’re doing with Gremean banks and micro-economic lending. Micro-economic lending is the most important thing that happens on this globe in terms of empowering people. We can loan... we go to Africa, and we have a program...” This was a lawyer who told me this who represents Saudi Arabia as a client. He said, “We take these micro-economic loans to Africa and we only make the loans to women, and maybe the loan is as small as a simple cell phone, and now this woman can start a phone company, and everyone within 50 miles will be transformed. That’s the power of capitalism.” I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But I had to... I felt... what I felt was, I love my country. I love America. Really love it. I was numb during the ‘90s, like everybody. I think everybody was just like, “It’s Fukuyama. THE END OF HISTORY. Democracy and capitalism have won. Game, set, match. We’re just going to cash in our stock options and go shopping.” If you own a little stock in an Internet company, you’ll have a $7 million house in Bel Air, and you don’t have to think about anything ever again, you know? Then it’s like boom, that market explodes, buildings come down on 9/11, and in rapid order, there’s our response, which is heightened rhetoric. Crazy powerful rhetoric like, “We’re on a crusade.” And suddenly I’m in the back seat of this car, which is America, and I feel it turning, and then we’re in war in Afghanistan, and we’re in war in Iraq. We’re in a standing ground war in Asia which, if you know your PRINCESS BRIDE, is a bad idea. And we’re rattling our fists at Syria and Iran. And... man... I’m not numb anymore. I’m sitting here going “What’s going on? What’s it mean to be us?” Because, like, for me, we declared War On Drugs, which is like a War On Molecules. A total abstraction. Seratonin uptake inhibitors which are depressed by cocaine... that’s immoral... but gabba receptors, which is alcohol... that’s moral. It’s just so weird. And then suddenly that comes a cropper. When I was researching TRAFFIC at the Pentagon, Counter-Narcotics and Counter-Terrorism were in the same office. Same office in ’98. Think about that. So all of a sudden, we now have a War On Terror, which, I’m like, “All right.” By the time I’m at terror, I’m beyond reasoning with. I’m a horse fleeing a fire. Let’s declare war on fear and misunderstanding. Start with fear. I was scared to get on an airplane after 9/11. Physically scared to do it.
M: Oh, I’m sure. I have to fly a lot, and I’m sure you do, too. It’s the nature of the business. Y’know, this film strikes me as... and not as an homage or a pastiche or an imitation... but as a genuine ‘70s film. It’s the kind of film that guys like Pakula and Pollack and Friedkin were making. It struck me the same way SORCERER did. I had that same sort of powerful, physical reaction. I found myself getting uncomfortable in the theater several times because of how immediate it is, how intense it gets. In particular, the story of how somebody becomes a suicide bomber is one of the most affecting things I’ve seen all year. There are other films out there right now that deal with some of these ideas, like THE WAR WITHIN and PARADISE NOW. It’s in the air. Right now, we’re just trying to understand how someone can walk into a building or get on a bus with a bomb. What could possibly get you to that place? In your film, the process seems not only natural, but deceptively simple. How did you research that? And considering that this is a film funded by a multi-national corporation, as you put it, how did you ever sell that to a studio?
SG: Well, let’s start with the last question first. It was a naturally emotional story, and I think Warner Bros. deserves a lot of credit. They never said to me, “Soften this.” None of their questions or comments were about “We’re going to take a lot of shit for this.” They were questions about... they were just good dramatic questions. “How do we make this clearer? How do we make it more emotional? What are you really trying to say?” A couple of things happened for me. I read TERROR & LIBERALISM by Paul Berman. Well, first I read the excerpt in The New York Times, where he talked about the philosophy of [Sayyid Qutb]. Berman parsed the 26-volume book which is called IN THE SHADE OF THE QUR’AN. It was written by this guy Qutb, who spent time in America. He’s Egyptian. Academic. And [Berman] very persuasively showed me that what was going on in the world right now is, there is a war of ideas. That these clerics in the Muslim world had a very serious idea. He says that idea had been cross-pollinated with facism, totalitarian ideology from the West. He shows where it could have happened in Egypt. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I wasn’t 100% persuaded by that.
But what I was persuaded by was how seductive the ideas were, and how powerful. Like the notion that you could be part of the greater good. That God has a plan for you. The Koran has that plan written down. If I was a disenfranchised young person who had taken a lot of blows to my self-esteem, who didn’t really know where to go in the world, who had no education, and if someone came along with these ideas that I found in TERROR & LIBERALISM, that are found in Qutb, and took me seriously, and talked to me about this stuff, it would be unbelievably seductive.
M: Well, you totally get that from the film. This kid is marked. It’s a terrible thing, the... the circumstances that he bumps up against. There is no other reaction open to him. Of course he feels like he’s being persecuted, that it’s unjust, and something has to be done to redress it.
SG: I read this incredible article when I was location scouting in the Middle East. It was either in the Khaleej Times or in the Gulf Times, and it was an interview with the father of a son who had blown himself up. The dad said, “I was napping. My son woke me up, and he borrowed 35 cents. That’s the last time I saw my son alive.” He said, “35 cents is a boy-sized amount of money. That’s what a boy... a child... borrows. An adult doesn’t borrow 35 cents.” And his point was, whatever your political ideology, how can you use a child in this way? And the pain of it just rocked me, y’know? And I wanted to get that in because I’m a dad. I have two small children, y’know? It just... we’re living in this... heightened rhetoric, y’know? “Evildoers... and we’re the force of right and good.” And I just wanted to see things from this human side that I related to.
M: My nightmares have changed since I had my son. And you got me twice in SYRIANA. Bad. It’s not the death of Damon’s son that does it. It’s the scene where he holds his other son in front of the window all night long that does it.
SG: That’s so funny. It’s a funny story where that scene started. I was writing... I want to go back to your question about the political films of the ‘70s...
SG: ... but I was writing SYRIANA. I had written a lot. I was feeling disconnected from the material. Like it just didn’t have the heart that I thought it would need. It felt too intellectual or something. So I was talking to a friend of mine... and, um... it was actually Miranda July, who I had met at the Sundance Labs. I had read her script, and I thought ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, and I was just... I was e-mailing with her about something or another, and I remember saying, “I just feel so disconnected from what I’m doing in a way.” And I had told her in this same e-mail... I had described my son having had a nightmare, and that I went down and picked him up, and he immediately said, “I want to look out the window,” and then I went and I held him. And… and… it was around the time that his mother and I split up. And we were alone. She wasn’t there. So I was alone in the house with the kids, and I just... held him in the window... for like two hours... and we looked out at the streetlight. And, uh... it was really powerful for me, y’know? And Miranda wrote me back and said, “That’s what the movie’s about. That’s what you’re trying to do.” And I was just, “Oh, yeah.”
M: It seems appropriate that it’s the moment where you reconnected to the script, because it seems like it’s the moment where Damon reconnects to life after being shocked into paralysis. I mean... how do you pick up from what happens to him and his wife?
SG: I felt like when you suffer something catastrophic, there is such a tremendous amount of self-hatred and I thought it... just thinking about it, it would be very hard to go home. Everything would remind you of this. I thought what an interesting time for someone like this... a sort of upper-middle-class striver... to come into contact with this black hole of incredible wealth that these oil-producing nations are. They just... they generate so much money, and it creates its own gravity and morality and psychology and up and down and north and south all get mutated when they come in contact with this. And I’ve seen it among people I know who work on the fringes of this world, who interface in the financial community with these billionaire families.
And it’s that thing that you hear in Hollywood a lot. “Oh, I know he’s really an awful guy, but he’s not so bad to me.” And, uh, y’know, those are the kinds of little asterisks that we give ourselves, the little outs. And... going back to what you said earlier... I love conspiracy films from the ‘70s. I love the straight-up political films of the ‘70s. Y’know, it doesn’t matter if it’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN or Z or, um, 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR...
M: There’s a real strong TOUCH OF EVIL vibe to your movie, too.
SG: ... and, particularly, THE PARALLAX VIEW, where at the end of the day, it’s the military-industrial complex, and in CONDOR, Redford’s on the steps of The New York Times, and he’s going in there, and the guy says, “Y’know, the people that are behind me... do you really think they’ll let you..?” And in the ‘70s, it was always the punchline. The last moment. “Ta-dah! It’s the oil companies and the military-industrial complex! Ta-dah!” And I thought today, with what’s happened in the 30 years since then, is... FADE IN: It’s the Oil Companies. Now what? The punchline’s gone. The punchline’s become the starting point. FADE OUT became FADE IN. Okay. Now what? The conspiracies are in broad daylight. Nobody’s hiding them. The lingua franca has so changed in terms of what we would consider a conspiracy. I just... I thought, “What an interesting thing for this type of movie.”
M: I was doing some reading last night about Robert Baer [author of SEE NO EVIL: THE TRUE STORY OF A GROUND SOLDIER IN THE CIA’S WAR ON TERRORISM], and I see that the ultimate credit on the film is “Inspired by.” Obviously you’ve read volumes of material, and I love the way your film handles the Intelligence community. I’ve grown up fascinated by this world, starting with spy fiction and popular fiction, but I’ve also read every bit of non-fiction I can get my hands on about the history of how it’s developed in this country, and it’s rarely done right on film. People create cartoon spies for movies so we never see what real spies are or how they’re used. This film gets into what I believe is the state of intelligence gathering right now. I think Clooney’s performance is pretty epic. He nails who these guys are, these ghosts.
SG: He does. I was able to travel with Bob a lot and travel to the south of France. I didn’t take a lot from his book. The movie doesn’t really come from SEE NO EVIL, but the movie comes in large part from Bob’s life and his own experiences and his attitudes. The first thing he said to me was, “All right, you want to meet some of the players in the Persian Gulf? Then come with me to the south of France in August.” And I was like, “What?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, if you’re worth anything in the Persian Gulf, you think you stay there in August? It’s 130 degrees. Everybody’s on their yachts in the south of France.” So we went there and we went on boats with people who were the heads of intelligence for an African Muslim nation. We met billionaires who were in the oil business or middle men in the arms business who were billionaires. It was amazing to me that a mid-level CIA officer who was the Iraqi bureau chief in the ‘90s had in his cell phone the numbers of multi-billionaires. And he would call them on their personal cell phones and they’d pick up and say, “Oh, hey, Bob. Sure. Goin’ out with the fam on the boat tomorrow. Come on out. Oh, you have a friend? Bring him. Sure. Bring him along. No problem.” I watched him at length with these people and I realized, one, it wasn’t at all what I thought it was. That what Bob was primarily was a nexus for information. The reason these men, these well-known men, these super-powerful famous people, were interested in spending time with him was because he was of use to them. Because he knew things that they didn’t know and wanted to know. These are serious people, and what they do when they get together is they exchange information. And they exchange it very quickly. And they always had... there’d be some posturing, some “Oh, the lobster tail’s delicious. It’s a beautiful boat.” And then they’d get right down to brass tacks. Sometimes in English, sometimes in French. Often in Arabic. And it would just be this series of like... three answers. Three questions from Bob. Three more answers. Then the whole day was done. That was the point of being there. It wasn’t to show this Hollywood screenwriter the world. He always has an agenda. Millions of dollars have been spent training Bob Baer to always have an agenda. He never dropped it. Never dropped it. Layer upon layer of obfuscation and lie and deception built into him, into his character. You never get to the bottom of it. Never. You have no idea what he’s really doing, what he’s really thinking about. He changes his story all the time.
Oh, and here’s something really interesting. When George read the script... y’know, I developed it with Section Eight. I really kind of developed it with Steven [Soderbergh], because he’s my friend. I really didn’t know George terribly well. So I turned in the script and he read it, and he said, “I want to play the role.” And my initial reaction was, “No way. That’s crazy. It can’t... it has to be... it has to be someone who’s not a movie star.” Because what the CIA guy does is blend in to every situation. The white guy’s in the restaurant with a bunch of Persians, and you’re not going to recognize him because he just fits in.
M: He’s Zelig.
SG: He’s Zelig. And he’s Harvey Milquetoast. And what is a movie star if not the opposite of Harvey Milquetoast? That’s why they get all that money. That’s why we go to them. So they can be the guy and win the day and carry the ball and score the touchdown and get the cheerleader... and none of that was going to happen in this script.
SG: And he said, “I can do it. I’m going to gain some weight. And I’m going to get a beard.” He shaved back his hairline, and he changed his eyebrows, and... and, man, most people when they watch those first scenes, they don’t even... “Who is it?”
M: It’s amazing what a difference a paunch makes. And it does. It’s a profound change in the way he carries himself and the way he holds himself and when he settles into something. It’s a huge physical change, and it makes all the difference. He’s not George Clooney. He switched it off. With your whole cast... what I love about Matt Damon is you know he’s an intelligent guy in real life. It’s obvious from how he conducts himself in interviews. He comes across as a really smart guy. And you don’t often write smart in Hollywood films. You don’t give smart people a chance to play what they really are. Matt in this movie is like this quiet tiger. When you meet him, he’s just this ordinary guy. And then once the fangs come out later in the film, you realize how formidable he is.
SG: My three B’s... Bob, Bryan, and Bennett... are all in their own ways tigers. They are... y’know, I got to work on this movie where I did a ton of research on the mountain men. The people that conquered the West in America. What kind of people were they? What were their personal lives like? What were they willing to sacrifice to go have their particular adventure, whatever it was? And the answer is everything. They would sacrifice everything. And they were just hard-wired to win. They were hard-wired to win. It’s deep in the DNA. They are wily, resourceful... amazing. And I thought, “We’re the same people. We’re the same offspring of the same people who fled Europe and fled whatever country to get here and made it work in a giant forest filled with bears that could eat you and cougars that eat you and Indians that could kill you, y’know? And we killed 600 million bison. And grew corn. These were hearty survivalists, y’know? I wanted to show that modern character. That same bit of thread runs through to these guys, and they’re the type of people you could dangle out of a helicopter by their feet and just drop them, and they’d land somewhere. They’re just figure it out. One’s a lawyer. One’s an energy analyst at a trading company, whatever the hell that is. And one’s an intelligence officer at the CIA. I wanted them to be the best and the worst of us.
M: And talk about working with three great actors at the top of their game. Personally, I think Jeffrey Wright is one of the great American actors. Anybody who’s been lucky enough to see him onstage in ANGELS IN AMERICA or TOP DOG/UNDERDOG...
SG: I saw him in the Neil LaBute play recently. He was just a genius.
M: And he transforms completely in every film. I’m sure there are audiences who will see this and never realize that they’ve seen Jeffrey Wright before. He’ll just be this character for them. You etch with very small details in this film. His relationship with his father, for example. You never spell it out. There’s never any big moment where we get the whole history. But it feels real. It feels like we drop into a relationship in progress, and it feels like there’s no easy resolution to a relationship like that.
SG: What I love is how...
His cell phone rang, and he glanced down to check the caller ID.
SG: Oh, hold on. It’s the mom. She’s going to come pick up the kids.
He picked up as I put my tape recorder on pause, and the two of them had a quick, strained conversation that obviously exasperated Stephen a bit. When he hung up, he smiled at me.
SG: Anyway... when I started talking with Jeffrey, we were thinking about those sort of archetypical Sidney Poitier performances. We wanted to tap into that in a way that’s not derivative. And he... as an actor, he... this is how he operates. He’ll say, “I’ve been giving some thought to how this guy might carry himself.”
His cell phone rang again, and he looked at the caller ID again, this time even more exasperated.
SG: It’s the mom again. She can’t be bothered to come pick up the kids.
He turned the ringer off without answering the phone.
SG: And he’s like, he adjusts his shoulders in this tiny little micro way. And it’s a totally different character. And he does it a slight different way, and a little different. And he gives you seven or eight choices, and each one is completely distinct. And you watch him, and every one is a different person. And he’ll say, “Which one do you think?” “Can I see number three again?” And it’s a different person. It’s this control, this physicality, this control of every single nuance. Nothing is by accident. Just to be able to get to work with this guy. He taught me so much. You act like you already know the questions, but he’s teaching you the questions to ask. I mean, he’s that good.
M: You must be pushed on a daily basis to bring your A-game. You have to make sure that what he’s doing gets the proper respect.
This time, it was the landline that rang, and when he checked the caller ID, he laughed.
SG: It’s the mom again. What do you think? What a shocker.
The conversation when he picked up this time was even more strained, but it was obvious he was trying to be patient. He’d already solved the issue of the moment, and he explained it to her, gritting his teeth the whole time. When he hung up, he just shook his head, deflating a bit. He took a moment, but when he finally spoke, he was much quieter, so I had to lean in closer to hear him.
SG: Life. Life. That’s the great thing. This is life, y’know? It’s messy. You don’t have all the answers. Nobody’s perfect. You make big mistakes when you get into your 30s. The stakes raise. The consequences are real. I would travel around the world, I would meet people, and they would seem so certain of their point of view. Just articulate, brilliant, knowledgeable. An hour later, I would meet somebody articulating the exact opposite position. Briliantly, nuanced, certain. And it was scary. Scary. All that certitude, diametrically opposed. Those are the stakes in this film.
M: I think I mentioned Friedkin because his specialty was the way he could turn the tension up over the course of a film. He would get a grip on you, and then he would spend the whole film tightening that grip... tighter and tighter... almost daring you to sit through it. SYRIANA did that to me. The way it builds towards its inevitable climax, it just makes you sick after a point. In the best possible way, it ties you in a knot.
SG: The great thing about film as an art form is that you can build a tone and you can just twist it. Everything feels... that’s what I wanted to show. We’re all over the globe, but it’s one world. It’s a very small world. And we’re all connected. It’s not episodic. It doesn’t end with everybody just resetting back into their own lives. We’re connected. And this tiny little globe feels to me right now scary and precipitous. When you have small children, you start wondering at a deeper level, what’s the world they’re going to get? How are we doing with that stewardship?
M: I realized the other day that my baby is a sci-fi baby. He’s born in a different world than I was. 2001 was a science-fiction film to me, and now to him, it’s a period piece. Everything that I kind of imagined about my life or how the world would be certainly isn’t where we are now. So whatever projections I have for him, I’m sure it will be absolutely different.
SG: I know. I just... that’s why at the end of this film... I thought... Matt, after seeing that thing happen... I don’t want to give it all away, but he does what I think anyone would do. He’s been out there being a big shot and having his fun and denying this thing at home, and then suddenly, he’s a dog with his tail between his legs. He goes... [makes a whimpering dog noise]... and scurries home as fast as he can. Because...
M: I get it. Run for cover.
SG: Run, man. You’d be there so fast. And Jeffrey, he’s this incredible... he figures it out. He solves all the problems for everybody. He goes home and there’s his dad sleeping on his stoop again, and all he can say is, “Come on in.”
M: It’s amazing because Jeffrey does... there’s no giant moment where... look, one of the reasons a film like, say, A FEW GOOD MEN drove me bugshit when it came out was because it builds to this totally manufactured ending, this confrontation of convenience. The way this film unfolds its big moments... they’re deceptive and organic and feel like very real, small things that are the result of a million tiny choices up until that thing. Somebody’s in the right position to say, “Oh,” and just turn it in their favor. And when you talk about the exchange of information and what Bob Baer does, I would imagine that’s the value of that information. If you have it at the right moment, the whole world is yours.
SG: One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Matt Damon is on the picnic bench with his wife. And he’s just sitting there in this self-justifying way saying, “I did everything right. I did everything right.” That self-justification also took him out to the desert, and that prince says, “Oh, okay, tell me something I don’t know.” He’s good, man. He’s got a plan.
M: Right. And he has that moment. “Either I do this now, or I never will.”
SG: Here it is. Can I step up? And why am I stepping up? These little quirky things, and the whole world goes spinning away. Y’know, Bob Baer was trying to chase down Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in the mid-‘90s. He heard that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had a plan to fly airplanes into buildings, and he was trying to find him. He tracked him down in the Water Ministry of some Gulf nation. He got the information through a New York Times reporter to Louis Freeh. Louis Freeh brought the attention fo the government. They flew over there. This... this incredible thing went down that... I can’t really talk about... but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed slipped away. And later, he planned 9/11. It’s just... all these near-misses and crosses. The great thing that cinema can do better than any other art form is weave those strands together...
M: ... and so rarely use them to weave anything serious. So much of what the studios put out, while entertaining, really is infantile, despite these amazing tools we have at our disposal. I’m certainly as guilty of it as anybody.
SG: In The New Yorker, I think, David Denby was writing about Susan Sontag and how, in the mid-‘90s, she said she’d given up on film. There’s an essay, I guess, that she wrote about why she no longer cared about film. And about why she would no longer think about film seriously. You should check it out. It was... [laughs] ... pretty depressing...
M: I have faith. As long as filmmakers are intrigued by subjects like this and are somehow given the permission to explore them on this scale. I think it’s extraordinary that you built off of TRAFFIC with this. This is, in its own way, much bigger. It’s about bigger things, global things. TRAFFIC is more contained. And, frankly, I’ve always thought your early drafts of TRAFFIC were the raw drafts, the angry drafts. The scene with the guy I still think of as the Harrison Ford character...
SG: [laughs] Yeah.
M: ... when he tracks down the crack and actually buys some and smokes it... just trying to understand what it is that his daughter’s going through. That stuck out for me as the most oddly human moment in the movie the first time I read it.
SG: It’s amazing stuff. And it came from my mom, because I was a pothead in high school. I smoked pot every day from age 14 to 16, something like that. My mom didn’t understand, y’know, what happened to her son. She had no reference point. Eventually, she tried it. She tried pot. It was so antithetical to her. Not that she wouldn’t guzzle down a gin martini, but she’s smoking pot. She tried because she tried everything. And in TRAFFIC, when we realized when that scene would take place... I was there on the set in Cincinnati when we were shooting, and we’d just done the scene where Michael Douglas found her in the bathroom. And he sees her, and she comes out with those contacts in her eyes that dilated her pupils, and Erika Christensen just looked insane. And it was powerful. It was just like, “Fuck you.” That expression of rage. “Fuck you.” And... we were going to shoot it, and I talked to [Soderbergh] right there on the set. It was the only time he really consulted me about anything. He just said, “I don’t know, man. I mean, just watching that... what just went down... he knows what the deal is. He’s just seen it so embodied. He doesn’t have to... it feels false to me. It feels weird. I don’t think he would need any more information. I think he got it. He’s just seen it.” And I said, “I totally agree.” And I had always wanted that, that sort of punk rock moment of the Drug Czar smoking crack. It’s just...
M: It’s such an iconic image.
SG: But I didn’t disagree with him on the set.
M: To me, this movie feels like it’s your voice 100%. And I think the easy comparison people will make is “It’s like TRAFFIC but it’s about oil.” But it’s not. They’re not the same film at all. They’re not even related by how they tell their stories.