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interview: Talking With Director Stephen Gaghan

...Syriana... Interviews ... Part 1 of 2

By Kapil Amarnath

Stephen Gaghan wrote and directed “Syriana” and previously won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for “Traffic.” He recently fielded questions from The Tech and other college newspapers. Next Tuesday, The Tech will run an interview with star George Clooney.

Q: Do you have a method to your directing style that you apply to all your films, in terms of working with actors, or do you find that it changes and modifies from film to film?

SG: That’s a great question. From my perspective, the collaboration that happens with the actor, particularly on the set, is the most fun part of filmmaking.…

I think the most important thing for me … is when I show up on the day I try to be open to what’s happening. If I wrote the script and I’ve imagined it a certain way, even if we’ve rehearsed it and it was a certain way, when you finally get to the set, and it’s really happening, you have to be open to the possibility of incredible change.

Obviously, in the worst-case scenario you get there, and it’s just not happening. You can get in a situation where all your planning, no matter how much you’re listening to what’s going, it’s still just crap. It’s in that crisis situation with like 250 people watching that I actually think the most fun of filmmaking happen.…

Q: Making this movie post-9/11, do you feel that you had to censor yourself or that you were censored by others?

SG: It was actually the total opposite. I felt like in the wake in 9/11 it was really important to feel like you were uncensored … If you sit there and you’re afraid, if I try to write something and it feels true to me, and yet some censoring bodies, say, the studio or the government is going to come after me, I think that’s exactly the time you would have to proceed. You’d have to just sort of go all right, if I’m really afraid of that, which is wasn’t, but if I was I would just respond with full-speed ahead.

Q: In a movie like this, how much sacrifice between making a great movie and making an accurate movie is there? What’s your top priority?

SG: That’s really interesting … I just try to do the best work I can, and that has a whole bunch of different facets to it. What I discovered is that since I do a lot of research and I meet a lot of people, what I’ve found is quite often what I actually saw and what people actually said just won’t work. No one will believe it. It’s too broad.…

I don’t think there’s any contradiction between truthfulness and quality or between accuracy and quality, but you always have to be a kind of arbiter for what you think, what the big picture is. I could tell you five anecdotes. You’d be howling with laughter. They’re amazing. Unfortunately they don’t fit into “Syriana.” They would fit into some other movie…

Q: What inspired you to direct this movie, given that it’s your second feature?

SG: I always knew I was going to direct it. When I started writing it, I had that knowledge.…I felt like it was going to be a big leap one way or the other. Either I was going to fall on my ass in a huge way, or it would be a big step forward, just because of the sorts of challenges of the production.

I knew when I was writing the script there were over 200 locations. Because I wrote the script, I knew it was going to be in five languages. I knew that it would take place on four continents because I was making up the locations. So I sort of thought it would be daunting, but I also thought it would be kind of exhilarating. So I really wanted to do it.

Q: When I saw the movie yesterday, I thought the strongest and the weakest part of the movie was the use of multiple viewpoints. Why do you feel that using multiple viewpoints was necessary for this movie?

SG: When you’re looking at a system, obviously it’s really helpful to fragment the main protagonist. Every extra protagonist you get, you can take people into a different facet of something in a more realistic way. Otherwise, you have one main character and he’s time traveling.

In this movie in particular, I felt it was super-important, not only to have lots of characters, but to actually not have them know what was going on. In other words, these characters themselves existed in a story where they thought they knew what was happening, but they were actually confused. This was born out of my research, out of my experience of meeting a lot of what I call cut-rate masters of the universe, guys who are discount Talleyrands. They think that they have all the picture. They’re re-drawing the map of Europe, they’re the big seer, and in reality they’re just following and absolutely narrow brand of self-interest…

Q: Could you tell me what kind of preparation you did research-wise, as far as the issues and politics in the oil industry and terrorism are concerned, before writing this script?

SG: First of all, I’m not an expert, but I did get to have the access to an expert, this guy Bob Baer, whose book it’s sort of loosely based on. He was in the CIA for 21 years, and he was our Iraqi bureau chief in the mid-’90s. So he was literally the Central Intelligence Agency’s leading expert on Iraq in the mid-’90s. He also infiltrated Hezbollah in the ’80s.…

He was being super-generous, opening up both his rolodex to all of his contacts and putting me in touch with people that knew him, but also he was giving me reading lists like, “You should read this and you should read that.”

Then on my own I networked through all these different people, just anybody that I knew. I would cold call them. I know writers from The Washington Post who cover the Pentagon, and they hooked me up with the writers who cover the war on terror, and they hooked me up with the religion writers. One thing leads to another…

Q: Would you describe this movie as pessimistic?

SG: I would describe myself as pessimistic. I think I’d stand fairly closely aligned with Brent Scowcroft. He says, “I’m a realist. I believe in the fallibility of human nature. If humans can mess something up they will.” And yet, I’m also an American and I’m also an optimist, and I’m ever-hopeful that we can go out in the world and make a difference, that maybe this democracy exportation project will work, not in the short run, but maybe in the long run, that we can help make the world a better place, that we can stop the famine in Mogadishu, that we can get fascism off the continent of Europe and World War II.…