Jeffrey Nachmanoff Turns ‘Traitor’
by Paul Fischer
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While director Jeffrey Nachmanoff is not exactly new to movies, he considers the espionage thriller Traitor to be his first directorial feature. A gripping, post-9/11 tale of truth and subterfuge starring Australia’s Guy Pearce and Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, the film began as a pitch by Steve Martin, no less. Nachmanoff talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: The credits of Traitor includes a story credit by Steve Martin.
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: Everybody always asks that question first. It’s just too curious not to.
PF: Can you talk a little bit about how this came to you, and certainly what Steve’s involvement in this project has been, or was?
JN: Yeah. I wish there were a better story to it, because essentially, Steve Martin came up with an original idea for a movie, which he sold to the producer, David Hoberman, at Disney. Disney bought it. And it was in the form of a five-page treatment, and they were looking for a writer to develop this idea into a screenplay, and I got the call. One of the reasons I took the first meeting was I was like, “Steve Martin, I want to meet him!” Just like a lot of people, he’s someone I admire a lot, and the only thing I can say about Steve—he’s a protean talent. I mean, he’s a guy who’s done not only tremendous comedy that people know, but over the years, he’s a playwright, an essayist, a philosopher. And he just had this idea. Obviously, it’s not really the kind of thing that he tends to work on as a movie writer.
PF: He did The Spanish Prisoner, and he’s done Shopgirl, which is more a drama than it is a comedy.
JN: That’s true. That’s true. This is really more an espionage thriller, and I think that that was just a little further out of his domain. Plus, his plate was full. I mean, the guy makes a lot of movies. He’s a movie star. But it was an idea that he liked enough to sort of say, “Let’s find someone to do this,” and the producers found me. I responded to it, and I said, “You know, I think there’s a really terrific movie here,” but I had a lot of reservations, because it’s a tricky subject. You know, there really haven’t been a lot of movies that, frankly, post-9/11, address our real-world villains, let’s just say. There are old-fashioned movies, in which the enemies are the Russians. And there are cartoony movies, which are doing very well, in which, essentially, the villains are surrogates for the bad guys in the world.
PF: This one has gray, rather than black-and-white elements to it.
JN: Yeah well, it was one of the things I said. I was really only interested in creating a script out of it if they were open to me treating the subject in a mature way. I came from—I spent a lot of my growing up years in England. My family moved over there when I was a teenager in the 1980s. And that was during the time of the IRA’s bombing campaign, which you probably know more of than any Americans. That probably wasn’t as big news. But, you know, people think that terrorism is new, and it’s not. It’s been with us for a long, long time. And we lived with the daily awareness of the fact that a suspicious package on the tube could be a bomb. At the same time, there were a lot of great ways that it was handled in entertainment. There were great movies, television dramas and books, that essentially dealt with what they called The Troubles—the conflict between the IRA and the British, with a lot of that gray moral ambiguity. If you look at movies like In the Name of the Father or The Long Good Friday, and Cow. There were many, many movies that—you would certainly not look at them as black-and-white. Often, the protagonists were people caught up in the conflict. Some of them on the side of the IRA, some on the side of the Brits. And it was complicated. The weapon of choice was terrorism. And so I think that that was something that attracted me, saying, “We really need to make movies that treat this in kind of a grown-up way, and a way that says, ‘Terrorism is a horrible crime.’” Yet if we simply decide that we’re going to paint everyone who supports the Islamic fundamentalists as mustache-twirling villains who have a different color skin than we do, then A, we’re not going to come any closer to understanding them, and B, that’s not really a very good formula for drama.
PF: This is a tricky proposition, to put to mainstream Hollywood, that really does see everywhere in black-and-white. How were you able—it’s one of the reasons why, eventually, this movie was not made by mainstream studios.
JN: That’s absolutely right. The script was a very classic, I believe, old-fashioned commercial thriller in which you can sit down and watch this movie, maybe, if you were divorced from time and place, and treat it as pure entertainment and hopefully it will play on that level to many people. However, there is no escaping the fact that it’s also dealing with some of today’s current realities. And there are going to be people on both sides, the interesting thing is, are both attracted to and repelled by the film and its treatment of the subject. I think it’s always a good sign when you get criticism from the left and from the right, each one accusing you of being sympathetic to the other, because my goal was not to make a piece of propaganda one way or the other, but just to kind of take a look at the world in the format of an espionage thriller. So the result—we did not get the film made at the studio, which, in a weird way, was ultimately to our benefit, because what I got to do was to make this film with these terrifically talented actors, like Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce, who, frankly, are not the kind of actors that the studios put in major movies; these guys are actor’s actors.
PF: Let’s talk about the cast—I mean, on the surface, Don Cheadle’s Samir Horn would be considered, or defined in Hollywood terms, as the antagonist of the piece and yet, Don Cheadle is not an actor that you would necessarily cast in that role so was one of the reasons you cast him was to exemplify the character’s ambiguity?
JN: Yes. I think he’s one of those actors who stands a little bit above his persona and I think that’s true with many good actors that you don’t know exactly what he’s going to play. I mean, if you look at some of his signature roles, Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress—one of my favorite roles of his was in Out of Sight, where he plays an extremely evil drug dealer who gets out of prison, in that movie with George Clooney—and then he’s also gone, of course, the other way, this very heroic character in Hotel Rwanda. But he’s capable of playing a lot of different types of people and you don’t really know what to expect from him. He also has a depth that allows you to say—we don’t immediately say we know what this guy’s all about. I think with some actors—and many of them are good stars—you don’t have a huge amount of ambiguity. You know, when Sylvester Stallone comes on the screen, you know it’s not to play the shy, retiring [laughs] librarian, or something like that.
PF: Guy Pearce has done the protagonist film but he’s obviously an actor that brings more to the table than meets the eye. Was he a very early choice? Why the decision to cast an Australian actor to play that role?
JN: I was fortunate enough to be able to really get the people I wanted in all the roles in this movie. I’d always been a fan of Guy Pearce’s, from Priscilla, Memento, L.A. Confidential, The Proposition. In fact, I think I’ve seen almost all of his movies—well, probably not, because he’s made a lot of movies but I’ve seen a lot of his work and I always find him to be compelling, refreshing. And he’s really one of those actors who is extremely hard to pin down. He doesn’t even look the same from movie to movie, you know? But the closest thing in my mind to this movie was the part he played in L.A. Confidential. Where he really plays—in Traitor, Guy Pearce plays a thinking-man’s detective and that was really, really important for this role. There aren’t that many actors that you can cast, A, who will hold the screen opposite Don Cheadle on that part of the story, and B, really play like they have the intelligence that was required for the character, because I didn’t want this to feel like just another cop-and-bad-guy movie. It’s complicated on Don’s side, Samir’s side, but it’s also complicated on the side that Guy Pearce plays as a counterterrorism agent. Because trying to stop the bad guys, if you will, is not a simple thing any more. The world has become very complicated. And the conflict’s complicated. And in many ways, I think the notion of “our team” and “their team” was blown apart when the Cold War ended. One of the reasons that I think it’s been such a difficult thing for Americans to grapple with, and maybe why it’s been difficult for some of these films to yet take hold, is that people are wrestling with how we see ourselves, how we see the enemy. And it’s been hard for people to understand where the other side is coming from.
PF: Do you think this film could have been made had it not been for 9/11?
JN: Well, certainly I think the interest in the subject matter has obviously risen exponentially post-9/11, but in a weird way, I’m glad that it took a little while. I started writing it in 2003, when 9/11 was a lot fresher and now we just made it this year, and are releasing it now in 2008. The advantage of time is that you have a chance to stop thinking quite so much about that event. The event’s never mentioned in the movie. It doesn’t have anything to do with the movie. And it’s what we’ve settled into. It’s this sort of low-grade conflict, in which there are people out there who would like to change the world order.
PF: So, obviously your perspective for terrorism and for these events change, or evolve, over time.
JN: I think people’s perspective changes and evolves. As I said before, having grown up in England, in London, I saw them come to make very different kinds of movies about the subject that was something they lived with. And then you could say those were movies about terrorism. But of course, they weren’t, any more than—Traitor is not a movie about terrorism. It’s a movie about people, but it’s set in the modern-day world.
PF: How do you make an intelligent thriller, at the same time also infuse it with enough visceral action to appeal to certain members of the audience?
JN: I always like to try and give the audience the benefit of the doubt. I believe people can watch an intelligently-crafted set of characters and story, and enjoy it just as much as a non-intelligent set of characters. You know, as long as the—my goal is to make a movie in which you’re on the edge of your seat as much as possible. And you really want to see what happens. Along that way, there is no reason why you can’t make the characters real, the setting real, and you can’t be true to what’s going on in the world. There was a whole series of movies made in the ’70s, beginning with The French Connection, in which there was a sort of gritty realism—that also, I think, were tremendously entertaining, and as you say, viscerally energetic films. I wanted to make a film that harkened back to that time, when you could make films that could have a visceral energy, but at the same time, they could deal with the world honestly. Right now we haven’t seen—I mean, I think that Chris Nolan’s film [The Dark Knight] was one of the first in a long time, which was one of the reasons it was doing well—even then, it’s a superhero movie. You know, it’s a meta-world. It’s not our real world. But I think the fact that he dealt with a lot of the moral conundrums honestly—it shows that the audience was hungry for that and that the audience has not been given—the audience has been forced to choose, for quite a while now, between absolutely escapist entertainment, and quote-unquote “serious” entertainment.
PF: And you’ve written both. I mean, the last screenplay that was shot that you wrote was The Day After Tomorrow. I’m just wondering what the difference is for you in process, in trying to deliver a script like that, which is for a huge movie, versus something like this where you get a chance to really play with characters.
JN: One is on one end of the spectrum. And I should be clear—I’m proud of the movie. I think that Roland, the director, did a great job with that movie, but it’s really his movie. I mean, his sensibility is one of really big mainstream entertainment. I feel like what I contributed to it was some of the real-world politics of global warming. And we had a chance to have a little bit of fun, and portray a modern-day issue in the movie, but in an absolute popcorn setting. Instead of trying to make a political movie, we made a big popcorn movie with subtle, sly political satire snuck in. We created a Vice President character who closely mimicked Dick Cheney, and I gave him quotes that literally came almost from Dick Cheney, and the audience laughed. People thought of it as a big comedy, as a big fantasy. And yet, in fact, that’s really kind of the way Dick Cheney thinks. And then you can look at the record. It’s not that different. But that’s clearly a different type of movie. That’s pure entertainment. This movie is still entertainment, but it’s somewhere between a movie like the Bourne movies, that are really visceral throughlines—but imagine if you did the Bourne movies, but you put them in the real world, instead of with a super-spy.
PF: Now, would you be called the seven-year itch director? The Big Gig was ‘93. Hollywood Palms was 2001. Traitor is 2008. So 2015, you’re planning what, exactly?
JN: I like to think that this is really the beginning of my career. The other films that you see on the Internet—I mean, the funny thing with IMDb is it just kind of lifts everything wiggedly-piggedly. I mean, those are really student films. So, this is really the first chance I’ve had, even though I’ve been in the business for a little while as a writer, and I’m certainly not a novice. But this is really the first time I’ve gotten the chance to actually make a film that I would call my film. You know, it’s my script, and it’s my choices here in this film. So this is really close to my sensibility.
PF: Was it intimidating, then, going from adapting a Steve Martin pitch to developing this screenplay, and then, of course, working with actors of this caliber?
JN: Absolutely, every step of the way. You know, I was really anxious when I finished the screenplay and sent it to Steve. I had a lot of trepidation whether he would like it or not. By the way, he actually really liked the script. And that was very gratifying to me. In fact, more than maybe other people liking it, because he’s a writer I respect. And then, of course, jumping into the deep end, with directing actors like Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce, who I already have tremendous respect for, was the same kind of thing. In the sense that I really was—you know, it meant a lot to me that they agreed to do the movie with me as the writer-director, and that we were able to work together and have a good experience. I mean, I learned a lot from both of them. But—you know, everyone starts somewhere. And luckily, I’m not a kid. I’ve had enough experience as a writer, that I think I’ve watched and learned enough to say, “Okay, I understand what my job is. And now I just have to do my best to try and get it done.” And I’ve also learned enough from watching other directors work to know that—you know, don’t believe the myth. Everyone makes mistakes. Everybody says the wrong thing sometimes. And the trick is to not beat yourself up about it, but to learn from the mistake, and beat yourself up. And the next day, don’t make that mistake again. Everyone can make a mistake once. The only time I ever get upset with myself is if I make the same mistake twice.
PF: Has the buzz surrounding this film, and the fact that you were able to get this done, opened up any additional doors for you in the studio system? Or don’t you care about that, particularly?
JN: No, I mean, absolutely. People that I’ve known before as a writer are beginning to call me and talk to me about projects as a director. And that’s really gratifying, and hopefully that will happen more. But as a writer-director, obviously you have to—I don’t think that my past—I mean, who knows? Hopefully you and I will have this talk in maybe seven years, and I’ll be directing whatever. Scooby Doo 6, or something. But my path is not, I don’t think, to try to just direct anything. I’d like to be able to make movies that I feel passionate about, and that reflect my interest as much as possible. But I’m a realist, you know? I’ve been working long enough in Hollywood to understand that if you want to make films within the system, where they’re going to get distribution and people are going to see them, you must make films that entertain the audience. And I think that’s a responsibility that I take really seriously. You know, there are filmmakers who make films just for themselves. My taste is to try and make a film that I would like to see, and I think there are other people out there who would like to see.
PF: Are you writing something at the moment?
JN: I have an idea of something I’m kicking around, but it’s something that I can’t really talk about, just because I haven’t got enough of it to talk about. And, you know, I’m looking at things. But I was a little bit spoiled on this. And the bar was set pretty high. If you get a chance to do an international espionage piece with Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce and Jeff Daniels, that’s—for me, anyway—kind of top drawer talent. And one of my goals is to try to create a piece or find a piece that also can attract that level of actors.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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