Exclusive: Traitor Director Jeffrey Nachmanoff

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As much as this summer has seen about fun and entertaining blockbusters, there hasn’t necessarily been a lot of new blood in terms of breakout directors entering the world of filmmaking worth watching into the future. That comes to an end on Wednesday when Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s directorial debut Traitor opens nationwide and introduces a filmmaker treading similar ground as Paul Greengrass and Michael Winterbottom, but coming more from within the Hollywood system. Before making this movie, Nachmanoff wrote a few unproduced scripts, as well as co-writing Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, a movie that stirred controversy with its look at global warming which proved to be far more realistic than anyone originally imagined.

Traitor is a movie on par with Stephen Gaghan’s 2006 debut Syriana or Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener, taking a realistic yet entertaining look at a real world issue, in this case, the world of terrorism. It stars Don Cheadle as Samir Horn, a Muslim man from Sudan whose casual involvement with a terrorist faction makes him the target for the FBI, with Guy Pearce’s Roy Clayton leading the investigation and hunt for a man who is considered a dangerous component to the terrorist threat.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who wrote Traitor as well as directed, to talk about some of the things explored in the film. Nachmanoff is a really interesting guy, super-smart and up on what’s going on in the world of government and politics, which made him someone interesting to talk to. Like many people ComingSoon.net has interviewed the past few weeks, Nachmanoff cited and referenced the current summer mega-blockbuster The Dark Knight.

ComingSoon.net: Possibly the strangest thing is the whole Steve Martin connection which I didn’t even read until someone mentioned it me later, and I’m curious what the original idea was and how did that get to you?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: It’s less surprising if you really stop and think about it for a second. Steve Martin is an incredibly prolific creative force. He’s been essaying in “The New Yorker” for something like twenty-five or thirty years, he writes plays, he writes novels, and he collects art. I think his mind just comes up with all sorts of ideas. I don’t know him that well so I can’t really speak to what struck him, but I think after 9/11, he was thinking about the subject like a lot of us were. You can’t really write about this without giving away plot spoilers, but that end twist is what he really came up with as an idea and that was the genesis of the project. He wrote up a short treatment and took it to the producers David Hoberman, and Todd Lieberman that he happened to be working with on another movie and they bought it and sometimes, that’s how a movie gets started.

CS: It’s a strange origin because obviously everyone has ideas but usually they would try to develop them themselves.
Nachmanoff: Well I think he comes up with so many ideas and the advantage of being a huge movie star or playwright and someone like that is that for most of us as writers, we have to choose, we can only do so much. For every story you want to tell or a movie you might want to cover, you have to pick. Maybe your commitment to writing a story a week, well imagine for a movie it’s six months or something, so of the projects he had, this was an idea I think he saw it as a movie, but just didn’t have time to do it, so handed it off. I was really lucky, because I got the call, they were looking for a writer to turn it into a movie, turn it into a screenplay, and I came in and said, “I think I can do this.”

CS: Did you have other scripts in development that you were working with producers on that stuff too or did they just read some of your stuff and said, “Hey let’s try this guy out”?
Nachmanoff: I was a known entity. I had been writing for enough time that the producers were looking for a screenwriter to come and tackle the subject. I don’t know which piece of mine they read that made them interested, but I wrote other screenplays that were in that sort of political thriller genre before, and that’s kind of how we met up. When I first came in to look at it, I initially… I just have to contradict myself, I said, “I can do this” but my initial thought was, “I CAN’T do this. It’s too hard, it’s got too many political sensitivities.”

CS: How long was Martin’s initial treatment?
Nachmanoff: About five pages. It’s bare bones. At the end of the day, we share the story credit which I think is a good way of describing it. He came up with the original idea and deserves credit for that and then I fleshed it out into a full-fledged screenplay.

CS: At what point did Don Cheadle come on board as actor and producer?
Nachmanoff: After I wrote the screenplay, I was actually set up at Disney. The subject matter was a little bit too provocative to make as a major studio film and Don read it, responded to it and said he wanted to play the lead role. So the producers then were trying to figure out what kind of a movie can this be? I made the pitch to them that the way to do it was to let me take it as a writer/director instead of trying to put it out there as a huge studio film and do it for a more modest budget, but have the freedom to make an independent film out of it.

CS: It does look and feel like a studio movie though, which is pretty amazing.
Nachmanoff: It’s in between, it’s on that edge. Financially-speaking people consider an independent movie I think as something that’s a little lower than this in budget, but clearly there aren’t a lot of studio movies made. I think I can say it’s made between twenty and thirty million dollars. Studio movies are now made between a fifty and a hundred million dollars usually, or actually I should say between fifty and two hundred million. (laughs) Your readers know and you know that it’s all lies. Everybody says, “We made our movie for this.” They spend hundreds of millions. I’m not going to speak anything out of turn, but they spend more than they admit normally. So the studios make these movies for these huge amounts of money, and therefore they have to be fiscally responsible and a little bit safe. You can’t afford to take a chance with two hundred million dollars. Whereas, at the range we were working–while yes, I had enough money to hopefully make it look big and have it play as a really big movie… Look, I was all over the world to make the movie, but it was not so much money that they didn’t let me go out there and take some chances as a filmmaker and I’m hugely grateful for that. Everybody talks about wanting to do this and wanting to do that as directors that you talk to, but the rules of the game are what they are which is when you have a huge amount of money on the line, the chances you can take are less.

CS: You traveled to all these different places to shoot and there are a couple big set pieces. When you were writing the movie, you must have been assuming that you were going to make it at Disney on a bigger budget. What were some things you had to scale back?
Nachmanoff: That’s an excellent question. Interestingly, when I finished the first draft of the screenplay, one of the things that the producers and I talked about was that it had to be a little bigger to be able justify it being a studio movie. I actually sort of inflated the action a little bit. I came up with some bigger set pieces. There was one set in a stadium where they were trying to catch him and there were thousands of people and SWAT teams and all that stuff. What happens is when I got it back and I knew I had to scale it back in order to make it as an independent-sized movie, in some ways it was easy because it was as if you bulk up for a part as an actor, and then all you have to do is stop taking the steroids and you go back to your normal size. The movie really naturally kind of wanted to be about that size and I’m sure frankly I probably would’ve been tempted to do more action had I had an unlimited budget. I like to think that the movie is better off by force of necessity; I had to be very lean and mean in making it. I had to really choose what was most important in the action and set pieces and I chose to put all the money into traveling. So for me the locations are a character in the movie. I really want the audience to go on a ride and see what it feels like to be part of an international network and the pursuit of someone across multiple international boundaries, so I took the production to Toronto, to Marseilles in France, to Morocco, to London England, Chicago, Washington D.C., helicopter work over Tijuana, all sorts of places. That was my trade-off. Instead of having the hundred person set pieces, I went and got the production value out of being in all these countries.

CS: As far as developing Samir with Don, he’s somewhat of a benevolent bad guy. You look at him as a terrorist, but he definitely has conflicts about what he’s doing. Can you talk about the development of the character?
Nachmanoff: One of my goals was to create… and Don Cheadle was a big help in this too because he is a producer on it and we worked together to refine the character from what it was when I first put it on a page, and he’s a very smart guy. I don’t know if you get to interview him.

CS: Yeah, I’ve interviewed him before.
Nachmanoff: Some actors, they seem really smart on the screen, but then you sit down with them and you’re like, “Oh my God, they’re idiots, they don’t know how to speak at all!” (Don) is the real deal. You immediately know that he knows what he’s doing. He understands the character completely. He understands the whole story completely. We had a really good experience working together, bouncing ideas back and forth to create a character that has multiple layers to him. The goal was to really take the audience on a ride in a way that we keep you guessing and give you evidence that points one direction and then the other direction. In fact there’s one friend of mine who had long ago read the script and just saw it last night and she said, “You know I thought I had misremembered it because I didn’t know which side he’s on.” And I said, “That’s great.” I think that all filmmakers hate the fact that the marketing wing of the company has to give away too much of the movie to sell the movie and it’s an age-old problem. I’ve been in meetings as a screenwriter where I’ll jokingly say to the producer, “Well, that’s not really a surprise because we know that because everyone’s going to have seen that in the trailer.” And this is before we finish the script, you know? It’s just the way it is.

CS: I actually saw the movie before I saw the trailer…
Nachmanoff: And then you saw the trailer and you thought, “Oh my God, they gave it all away!” That’s a huge reveal in the movie. I don’t want to be too obscure for your readers, but there’s a big reveal here, there’s a big reveal here, but I think that what happens–this is what I’d like to think–first of all, if you’re reading this, don’t watch the trailers. Go out and see the movie! (laughs) If you’re willing to see it without seeing the trailers I think it’s more enjoyable, but that being said, the one thing that allays my fears a little bit because at first I was really, really worried about that, is that most people seem to say that the movie moves back and forth. Your feelings about Samir moves back and forth enough during the movie, and they should, that the trailers, even though it sort of purports to give away stuff, you kind of forget which moments are which.

CS: Yes, there are enough twists along the way that knowing that aspect doesn’t completely ruin the movie.
Nachmanoff: But there’s no substitute for the pure movie going experience which is walking off the street and seeing a movie for the first time, not knowing what to expect. Look, this is your business, you write about movies and I’m a consumer of that too. But as a moviegoer, when you ask me what my favorite movie experience is, when I walked in and I didn’t know what I was going to see.

CS: Absolutely, I totally agree.
Nachmanoff: “Dark Knight” which I’m a big fan of, I know I didn’t get the best experience because I was doing stuff for the movie and I couldn’t see it for like four weeks. So by the time I actually went to see it, I couldn’t help but have heard everything from everybody. It wasn’t plot spoilers, it was just so many people had said, “You’ll love this, or you’ll love that,” and it never lives quite up to the hype.

CS: I can see that. I wanted to talk about this particular political thriller genre, which experienced a boom with 9/11. Since then, there have been a lot of movies dealing with the Middle East and terrorism, but it’s been tough convincing people to go see what they can see on CNN for free. What do you personally feel “Traitor” offers that should convince people to see it in theaters?
Nachmanoff: I don’t think anyone’s quite cracked it at the box office. I think there have been some very successful movies creatively-speaking that address current events, but most of them have played a bit too earnest and serious, or maybe not addressed it directly. When you look at some of the movies that were done good like “Syriana” or “In the Valley of Elah”–I didn’t see “Lions for Lambs”–they’re really all quite different, or even a movie like “Rendition.” None of them are really movies that on their own you’re going to watch for pure entertainment. They’re not intended to be; they’re very overtly about the political, and they have a very strong political take. It’s almost like they’re politics first and maybe trying to be mainstream entertainment second. What we try to do with this film is flip it a little bit and say, what if you take a Robert Ludlum type of story or John le Carré or any one of those classic structurally espionage pieces. Instead of making it about a fake enemy, like the “Bourne” series for example, which is quite different from this, but at the same time they’re absolute pure balls to the wall entertainment. They exist in a world that doesn’t exist. There are no spies running around worrying about what happened in the Cold War particularly; maybe there are, but it’s not about current threats. So what we did is we said, “Let’s take that type of real espionage thriller structure, but just put it in our real world, just put it today when the real enemies are radical Muslim terrorists.”

CS: What about casting the Muslim and the Indian actors? Obviously, Saïd and Archie have done some things before so did you know their work beforehand?
Nachmanoff: “The Constant Gardener” is one of those touchstone films for me. To me it’s not a 9/11 movie at all; let’s call them real world movies. That’s the closest thing in the past five or ten years which is what I was trying to do. I find it a pure entertaining movie, but it’s about some real issues and they kind of managed to bounce that in a way that I was trying to do a little bit in this movie.

CS: Also it’s about the characters like your movie is.
Nachmanoff: It’s about the characters, exactly. They’re very similar in that they’re trying to do three things sort of in those movies: you’re trying to do character story, you’re trying to do good old-fashioned edge of your seat thriller type of stuff, and you’re trying to also show a little bit of the real world. If you can balance those out, to me that’s really a fun thing to do. I’d auditioned people from all over the world, but both Archie whose work I’d seen before, and Saïd, I knew them from enough movies that I just knew they could do these parts.

CS: Another thing I found interesting about the movie was its look at Islam. Did you get to talk to some Muslim leaders about the different viewpoints? What kind of research did you do?
Nachmanoff: I’m not a Muslim but I did a lot of reading about Islam. I created these characters based on composites about real people that I’d read about, especially the terrorist character which is the hardest to imagine from scratch. And then what I did was, I wanted to make sure this was not one of these sort of black and white movies in which the Muslims are the bad guys and the Westerners are the good guys. And obviously the main insulation there is to make a protagonist who is Muslim. In addition to that, I showed the script and talked with a number of Muslims, some Islamic scholars, some religious figure people who I was referred to from other people, and I went to mosques and talked to some people there too and just asked them their opinions and literally showed them the script and got comments. The characters evolved as a result of that and then the final backstop was casting Muslim actors. If something wasn’t authentic, they would say so and I would say, “Great, tell us how it would really be.” I think it’s important to make a movies not to be politically correct, but just the fact of the matter is the Islamic world is very wide and if everybody gets their opinions of Muslims from a couple of crazy lunatics like Osama bin Laden, that’s an incredibly unfair portrayal of this entire religion in which there are many people that find that as disgusting as we do.

CS: What else are you working on? I know you’ve had a few screenplays in development over the years. Is there something that you’ve followed up on which you might want to direct next and are you sticking with directing now?
Nachmanoff: This was a terrific experience for me. I was thrilled to do it, I think to be a filmmaker, to write and direct your own material is the most pure form of movie making when you get the chance to do it, it’s not every day. I wouldn’t close the door to doing either one, but I’d love to get a chance to do it again.

CS: Are there any of those scripts that might happen soon?
Nachmanoff: Nothing that’s bubbling to the top enough to be worth mentioning to the readers, and there might be something I haven’t found yet that might be the next thing.

Here’s Jeffrey talking about a few other things at a roundtable interview the next day:

CS: Can you talk about dealing with such a hot topic issue of terrorism and balancing how to portray the terrorists in the movie? You certainly haven’t picked an easy topic for your directorial debut.
Nachmanoff: No, I tend to pick difficult topics but forgetting social responsibility, forgetting those things, I think purely for dramatic terms, to me it’s easier to write characters if you believe in them and treat them as real people. You may think it’s easier to write them as cardboard villains, but in a weird way, to me it’s harder because how do you balance the story if you don’t have any interest in your villains? I mean, looking at the recent Batman, the distinction between that film and the other films this summer is that they created a villain that’s as memorable and interesting (probably moreso) than anyone else in the movie. That’s what people are responding to. If we look at it from that perspective, you say it’s villains that make movies work. Villains that are human, that have compelling characteristics that we see. If the Joker character was just evil, would anyone find him that interesting. No. We find him interesting because he has pathos, because you understand something of how he comes by his sociopathy. In the case of “Traitor,” I’m dealing with the current bugaboo of our time right now anyway, which is radical Islamic extremists. There is very little room in the mainstream press to look at them as anything but absolute evil. It’s political suicide to talk about understanding them if you’re trying to run for office. God bless Barack Obama, who is hopefully going to be the next President, in spite of the fact that there are people… and I think that will actually be a testament to the open-mindedness of the country, if they can say, “Here is someone who comes from a different culture in some ways, and yet can be just as American as any of us.” I think there is a beginning of an opening in our cultural mindset a little bit, and that’s not to say we want to take at Osama bin Laden and say, “Oh, isn’t he a nice guy?” Not at all. It’s to say, “Who are the people who get recruited? How do they get recruited? Are they all fanatics? Are they all sociopaths?” Or are there some young and impressionable people out there who got drawn into a situation because they live in a country where they don’t have a lot of choices or because they get seduced into an ideology that teaches them hate. There are all sorts of shades to it, and then some of them ARE sociopathic killers who hate everybody and want to kill, so there’s a bit of a spectrum. The movie is attempting to just get inside the heads of some of them, so we can understand, not so much that we are going to sympathize with them or forgive them, but just so we can get some understanding of what makes them tick as individuals.

CS: Has anyone from the CIA seen the movie or have you tried to show it to some of the top CIA people?
Nachmanoff: Well, it doesn’t work quite like that. I think that people in the intelligence community both with a little bit of grain of salt like to watch espionage movies. They also know they’re unrealistic, but they’re also kind of fun in that regards. Somebody told me that Bill Clinton loves Tom Clancy books and they know that’s not real, but there are elements of things. We showed it in D.C. at a screening with a lot of insider people and the biggest thing they thought was unrealistic was the FBI agents flying in first class. “That would never happen! We don’t ever get to fly in first class!” That was literally a practical choice. I needed the set for the plane I had, I needed to move the camera around, so those are the kind of things they get a kick out of.

Traitor opens nationwide on Wednesday, August 27. Look for more on the movie from Don Cheadle later this week and AFTER you see the movie, read below where we have Jeffrey and former CIA agent Jason Harrison talking about a key plot point (which unfortunately given away in the trailer), but it might be better if you’re interested in the movie to wait and go see it, before reading everything below…

CS: How realistic is it for the CIA to have people infiltrating these terrorist factions, because I think by now we would have heard something about this going on. I guess we would feel better knowing that there are people in those circles who can warn us about what is going on.
Jason Harrison: I think that if you read the media reports about some of the problems the CIA has had in terms of the infiltrating some of the terrorist groups around the world, it would be a difficult thing to do, but I think the film portrays it realistically in terms of who is the type of character who could do that. I think the smart thing they did was they came up with a character who would be perfect, a native Arabic speaker, somebody who could blend in, and that is hopefully what the people doing recruitment from the CIA were watching. That is the type of person you would need to be able to infiltrate a group like that. I think that’s a lesson that the CIA has been learning, and I think in terms of diversity and outreach, they’ve been trying to do that. It’s grounded in reality that’s the type of person you would need to infiltrate the group.

Nachmanoff: I think it’s a really interesting question that I was provoked, partly when I was working on the piece, that was one of the first things I said as I was interviewing people, “How would you penetrate an Al-Qaeda group, and there are not that many ways to do it. We did have a source in Pakistan. He was one of their computer guys. Now I think he was someone that we turned, he was not an actual plant, but then… and this is sort of a disgrace, not to the intelligence community and their good work, but for political reasons, there was a big election cycle coming up, and they released the information. They basically trumpeted, blowing the source, blowing the operation, and I’m sure the folks on the ground were furious, because they needed a nice little press hit. Not to say who was responsible, but it was the current administration. That’s where politics interferes with intelligence work, which happens all the time.

Harrison: I think the film raises interesting questions about to what extent are you comfortable with some of the murky ethical and moral areas that you would need to penetrate a group like this. In order to find out what bad guys are doing, you have to be friends with bad guys, and I think it poses interesting questions about how comfortable are we with having American officials getting close to groups like this in a way that we would have to.

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