Tribeca EXCL: John Cusack Makes War, Inc.

ON has talked with John Cusack a couple of times in the past year, and each time, he told us about this political war comedy he was producing called War, Inc.. Although we never learned too many details about the film’s plot, it was pretty clear how proud Cusack was of this eclectic film that he co-wrote, and he agreed to talk with before its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, even though we hadn’t had a chance to see the movie at the time.

In the dark comedy, Cusack plays Brand Hauser, a mercenary sent to an unnamed Middle East country to take part in the first fully-outsourced war, only to learn that the reasons for him being there were not what he originally thought. The movie co-stars John’s sister Joan, Sir Ben Kingsley, Marisa Tomei, and Hillary Duff as the various characters that he encounters while trying to find the truth about this war, and like the recent Charlie Wilson’s War, it finds a way to mix dark humor in with seriously relevant political commentary.

Cusack is fairly well known for bringing politics into his interviews at the slightest provocation, so when you’re talking to him about a movie called “War, Inc.” it’s almost guaranteed. With that in mind, one probably should expect that Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ look at the Abu Graibh pictures, might not be the most pointed and controversial political movie playing at this year’s festival. I know you’ve been producing movies for a while with your company New Crime, but how did this movie come about? Was this an original idea you came up with or did it come from other writers?
John Cusack: Yeah, I’d talked with Mark Leyner who is a terrific novelist, and Jeremy Pikser who is a great screenwriter, and we had talked about doing something together. We wanted to do something. When we knew that the Bush administration was going to war with Iraq, it was pretty clear that it was kind of a Messianic imperial crazy adventure, and to get into the underbelly of that and try to figure out what this is all about. Of course, you have your suspicion that you think you know it, but the more you read into it, the more absurd and kind of grotesque it gets that they would lie about a war and like about it that blatantly. That all the good will the world had from 9/11 to serve their own ends, which are insane.

CS: Was this really five years ago when you started thinking about this?
Cusack: Yeah, yeah, then it took a while of course—like a salmon swimming upstream, no one wanted to make a movie that was questioning these things. If you really remember, there was such a patriotic fervor, which I think was exploited to threaten any dissent. Nobody wanted to make it really, but we wanted to make it, so we found a company that would do it, and we went to shoot in Bulgaria for maybe a third or a fourth of what I shot “Grosse Point Blank” for. It was very much sort of like a punk rock song. We just thought let’s just get everybody together and make something and let’s try to be as politically incorrect as these war profiteers are as exploitative. That was the idea. It was meant to try to take some outrage and try to turn it into some creativity.

CS: I saw some trailer and it doesn’t look like it could have been made for less than “Grosse Point Blank.” What about the director Josh Seftel, was he someone you knew for a while?
Cusack: Oh, you know he made a terrific film that I really loved called “Taking on the Kennedies.” He was a documentary guy, and he had been a fan of Mark Leyner’s for a long time, and I’d seen his film and really liked it, so I had made two films that year, produced one of them (“Grace is Gone”) and then I did “1408” so Josh wanted to do it, so we met him and it was great. He sort of came on and said, “I want to do this.” We sort of said anybody who comes on board for something that’s such a crazy adventure.

CS: Then you all just go off to Bulgaria with all of these different actors to make the movie?
Cusack: Yeah, you know, we were just looking for enthusiasm, because obviously, no one was going to get paid, and there’s a real good chance that we were going to get attacked for doing this.

CS: As far as the timeframe, when did you make this movie? I know that a lot of your movies have been released out-of-order from when you made them.
Cusack: I did this right after “1408,” that’s when we filmed it, but it certainly took a while to get it together and going because nobody was eager to make a movie about war profiteers in America.

CS: Even since we last talked in December, it’s a very different political climate now in terms of it being all about who the Democrats will choose as their candidate to take on McCain.
Cusack: In essence, I think it’s probably better because there’s so much more dissent. I think the stench of lies coming from the Bush Administration is so intense that it sort of makes your eyes water, and I think the people are much less likely to be cowed right now and they’re more aggressively asking questions. I still don’t hear anyone talking about the massive war profiteering from these companies that had basically outsourced even the nature of war itself from Locke to Bechtel to the Carlisle Group to Haliburton to Parsons to all these guys who go on television and they’re given the title “statesman” when they’re sit on the boards for companies that stocks triple. There’s also the Blackwater of it all, which is that not only are we doing this war as a business model for all these companies, but we’re also privatizing war itself with private mercenary soldiers that have literally been made unaccountable to state and federal and international law. Totally unchecked rogue mercenaries taking money from our tax dollars to do whatever they’re doing in Iraq to secure corporate interests.

CS: That’s who you play in the movie?
Cusack: I play a guy who works for one of these companies who comes in and is more of an assassin, so it’s playing with that archetype. I’m hired by a Vice President just out of office who sits on the board of a company much like Haliburton. That’s what it is.

CS: What about your character’s relationship with Hilary Duff and Marisa Tomei’s characters in the movie?
Cusack: What we tried to do was give the narrative to be… we thought we’d mix Terry Southern, and all this stuff, but there’s an element of making kind of a Telemundo soap opera, so we have a guy who’s going there to do some terrible things for this company but then he meets two different girls and they start to awaken something in him. Hilary plays an exploited pop star from Central Asia, who has a mysterious past, who’s coming in and has to do a wedding that’s more of a PR thing for the company, sort of a branding exercise the company is doing? It’s kind of futuristic, but not too far in the future. Marisa plays a leftist investigative journalist, so basically, she speaks for about the moral conscience for the film and gives it a little more perspective. So it’s a bit of a triangle between the two women there and then in the background is pretty much a lot of the crazy politics.

CS: Obviously, New York is a very liberal anti-war town, is that why you decided to premiere it at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Cusack: Well, it’s a cool festival and we thought it would be a great and they were into it. When we got the movie finished, it was the first big good festival that was ready to do it.

CS: As we’ve seen with a movie like “American Dreamz,” political humor is tough because it’s hard to get people to laugh when making fun of this stuff.
Cusack: This movie is funny, but it’s not that funny. It’s also meant to be provocative and a little bit disturbing and surreal. It’s a very experimental movie. It’s funny, but it’s not supposed to be “Wedding Crashers.” There are some things that are a little dark and disturbing about it, which I think is rightfully the way it should be.

CS: Some jokes will probably go over better than others I’m sure. While you were writing it, did you ever think that you might be going too far with some of it or did you just want to say what you wanted to and hope for the best?
Cusack: No, I think in this one our thought was we wanted to go too far, so in essence, we didn’t try to make things easy or we didn’t try to let people off the hook. In fact, even if people didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe, we wanted to do that. It was so low budget and so experimental, we just thought we would try and push it too far all the time.

CS: It’s going to be an interesting premiere for sure if you’ll be sitting there finding out first-hand whether that worked.
Cusack: Yeah, well it’s pretty out there.

CS: Have things changed a lot since you started making the movie in terms of more of this stuff coming to light?
Cusack: Yeah, actually. I think they have. When we first made it, because we set the film just slightly in the future in the sense that the first war would be 100% outsourced, so right now, we have about 50%… there’s more contractors there than there are soldiers. Everybody talks about “well, we’re going to bring all the soldiers home,” but what about the contractors? What about Blackwater? Nobody talks about that economy, but there’s been books and films and investigative journalism on all this stuff, so I think it’s much more in the consciousness. People are kind of getting context to the film, which is supposed to provoke a bigger discussion what’s happening here.

CS: What do you have coming up next? I think last time we spoke you had “The Factory” in the works.
Cusack: Yeah, I shot it, that one’s over, then I’m going to do a movie called “Shanghai” with Gong Li and then I’m going to work with Mikael Håfström again. China revoked the permit for some reason, so we’re going to go to London and Bangkok. Actually, I have to go right around the time of Tribeca, so I’m going to try to fly back from wherever I am for the premiere hopefully, but I’ll be gone a couple weeks.

CS: Do you have another project lined-up that you’d like to produce?
Cusack: Not at the moment. I got some other things, but nothing I have the money for or that’s ready to go.

War, Inc. premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Monday, April 28, and then gets a New York and Los Angeles release on May 23, before its DVD release in July.