Andrew Niccol is one of the better screenwriters working in my humble opinion, with works such as Gattaca, The Truman Show and The Terminal to his credit. He wrote and directed his latest work, Lord of War which deals with the subject of arms dealing. It was great to get a chance to talk to him about Lord of War even though I found the film to be lacking in a few areas. Regardless, he’s clearly a bright and passionate guy and some people will undoubtedly love the film. Plus, it’s always interesting to get a director’s take on their work. Enjoy!
Q: It seems like Lord of War is grittier than some of your previous works. Was this because this was a more personal work for you, or was there a moral slant to it?
Niccol: I was just drawn to this world. You see a lot about drug trafficking but for some reason you don’t get the same attention to arms trafficking even though it has a far more lethal impact in this world. I also wanted to explore that darker side of human nature, because this character (Nicholas Cage) is interesting in that he can sell guns as if they were vacuum cleaners and I wanted to explore how that human being can operate.
Q: Was it important for the character to not seem conflicted? He seems to come off as a nice guy even when he’s doing horrible things.
Niccol: I think that there are people in the world who can do this. We would say “look, you’re responsible for hundreds of deaths” and he would say “I’m not responsible for any because I don’t pull the trigger, I’m fulfilling a need, I’m supplying a demand.”
Q: Are you trying to draw that line of responsibility, or are you just trying to ask a question?
Niccol: I’m not going to make that judgment, but for him he has this perverse moral code. In some ways he doesn’t see himself as part of this. He’s not a violent man, but he recognizes the violence in people but he just wants to exploit it.
Q: He seems to rationalize it by saying that someone else would do it if he didn’t, right? Is that his out?
Niccol: Yeah, and it’s the thing that gives us an out in a strange way. We’re arms dealers as well, whether you live in the United States or the U.K. we indirectly profit from the dealing of arms. I’m sure that’s the rationale for governments and large corporations is that if they didn’t do it someone else would.
Q: Can you talk about the government’s complicity in this, how they “wink” at the process?
Niccol: Yeah, I’m afraid that’s true. A lot of this is based on actual events. Many of these arms dealers are more valuable to governments on the outside than sitting in a cell. I’m afraid when something makes so much money for so many people it’s hard to stop it.
Q: And governments are trying to influence policy, influence elections with the arms?
Niccol: They’re furthering whatever agenda they have at the time, and they need these guys (arms dealers) to broker those deals.
Q: The brother of Nicholas Cage in this film has a pretty serious cocaine addiction right off the bat. Are the addictions that different?
Niccol: No, I always thought Yuri (Nicholas Cage) was more addicted (to arms dealing). The brother seems like a flake, a loser, but he makes a sacrifice that Yuri couldn’t even contemplate.
Q: In this film, unlike your others, you go back many years and then bring us up to present. Do you have any thoughts on where arms dealing is headed?
Niccol: No, I just wanted to shine a light on a world we don’t often see. For me it was an interesting exploration of that and of a darker character.
Q: Do you think awareness of arms dealing is so low because of the way it is treated in the media?
Niccol: Well it isn’t handled in the media. I dug up a lot of stuff about arms dealers, but normally it’s buried on page 12 in a tiny little article, even though these guys are responsible for such mayhem in the world. It’s never truly discussed and I can’t tell you why.
Q:Are the laws regarding arms sales really as faulty as show in Lord of War?
Niccol: Yeah, you could make an end-user certificate on your photocopier right now. There are so many corrupt governments willing to make a buck out of it. The amount of ships with a Liberian registry are staggering, you can get a registry for a ship on the internet.
Q: Do you think the fault is with the U.N. for having these loopholes?
Niccol: There are a lot of U.N. sanctions but there is no will to enforce them. So it all looks good but truly no one stops it (arms dealing). There’s all this talk about weapons of mass destruction, but 9 out of 10 war victims are killed by small arms. The way people get killed are when people like Yuri (Nicholas Cage) flood Africa with guns.
Q: And this character isn’t able to get out of this world because it’s the only thing he’s good at?
Niccol: I think he’s more of an addict. It’s that gambler’s addiction.
Q: What was the writing cycle like?
Niccol: Quite quick. I’d been collecting reference but when I sat down to write it, it was only 6 months which for me was quite quick. It may have even been 4 months. It was a fascinating experience for me to meet these people. The plane we use in the film belongs to an arms dealer, and that plane was flying real guns into the Congo the week before it was being rented by us for fake guns.
Q: Why do you think you were able to get arms dealers to work with you?
Niccol: Because all these guys say “we use to run guns, but anything we do now is completely legitimate”. They don’t even think about it, we go by this moral code, but they are able to succeed because they aren’t encumbered by that. It gives you a lot of freedom because suddenly you don’t have to think “Am I doing the right thing?” These guys sleep at night better than we do, that was fascinating and scary to me.
Q: I wanted to ask about Paani as well. Can you talk about it at all?
Niccol: It’s a project that Shekhar Kapur has, but don’t believe everything you read! It’s a project he has that maybe we’ll do together, but it’s certainly not the next thing I’ll be doing.
Q: So what’s next?
Niccol: I don’t really know. I wouldn’t want to jinx it either. When you make unconventional films it can be tough to get them off the ground.