INTERVIEW: Carnahan’s ‘Kingdom’ of ‘Lions’ and ‘Lambs’

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Living in Seattle I don’t always get the chance to get the huge names in the industry. Rarely do A-List actors and directors visit and we check out only a handful of press junkets a year, but that doesn’t stop our phones from working and with the upcoming release of Universal’s The Kingdom I jumped at the chance to talk to screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, one of Hollywood’s hottest writers at the moment.

Today I bring you part one of my interview with Matt as he was kind enough to stay on the phone with me for 45 minutes. What could we possibly talk about for that long? Well, his first Hollywood produced film The Kingdom hits theaters this Friday; his script Lions for Lambs directed by Robert Redford starring Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep hits theaters November 9th; his script State of Play starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton goes into production this November and his brother Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces) is getting ready to begin casting Matt’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel White Jazz. An impressive resume for a newcomer eh? Well he opened up about all of it.

After his brother kicked down the door for him in 2002 with a small film for Radar Pictures called Soldier Field he caught the attention of director Peter Berg who came to him with the idea for The Kingdom, a film revolving around a counterterrorist detail sent to investigate a terrorist bombing in one of the compounds that houses Western workers in a Middle Eastern country. Pete wanted Matt to take a stab at the script and before he knew it he was in Michael Mann’s office sharing ideas with Pete and Michael and his journey into Hollywood script writing began as does our interview:

What was it that Pete came to you with? What exactly were you working off of?

Matthew Carnahan (MC): To my recollection, it was a broad, nebulous idea – there was a two-and-a-half hour meeting between Pete, Michael Mann and I…

Now that’s a room!

MC: Yeah, exactly! Here it is, I’ve been doing this work for less than a year at that point. It was my first taste of, My God, I might be able to do this for a living. If I am in Michael Mann’s office I might be doing something right. It felt as if I broke into the place and it was only a matter of time before security comes and escorts me out.

We just tried to figure out a compelling and political story in the Middle East and have it centered around an attack and the follow-up FBI investigation. The idea was, if this attack happened in the United States it’s a pretty rote and standard investigative process that you have seen a thousand times, but if this crime happens in a land that is as alien to the United States as say Mars, then that could be some compelling framework to tell a broader story about the state of affairs in that part of the world relative to us.

That was the impetus, that big broad idea. Thankfully Pete and Michael appealed to the student in me and said now go research and let’s set this in Saudi Arabia because the western housing attacks in May 2003 were still pretty fresh in everybody’s mind. They sent me on my way to research the hell out of the thing and Michael has a phenomenally great resource in a woman who just finished a career at TIME magazine, she was on their FBI crime beat, Elaine Shannon. He made the introduction between Elaine and I and then Elaine proceeded to take me around D.C. for a grand total of three weeks time over several months and introduced me to the kind of contacts who you would never get in to see were it not Michael Mann providing the key. I ended up with the FBI’s Head of Counter-Terrorism and he was holding that post on September 11th. I met with the FBI’s Chief Bomb Technician and he had been to the Middle East more times than he can count and just to get that color and that flavor and figure out how they talk and how they act is just a world class opportunity and I relish that stuff. I relish getting into those types of worlds and trying to approximate it as close as possible in a script in a way that might be entertaining.

Speaking of the student in you, you went to USC and have a degree in international relations and political science, it’s rather telling of where your stories come from.

MC: Oh yeah, absolutely, I’ve been fascinated with politics as far back as I can remember. We grew up a poor Irish, democrat family from Michigan so the politics seemed to kind of run in the blood. I have early memories of talking politics, talking about Jimmy Carter’s presidency at the dinner table. My dad the republican and my mom the democrat, I have always had this abiding love of government, politics and the idea that someone can remain true and heaven forbid, even righteous, and still be able to navigate the treachery or our system. Again, it’s a school boy look at politics, but I love the idea of it and I think that’s the thing that’s kind of always made me want to study it. I just love the subject matter, all throughout high school and even now.

Along the lines of subject matter, The Kingdom must have been a bitch to write. How hard is it to keep with reality with how much dialogue is in the early goings of this movie, and how talky it is, building up to the action packed ending?

MC: You hit it dead on the head, it was a bitch to write. My proclivity is to try and make it more political and more talky and Pete is more like let’s forget it, we need action, we need something to keep an audience engaged here. So, over the course of two years, he and I butting our heads constantly in order to forge the movie that you see.

Several early drafts, you thought what you saw was talky? Early drafts made Syriana look like a shoot ’em up movie.

That’s one thing I love about this movie though, it seems as if you could easily watch it as a double-billing with Syriana and have a great double feature.

MC: Exactly, all credit to Pete, he is a savant at knowing what an audience wants and when they want it over the course of the running time of the movie. I really think he’s got such a pulse on what people want and need in order to keep them engaged from one section of the movie to the next. I think he did a masterful job of taking what could have been a fairly dry and political movie and making it not only accessible, but a blast to watch. On top of that, heaven forbid, you have people walking out a little more familiar with a part of the world that is absolutely intrinsic in this War on Terror and the current state of affairs in this country.

What do you think of the Kingdom‘s opening title sequence?

MC: The opening title sequence I think might be one of the best things in the movie. It was a really long, we struggled with it for months – you know the plane ride? There was this long back and forth between the characters during the ride over to get to Riyadh from Andrews Air Force Base. In that plane ride we laid out the history of Saudi Arabia and of Saudi and American relations. Everybody loved it, but everybody said you can’t have this seven page scene with people talking and describing the world. Real FBI agents wouldn’t talk about the fact that Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 and they were looking for water and found oil. All these great little bits that I would argue the vast majority of Americans don’t know, but Pete found a way to open the movie with this mini-documentary.

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