If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
Brad Anderson has made a thrilling directorial career out of tackling many different genres, including the romantic comedy ("Next Stop Wonderland"), the horror-thriller ("Session 9") and the crime-mystery ("Transsiberian"), along with movies that defy categorization like the Christian Bale vehicle "The Machinist." His latest venture, "Beirut," has him taking on the classic political thriller, working from a script written by Tony Gilroy that's set in the Lebanese city. Jon Hamm stars in the movie as Mason Skiles, an American, grizzled ex-diplomat who is brought back to the war-torn land in the early '80s to negotiate a hostage situation that involves America, the Israelis, the PLO and a fictional militia. Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris and Idir Chender also star. As Brian Tallerico said in his review of the film, "there’s something invigorating about seeing a movie that reminds me of the political thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the kind of film we see less and less of at the multiplex."
RogerEbert.com spoke with Anderson about "Beirut," his collaboration with Tony Gilroy, how the film's political argument doesn't take sides and more.
Are you a morning person? I've always been curious if directing makes someone a morning person.
Yeah, I’ve become more of a morning person. I think do my best work first thing up after that first jolt of caffeine. We’re all so addicted [laughs].
What excited you the most and what scared you the most about taking on this project?
I think what excited me the most was the opportunity to collaborate with Tony [Gilroy], who I really admire as a writer and director, and getting a chance to work on this script which is one of his first specs, in fact, written almost 20 years ago. The chance to do a kind of genre that I hadn’t really done before, a more straight-forward kind of drama. And also to depict the challenge … and part of what scared me but was also exciting was the challenge of trying to pull off and create this world of Beirut, circa 1980, the war-torn city, the sense of this once elegant place fallen into ruin—how to do that on a very limited budget and limited time. Those are the challenges that I seem to face with different projects, but it’s also quite exciting. It’s like a puzzle, like how do we do this with this amount of time?
How does Jon Hamm fit into that puzzle? What made you want to cast him?
First off, the idea to work with him was one of the big draws. He’s such a great guy personally and really brings such … you just want to watch him, which was part of it. We had a character who was sort of frankly depressed, down and out, things were falling apart for him. We didn’t want him to be a total drag. We wanted a guy who could bring a level of charisma and watchability even to that kind of character, and Jon, even when he’s just sitting at a bar and hanging out over a drink, is still engaging. You’re still intrigued by this guy, there’s something there; there’s a sexy intrigue that he brings to the screen, that old-fashioned movie star kind of charisma. I think we wanted to go in that direction.
He’s a guy who was a diplomat and came from a refined world in diplomacy, so we needed someone who seemed like they could have been pulled from that world yet at the same time ends up rising to the challenge and being heroic at the end. So, Jon brings that and a likability, which is important.
Were you drawn to recalling a classic style with the acting and the references? Were you interested in making references or letting them find their own way into the project?
I don’t know if we were trying to make a classic John le Carre type story, but I think that we admire those movies. And the visual style of this movie is more raw and a you-are-there type thing, but one movie that I like that came to mind when I read it, and I remember telling Rosamund about the movie and she saw it and got really excited, was this Peter Weir film, “The Year of Living Dangerously,” this Mel Gibson-Sigourney Weaver story set in Indonesia in the ‘60s, and he’s like a war correspondent. It’s all set in the kind of dark, menacing, exotic world of Indonesia in the ‘60s, but there’s something very appealing about that world of glamour, elegance and destruction all tied together, and the fact that every corner could hold something dangerous. I liked that movie and I love Peter Weir’s films, and I thought that this was a good opportunity to do a similar story, not in the technique but in the story.
But we wanted to create a veracity of realism in the feel of the movie, like you were kind of there. The way we did it, and on a limited budget, it helps to shoot it in a way that you can cover up the limitations of what you could do. We weren’t going to have a lot of CGI shots. We had to find real locations that looked like they were bombed out, it had to be real. Which is why Tangier, where we shot it … Morocco actually brought a lot of that to the table, they already had places that looked like they were shelled, very period-looking buildings from that time frame that have fallen apart so that brought a lot of the realism.
It’s interesting that you’re working with Tony Gilroy on an old story, what was your collaboration process like? Did you have a lot of debates about the fictional militia? Or was it all in the script and ready to go?
He wrote it in the early ‘90s, so he ended up doing a pass all on his own, based on some of my thoughts and the things that he wanted to change over the years. And also just limiting what we could do, because we weren’t doing a studio movie and we had to limit the scope a little bit. But I think we had a good healthy back and forth when need be. And I mean, he’s a director too, and he was very good at “you’re making this movie, and tell me what you need to make it on this budget.” So he’s not precious about anything and willing to go with that. And he was very helpful all through post-production, as well.
That seems like a good collaborator to have, especially to have movies find their best place.
I think we all saw the movie the same way, that wanted to make a movie that’s for adults. It’s not “The Bourne Supremacy,” we didn’t set up to make that movie. It was something more that you have to pay attention. He makes those movies anyway, and that was kind of the idea.
So you were thinking about audience, or about what kind of people would be seeing it.
Well, you always do, right? If you’re making a film you’ve got to have one eye to the audience and one eye to what excites you about it, and sometimes it’s not the same thing [laughs]. But it’s like there hadn’t been a kind of, he’s made some unsentimental movies too, in his writing. And we wanted to keep it, there are no real heroes, [Mason] is the only one. All the players are kind of bad players in the movie: the Americans, the Israelis, the PLO. So I think that playing with that reality was interesting and keeps it more grounded. And if that’s less commercial because of that, there you go.
With your perspective as a director, you’ve made the film and then the trailer receives a negative response, what is your stance on that? Do you ever have any hands in the packaging of your movies?
Sometimes I weigh in on that, they ask the director to be a part of that to some extent. On the other hand i didn’t quite understand the controversy was that some Lebanese people were concerned that the depiction of Beirut was not flattering. But the reality was that that’s what Beirut was like in the early ‘80s, I mean it was kind of a shithole in terms of where it was going. It isn’t anymore. I don’t think the people who saw the trailer realized it was a period piece, and they thought we were showing what it’s like now. Tony did his details in trying to depict what was going on politically on the ground between Israel and America and Lebanon and Syria and everybody. But I never thought or wanted to make a deeply political movie. To me what was interesting was the journey that this character takes within the context of that very Byzantine world. Which, frankly, you know, I don’t quite get. Who does get all the back and forth that’s going on over the past 2,000 years between all these different factions? I don’t think our intent was to make a documentary about the political situation in Beirut at that time or even now.
But it was more interesting that there’s a couple shots of aerial shots of a devastated Beirut, and we couldn’t get aerial shots of Beirut from that time, and we didn’t have the budget for CGI, so we laced in some drone shots of homes in Syria like Aleppo, cities that had been bombed out in the last five years, and used those as a depiction of what Beirut might have been. The irony that the war, this sort of devastation that we were trying to show in the early ‘80s is still happening, it’s just gone a little east. We ended up using those images. It’s sad, and ironic, but true.
Was there any push to make "Beirut" more political?
That didn’t really interest me. What interested me more was the texture, the feel, the vibe, the more emotional quality. There is a political argument in the movie, but it doesn’t take sides, I think. It’s kind of like no one really comes across as being too heroic, and that’s probably more the truth than anything else. There’s blame to be cast on all sides.
I think if anything, it’s that little coda at the end, when you see some news footage from what happened after the timeline of our story, which is set in ‘82 before Israel invaded and before the bombing of the American embassy and the marine barracks. That was just a kind of way to put a little context around the fabricated story that we put together, and the fact that as much as our character set out to save someone and do the right thing, chaos still ensues, you know? It doesn’t stop. And then there’s that last quote from Reagan, where he says something like after the barracks bombing, “This will not stop us from pursuing our goals of peace in the region.” Well, OK, Donald Trump is gonna launch cruise missiles into Syria tomorrow, things don’t look like much has changed [laughs].
As someone who has tackled many different genres of movies, is there one that you find most fulfilling?
I think this is why probably I have done so many different kinds of movies and stories, whether it is my first couple which were more like romantic comedy and then horror and then sort of paranoid-thriller type things. This was different as well. And then throw into the boot all of the different television stuff I’ve done. I don’t know, maybe I just like to mix it up and have a more of an eclectic need to just try out new things, and road test ideas and try out a genre that I haven’t done before. So, I think I probably am drawn to more darker material. I don’t see myself doing any comedies. I like comedies as much as anyone else, I just don’t really have a desire to do them. So, darker, more taut, sort of scary, suspenseful stories are more my cup of tea. Like my favorite filmmakers are in the Kubrick, Polanski kind of mold. I just like that world. I think it’s more cinematic and gets under your skin more.
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