John Cusack is a low talker. At least on the phone. The man stymies transcription by talking so very softly.
He’s also fairly serious, which was kind of a surprise for me. I’ve waited a long time to finally talk with John Cusack, who influenced a lot of my beliefs about love and romance growing up, and I’m glad that it was for a passion project and not Serendipity 2, but I was expecting someone a little lighter. Instead Cusack sounds like the current state of the world weighs heavily on his mind… which I should have figured, considering that his new movie, War, Inc. (in theaters today) is a dark satire on war profiteering featuring thinly veiled versions of current White House types. Cusack comes across as someone very committed to battling the dark tide that threatens America, and you have to give the guy a lot of credit for that… especially considering he’s still probably best known for rom-coms.
A note: I hadn’t seen the film at the time of this interview, which occurred before it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. In point of fact, I still haven’t seen the film as I was unable to make the press screening here in Los Angeles this week.
Can you put to bed the rumors that War Inc started life as a Grosse
Point Blank sequel, but that you didn’t have the rights to the
No, that’s not true. But I think what’s true is that people have made a
million movies about cops and assassins and gunslingers, and I wanted
to fool around with the darker archetypes. It’s an original screenplay
from Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser.
And you’re an assassin here.
Yeah. It’s the same archetype. But it’s like a samurai movie – the
samurai is always the same, but the situation is different. It’s about
a guy who is working for a corporation – slightly in the future, but
not really – and he’s working for this company that has outsourced a
war 100%. There’s a green zone, and he has to go in there and kill an
oil minister. In there he meets a left wing journalist who is not
really based on anyone but is like Katrina vanden Heuvel from The
Nation. It’s not based on anybody in particular, but it’s someone who
would be a more progressive journalist.
It sounds like a lot of satire here.
Yeah. Ben Kingsley plays a guy who worked for the CIA, and he’s the CIA
connection to the business. And Dan Aykroyd is playing a former vice
president who is now the head of a huge company.
So it’s not very far in the future at all, is it?
Not really. People can make their own conclusions… but not really.
It’s about how they’re spending 411 million a day and 25 billion a
month, and that money is coming right out of our tax dollars and making
a lot of corporations very, very rich.
You have experience with this with Grace is Gone, in that it’s hard to
get people to want to see films about the current conflict, but I
imagine that filtering it through satire can make a difference.
Not a lot of movies give you the chance to see Hillary Duff put a scorpion down her pants.
That is true! You’ve shepherded this whole thing through, you’ve been
involved since the beginning. Did this start as a screenplay you came
across or did this idea originate with you? How did it start?
We came up with the idea, Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser. There were
wonderful writings that inspired us, and a wonderful tradition of
mocking power and the aristocracy. There are all these great
traditions, from The Marx Brothers to political cartoons to Terry
Southern… there’s a great tradition of it. We were inspired by all of
that, by some new journalism on the nature of the Iraq war.
You’ve written and produced, but you haven’t directed yet. Was there a
reason you didn’t want to make War, Inc. your directorial debut?
We found a terrific director in Joshua Seftel. It’s always very
collaborative. The movie came together even though nobody wanted to
make a movie attacking war profiteers in the middle of the patriotic
fervor; everybody said, ‘You’re crazy, we won’t touch this with a ten
foot pole,’ but Josh came on and found a great company to do it with a
very small budget in Bulgaria. I was doing 1408 and it all came
together very quickly.
When you’re making a movie like this, where it’s edgier, where you’re
making a smaller film that maybe people are afraid to touch, is that
tougher or is it more freeing to be out on the edge like that?
We had a very low budget – probably a third of what we had for Grosse
Point Blank. It was hard to make it happen, and everybody did a great
job and made it look like a big movie. It is a big movie in a lot of
ways, and everybody worked hard to make it look that good. We wanted to
cross the line and stay over it most of the time; I think we wanted to
be as politically incorrect as the war profiteers are.
You’ve said in the past you’re a brand in a lot of ways, that people
give you scripts because you’re John Cusack. Does that brand allow you
to bring some of this satirical and political stuff to people who maybe
wouldn’t pay attention otherwise?
I guess so. I don’t know. We’ll see. I just do whatever I’m interested
in, whatever challenges and provokes me. I don’t mind risking things, I
don’t mind failing. It’s okay to risk and fail and extend yourself and
work without a net. Good things can happen. Also, once you investigate
and read with what’s going on with war profiteering and what’s
happening to our country, besides being an activist and talking to
people, I want to make movies about it. I don’t want to look back at
this period and go, ‘All I did was make money making romantic
comedies.’ I always want to do something that reflects what’s happening
in the world now, on some level.
Wikipedia tells me that the idea for this came from a Naomi Klein article you read.
I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, and I don’t think it’s fair to
the writers and it’s not fair to Naomi. But while we were working on
this project I was friends with Naomi – I met her after No Logo and I
was a great admirer of hers – and she wrote a piece called Baghdad Year
Zero that inspired us to dig deeper into the project we were doing, to
risk more. Naomi wasn’t a professional collaborator, but she was an
inspiration. That piece was part of what gives a deeper meaning to the
ideological processes behind the war. Naomi has a great way of
contextualizing it, and she’s such an inspiring, courageous journalist,
that it inspired us to look harder and dig deeper.
There are great journalists like Naomi Klein out there -
There are other great ones too, and there are some great books about
the war, and there’s been so much terrific reporting. I think Naomi’s
really an incredibly important voice for policy and in journalism right
now, but I think the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City was
terrific, Jeremy Scahill’s book on Blackwater was great… we were
working on the film as I think they were writing these books, and I
think everybody was getting a lot of information about this. Naomi of
course was at the vanguard. There are so many great people out there –
they go to these countries and report back and give us the other
version, the version that isn’t the corporate version or the Pentagon
version, not the CNN version.
Is it ever disheartening that there are all these great people doing
all this great work, but it sometimes feels like the people in power
are going to finish out their terms and get away with it all?
Yeah, I think it’s incredibly depressing. But there’s a sense of
inevitability to it, that’s the way it is, that there’s nothing to be
done, but there’s a great quote by Arundhati Roy: Our strategy should
be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it
of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our
literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer
relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that
are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The
corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are
selling — their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their
weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and
they be few. They need us more than we need them.
I think that’s the spirit you need to have. And the Democrats need to
be held responsible to this too; anyone on the political spectrum has
to see that our country is being destroyed by the privatization and
outsourcing of this new economy. We have to hold people accountable.
But I do think it’s important that these people, when they get out of
office, need to be tried under international law.
Do you think that’s actually possible? Is there any hope?
I’m always hopeful for some change.