Gaghan is a tired, talkative man. I caught him at the very tail end of his Syriana
PA tour, the morning after a Q&A session that apparently
went nearly two
hours, and probably could have gone twice that. He’s been at the
grind for a while now, and so some of his responses are down pretty
pat. I did my best to steer around the answers you’ve no doubt read
somewhere else already. It didn’t help that he’d just been sandwiched
between the pet lady and some other incompatible nonsense on Atlanta’s
also passionate about the subject of politics and the way we use American
business interests, and he quickly gets riled up when thinking about the abuse
of power and the depth of corruption. It’s easy to see that Syriana
is all him, no matter how much time he may have spent with ex-CIA guy Robert Baer,
upon whose book See No Evil: The True
Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism the movie is very
loosely based. (Buy
the book from CHUD and Amazon here.)
Q: Is this a message movie?
Gaghan: There’s making a film, which I feel very comfortable
doing. Then there’s discussing it’s meaning, which I’m very uncomfortable
doing. I have no idea what it means. I can make up stuff; I can argue it in any
direction, and make a good case for it from any side. Screenwriter. Director.
Bullshitter. That’s me. It’s like, deep serious thinking…you don’t really go
west of the 405 for that.
But the things you do run up against in selling and talking about
a film are: is it a popular entertainment, and is there a moral to it?
Obviously my hope is that this is both. There’s the ride, which is a total experience
and lasts for 90 minutes, then there’s the movies that I love, which get under
your skin. They ask questions, and leave strands open ended. Think about 3
Days of the Condor — the last moments, with Redford walking up the
steps with his little box of stuff. Cliff Robertson is sitting there going,
yeah? On one hand, Redford thinks the Times will save the day, the 3rd estate
wins. Robertson is like, who are you kidding? And it ends. It’s a different
type of filmgoing experience, and it does both. It raises ideas, and is a ride.
So I want both.
Q: All characters in this film are
people who, in a ride film, would be on the periphery. And you find that
they’ve got a lot more going on that a typical hero would offer.
Gaghan: That mirrors my experience with the country. We talk
about the flyover states. Will they embrace this film? And those people are way
more sophisticated than any exec would give them credit for, ever. They’re just
normal, but normal is smart. Normal can smell bullshit. So the idea in the film
that we’re not looking at the highest level, but the people who are mixed in
it, is an idea that I love. It’s something Soderbergh taught me on Traffic.
I wanted to have the President of the US as a character, and he didn’t. And he
was right. The middle class striver is the engine that drives America, and they
need to be paid attention to. Let’s tell their story! (laughs) Scooby
Doo 3: The Bureaucracy!
Q: That one’s about the mechanic.
Who fixes the Mystery Machine, anyway?
(Gaghan launches into his crotchety old man voice) Those damn
kids! This is a good van — would be a good van, if they took care of it. I
don’t know if I can fix this now!
Q: Fear seems to be one of the
defining aspects of Syriana.
Gaghan: Well, first of all, I would have told you up to the age
of 32 that I wasn’t afraid of nothin’. And in fact I was afraid of everything.
I just had a mechanism for pushing it aside. Make me afraid, I charge. When I’m
scared, I attack. It’s nature. And it’s my nature because I’m an American. The
movie coalesced for the in the wake of 9/11 when I had to do a lot of flying. I
was scared. I thought if a guy in a cave in Afghanistan could bring down the
world trade center, then this is a small world. Saddam Hussein? He’s great as a
20th century villain. You know where he is. You built his house, you American
contractor. You know where his armies and escape hatches are. But Osama? He’s
the 21st century villain. You don’t know where his army is, you don’t know
where he is. He’s an idea.
At every point, you want to evolve. You want to move forward. I
think there’s something hardwired in us as Americans that we want to deny the
fear. We don’t want to acknowledge the role it plays in decision making. And I
hate blanket statements like that; I hate talking for anyone else, because it doesn’t
bear out in my experience. So when you say ‘this is the way we all are!’ you’re
just saying ‘this is how I am." And most of my life I didn’t understand
the role that emotions played in my decisions.
I traveled all over doing research for this film; I learned a
lot. And I spend loads of time with Robert Baer, ex-CIA. He’s a machine.
Trained by the government, multiple graduate degrees, I still don’t know how
many languages he speaks. He might speak 50 — he denies them. You speak
Arabic? No. Farsi? No. How about Russian, you spent a lot of time in Russia.
You were best pals with General Lebed. Nope, that’s a pretty hard language. But
then around the corner you hear him nailing someone in a perfect dialect. He’s a master at misinformation.
But I caught him at a time when he was sad and disillusioned and
uncertain. And he introduced me to the rogues gallery. Oil traders, arms
dealers, middlemen, people in terrorist organizations that he calls his
buddies. And what I saw was a nexus — take an X/Y axis where X=idealogy and
(Gaghan proceeds to draw a graph that I wish I’d taken with me to
scan. He later admits that it reveals why he got a C- in geometry.)
I found that automatically, people could talk a great game,
starting high on the X axis. But the question is where on the Y axis they’re
living. And then you realize that they’re calling Y idealogy! And so you find
them living in this bubble of self-interest that is surrounded and supposedly
defined by idealogy. And you have to figure out which is which. And the thing
is, they deny self-interest.
Q: Part of moving forward is
presenting a road map of how someone might become a terrorist, and essentially
drawing this same graph on-screen through dialogue and events.
Gaghan: Well, that’s the whole thing. These people that talk
like that. In that little bubble of self-interest is where demagogues live. People
that deny the self-interest get really shrill. They point fingers, and they
don’t listen. And I met so many of these men, it freaked me out. They would
convince me. I’m a guy from Kentucky, and I don’t pretend to know anything. I’m
not Paul Wolfowitz with a PhD. And they’d make great points. And hour later,
someone else totally gives me the opposite point of view, and I’d be convinced.
I met people we’d call terrorists that could be very convincing. They could
make very strong cases for America being to blame — America overthrowing Iran
in ’52/53. We overthrew a democratically chosen leader of a sovereign nation to
re-install British/Iranian oil hegemony over the people’s resources. We’ve
acknowledged this. We said, yes, we installed a weak-chinned dumbass Shah
boy-child who didn’t want to run the country, and didn’t know shit! 25 years
later, that came back to us. So as I’m looking at this, wondering how I can
deal with it and what I can do, it was about trying to let everyone speak in
their own voice, and humanize it from the left and the right as much as
possible. Using the word evil is just…a bit reductionary. I wanted to, like you
said, follow the middle-level people and humanize it from that level.
Thomas Friedman wrote a great op-ed piece about cotton tariffs.
He says we protect local growers, and give millions of dollars to people to not
grow cotton, or to dump it on the open market for nothing. And the Pakistani
market can’t compete. When that happens he goes out of business. His sons are
left rootless, and drift down into the urban multitude who can’t find work.
Maybe they get exported to the Persian Gulf, or London. They’re a disgruntled,
broken, pissed-off group of people, and they’re ripe fodder for by radicals.
That’s the NYT op-ed page, but I wanted to show some of those forces. And you
can’t show all of them in a multi-narrative 2 hour movie. But I think we got a
lot of it.
And there’s one thing that these people who get used by radicals
seem to share, is a blow that constitutes a loss of self-esteem. It could be a
friend who was killed by the police, it could be that they were beaten, which
is what I took. It could be a father falling apart.
Q: The blow to self-esteem is
something that all the characters in the movie face or have faced. And they’re
all, in some way, being used by radicals.
Gaghan: That’s because we all give ourselves a reason. We
provide what I call the moral asterix. It might be, yeah, that guy’s a prick
but he’s been OK to me, so I’ll do business with him. Or, I’ve got a family to
feed, it’s not just me. It’s like William Hurt says — don’t give me shit! I’ve
got two kids in college and I have to re-do my kitchen. And then you
understand. Oh, right, of course! You’ve sold out. You don’t believe in
anything you’re doing. But it doesn’t matter because you’re going to have a
Viking range and concrete countertops.
A guy like Baer, who had 3 kids, college age, no money, comes
back to the US and he feels like the last schmuck in the world. Lives an hour
and a half out of Washington in some shitty condo, can’t pay his bills. And he
wonders, what have I been doing with the last 20 years? He’s like Rip Van
Winkle. He’s the last guy to know. And he realizes that no one cares about the
Q: How is it that this guy doesn’t
see what everyone else knows?
Gaghan: It comes from being the guy out on point and not being
the guy in the bureaucracy. He didn’t realize that whole careers were made in Washington
by keeping your name off memos that have bad news in them. For him, the bad
news is all that matters. That’s all he gives a shit about. If you’re talking
about anything but the bad news, you’re missing the point. It’s a big deal to
him, and he took it seriously, and that’s why Baer is amazing. I got that from
him in our first meeting. He wouldn’t say any of this — he wouldn’t talk about
himself like this. I just sensed that he was a really interesting guy whose experience
in a powerful thematic way mirrors the American experience. That mirrors the
sense of wanting to wear the white hat and be the good guy, but always being on
the verge of tipping the other way.
You’re probably like me. Your sense of America is that we’re
good guys. WWII worked OK, we got rid of Communism. Then things got numb and
stupid for two decades through the ’90s. And that’s the US Baer comes back
into. He realizes that a virulent strain of radical Islam has sprung up, and
they hate us. He’s tracking a guy with plans to fly planes into our buildings,
and he comes back into the biggest stock market bubble in history.
Q: Jeff Skoll and Participant have
the sense that grass-roots activism could follow a film like this.
Gaghan: They’ve got it — http://www.participate.net.
Q: Outside of that, how would you
like to see people follow up a viewing of Syriana?
Gaghan: I’ll tell you precisely. I want them to think about
Duke. The Duke. The Dukester. Randy Cunningham, San Diego’s congressman. Good
guy. Vietnam vet. I’m sure he didn’t go to Washington to become corrupt. He
didn’t go to get rich. But something in that fog of self-interest corrupted
Randy Cunningham. I like to call it Nigeria on the Potomac. And in that
environment, there is something that made it OK for Randy Cunningham, on a
Congressman’s salary, to live on a Yacht that was paid for by a defense
contractor. To drive a Rolls Royce. So from his yacht, where you can see the
Capitol — not a metaphor, the actual building — you can see it from the deck
of the boat paid for by the company he’s steering contracts to. He gets in his
Rolls, on a Congressman’s salary, drives up to Congress, parks the car paid for
by a military company, and makes decisions to steer contracts, at below market
value, to these companies. And he thus steals from every American. And here’s
the lesson from the Dukester. The guy doesn’t matter at all. What matters is
the culture in Washington where you can live on a yacht and drive a Rolls for
years and nobody says a fucking word. Cunningham was caught by a local
journalist in his district, not by the vaunted Washington press corps, who are
so fucking embedded with the White House that they’re beyond pigs feeding at
the trough. So if people come out of the film and are interested, I want them
not to get engaged in the argument that it’s a right or a left problem. It’s
not. It’s an American character problem. And the problem is, do we as Americans
say it’s acceptable to buy and sell our public officials? Is that where we’ve
ended up? Is that the nexus of capitalism and public service? The Dukester? Is it the same as the axis of ideology and
Q: So why not make a documentary?
I think narrative films reach so many more people. You have such
control over the emotional impact of the story. When you’re burdened by truth,
you limit your ability to manipulate. (laughs) Fiction is more powerful. And