I have developed a reputation with some of the studio publicists I work with as someone who is very interested in talking to writers and directors moreso than actors. It’s true – I find that I’m fascinated by the thought behind the creation of a good movie more than the famous faces that populate it. And there are only so many ways you can ask the same questions of actors, while there are so many thematic and technical questions for writers and directors.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to have a one on one with Eric Roth, the screenwriter of The Good Shepherd. This is a dense, literate movie that has more going on in one scene than other spy films have in their whole running time. And Roth has a heckuva career – in just the last few years he wrote The Insider, Ali and Munich. I couldn’t make it to the hotel to interview Roth, so we had to talk on the phone. I ended up stealing more of his time than I was allowed, and I probably could have talked to him for another hour or more.
After seeing The Good Shepherd I thought to myself that this is not the kind of movie that studios usually put out – this movie is asking audiences to walk in the door with a little bit of knowledge. Was there ever a thought on your part when you were writing this that you were making a smarter picture than people are used to seeing?
That’s a great question. My big concern was whether I made a movie that was too smart for it’s own good. I don’t think we have, but I think it’s a movie that asks something from the audience, and hopefully they can be prepared in some ways, and people like you will help them along. Yes, there are some history lessons in it, but I hope that the personal story carries the day in the end, along with the mystique and myth of the CIA. When it’s all said and done I hope it becomes one whole that resonates to people.
It’s interesting that you talk about the myth of the CIA, because this might be one of the most realistic CIA movies ever.
I think ever. I’m not trying to brag, but it probably is the most realistic – maybe The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Smiley’s People would have the same reality-based quality to it.
Why did you want to go so real?
I think I try to be as real as I can. If you look at my movies – well, maybe Forrest Gump isn’t real – but The Insider and Ali and Munich, you know what I’m saying? I think I do try to always be real. Even when I did Forrest Gump I tried to imagine that in some kind of real context; in other words what if you’re a guy who is limited or mentally challenged and has the ability to pop up in historical events – how would that affect him? I looked at it as a real person. Phil Hendrie, the radio guy, he had this show about how the real Forrest Gump died.
You’ve made your protagonist a very reserved person – Matt Damon has very few lines in this movie. Why did you go with a lead who is so internal?
Part of that was based on some sense of James Angleton, the real guy – although I used three or four people to build this character. I like the sense that power can come out of somebody being quiet. In other words it doesn’t have to be bombastic, like in Wall Street. That’s why I love his performance, which is bravura in a whole different way. His silence is as threatening as Michael Corleone sitting behind a desk. Nothing has to be said – people who wield power don’t need to be talkative. Also, this was a guy who knew in many cases that what he was doing was wrong, so you can watch his soul erode. If you look at the script, all you’ll see is “And he’s quiet”!
It’s an interesting choice, and it works to some extent. I think it makes it harder for audiences trying to get in with him, but in the long run you do get the sense you’re watching someone lose their soul over the course of the movie., but in the long run you do get the sense you’re watching someone lose their soul over the course of the movie.
You end this film just as the CIA is moving into Langley. In the years after that, James Jesus Angleton, the guy Damon’s character is based on, went very crazy with paranoia. I feel like a lot of other movies would begin with that stuff, which is where you end.
I originally had many years ago [a version of the script with] some scenes with that, but we decided not to do it. I think Bob felt that he just didn’t want to take the movie in that direction. It wasn’t what he thought the movie was about. It felt like a different movie. If we’re lucky enough to do a part two we may do some of that.
Have you guys actually talked about that, sort of The Godfather, Part II of the CIA?
We talked about it before we got to get this one made! We might get our asses kicked, so it might be a nice pipe dream. When we met, Bob had been working on a CIA project that was set in a different time period – his was from the 70s or so until the fall of the Berlin Wall. We kind of struck a bargain that if he directed this one I would write the second one for him. They’re of a piece. It’s exciting to me, but I don’t if we’ll get a chance. We’ll see how this one is received.
That’s a very exciting time period for the CIA.
I don’t know if the line’s still in there, but the Richard Hayes character, when he’s taking [Matt Damon] on the tour of the new CIA building, he says, ‘We don’t have to be gentlemen. We can take the gloves off now.’ As if they were gentlemen in this movie. But you’re right – it’s much more hot… this is kind of cold, and that’s a much more hot period.
As somebody who has read up on the CIA over the years, much of the stuff in this film is familiar to me, because a lot of it really happened. But you fictionalized a lot of the people – why did you choose to not use the actual historical figures?
We weren’t doing a docudrama, so I wanted to be able to have fictional license to create characters who were more a combination of people, who were more representative. I wasn’t interested in Allen Dulles. I wanted to do my representation of Allen Dulles. I didn’t want to do Kim Philby, I wanted to do my representation. It’s as fictional as The Godfather – those were all real people too, in some sense. There was a Don Corleone of the time, but it might have been two or three different people. I think the reason is about making it mythological.
Benjamin Button is filming right now.
As we speak. Love Benjamin Button.
It’s coming out nicely?
It’s amazing. David Fincher was nice enough to let me look at dailies. I don’t look very often because I don’t like to lose my objectivity, but it’s amazing. I don’t think you’ve ever seen anything quite like it. I hope it works.
What makes it so different?
I think he’s shooting in a unique style. It feels like a painting in a way – not that it separates the audience, but in that you feel like you’re in another time and place while being in our time and place. It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s completely fitting to the nature of the piece – in other words, he ages backwards and it’s about mortality and aging and love and time. It’s a goofy story and I think I invented something kind of disarming in its own way in a good way. It’s not something you’ll normally see.
What else is on your plate?
I’ve got Lucky You coming up in March with Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore, which Curtis Hanson directed. I have a movie that Johnny Depp is going to do, called Shantaram. It’s a true story that’s been novelized by the author about himself – it’s about a guy who was in jail for robbery, a heroin addict, in Australia. He was sentenced to 23 years in jail and he escaped and went away and hid out in Bombay. It’s a pretty powerful story, and it’s a redemption I think in the long run.
When did you see The Good Shepherd?
How was the reaction?
It was interesting, and it led to my first question – I think some of the people weren’t prepared for a picture that was going to ask them to do some lifting.
Yeah, I got that from a blog guy who I’m not that friendly with but who I engage in conversation occasionally. He said he was concerned about the movie vis-a-vis Oscar stuff because it was something that required some thinking.
Which I think is great. I came home from the movie and went to my CIA books that I haven’t looked at forever.
I think this movie has a chance to get into the zeitgeist, and I hope Universal will help it along. I think it can make people interested in a lot of this stuff. This is not made up – I may have dramatized stuff, but it’s all real.
And intelligence is so in the news these days.
That’s just coincidental. The only thing we did with Abu Ghraib was that Bob put a mask on during the torture scene. Everything else is the same that I wrote 12 years ago, throwing the water on him and everything else. So the mask I would say became symbolic of Abu Ghraib.
At the end of the film, what’s your moral judgment on Edward Wilson?
I think he’s immoral. I think he knows better. It’s an odd thing – I compare this movie in an odd way to The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, and I don’t know why beyond that it has someone who is trying to protect something he belongs to, even though this is a nameless, faceless group of people. But it’s something that gives him his identity. And all along the way he’s making the wrong choices. I think we all have the opportunities to make these choices, but he’s making them totally immorally. And they may even be for the right reasons, by the way – I’m not even sure if he’s protecting his son or not. I couldn’t even say.
The Godfather has come up a number of times in relation to this film, and it’s hard not to draw the comparison – there’s Michael Corleone, a good kid, who is making the wrong choices for what he sees as the right reasons.
Making choices based on something else – in that movie it was about family. I would never deign to compare to The Godfather because it’s perfect, but I wrote this originally for Francis Coppola, so we saw it as a big family saga in that way.