A Look at Traitor - Interview with Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Guy Pearce
by Kevin Powers
August 26, 2008
The Day After Tomorrow screenwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff debuts his directorial first this Wednesday with the new country-crossing espionage thriller, Traitor, led by Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce. Believe it or not, the project was conceived 5+ years ago by Steve Martin and later handed off to Nachmanoff to develop the concept. After some change-ups, Nachmanoff was chosen as the film's director. In developing the script, he worked closely with Cheadle, who's production company was drawn to the story "because it had so many layers." Nachmanoff and Pearce were in Washington D.C. recently and sat down with me to discuss the film - an ambitious and complex first-go for the screenwriter turned director.
Nachmanoff on the Terrorist and Middle-East Backdrop
While I don't want to give too much away and despite Muslim overtones, Traitor is certainly not your typical Middle East-centric tale like we've seen over the last few years, such as Rendition and The Kingdom. Regardless, any film released nowadays that shows men in thawbs (much less having them say "Allahu Akbar") and talks of terrorism is unfortunately going to be received through a very skeptical filter. Being the proverbial low-hanging fruit, this was my first question for Nachmanoff.
Nachmanoff: "Well one of them has to work, right? [laughs] Hopefully all the other studios have wasted their money now and we'll have a chance to have ours be successful. Look, it's a provocative subject. It's a sensitive subject… people have really strong feelings about the subject. But at the same time, it's an important subject. And I think there just hasn't been the quite right combination of time and product so far in the marketplace. Our film is kind of an espionage film. It has more in common with what I call 'the cold war thrillers', which you have kind of a cat-and-mouse, back-and-forth story and 50% or more of [our] story takes place on the North American continent."
"I think that if people come to see it, we're going to get a little bit of a different response. Whether or not people like it, that's up to the audience. I think it's a different enough kind of movie that we have a chance for people to respond to it - we hope for people to respond to it on its own terms as opposed to the other movies. It's also much less overtly in-your-face political. We have a point-of-view, we're not afraid to talk about it, but at the same time, this is a movie you can watch whether you're right wing, left wing… we're not trying to push a particular viewpoint. We're hopefully entertaining you and [letting] you discuss it and decide for yourself."
Pearce on FBI Agent Roy Clayton
A slightly disappointing aspect of the interview was the lack of Don Cheadle. I've loved the guy ever since "Picket Fences," so if I have to wait a bit longer to meet him then so be it. My personal interest isn't what made his absence noteworthy, however. So much of Traitor centers on the Academy Award-winning actor and the battles (internal and external) that his character, Samir Horn, faces. Pearce plays Roy Clayton, a progressive FBI agent tracking Samir. Considering the emphasis on Cheadle's character, I was interested to understand how Pearce and Nachmanoff felt Clayton challenged the double-agent and helped to surface the answer of who really is Samir Horn.
Pearce: "I suppose he's a challenge in a way. I think, though, my character is probably there more as a way for westerners to view somebody like Cheadle. In the west there's this overwhelming sense of fear that we're all supposed to be sort of dealing with at the moment, and we're supposed to be assuming that there's somebody there protecting us… the various organizations. And I think there's a lot of assumptions made about how those organizations are supposed to work. And on some level we get the impression that as long as they're doing their job we don't really have to understand the other side of the fence… we don't really have to understand the Muslim world, if you want to get really specific about it."
"It's probably a difficult thing in the west for people actually to do because culturally we are quite different. And so I think, in a way, my character has been written as probably actually more there to challenge the audience in a way… to actually look at Cheadle's character from a slightly different point-of-view -- to get inside the heads of these people rather than playing out the cliche, I suppose. I mean, Clayton has a slightly different perspective because of his faith and background on religious people whether they're extremists or not… because he can understand how taking something like religion and seeing how little off-shoots of it can become extreme and obscure and really perhaps the opposite of the original intentions of the religion."
Nachmanoff: "I think you put that quite well when you said your character is in many ways a challenge to the audience. There's an implicit conflict with what's on the other side of the screen, but [Clayton] is also in conflict with the character played by Jeff Daniels. There's multiple viewpoints represented on the side of, let's call, the U.S. or law enforcement… there's a lot of different ways to confront terrorism… to confront extremists. What Guy's character is allowing us to do is to see that one way is vilify the enemy, and one way is understand the enemy. Both in some ways are meant to destroy the enemy. There's just a smart way to do it and a dumb way to do it. It's not like [Clayton] is in any way less willing to bring down [the enemy]; it's just that he believes he's not going to get any closer to doing it by shutting your mind to the fact that there are people who are Muslims who read Arabic and speak Arabic who actually agree with you."
Nachmanoff on Picking the FBI
One of the facets I found interesting about Traitor was its use of the FBI as the lead organization. Arguably, such international matters are the CIA's territory. But with so many films that highlight the spy agency and possibly The Kingdom's foray into globe-trotting FBI teams, the traditionally domestic agency takes the spotlight in Traitor. I asked the Nachmanoff if there was any particular reasoning behind this decision.
Nachmanoff: "One of the things about FBI working overseas is that they have no power. The CIA is empowered to work overseas, but the FBI is supposed to work domestically. But, the FBI does track cases that go all around the world. You see [Clayton] moving around and operating in different fields… it's a tough character to make fresh. There are two ways you can do it: one is put them situations you haven't seen before, which I thought was kind of fun to do with an FBI character overseas where he's not really empowered to use his gun and badge, he has to use his smarts; and the other is that you cast a really great actor who takes the role and does something with it. Because otherwise, you've got the detective part and that's really hard to make fresh. So many movies are based on a detective following up clues that you have to do whatever you can to make that character original. And that's a combination of using a character actor for the part and putting them in a little bit of a different position than you see normally was really a strong motivation."
Pearce on Choosing Traitor
I first become acquainted Guy Pearce through his 1994 role as Felicia Jollygoodfellow in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Since then, the man has played many, many characters, from a frontier man (The Proposition) to Andy Warhol (Factory Girl) to Harry Houdini (Death Defying Acts), just to name a few. Obviously, a burning question was why, then, did he choose from-the-south FBI agent Roy Clayton.
Pearce: "This was really more about the film as a whole, I think, than specifically the role. Sometimes I'll take a role because… like when I did Factory Girl for example, the idea of playing Andy Warhol was completing fascinating, but the film was in all sorts of trouble. But ultimately, I knew I could do something with the role. [Traitor] was the opposite because Jeffrey put a spin on the film that is a little unusual. But the whole film itself just felt very original and felt very real, and emotional. Clearly we get inside Cheadle's head and look at the world he's inhabiting the struggle that he's having… his loyalties within religion and within the country that he's from and the country that he was brought up in. So, there were just things that felt fascinating to me, I suppose."
Nachmanoff on Working with Don Cheadle
For his first time out, Nachmanoff chose a pretty challenging and complex project, what he describes as a "thinking man's thriller." Not only does Traitor hurry through 17 cities on three continents and was filmed in a mere 48 days, but the subject matter and plot is refreshingly complex. As I mentioned, Cheadle's production company was involved with the film, which meant Cheadle supported Nachmanoff as a producer; but one that was thankfully hands-on (in a good way), even helping with the script well before filming.
Nachmanoff: "Don Cheadle was a great partner to have as an actor and producer. [Guy and Don] really had a filmmaker approach to it. Not unlike Guy, [Don] was really interested because of the project, and that gave me these allies essentially in the filmmaking process. We're all taking it as the film itself is what's important here, not my great scene or my great line. And the same thing with me; it's not about my perfect line in the script or my beautiful shot. We have a great idea for what we're trying to do. As we said, it's an ambitious blend of different things, it's a challenge in the marketplace, but we're going to go for it. We're not going to pull any punches. We're going to say, 'can we make a film like this and get it out there and actually have people go see it and have it be a success?' Who knows, but I'll guarantee you one thing, we're going to try and we're not going to take the easy way out. And the only way to do that was to have all of my key partners on board, and I would very much put Don in that camp. He was as interested in doing as much work with me on Guy's part as he was his own."
Nachmanoff on His Next Project
He's finished helping write the Jake Gyllenhaal-led Prince of Persia and surely has other scripts on the horizon, but what about Nachmanoff's next directing endeavor? While he hasn't gone blockbuster big with Traitor, he has aimed pretty high and challenged himself right out of the gate. I'm definitely interested what he does next, but it looks like we don't have an answer what that might be just yet.
Nachmanoff: "I don't know. I'm looking for something that I can also get excited about as this project… something that I feel is as ambitious and thought-provoking, but also entertaining for an audience. I haven't found exactly the right thing. Obviously, The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia are on this really big Hollywood scale -- I don't think that's probably what I would go to next as a director. But, I like good story-telling. And maybe, like Guy, who's done every type of movie you can imagine… I would aspire to have such a varied career. It's harder for a director to have as varied career as an actor, because you just don't get as many at-bats. And, frankly, it's hard to come up with the ideas for a new movie. But, I guess I would make any movie that I would like to go see."
Pearce on Batman Rumors
Ever since Christopher Nolan started with The Dark Knight, there have been rumors that Guy Pearce might have a part in the franchise. After all, Nolan and Pearce worked together on the unparalleled Memento back 2000, and Pearce definitely has an unique presence and range that would benefit what is now an immensely successful storyline. Being a tad squirrelly, I decided to take a shot and ask if there was anything of note happening on that front.
Pearce: "Are there more rumors? I guess my name will keep popping up until we potentially work together again, and people will go, 'Yup, see, we knew!'"
Sadly, there doesn't seem to be much there at present. However, and not surprisingly, Pearce said that he is definitely interested in working with Nolan again. We can only hope!
I definitely want to thank Nachmanoff and Pearce for taking the time to speak to us. It was great to hear some of the thinking that went into Traitor, which is definitely worth catching this week. Look for my review later this week where I'll dig a bit deeper into how the film actually performs, considering what the guys have told you of the movie here. Traitor hits theaters on Wednesday, August 27th.