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Jarhead - Sam Mendes interview

Jarhead

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. This could be called as the final part of your unofficial American trilogy. What drew you to it?
A. I’d like to feel it was deliberate to make a trilogy of American films but it wasn’t; it happened accidentally, I seem to remember after the last movie saying that I was going to make a small English film next and I ended up making a war movie that was specifically about the US.
That’s been a great adventure but quite unexpected. The reason is that I read this book; on page one, I had no desire to make an American war movie but by the end I did and I have had to go back doing these interviews and analyse why I made that decision and I think it’s because, primarily I liked the voice of the book so much.
The voice is the voice of Tony Swofford, which is the character that Jake plays in the movie. I felt it was like I would have been had I found myself in the military, someone who had never really wanted to go into the military, someone who was sceptical about it, someone who was basically a college kid at heart and somehow found himself unexpectedly in the desert and wondering how they got there. I thought it was funny and surreal and strange and I also thought I would like to make a film that has some bearing, some contemporary relevance because I had just made a costume piece and I felt like I wanted to go to the places he described in the book. So that’s what drew me to it.

Q. How much co-operation did you get from the US military? Was there ever any suggestion to soften the harder edges, either from them or the studio?
A. There was a suggestion early on because if the military gives its co-operation then it saves on the budget because they give us hardware for free. But there were two problems. One is that they thought the book was evil and a terrible commercial for the Marine Corps, which I only partially agree with, and the second was that they’re at war and are using all their hardware, so they didn’t have any spare.
The way we had to do it was to go and visit these strange people in middle America who collect tanks, helicopters, machinery, guns weapons etc. There are a lot of them so we managed to do it that way.

Q. But was there any kind of pressure brought to bear on the studio by the government?
A. No, I don’t think there was any government pressure on the studio to not make the film but I think there is a big societal pressure to not stick out your neck.
That’s been going on for a long time; there is a wholesale cultural and media opting out of discussions on the war. You see that suddenly breaking down with a movie like this, a movie like Munich or Syriana, or all these movies that are politically invested in the present day.
When you do that, in America especially, you accept straight away that the movie is going to divide people because it has an opinion, or a view of the war and everyone has an opinion on the war.
Very few people have opinions about King Kong, they just want to be entertained, but everyone comes to this movie with an opinion and they are hoping that their opinion is going to be stated brilliantly on screen. So when they don’t see that it’s frustrating and when they do see that, it’s a thrill. It’s divided people which I’ve liked.

Q. I understand you held a special screening for Tony Swofford? Was that more nerve-wracking than showing it to critics or audiences?
A. That was the most nerve-wracking day in the whole making of the film. Tony had written the book and lived the story himself, I met him in pre-production I got him in for a day and he met Jake and stuff but he left. He said: “You don’t want me looking over your shoulder any more than I want someone looking over my shoulder when I was writing. I’m going to leave you to it and one day you’ll call me and say ‘come and see the movie’ and I’ll come.”
So that’s what happened. Six months passed and I finished a cut of the movie and I asked him to come in. When he arrived, he was sweating and looking very nervous as he does all the time – he looks uncomfortable in his skin which I think in some ways is a legacy of his military past. But I said ‘welcome to the weirdest day of your life, you’re about to watch a movie of your own experience’.
He watched it and I was watching the back of his head the entire time. But he stood up at the end and he said: “It’s fantastic. I’m honoured you made this film, you didn’t just make a good film, you made the best possible version of my book.” And that was it for me. I thought if I passed that test it must be okay. But he’s been great, he did a whole tour of college campuses in the US, signing books and talking about the movie and answering questions. He’s been incredibly helpful in getting the movie to a wider audience in the States.
It’s an unusual war movie to be released at this time; it’s not an action film, it’s not a combat film and it had to find a wider audience and it’s done that which is in part through him.

Q. Do you intend to do that small British film next?
A. Yeah, I think so. I’d like to do something that isn’t specifically American. For me, I only finished on Jarhead a month ago and I’ve been promoting the film since then, so I haven’t really had the luxury of distance.

Q. Why did you insist that your cast went to boot camp? And what did you gain from that?
A. I get a little tired of watching those DVD specials about guys going to boot camp and how they really feel like Marines when the truth is it’s only a tiny taster of what it might be if you were to go into the Marine Corps.
I just needed them to know how to handle their weapons and know how to pack their rucks and what goes in their rucks and how to obey orders and move across open ground in formation.
I needed to see that as well because there’s a lot of stuff in the movie that’s referred to that I didn’t understand how to achieve fully in terms of military operations. It was also a chance to leave them alone together as a group and see what happened.

Q. What were the war movies that inspired or really affected you in some way?
A: I think there are two kinds of movies. There’s the combat movies, the war is hell genre, like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Deer Hunter – that sort of stuff which once you’ve seen you can’t really forget.
Then there’s the sort of existential war movies. There’s the Elem Klimov called Come & See and the one that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Movie about three years ago called No Man’s Land. I think that in many ways this has more in common with those kinds of movies. This is kind of a war movie version of Buñuel’s Cet Obscur Objet du Désir, in which the man is constantly trying to sleep with the girl and never manages it.
In its frustration of male desire it draws attention to the nature of male desire and it anatomises male desire. It’s a meditation, in a way, on it. That’s how this movie works, it’s a meditation on what makes men want to fight, what training a man to kill does to a man and how by frustrating it, it can destroy you in a different way. That’s where the heart of the film lies.