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Traitor - Jeffrey Nachmanoff interview

Traitor, Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JEFFREY Nachmanoff makes his directorial debut with Traitor, an intense and realistic war on terror thriller starring Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce (released in cinemas, March 27, 2009). He talks to us about the research he conducted in order to make his film as authentic as possible, as well as why the original idea for the movie originated with comedian Steve Martin.

He also gives us an insight into directing a low-budget film that required 17 cities in three different Continents and the lessons he took away from the experience.

Q. I believe that Traitor was shot in just 48 days but it took in 17 cities in three Continents at a cost of $22 million. That’s a hell of a task for a first-time director…
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: It was what we like to call an aggressive shoot and schedule [laughs aloud]. Inevitably, there wasn’t enough time to do everything. I think, as you say, in the story of the movie we’re in 17 different cities. We shot, in reality, in six – we were in Toronto, Marseilles, Marakesh and London, and also did a couple of scenes in Washington and Chicago. And it was all done on a relatively indie budget.

Q. I would imagine you need a strong team with you and a really clear focus as director?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: You have to have a combination of dedication, planning and ignorance. You have to be foolish enough to try and take it on in the first place. I’m relatively lucky to get something like this as a first film as writer-director because it’s a bigger film than usual. And I think I was able to be more ambitious than if I’d had more wisdom. But I was also lucky in that I had a good team and everyone was pulling in the same direction. We had really great support from local crews as well because I ended up getting people to work on the film wherever we went.

Usually, a big Hollywood movie will just bring the crew with them everywhere it goes. But one cost saving method for us was to pick up local crews, so we were working with people who were the best in Morocco… And for them, it was a chance to work up to the A league. People who ordinarily would be No. 2 or 3 on the crew of a big Hollywood movie, we moved up to No.1 and I think everyone wanted to show how good they were.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your research process, because I believe you were at pains to make sure this was as authentic and balanced as possible?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: Well, whenever I’m writing about a subject that’s outside the realms of my experience, I think you owe it to the people, the culture and the language you’re depicting to do as much research as you can. So, I showed various Islamic scholars and people in the community my screenplay and asked them to tell me what they thought. This meant that some of my initial ideas were solid story ideas, but didn’t really work within the reality of what the beliefs were. I’d often end up with something that was more believable. I knew that we were dealing with a touchy subject in Islamic extremism and how it leads people to engage in acts of terrorism, and that some basic teachings of Islam were being mis-interpreted by extremists.

For instance, through talking to scholars I came up with the scene with Don Cheadle’s character in the cafe, where Fareed is telling him about the Islamic doctrine that states that it’s OK to lie about something, such as consuming alcohol, in order to protect yourself. It’s an obscure but extremely controversial tenant of Islam that the radicals have mis-interpreted for their purposes. But by including it in that scene it allowed the characters to express something and enabled Don Cheadle’s character to establish his credentials and his beliefs, as well as allowing the audience in on a mini debate that might occur between scholars and radicals.

Q. Likewise, you consulted the US intelligent community…
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: My father worked in government while I was growing up and he put me in touch with people in the intelligence community. I spoke to them about how things work in Washington and the craft. Unfortunately, what you see in the movie is real – there is a rivalry between agencies… it all goes on and while that’s not very good for security, it’s excellent fodder for us and movies.

Q. I gather the original idea for Traitor stemmed from Steve Martin?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: That’s a great and wonderful story of how this began. Even though he’s most famous as a comedian, he also writes books, plays and philosophy pieces and is very well respected. It’s just that he’s so busy making films. But he came up with the basic idea for Traitor and then sold it to the producers who subsequently brought me in.

Q. Did you get to work with him in adapting the idea into your screenplay?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: I got to meet him when I first started and I was hoping we’d get to hang out – but we didn’t. I met him at the start and at the finish. He was really nice and seemed to like the way it came out. I thought it was only fair to get his thoughts after I’d finished the screenplay. But he was very positive, although his other projects kept him very busy.

Q. And I gather Don Cheadle was instrumental in getting the project rolling as well?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: Don Cheadle was great. He’s such a terrific actor. When he came on board, he really helped us push it together. He was also instrumental in making sure it felt like a real story. He was a huge proponent of making it as authentic as possible as well and did a lot of his own research as well. You can see from watching the film that he learned enough Arabic to do the dialogue that’s required. He’s a tremendous talent and we were really lucky to get him on board.

Q. Likewise for Guy Pearce and Jeff Daniels I’d imagine….
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: I’ve been a fan of these guys for many years. So, it was a little bit strange to finally work with them, especially as director because that means you’re in charge. You have to push aside any star-struck element you have and you can’t ask them for their autographs [laughs].

Q. How did the movie go down in America. Were you happy with the way it was received?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: I was very pleased. Our ambitions were modest for the film in the sense that it’s hard to make a film on this subject. You can watch Traitor purely as a fun espionage story, but it also has a political edge… and those films are hard to sell in America. Audiences seem to want their entertainment to be mindless, where they don’t really have to think about anything, or they want them to be really serious. I’ve always thought it is possible to do both. Some of my inspirations for this were the films of the ’70s, such as All The President’s Men, The Parallax View, Three Days of The Condor and The French Connection… they’re all politically conscious thrillers. I didn’t make Traitor with the intention of telling anyone what to think, but I think it’s a more interesting experience if people can talk about some of the issues it raises afterwards as well as providing them with two hours of solid entertainment.

Q. It’s also a responsible way to approach a subject matter like this…
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: I grew up in London during the ’80s, when the IRA were setting off bombs, but even though there was terrorism going on there were a lot of interesting films being made that dealt with the issue, such as Sins of The Father. So, when you take the issue of “The Troubles”, for instance, the British were able to make movies about it because even though they could see that the terrorism was inhuman, they were also willing to recognise that people on the other side of the conflict were human, as well as people caught in the middle who were part of a big human drama. I think that Americans had a little bit of a harder time doing this post 9/11, when looking at it as a conflict between radical Islam and the West. I’m not making an apology for terrorism, but there are people on both sides who can often get caught in the middle.

Q, What was the biggest lesson you learned from the experience?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: I learned so many lessons about the process… I’ve been a writer for a while but the great thing about writing and directing is that you get to control and learn from the process and you learn from your mistakes as you go along. You have the idea for the story, then you cast the film and your actors bring something new to it and so you make adjustments. Then your crew have things to add. Then, in the editing room, you look at what you’ve shot and you adjust it yet again. It all started at a computer, in front of a blank screen, but it’s been both wonderful and fascinating to discover what carries over from the original idea and what evolves.

Q. Will you continue writing and directing?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff: I would love to. Right now, I’m directing something I did not write. But I’d probably seek to do both again. It’s a great mountain to climb… making a film is a humbling thing because you realise how many people are involved and how much they all bring to it.