As any avid appreciator of the cinema will tell you, sometimes you just get inexplicably drawn to the works of certain people…
In Beirut we meet Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm); a US diplomat who flees Lebanon in 1972 after the violence of the area comes to his very own home resulting in a tragedy that would send him down the rabbit hole of grief and despair, numbed only by liberal use of Jack Daniels or anything else that he could find. Ten years later, in the midst of a civil war he is called back into service by CIA operatives (Rosamund Pike & Dean Norris) to negotiate for the life of a friend in a life that he left behind,now being ransomed by terrorists.
A tense and effective drama in the vein of a myriad of thrillers that we’ve seen before, Beirut was a script written by Tony Gilroy and directed by Brad Anderson. You may know that dream team from other films like Session 9, The Machinist or from his work on TV shows like Fringe or Boardwalk Empire.
There’s something genuinely fascinating about getting to take a look inside the mind of a working director in Hollywood since not everyone gets the chance to be an ‘auteur’ or work under their own terms 100% of the time.
In advance of the release of Beirut in theatres this Friday, I got the chance to talk with director Brad Anderson about what drew him to the film, why it took 20 years to get made and why it’s always been important for him to never get pigeonholed into one kind of genre or type of story as a filmmaker and storyteller.
Obviously congratulations on the film I really enjoyed it. While I’ll admit this is probably the stock question you keep getting; can you tell us a little bit about how you discovered this script for Beirut?
Well Tony Gilroy and I had a project in the past that he had written which at one point I was going to do but it just didn’t pan out, so we had already established a relationship there plus I was already a big fan of a lot of his work. The script was brought to me by this producer at Radar Films who owned the material and it really was just as simple as reading it to know that this would probably a lot of fun to do. Plus it was different from the kinds of films that I had made before this because I had simply never made anything that played in this world and was this political type thriller/drama and that was part of the draw as well. Historically I like to try and mix it up whenever I can and not just do the same sorts of movies over and over again. Part of was certainly the novelty of it all and I really grasped on to and really loved the idea of doing a period piece in the part of the world because I’m just not (or I wasn’t) that familiar with it as a part of the world. That’s the adventure of it for me, creating something in a part of the world that you just aren’t all that necessarily friendly, and there was some real authenticity in that. So I loved this idea of Beirut in the early 1980’s as this bizarrely sad and tragic place. Plus Jon Hamm’s character of Mason Skiles is such a sad and tragic character so being able to bring these two things into the fold was a big draw for me.
Plus Tony (Gilroy’s) script had sat on the shelf for a solid 20 odd years and there was a lot of heat on it when he had written nearly 20 +years ago. It had different directors and actors around it but it just never got off the ground because I think the studios and the financial people were worried about making a movie set in the middle east at that time for whatever reason, be they political or other. However when Argo came out and did great business with a similar type of story, this one got taken off the shelf and dusted it off (it was a THICK layer) and said “Maybe there’s an appetite for this kind of story now” and I ultimately responded to the challenge of it all and we didn’t exactly make this movie for a huge amount of money so the challenge of trying to make this character in this universe come alive was something I really responded to.
And especially with Jon (Hamm’s) character as well because while I really don’t want to use any overly flowery language there really is something about this guy that we as an audience really get drawn to. He’s obviously this very tragic and flawed character who is drawn to this place that is also the source of a lot of his angst. Was that dynamic really the lynchpin for you in telling this story?
Yeah, I mean there’s this Peter Weir film that really stuck with me right as I was seriously getting into film called The Year of Living Dangerously with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver as this foreign correspondent in war torn Indonesia who falls in love with this woman and it all plays so exotic and dark. It was that mix of the danger with the romance which was an angle to it all that I really felt was pretty interesting as well as these John Le Carre style beats of espionage and intrigue getting tangled into all that was something I loved. Plus I really remember loving the tone and the feel of that film, which was emotional and scary inside of a setting that I really didn’t know all that much about. I got sucked into it all just by the virtue of that and I saw all these elements in Beirut because even though the setting were different the beats and the raw emotion of it was still very much the same.
Without a doubt because it is such a complex time from a historical standpoint because the ideas of having a region (which doesn’t always get translated on the big screen that well) of being in a region that is not just socially uncertain, but politically and religiously as well makes for something truly fascinating because you as the storyteller really has a lot to work with from that standpoint.
Yeah, and while I don’t think that any of us set out to make any kind of political expose about Beirut in the early 1980’s with all the different troubles that surround that but Tony (Gilroy) really based on the events that were happening on the ground at that time. Back when Israel was preparing to invade them and the US may have been greasing the wheels of all that along with the PLO launching missiles into Northern Israel…all that was really happening at the time and it’s all based in a world that is truly but obviously the character of Mason Skiles is all fiction and some of the others are as well but still loosely based on things that he had actually heard from CIA operatives who had been on the ground at the time who had told him some stories. His script definitely has some facts in it but he certainly did fabricate quite a bit around the edges of it all. While I don’t really see it as a political film per say, there is naturally a little bit of commentary going on but I really feel that it shows that all sides were really ‘bad players’ in one way or another and there was no clear cut right or wrong in a world like that. The only character we really have with any kind of altruistic and good virtue is Nathan because he ultimate comes back to Beirut in order to save the life of his friend. It’s really Tony’s speciality in creating dialogue and relationships with character that really demands of you to keep up with it all as it is unfolding. All the backstabbing, betrayals and political manoeuvring from a storytelling standpoint really can be gravy and a lot of fun to play with. It’s meant to be as complicated as it really was on the ground over there because that’s what draws you in. If you think it all feels like a mess, it’s because it actually was one with people really surviving on their wits while they navigate the pits and valleys that they are faced with.
I really love Jon (Hamm’s) performance in this because it really does feel like he’s trying to move past his iconic turn as Don Draper which is something that invariably will be with him throughout his career. Was Jon high on your list to tackle the role of Mason when you were starting out production?
Oh yeah, I love Jon and he really was one of the first people that we went out to for that reason. We knew that he’d be able to play it very dark but still be likeable and engagable as a leading man at the same time. You never want someone who is just so miserable that it makes you want to turn away, but when we see Jon be miserable on screen, there’s still something really compelling about him. He’s a very charismatic guy in life, very likable and very affable so even when he is being grim and dark in moments he still has a real likability to him and that’s something that we really wanted for the character.
This might be a bit of a stretch but bare with me because I have to admit that Session 9 is a personal favourite of mine and with a film like that or The Machinist and even to a certain extent here in Beirut there’s a bit of a thread there with these characters in these places that they can’t seemingly breakaway from. For you as a storyteller is that an idea that you like when you are trying to find the right character to ultimately base a narrative around?
You know I guess I am drawn to lead characters that are facing some kind of dilemma, be it self-imposed, psychological or anything else. It could be a guilty conscience or some sort of emotional monster that they are harboring inside themselves or in the case of Beirut where we have this guy who is weighed down by this incredible burden of guilt and a sense of responsibility that he needs to chuck off in some way. I think that characters that are in predicaments that are kind of sending them down the ladder are more interesting than the ones who are heading up the ranks of life. I really don’t know why, maybe they are just characters I find myself more drawn to then the ones that are deeply successful. Failures, fuck-ups and misfits are just infinitely more interesting to me and I am drawn to that more and I can see that in some of the other films I’ve made for sure and also the characters in films like Session 9 and The Machinist ultimately have this epiphany of who they are or who they are destined to become, be it a monster or a killer of some kind but in this one it isn’t quite like that but there is that moment in the film where Jon’s character has that moment and realizes that he needs to stop being the pathetic drunk slacker in this situation and ultimately take some action so that he can do the right thing. He gets to have that transformative moment, even in this film. And it plays straight, which is what drew me to the material in the first place because and especially in my career with the films that I have done there are some connections to be sure with some of the darker stories that I have worked on, but I also like mixing up genres because I had never done a straight forward political drama like this film before now. I like to do different things, and the next thing will probably be something different yet again. It’s important for me to mix it up.
Is that what ultimately draws you to television work as well? Obviously there are differences between building something from the ground up versus jumping into a universe that is already defined and exists.
Oh yeah, TV is a different animal in the sense that you’re just invested in it at a different level then you would be while making a film. I mean I’ve done some really good TV and I’ve done some not so good TV over the years but ultimately you really are a tourist in someone else’s journey in a way, just being a guest director. What I really like and am drawn to about TV though is that it’s fast and you can quickly immerse yourself in a totally different genre, be it sci-fi or even something more of a period piece like Boardwalk Empire and it’s a way of sampling different stories, different genres and different worlds. It’s fun and allows you different ways to shoot and experiment with different visual styles giving you some different toys to play with and letting you add more to your set of tools. I really enjoy that aspect of it as well, but it’s nice to be able to have my own film projects as well so I can express more of my own signature characteristics that might get lost in the shuffle or flat out not work on a TV show. I’ve doing quite a few pilots lately, which is kind of like making a mini-movie and then if the show gets picked up you’ve helped in creating it and doing that combined with my own films I find really keeps me engaged, busy and eager to experiment and try different things.
As someone that like you say; “Likes to Mix It Up”. Is there a genre or an idea that’s on your bucket list to explore as a story teller?
(Laughs) Yeah, the one passion project that I’ve had bouncing around for awhile that I just haven’t been able to get off the ground is to one day do a musical. I have this Brazilian Bossa Nova themed musical that I wrote with a friend if only because I really like that kind of music; think La La Land but with Brazilian music…
I would totally watch that…
(Laughs) Yeah I know! We’ve come close a few times but it is just a hard sell in general but then again these days who knows! There’s a few other ideas bouncing around as well and I always find that it is good to have a mix of things on your palette because frankly it’s always going to be about which ever idea ultimately comes together first. That’s just the practical reality of what’s going to get financing, and then that’s the movie you’re going to do. No one really has the luxury of being able to decide what order you are going to do things in because I mean something like Beirut sat on the shelf for 20 years, then the financing came in place, an actor came into place and we were off. I really don’t know why it works out like that, but you don’t argue with it either. It’s usually just a case of being in the right place at the right time.
Beirut opens in key markets across Canada on Friday April 13th.