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> Andrew Niccol
Art of Lord of War
Jay S. Jacobs
PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
September 10, 2005.
New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew
Niccol has been the brains behind some of the most mind-bending films in
recent years. Though he was not the director of his first
screenplay, the critically acclaimed The Truman Show, he has since
had the opportunity to create and helm such fascinating visions as
Gattaca (with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) and Simone (with Al
Pacino.) His creative streak was so hot that he could hand-off an
idea he had for a film and watch it become The Terminal with
superstars Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, directed by Steven
Spielberg. His third shot at directing his own script is possibly
his most intriguing cinematic vision yet. Lord of War is a
jaundiced but exciting look at the black-market international drug trade,
with an incredible cast including Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto,
Bridget Moynihan and Ian Holm. As the film's release date neared,
Niccol sat down with us to discuss his career and his latest artistic
You started your directing career in TV ads. How did you decide to make
the jump to features?
Itís because, I think
it was English advertising. In Britain thereís more of an obligation to
entertain in those commercials. You are truly making short stories, short
films. Itís sort of the place where Ridley Scott comes from and Tony
Scott and Alan Parker and such. Thatís our film school, in a way.
When you wrote
The Truman Show,
plan to direct it as well?
Yeah, but my mistake
was writing the most expensive film first.
How well do you think
Peter Weir captured your vision?
Well, you have two
choices really when someone else is directing your film. You can either
wash your hands of it or embrace it. I chose to embrace it. Then I could
get more of my ideas into the film. As well, I thought he did a great
When he was signed up
Jim Carrey was best known for goofy comedies like
While there is a lot that is very funny in the movie, did you worry that
he would have trouble with the more dramatic parts?
Yeah. I mean, Peter
was the one who was smarter than the rest of us to see the dramatic
potential in Jim more clearly.
Even though you wrote
The Truman Show,
your first feature to be released was
It was also
your directing debut. What was it like to be in charge of the creative
(laughs) But, you know, in a good way. I would always want
to be in some way anxious about any film I was making, whether it was the
first one or the latest one. I think it helps. Fear is a
Simone was almost
an inverse of the story of the Truman Show, instead of having
people watching a real person living in a fake world, in Simone it
was about a fake person living in the real world. Were you looking
that contrast with the film, or was that more of a coincidence?
It came with the
story. I didnít notice it at first. But as soon as someone pointed it
out I could see, yeah, Simone was The Truman Show
What was Pacino like
to work with?
Pacino isÖ I mean,
there is a moment when he was doing a very simple shot, actually Ė a
reaction to his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) when sheís asking him inside,
to come into the house after a long time. And heÖ you know, Pacino likes
to do a series of takesÖ he started doing this series and each one that he
did, each reaction was better than the last one. I couldnít call cut,
because I was so terrified that if I did, the one directly after I called
cut would be even better. So, I just let the film roll out. Iíll never
get rid of those dailies, because even the editor said when he saw it,
ďYou know, you could use the worst one of those and it would be
was one of
my favorite films of the last several years. I know you only have a story
credit, how involved were you in the filming of the movie?
Well, initially it
was my story and I was just concerned that the themes of it were too close
to The Truman Show. It was another prisoner in paradise. So, the
reason that I didnít want to write it or direct it really was because I
felt Iíd covered that ground before. It would be better for someone else
to have some input into it. I really couldnít get better input than
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. (laughs) Itís great. But I still
gave them as many thoughts as they would tolerate.
What inspired you to
make a comedy about gun-running?
Iím not sure itís
necessarily a comedy as much as it isÖ
Iím sorry. Not a
comedy, but it definitely has a lot of comic aspects to itÖ
Right. There is an
absurd nature to this kind of world. The fact that you could have these
two mortal enemies going to an arms fair. The fact that they call it a
fair in the first place, as if itís some kind of carnival. Then they all
go to the same arms vendor and buy the same munitions, go back to their
separate countries and go to war together. Thereís an absurdist nature to
that I wanted to capture.
Now I hear that
Nicolas Cageís character is based on some real gun runners. How did you
find out about them and how did Cage do at capturing their essence?
Well, you know, I had
to actually use arms dealers in the making of the film. Just to get the
munitions, for instanceÖ All of these tanks lined up on this runway.
Fifty Soviet tanks and they all belong to one man. He said, ďThereís just
one catch, I need them all back by December, because Iím selling them to
Libya.Ē The other interesting thing about it was how much I liked these
characters, which is sort of the guilty pleasure of it. I mean, these
guys are very charming, efficient, personable people.
The character of Yuri
seems completely unscrupulous in many ways, making him an interesting
anti-war anti-hero. Even his main competitor, played by Ian Holm, has a
bit of a moral compass and limits who he will deal with, but Yuri will
sell to anyone. He is certainly different than some famous characters of
the genre, like say Hawkeye Pierce or Yossarian, who in the long run were
flawed but moral people. But do you worry that Yuriís near complete
self-involvement may make him a little unsympathetic to audiences?
I hope so, in some ways. Because I think some people will find
for him in this film. If thatís true then you are definitely rooting
for the villain. Itís an anti-hero that Nicolas Cage is playing.
But they donít see themselves as bad guys. We would
say, ďYouíre responsible for the deaths of tens and hundreds of thousands
of people.Ē They would say, ďNo, Iím not responsible for any death.
Because I never pull the trigger.Ē
Lord of War
is the second time
youíve worked with Ethan Hawke. Did you write the role with him in mind?
What do you think he brings to the table?
I never write with
anyone in mind. But I thought Ethan would be perfect for it, because he
has just a perfect complexity to play this character. Heís also flawed
this character, in that he doesnít just want to catch the bad guy. He
wants his picture in the papers. That was interesting to me, the fact
that he dresses up to interrogate him in one of the last scenes in the
film, because he thinks he has his man. Itís interesting to me, because
heís obviously got some vanity.
Like you so often do
in your films, you take a very serious, almost disturbing subject and you
look at it in an absurdist way. Why do you think this kind of
juxtaposition is interesting?
I just think it is,
for me, more interesting than to come at it sort of head on, a more
conventional way. I just think it suits the nature of the world. Because
itís absurdist, I want to give it that quality.
The follies of war
also get a skewering in the film Ė were you paying attention to Iraq and
some of the bureaucratic bungling on both sides when writing this film?
Well, I think the
film is, hopefully, beyond the latest war. Arms dealers certainly arenít
concerned with the war du jour. Because they know thereís always
going to be another one. They can be quite confident in human nature that
violence is not something weíre shedding any time soon.
A recurring motif in
your films is the idea of the blurring of reality and fantasy. Why do you
find this an intriguing idea?
Because I think
thatís just a reflection of where we are in the world. Even if you look
at video games, that can be so violent and yet so real. Then suddenly
kids look at the news and they donít see much difference. Someoneís blown
away on the news. Someoneís blown away in the game. Whatís the
You are from New
Zealand, and yet in most of your films seem to be very savvy looks at the
American experience. How do you think being from a different place gives
you an interesting perspective on the United States?
I think itís maybe
sometimes easier when you donít come from the belly of the beast. You can
just look at it from an outsiderís perspective. It does give you some
distance. And if you come from New Zealand, one thing youíve definitely
got is distance. (laughs)
In a world with such
horrific realities as the ongoing Gulf Coast disaster, how important do
you think taking comic and fantastic looks at the horrors of life is for a
think obviously there are more escapist films than my own, but I think
itís interesting to me just to shine a light even in a slightly fantastic
way at the realities of our world. And getting us to laugh at ourselves
is never a bad thing.