Capone talks war, laughter, and politics with THE LUCKY ONES writer-director Neil Burger!!!
Published at: Sept. 22, 2008, 12:29 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey all. Capone in Chicago here.
Neil Burger wasn't the very first director I ever interviewed, but he was the first one I interviewed who wasn't an established director of genre films. At the time, he was on the road promoting THE ILLUSIONIST, and I had been a massive fan of his first film INTERVIEW WITH AN ASSASSIN, one of the coolest alternate takes on the JFK killing. Berger is one of the absolute nicest men I have ever met, and he was especially high on life when I sat down to talk to him this time around because he was practically just off the plane from Toronto, where his latest work as writer-director, THE LUCKY ONES, premiered to enthusiastic audiences (to be fair, some critics weren't quite as kind).
The film is kind of a tough sell, and even if you love the film, you're probably going to have at least one or two things that bother you about it. The story involves three soldiers (Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, and Rachel McAdams) returning from Iraq, some permanently, some on 30-day leave, all physically and emotionally injured. THE LUCKY ONES tracks their journey driving across the United States for different purposes, and like all road movies, this group encounters some weird people and event, some of which are very funny, some of which are ridiculous. The film is meant to be a crowd pleaser, and the evening before my conversation with Berger, we did a Q&A in front of 200-plus audience members who absolutely loved the movie, with almost no one leaving before the Q&A got started.
Neil Berger is open and honest about the elements of THE LUCKY ONES that might not work for everyone, and at the very least, you have to respect that. Anyway, we had a great talk, once again, and I hope you like it.
Capone: You said last night before we went in the theater about the Toronto premiere that the film played for 2,000 people "who all got it." In your mind what do you have to come into this movie with to "get it"?
Neil Berger: I don't think you need to come in with anything, but you do need to come in. And that's the real worry, because I think people are repelled when we get called an Iraq War movie. They're like, "Oh for God's sake, we have to watch that on TV every night; I don't want to see it here." Though I don't know how much of it they're seeing on TV anymore. I think we're all collectively in denial, and we're going through steps of working though this--anger, depression, denial--and now we're in the depressed phase. So that's the main thing. It's always incredibly gratifying to see it…I've seen it now with about four or five audiences of 300 people to 2,000 people, and they really respond as we were hoping for. So it plays; it's just a matter of how they can get people into the theaters.
Capone: I understand why you don't want this thought of as an Iraq War movie. But by the same token, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH isn't really an Iraq War movie. In a similar way to your film, it's about what happens when these very damaged people are put back into the real world. Do you think at some point in the near future, people will take a look at these films and see them as accurate and fairly portraying a reality of this time?
NB: You know what's funny? If these movies weren't out there, people would be saying, "Where's Hollywood in this debate? Hollywood has gone AWOL!" The problem with IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is that it's so in your face and kind of strident, and I hadn't seen that when I wrote this movie. From the beginning, I just knew there was a different way to go about it--using humor and really falling in love with these characters and trying to have a conversation about this in a different way, a way that lets you in through people's hearts rather than just this strident dogma.
Capone: I was really happy to see that Kathryn Bigelow's film THE HURT LOCKER [also a film dealing with the Iraq War] got picked up at Toronto. The studios aren't completely giving up on this idea.
NB: Can I ask you a question? What do you think? These movies should be seen. IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is a good movie. How should we be getting people to come see these?
Capone: That I don't know, but it saddens me that THE KINGDOM is the one of the bunch that is the most successful. That's just an action film that happens to be set in Iraq. It's almost a fantasy/murder mystery. And it saddens me that that film is a lot of people's access point into this conflict. I just got finished watching "Generation Kill" on HBO, which I thought was so realistic and terrifying portrayal of what's going on over there, but I don't think too many people watched that either.
NB: THE LUCKY ONES is a movie about America, and it's actually an entertaining movie, so hopefully the word of mouth will get people in.
Capone: Honestly, I think your film is the test for how using humor to tell a story like this is going to fly.
NB: Yeah, I agree.
Capone: When you cast Tim Robbins in a film like this, he brings a lot of anti-war, anti-Bush baggage with him. Did you have to have a conversation with him about politics and the intent of your film before he signed on?
NB: Well first of all, Tim read it and wanted to do it. It was pretty hard to say no to that because he is so right for the role, this guy is the forgotten American, the guy getting the shaft. Tim plays a great Everyman. He's the right age. He's this big white guy, who's kind of lost in America. However, it did give me pause because I did not want anyone to resist the movie for a reason like that. I wanted to have all those people who don't share Tim's politics to come into the movie and fall in love with these characters. So it did occur to me. But in the end, he is so right for the role that I think that first and foremost wins out. He's such a subtle and powerful actor.
Capone: Did you get a sense that he wanted to politicize his role or the movie a little bit more than it is?
NB: No, I think he got it. We did discuss it a little bit, but I think there's a very basic kind of direction--don't you cry; let the audience cry for you. We don't want to hear him lamenting on behalf of the soldiers. Let the audience understand from the normal experiences that the character goes through how tough that experience is.
Capone: Someone last night brought up the phenomenon of people coming up to returning soldiers and saying "Thank you." I've heard before that the soldiers don't necessarily like that.
NB: I talked to guys who said the same thing. "Don't say thank you, say welcome home." That's where it came from. And then I wrote it in and coming up with this motif on this trip of people saying "Thank you" and the soldiers would say, "No, thank you." It also comes from the conventional idea that the soldiers who came home from Vietnam were spit on or called "babykillers." But here everybody is much more welcoming of the soldiers and seemingly sympathetic, but I think it's insidious in a different way, because of the vacuous and the emptiness of it.
Capone: Of the recent films I've seen about people coming home, they seem to deal with the psychological damage more than the physical damage, and your film is the opposite of that. There is certainly psychological damage, but it's the physical injuries that are dealt with head on.
NB: Yes, they all have an injury, but it's not the sort of injury that completely takes them out of society. In a way, what it's really about is three Americans who are strangers in their own land, and that they're completely disconnected from the people at home. Their experience has no relationship, and that's a common coming home theme. But to me, it was to take a look at Americans as they come across in the short time period of the film and contrast their selfless sacrifice with our selfish self-absorption as a country. To me, that's what the movie is about. There used to be a collective psychology in this country or national sense of purpose, and that's what's been fractured.
So the injuries were to impair them in a way, and to make them different. Obviously, they're bringing something home physically as well as mentally. They're got their own baggage, but not so much that they are completely "the other." If you come home in a wheelchair, you are only your experience. That's not fair, but that's how it is. People talk louder to you, and you're like, "Nothing's wrong with my hearing."
Capone: There's nothing more American than the road film. How early in the process of writing the screenplay did you decide that that was going to be the structure, and how did it serve the story you were trying to tell by putting these people in that car?
NB: I think that was encapsulated in the initial idea. Actually, the initial idea was about two guys taking a road trip and trying to have a good time going home. And then when my co-writer started to help me finish the screenplay, it expanded to three people and we added a woman and we got an older guy as well. But the road movie is key to understanding the country. You can't just go to New York and know the country. We had to somehow take that evolution from the city to the hills to the developed suburbs, across the plains and mountain, and then on to Las Vegas, which encapsulates it all but in plastic. And what I like about the road movie is that there's something cinematic about the road movie, because in a sense, the each window in the car is a movie for them with the passing landscape. It's America but they're watching their own movie.
Capone: I read somewhere, I think it was yesterday, that the Dixie Chicks recorded the title song for this movie, but Lionsgate wouldn't pay the money for it.
NB: Oh jeez. Yeah, it's true. It's so awful. Listen to this: the Dixie Chicks won all those Grammies a few years ago, and they didn't write anything since then. They were kind of blocked. For the same Tim Robbins' reason, I wasn't sure I wanted them to do a song. Somebody suggested them, and I thought that's just one too many… But their manager was the same manager as somebody else we sent the movie to to write music for. He showed it to them, they loved it, they wrote a song for it unsolicited called "The Lucky Ones." It's beautiful. We cut it into the movie, mixed it, it was all ready to go. Two weeks ago: no deal. They just could not come to a deal. We are still working on it.
Capone: Did that version of the film with the song in it ever screen?
NB: No, never anywhere, because we only just got the song from them. But nobody's heard it except for me and my editor. So I don't know what they're going to do with [the song]. They're actually still trying to resurrect it. And it's possible that no reviewer will ever hear it if we do get to use it, but the audiences might.
Capone: You should just bring a copy of the song to each interview you do between now and then and play it for the journalist so they'll write about how good a song it is.
NB: I know. And the problem with the piece that got out yesterday is that it probably infuriated Lionsgate. And I'm thinking, "You're infuriated? I'm fucking so pissed." But I have to step lightly, because we don't want them pulling back advertising dollars because they're pissed at us. I don't know who put that story out there, or how they found out about it, but it's incredibly frustrating. It's a beautiful song, an Academy Award kind of song.
Capone: When the discussion of road films came up last night, you mentioned THE LAST DETAILS as a big inspiration for you. That's another film that uses humor to deal with some real serious subjects. Were there any other films you looked to?
NB: Well, to me, the great road films that I looked at were THE LAST DETAIL, because it gives you a look at what 1973 Americas was like, even amidst the story, which is kind of grim, and that's what I was after here. I also like LA STRADA from Fellini. I think THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES is one of the great road movies, actually. What's great about that movie is that it makes you want to go to South America. You really see the whole continent. I mean, it's a very romantic movie, and you're not looking at things warts and all; you're looking at it through that period's hue of beauty and romance. But, you are seeing a portrait of a continent. Obviously EASY RIDER is the iconic American road movie.
But THE LAST DETAIL is the best because it has the humor, but it has this look at the underside of America. They're in Penn Station and the Philadelphia bus station, and walking around New York in the West 30s, this crummy neighborhood. You get that raw look of what was going on then, and that's kind of what I wanted here as well.
Capone: Someone at the Q&A last night brought up the tornado sequence in you movie, and I didn't have a question about that scene in particular, but there are a handful of outrageous moments in the film. I was thinking of the scene with the hookers. I'm guessing everybody is going to have a different scene that they think is just a little too goofy. Have you been getting that kind of reaction?
NB: Some people love it and some people question it. There have been some grumpy writers--not you--who sat alone watching the DVD and said, "I don't buy that." But two things, one is that I structure the film like "The Odyssey," and the hookers are the three sirens who attempt to bewitch [Michael Pena's character] and can't quite do it because he's afraid to do it for lack of his functioning…well, you know. One of the hookers says, "I she can't do it, nobody can." And he's like, "I'm not ready for that all-or-nothing thing right now. And it's also absurd that [Rachel McAdams character] is the one that sets it all up, yet she's kind of in love with him. So to me what that outrageous--and that is the right word, outrageous--absurdity does, if you go with it, there's this uproarious laughter if you see it with a couple hundred people rather than just in a theater with six people. It's something that just occurred to me at the Toronto premiere, although I think I did it subconsciously, that outrageousness knocks the scab off the wound. And then when you touch it again, it hurts more; the wound is unprotected. And that's the risk that we took and that's why we did it. I fell like that laughter allows those truths to land. The laughter is like a Trojan horse; it gets you through the walls of resistance of people. I think that emotional reaction of laughing leaves the audience open and exposed, and when somebody gets hurt or is unhappy, your emotions are that much more raw and you go deeper. Whereas, if it's a drama--and you can get great truths with drama too--there's a resistance to it. But this is all shaken up, and you have to look at something more intense. I think there's a more intense response. That's why that crazy stuff is in there: the sex, the hookers, and the tornado.
Capone: It's the classic laughing through tears or crying through laughter.
NB: Exactly. We took a risk, but you have to take those risks.
Capone: I first saw it with a much smaller group than saw it last night, and clearly the group last night was reacting positively. It definitely makes a difference.
NB: That's occurred to me also. We're good if it plays, but what if there's only 10 people in the audience. Fuck!
Capone: Rachel McAdams is still new enough to most people that there's room for her to surprise us. I don't think I ever thought I'd see her in a film like this. How did you think of her as being good for this role? She's really the energy and heart of this film.
NB: She is. She's newer, it's true, but in a way she's the biggest movie star of the bunch. These people are fascinated with her. I saw her other roles and I liked her. I saw her in MEAN GIRLS and THE FAMILY STONE and THE NOTEBOOK, and that made me realize she was interesting. She's the right age. So when I met her, I realized she's not like any of those parts. She's more like the character in my movie. Not that she's naive, but she's incredibly open and gentle. She's also from a small-town background; she worked at McDonald's. She had that kind of lower-middle income upbringing. And she still had that in her and emanated that. And she has this wide-eyed openness and optimism; she's really like that. But at the same time, talking to her about the character, I could see that there was this purposeful determination of wanting to hone in on something specific. She's not tough, but you could see that she'd be a good fighter. She's not going to let something go. And I thought she was pretty right on.
Capone: You mentioned last night that each character's injury, in a way, defines them in their own eyes and the eyes of others. And that scene in the bar where she gets into the fight is really intense. At first she's just another pretty girl in a bar, but when she stands up and limps while she's walking, the whole room changes when they see her limping. There's a moment you see on her face where that shift hits her.
NB: The way they insult her, and you see it ripple through her body.
Capone: You get a sense that she's felt that way before.
NB: Oh, she's been humiliated all her life. But kept a rosiness to it as much as she could. But I bet she's hit some people or clawed some people before.
Capone: I was so happy to see John Diehl playing such a strong supporting role. I'm happy to see him anytime.
NB: Oh he's great. I'm so glad you noticed him. It's funny, when we had him on the set, people were like, "That's John Diehl! I want a picture with John Diehl!" People would say, "I loved you in MIAMI VICE."
Capone: There's a lot I love him in, but I kind of rediscovered him and Michael Pena in "The Shield."
Capone: Does Michael Pena have some sort of connection to this subject matter, having done two films about the subject [including LIONS FOR LAMBS]?
NB: I think as a result he has a connection. Look, if Robert Redford asks you to be in a movie, you're in that movie. I think he also saw this as something where he could be one of three stars. I'm sure it occurred to him that he might not want to play a soldier again, but he also felt it was too good a role to turn down. In a way, Rachel is the center of the film, but his through-line is really what drives a lot of what happens. It starts out with him. He's very present in this movie, and that's great stuff he gets to do. He's amazing. Again you want to find the actor who is something like the character. You can cast Robert De IRO as an aristocrat and I'm sure he'd be fine, but you better off casting Jeremy Irons, you know what I mean? Someone who has that bearing already. And Michael's kind of like an animal in a way. He eats a certain way; he's twitching like an animal. And that's what TK is, an animal that thinks he knows it all. Cocky, he's the best. And Michael kind of wants to be the best at what he does. When you play basketball with him, he's all over you.
Capone: In a strange way, I kind of look at his LIONS FOR LAMBS character as the beginning of the cycle, and in your film it's the returning soldier.
NB: That's interesting.
Capone: What are you working on next?
NB: That's suddenly in jeopardy at the moment. It's called THE DARK FIELDS, and CIA LaBeouf is the star, and that's the jeopardy because he hurt his hand very badly. They somehow wrote it into TRANSFORMERS 2, so he could wear a cast or something on his arm, but that's not part of our movie. And they're waiting, because he has to have all of his operations.
Capone: When were you supposed to start shooting?
NB: Ah, fairly soon after TRANSFORMERS is done shooting. I think he was taking a month-and-a-half off, and then we were going to go into it. But I don't think that's happening. So that's depressing. But I actually have this other movie that I've just finished writing for Universal--DARK FIELDS is for Universal as well--with my co-writer from THE LUCKY ONES. And it's possible we might be able to slot that in while we wait for Shia.
Capone: So you wouldn't try to find another actor? You want Shia?
NB: That's one of the many things we have to figure out. We've really just found this out in the last week, along with the Dixie Chicks news. [laughs] It's been a weird week, with our great Toronto premiere, and then it's like "What the fuck?"
Capone: Good luck with that. You should hold out for Shia. I bet he works twice as hard with a messed-up wing.
NB: That's be nice. Good to see you again.
Capone: You too. And good luck with this film.