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Niccol delivers a scathing traffic report

"The real weapon of mass destruction is the AK-47," says Andrew Niccol, the 41-year-old writer-director of "Lord of War," possibly the boldest movie of 2005. It opens in all of its sulfurous, nightmarish, weirdly funny glory -- starring Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke and Bridget Moynihan -- on Friday.

The real weapon of mass destruction we ought to care most about, to him, is not a well-aimed nuclear warhead. Or "one of those computer-guided cruise missiles" says Niccol. Or some newly deployed bio-horror. It's the simple gun and bullet.

"Nine out of 10 war victims die at the point of a gun. That's the real weapon of mass destruction. We go on and on about weapons of mass destruction, but that's not how people die."

And that's why his remarkable movie exists. It's a black comic drama about the rise and fall of an ambitious international arms dealer -- a globe-trotting death mogul -- played by Cage with all the charm in the world. Imagine a kind of Satan in tap shoes, and you've got Cage's performance.

It's a brilliant film with an absolutely unique tone. And its vision of arms-trafficking is revelatory. You watch it not just with appreciation but also with some wonderment that it was able to be made at all.

Which makes it another precious antidote to everything a very stale summer has taught us about cinematic mediocrity. Here, in the Lazarus Movie Fall of 2005, is a film that is, in its way, almost as bold as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/1 1" were in their way last year.

Niccol knows "it will be a polarizing film. I think some people will say, 'How could you make a film about such a despicable character?' Other people will see that you have to show an anti-hero because in this world (of arms trafficking), there are no heroes."

Nor will political affiliation matter. His scathing portrait of this world has no party.

"The U.S. is by far the biggest arms exporter in the world. Whether Bush is president or Clinton is president. It doesn't really have any party allegiance. That machine just keeps going."

Niccol is a very cool customer on the phone. He talks to an interviewer in the wry way writers often do -- with complete precision, saying only what must be said and keeping mum about the rest. His voice seldom increases in volume or velocity. Get him though on the subjects that stir his passions, and he is as eloquent as you'd expect the writer of "The Truman Show" and the writer/director of "Gattaca" and "Simone" to be.

He is a New Zealander by birth, a Brit by early career training (TV advertising) and, thus far, a writer and director of movies with major American stars. Ask him what his nationality is, and he answers "that's a good question." For professional reasons, he divides his time between Los Angeles and New York.

Though "Lord of War" is, by far, the best film he's ever directed, he agreed it's a miracle the film got made at all "and not even just a small miracle" either. Not only did he have no idea who'd finance it when he wrote it, "I wasn't even sure the money was there to shoot that day's work" when he was actually making it.

It is, then, a truly independent film, but that independence came at a cost. "The good thing was that there was no studio looking over my shoulder. The bad thing was there was no studio -- there was no BANK, you know? A studio is a bank, pretty much, and we had no bank."

A few more words from the man who may wind up having made the gutsiest major film of 2005.

Q: To use Orson Welles' old phrase, who did come up with the "end money"?

A: I was fortunate to have an insane French producer who put his own money into the film and who convinced other investors -- all foreign investors -- to put their money into the movie. (Pause.) That's why the opening credits take so long. (Laughs.) "In association with . . ." and "In Conjunction With . . ."

Q: How instrumental were Cage and his production company in getting the film made?

A: As much as his production company -- which was a sign of his faith in the film -- it was Nicolas Cage himself. We wouldn't be talking to each other now without Nick. He is the sort of box-office actor that most reassures investors there's a chance they'll get their money back.

I don't write with anyone in mind. As soon as I finished the script, I thought "who would make the devil charming?" Nicolas Cage was, for me, the only choice.

He wanted to do it. Then he was a little nervous about it. Finally, I pulled a gun on him, and that was that. (Laughter.)

Q: It's hard for me to conceive of even writing the film in the first place without considerable outrage. Am I right about that?

A: I'm not sure I would describe it as outrage. To me it was interesting that you've had so much focus on drug trafficking. But arms trafficking has so much more of a devastating impact on the world. I was curious why there wasn't more attention paid to it and why we hadn't seen it before. . . . Who are these guys who can sell a gun as if it's a vacuum cleaner? You open the newspaper any day and you see a war, you'll see a gun in someone's hands. That gun had to come from somewhere. Where did it come from?

Certain facts I researched kept becoming stunning revelations -- this unexplored consequence of the end of the Cold War. There were these warehouses full of weapons and suddenly no one was watching the shop. And so these unscrupulous military people or gangsters in Soviet states just flooded Africa with these weapons.

That figure (in the movie) -- $32 billion in weapons were stolen from the Ukraine alone in that 10-year period. That's true. $32 billion! That's a lot of cash.

Q: "Simone" was a fascinating idea for a film (a director, fed up with actors, creates a digital star that proceeds to take the world by storm -- no one can believe she's fake). Were you happy with the final result?

A: All movies are compromises. Also, I can only make them. I can't distribute them. I wasn't happy about the way the movie was distributed. Also, the support behind the making of the film wasn't there. It's always a compromise. You just need someone to support what you're doing.

This time, if I wanted to change something, there was no committee, there was no studio. I could just go into Nick's trailer and say, "We're going to change something today, do you agree? Should we do it this way?" If he and I agreed, that was it. I didn't have to talk to anyone else. That was the freedom we had. The downside was there was no one to bail us out if we needed more money.

Q: Have you ever been as disenchanted with actors as the guy (played by Al Pacino) in "Simone?"

A: (Laughs.) No, no, no. I've really been fortunate with my actors. Nobody comes to my movies for a paycheck. Everyone has to cut their rate to do one of my films. They're coming for the love of the material. I've always been blessed to have wonderful actors, who turn out to be my friends in the end.

The fact that I'm still friends with Al Pacino is amazing to me, really. He's a god to me. To call him a friend is amazing.

Q: Was "Traffic," both the British TV series and the American movie, an influence on "Lord of War"?

A: Not really. Obviously, because they're both about trafficking, I can see that people will compare them. It's just a very different tone. Also, it's from the point of view of that anti-hero in the world. I think tonally ("Lord of War") is very different...

The problem I tend to have is that I tend to have expensive ideas. You're allowed to make expensive conventional films, but don't try to make an expensive unconventional film, because you're always going to make life difficult for yourself. I often make life difficult for myself.

Q: Whose work among your American contemporaries do you follow closely?

A: I wouldn't like to name one, because I would leave out someone else. I'm not much influenced by movies. I could be influenced by something I see on the way to this interview as much as any work of cinema or literature. There are certain people I admire, people like Terence Malick (whose "The New World" comes out in January). I wouldn't want to name too many people.

Q: I've always wondered about all of you who've had backgrounds in British advertising and who've always been beaten over the head for it by critics. I've always wondered whether you think that's fair.

A: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker, they all come from a different generation than me, but we all come from British advertising. It's a great film school in a way. . . . I think British advertising has such an obligation to entertain in those commercials. You do actually end up telling stories, making short films.

So I think it's a great film school, British advertising.

You go from selling soap to selling ideas.

If you know British advertising, the commercials truly are better than the programs. They are truly very creative things. There are stories in them and characters. Whereas American commercials are very image-driven. British commercials are story-driven. People who come out of American commercial directing also get slammed -- maybe even more so -- it's just about style over substance.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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