After September 11, 2001, novelists and journalists alike searched for information about operations againt Al Qaeda, the intelligence world’s new prime target. Spy novelists had been searching since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for a suitable villain to replace Soviet communism. Now in Osama bin Laden and his operatives, they had one.
My own search for fact and fiction about Al Qaeda began with an interview with a 2003 interview with George Tenet, then CIA director. Tenet explained that the agency’s strategy was to work with friendly intelligence services throughout the Muslim world to share intelligence. In practice, that meant drawing on the sources that these countries had developed over many years. When I asked Tenet if any countries had been especially helpful, he immediately cited Jordan and the head of its General Intelligence Directorate, Gen. Saad Kheir. “This guy is a superstar!” he said with characteristic Tenetian enthusiasm.
The next time I was in Amman, I asked King Abdullah if it might be possible to meet with Kheir. He agreed and we began the first of several meetings. From those conversations, I began to sketch a portrait of my character Hani Salaam, the imaginary chief of my Jordanian General Intelligence Department.
The novel is about deception, and I drew on some real examples. The Jordanians, working with the British and American, have been especially skillful in using their penetrations of hostile groups to sow deception and distrust. Their deception operations against the Abu Nidal Organization were so successful that they basically caused the group to implode. The Abu Nidal operatives were literally shooting each other. In “Body of Lies,” I imagine how a similar operation against Al Qaeda might be run—and the pitfalls therein.
The other historical root for the book is the famous British World War II deception of the Nazis described in the memoir, “The Man Who Never Was.” The challenge was to convince the Germans that the Allied invasion of southern Europe wouldn’t come through Sicily (as everyone was expecting) but further East in Greece. So the Brits dressed up a corpse to look like a dead officer, an imaginary “Major Martin,” who was carrying super-secret communications about a Greek landing. They floated the body ashore off the Spanish coast, and waited for German intelligence to find the secret documents. The Germans swallowed the lie. My novel opens with a similar “body of lies”—a corpse who has been dubbed “Harry Meeker” and is to be dispatched with a message for the CIA’s imaginary agent in Al Qaeda.
GID directors make mistakes, particularly when they overstep the bounds of intelligence and insert themselves into politics. But from what I know, the GID is very good. They are patient and meticulous in preparing operations, and it helps that they control almost totally the Jordanian operational space. They have run some long-term penetrations of terrorist groups that have probably saved thousands of lives over the years. And they are very good at interrogation—not at beating people up (though human rights groups say that sometimes happens) but at eliciting information through other means.
After the horrific hotel bombings in Amman in November 2005, the Jordanians captured the wife of one of the bombers. The chief of the GID’s Al Qaeda branch knew that it was urgent to obtain information quickly. He interrogated the woman himself. He began by saying that women were the source of strength of the Arab and Muslim world—the source of everything that was good and pure. Knowing that she was childless, he addressed her throughout as "Mother." On a television screen behind him were images of the carnage at the hotels, where dozens of Jordanian families had been killed or wounded.
The Jordanian interrogator asked the distraught woman why she had participated in these terrible acts. She answered that her husband had ordered her to do so. "These acts are against God's will," said the interrogator. "Don't you understand that it is wrong to obey your husband before God?" The woman began to break in that moment. "You need to repent," the interrogator said. And she did, providing a full confession that helped break up the cell and save many more lives.
My fictional account of interaction of Jordanian intelligence and the CIA was published in 2007 as Body of Lies. Before publication, movie rights for the book had been acquired by Sir Ridley Scott, a director with whom I had been working on another project set in the Middle East. To my surprise (this was the fourth of my novels to get some Hollywood interest and none of the others had gone anywhere), Scott pushed ahead -- commissioning a screenplay by William Monahan, who had just won an Oscar with his screenplay for The Departed, and then hiring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe to play the lead roles.
During filming, I sat down for an interview in which I explained some of the real-life sources for my story. That's included as one of the "special features" on the deluxe DVD edition. I also recorded a joint commentary with the director and screenwriter, in which we commented on the movie, scene by scene.
A tragic footnote to the story told in Body of Lies, about Jordanian manipulation of Al Qaeda, emerged in the suicide bombing of a CIA base in Khowst, Afghanistan on Dec, 31, 2009. The bomber was a Jordanian "triple agent," a jihadist who was "recruited" by the GID and then flipped back against the West with devastating effect, resulting in the deaths of nine CIA personnel. It was eerie for me to hear from colleagues that this real-life disaster reminded them of the fictional story I had written, but in reverse.
By Ken Silverstein -- June 20, 2007
David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post and co-hosts, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at washingtonpost.com. He is the author of six novels, including Agents of Innocence (which in my humble opinion is one of the greatest spy tales ever written) and the just-published Body of Lies, a post-9/11 thriller that centers on a CIA effort to bring down a terrorist group carrying out car bombings in Western capitals. I recently asked Ignatius six questions about his new book.
1. This is your first novel in nearly a decade. Why did you decide to return to fiction?
From 2000 to 2004, I was living in France as editor of the International Herald Tribune. To be honest, living the good life in Paris seemed like a better use of my spare time than being closeted with my computer. But I missed writing fiction–especially the way in which the writer’s conscious brain disappears while writing a novel. I like escaping my “self.” Gradually an idea for a new book began to take shape and I got started writing for real in late 2004.
2. Is the book’s main plot -- the effort to bring down the terrorist group headed by Suleiman -- modeled on a true-life story?
The idea for this book began with a conversation with a senior CIA official. I asked him about the agency’s post-9/11 strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda. He said he hoped to rely on help from intelligence services in the Arab and Islamic world. I asked if he had encountered any superstars in these friendly services, and he mentioned a top Jordanian official. The next time I was in Amman, I asked the palace if I could speak with this particular gentleman, and it was duly arranged. From those conversations, I began to sketch a portrait of my character Hani Salaam, the imaginary chief of my Jordanian General Intelligence Department.
The novel is about deception, and I drew on some real examples. The Jordanians, working with the British and American, have been especially skillful in using their penetrations of hostile groups to sow deception and distrust. Their deception operations against the Abu Nidal Organization were so successful that they basically caused the group to implode. The Abu Nidal operatives were literally shooting each other. In Body of Lies, I imagine how a similar operation against Al Qaeda might be run—and the pitfalls therein.
The other historical root for the book is the famous British World War II deception of the Nazis described in the memoir, “The Man Who Never Was.” The challenge was to convince the Germans that the Allied invasion of southern Europe wouldn’t come through Sicily (as everyone was expecting) but further East in Greece. So the Brits dressed up a corpse to look like a dead officer, an imaginary “Major Martin,” who was carrying super-secret communications about a Greek landing. They floated the body ashore off the Spanish coast, and waited for German intelligence to find the secret documents. The Germans swallowed the lie. My novel opens with a similar “body of lies” -- a corpse who has been dubbed “Harry Meeker” and is to be dispatched with a message for the CIA’s imaginary agent in Al Qaeda.
3. The (fictional) head of Jordanian intelligence plays a prominent role in the book and the GID is portrayed as being highly effective. Is the GID as good as its made out to be in the book?
GID directors make mistakes, particularly when they overstep the bounds of intelligence and insert themselves into politics. But from what I know, the GID is very good. They are patient and meticulous in preparing operations, and it helps that they control almost totally the Jordanian operational space. They have run some long-term penetrations of terrorist groups that have probably saved thousands of lives over the years. And they are very good at interrogation -- not at beating people up (though human rights groups say that sometimes happens) but at eliciting information through other means.
Here’s an example of GID interrogation techniques that I posted recently on washingtonpost.com: After the horrific hotel bombings in Amman in November 2005, the Jordanians captured the wife of one of the bombers. The chief of the GID’s Al Qaeda branch knew that it was urgent to obtain information quickly. He interrogated the woman himself. He began by saying that women were the source of strength of the Arab and Muslim world -- the source of everything that was good and pure. Knowing that she was childless, he addressed her throughout as “Mother.” On a television screen behind him were images of the carnage at the hotels, where dozens of Jordanian families had been killed or wounded.
The Jordanian interrogator asked the distraught woman why she had participated in these terrible acts. She answered that her husband had ordered her to do so. “These acts are against God’s will,” said the interrogator. “Don’t you understand that it is wrong to obey your husband before God?” The woman began to break in that moment. “You need to repent,” the interrogator said. And she did, providing a full confession that helped break up the cell and save many more lives.
4. From reading the book, one gets the sense that you feel the real-life CIA has become too bureaucratic and too unwilling to take risks. Does that in fact mirror your view of today’s agency?
I do think the CIA has become so politicized -- so surrounded by second-guessers and special pleaders -- that it sometimes has difficulty doing the essential task of an intelligence service, which is stealing the other guys’ secrets. That’s what we sometimes forget -- a spy agency’s job is systematically to break the laws of other countries by encouraging their citizens to commit treason. We have layers and layers of legal and congressional oversight, and I guess much of it is necessary, but it doesn’t change that unpleasant reality.
In the news business, we know that reporters learn by experimenting and taking risks. As an editor, I used to say that we needed to give young reporters the “freedom to fail” -- that is, let them take risks that sometimes don’t work out. That’s much harder in the intelligence world, where an operation that goes bad can mean imprisonment or even death. And in journalism, we don’t have to cope with congressional oversight committees, thank God. But still, some of that innovative, risk-taking spirit is essential.
Our CIA has a permanent “kick-me” sign on its backside. It gets attacked equally these days from the right and from the left. CIA officials put up with a degree of public abuse that would be unimaginable in the case of military officers. Is it any surprise that we have a spy service that is sometimes hidebound and cautious to a fault?
5. Several characters in the book that work with the CIA end up being killed by terrorists, and there’s not much soul-searching or concern about their deaths on the part of their agency handlers. Is there room for morality in these types of intelligence operations?
In all my novels, I have struggled with an issue I will call “seduction and abandonment.” I think in some ways that is America’s fatal flaw in intelligence operations overseas. We encourage people to risk their lives for our vision of a better world, and then when the going gets tough, we leave them hanging. We did that at the Bay of Pigs, in Vietnam, in Lebanon in the early 1980s, in Nicaragua with the Contras -- and now we are in the process of doing it again in Iraq. Basically, it’s immoral -- this process of making promises that we as a nation are not prepared to keep. The lesson for me is that we need to be more careful about blowing into countries with big ideas about democracy and social change if we are not prepared to stay the course.
The most direct statement I have made of this problem was in my first novel, Agents of Innocence, which was published in 1987. At the end of the book, a character named Fuad who has been recruited into the CIA’s machinations in Lebanon, says ruefully:
Americans are not hard men. Even the CIA has a soft heart. You want so much to achieve good and make the world better, but you do not have the stomach for it. And you do not know your limitations. You are innocence itself. You are the agents of innocence. That is why you make so much mischief. You come into a place like Lebanon as if you were missionaries. You convince people to put aside their old customs and allegiances and to break the bonds that hold the country together. With your money and your schools and your cigarettes and music, you convince us that we can be like you. But we can’t. And when the real trouble begins, you are gone. And you leave your friends, the ones who trusted you most, to die.
Almost every word of that would apply in Iraq.
Intelligence agencies are sometimes asked to do unpleasant things. But unless they operate in a larger moral context, they become thugs—little better than the old KGB. In addition to being immoral, this strategy is likely to be ineffective. Other people make better thugs than we do.
6. In the book, it is suggested that if the CIA could just nab Suleiman it would deal a crippling blow to international terrorism. Could one well-planned operation really have such a powerful impact?
I don’t think there’s a single knockout punch in the struggle against terrorism. People will have to read the book, but I think that’s one lesson of Body of Lies. That said, I do think that well-planned, long-term operations can have a big impact. And I think that America’s ability to use digital communications technology is one of the few real advantages we have in the asymmetric struggle against terrorism. That needs to be carefully monitored, but it seems to me that it’s at least as important as the “Ultra” code-breaking operations were to Britain during World War II. People ask me whether the agency is operating some of the false fronts and dangles that my novel describes, and my answer is: I hope so.
Posted By: Sheila Roberts
We sit down and un-cover lies and espionage with Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of Lies! MoviesOnline sat down with actors Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, director Ridley Scott, producer Donald De Line, screenwriter William Monahan, and author David Ignatius at the Los Angeles press day for their new film, “Body of Lies.”
The film is based on Ignatius’s compelling spy thriller about the murky underworld of today’s high-stakes global espionage where power is measured not by weaponry or technology, but by the amount of vital information one can acquire and control – or appear to. Ridley Scott worked closely with Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan to bring the novel’s gritty urgency and combative character dynamics to the screen in a story that is gripping, filled with twists and turns, and exudes the distinctive style and exciting action sequences that the director is so well known for.
DiCaprio stars as CIA field operative Roger Ferris, the best man U.S. Intelligence has on the ground in the Middle East, who is assigned to gather real-time intelligence on terrorist operations and devises an audacious plan to lure a terrorist leader, Al-Saleem, out of hiding. Crowe plays his superior, Ed Hoffman, a CIA veteran and ruthless strategist who operates from a laptop in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and will stop at nothing in the name of national security, even if it means sacrificing his best man in the field. The closer Ferris gets to the target, the more he discovers that trust is both a dangerous commodity and the only one that will get him out alive.
The film also features a strong performance by British actor Mark Stone who plays Hani Salaam, the elegant and powerful head of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, who is a master of interrogation and the art of the subtle seduction of pawns and adversaries. Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani makes her American debut as Aisha, a Jordanian-Iranian nurse living in Amman who finds herself charmed by Ferris when he turns up unexpectedly in her clinic.
Here’s what the director, cast, producer and writers had to tell us:
MoviesOnline: What was it like working with Leo again after so many years?
RUSSELL CROWE: Oh yeah, have I got some stories for you. It was the same as it was working with Leo in 1993, easy, easy and fun.
MoviesOnline: A lot of your scenes in this film are you and your cell phone essentially, was that like doing a voice on a cartoon?
RUSSELL CROWE: I don't know. I've never done a voice on a cartoon. It's the same as if you're doing a CGI film and you're supposed to be floating in a flock of black ravens. In fact, most of the time when you're on a film set, what you see in the audience has nothing to do with the experience of the actor. So you've always got to be shutting off things that are going to affect your focus and all that sort of stuff. So it's the same sort of thing where you just zero in on the phone call. Some guys try to attempt to do that thing of having both people on the phone at the same time which is just utterly a waste of time. It's a waste of time. It's better off that you just do the groove by yourself. And then if you shot it first, the next person gets to hear where you were and they will fold into that, or if you're doing it second, it's the same thing. You listen to what they said and then you have a think about it.
RIDLEY SCOTT: If you're the director, you got to go out and if somebody's done it first, and I run it, then the other actor will say, “Christ, he's taking forever to say his dialogue.” So it's always better on your own.
MoviesOnline: David, how did you describe the two characters, Ferris and Hoffman, in your book when you wrote it, and for Russell and Leo, how did you see these characters and what was it about them that made you both say yes?
DAVID IGNATIUS: They were called Ferris and Hoffman in the book, and something I'm really happy about is how faithful the movie is to the book, both in the interaction of the characters, in its picture of the CIA struggling around the world against a very difficult adversary, and in the way in which these characters, Ferris in his way and Hoffman in his way, rebel against the situation they find themselves in. So I thought it was captured well. There's more I can say about the book, but the basic feeling I have as a writer is the story I wanted to tell, the feeling that I hope people have at the end of the book is the same feeling I had at the end of the movie.
MoviesOnline: Were the characters in the movie anything like how you described them in the book?
DAVID IGNATIUS: The first time I talked to Russell he ask me, “Where's Hoffman from?” And I said, “I don't know.” I said, “Maybe he's from Massachusetts, I kind of can imagine Worcester or some working class town in Massachusetts and Russell said, “No, he's not. He's from Arkansas.” And he had decided that that was where this character was from and that's how this character was going to talk, and they obviously re-imagined the characters in a hundred different ways, and that's now who these people are. I'll never be able to read the book and read about Hoffman and not think about Russell, and the same thing with Ferris and Leo.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: To put it simply, I saw my character as an operator in the Middle East that was trying to operate and do his job in the higher moral context that his boss wanted him to, and there was this great conflict that was set up in the book and adapted by Bill into this script of this dilemma that this character has where he's asked consistently to do things that he doesn't believe in for the betterment of his country and this war on terror. And he simultaneously is accustomed to the Middle East and their cultures and he meets up with this Jordanian intelligence officer who he grows to respect, and wants to do the best job he possibly can, but he's being manipulated by both sides. And besides this being a great political piece that's pertinent to this time, it was this fantastic cat-and-mouse espionage thriller that works on its own.
RUSSELL CROWE: Fantastic answer Leo, thank you.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Thank you, thank you.
RUSSELL CROWE: I always believe it's nice to be polite at a press conference. The first thing that I got was a phone call from Ridley saying, “How would you like to put on a large amount of weight?” And that always appeals to me, and so that was kind of like a sell right there. But one of the other things that he said is that he wanted the character to feel like an ex-football player with bad knees who still had some grace about him, so that was also interesting. Everything else comes from the book and the way the character talks in the book, the dialogue in the book.
MoviesOnline: Can you talk about your relationship with Ridley? Would you do pretty much anything that he wants you to do?
RUSSELL CROWE: I went through a period of time where even after the great relationship we had on Gladiator, I didn't fully realize that that was probably a unique situation that will come along in your performance life, and so we went through a thing where he asked me to do Black Hawk Down, but I'd just done a movie where there was a helicopter in the background and I wasn't interested. Then he wanted me to do Kingdom of Heaven, but I was in the middle of doing something else, and I said, “Oh you'll have to wait a year,” and he said, “Fuck off, who are you?”
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: That was a great impersonation.
RUSSELL CROWE: With the last three things we've done together it's basically, “Right, this is what we're doing,” and I'm like, “Okay, cool,” and I'll say yes first with him and then work out why I want to do it afterwards.
MoviesOnline: The technology we see in the film seems almost impossible. How real is it?
DAVID IGNATIUS: I think the CIA would like to be as adept at the use of technology as Ridley Scott. They can do some pretty amazing things from what we know, and what we have to say is we don't really know exactly what they can do, but certainly there's a wonderful scene in the movie where Leo looks up in the sky at the overhead reconnaissance, and he's talking on the phone the same moment to Hoffman, and that's real. There are predators, there are unmanned drones overhead all the time, everywhere of importance around the world, so we do have those capabilities, and the ability to talk in real time with the operator on the ground is also real. I expect it drives our officers in the field crazy that, as in the movie, at any time the boss can get on the phone and tell you what to do and tell you what not to do. Nobody likes being second guessed. They used to talk about Donald Rumsfeld having a 7,000 mile screwdriver that he was using to minutely manage things far away, and I think the movie suggests that too.
MoviesOnline: Russell's and Leo's characters seem like brothers. Was that bond of brotherhood intentional?
RUSSELL CROWE: I'm so looking forward to your answer.
RIDLEY SCOTT: Actually, I don't think it was a brotherhood. I think it's very much a boss/operator relationship that Ed Hoffman might want to project this warmth as if it is brotherhood, or coach to player, that I'm watching over you buddy, but actually that's where the seduction begins. So I think this is fundamentally about seduction and betrayal, where if necessary he will betray his most valuable asset in the field if there is a higher reward than losing his asset.
MoviesOnline: Leo, did you do most of your own stunts?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Most of them, yes.
RUSSELL CROWE: I'll give you an example of most of his stunts. (pretends to dial a phone)
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: That I didn't do, I didn't do any dialing. I refused. We got beautiful hand doubles for this movie.
RIDLEY SCOTT: He doesn't like dogs either.
MoviesOnline: Were there any stunts that were particularly challenging or painful? Also, you had to learn some Arabic, are you able to remember any of that?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Absolutely none, I can't remember a single word even to tell you the truth. But we had an Arabic coach there that was really helpful, because it was more so than any accent, you have to be so exact and there's different dialects of Arabic from country to country, so it was really, really difficult to tell you the truth. And one of the hardest things I've ever had to do language-wise, because it comes from the throat, it's different, and also learning about the customs and the culture and all that, so we had advisors for that sort of thing.
As far as the stunts were concerned, yeah, it was difficult, it was a very, very difficult shoot, but that's the nature of working on a Ridley Scott movie. You have to embrace that. The pace in which he shoots is really intense, really fast paced, and you have to be prepared for anything in any given moment. He literally has helicopters on standby circling around, ready to get an overhead shot of you running through an entire city, and he's like, “Alright, you're happy with the scene, great, you've got your dramatic beats, okay. Why don't you walk down the block and we're going to have three helicopters chase you through an Arabic street in real time? They've blocked off some traffic, but you'll be fine. It'll be great. Go ahead.” And you have to just be prepared for that.
And that was the biggest adjustment. I'd just come from this other movie called Revolutionary Road that was like doing a 1950's play where we are talking about our feelings for months at a time in a small room, and then I wound up in Morocco with missiles being shot at me. It was a bizarre transition, but once you get accustomed to that pace you embrace it and you enjoy it and it starts to become this adrenaline-fueled work environment that you love.
MoviesOnline: Did that building really blow up behind you?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: What building?
MoviesOnline: Right at the beginning.
RUSSELL CROWE: Oh, you didn't notice it got blown up behind you?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I didn't notice that part.
RUSSELL CROWE: By the time you turned around it wasn't there anymore.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I haven't even seen this movie. I don't even know what you're talking about. What building?
RIDLEY SCOTT: The shepherd's stone house that was blown up.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Oh yes, yes, that was a big explosion. (everyone laughs)
RUSSELL CROWE: The key for any young player if they want to go and work with Ridley, you have to be prepared to bleed. It's as simple as that.
MoviesOnline: Your characters look like they're at opposite ends of the spectrum. Russell, you look like you're having the time of your life, and Leo, you look like you're a guy in the middle of the worst day of his life. How was that a challenge for each of you?
RUSSELL CROWE: I definitely was having the time of my life, because I knew that ultimately I'd be out of there in five weeks. It wasn't going to be my responsibility. Somebody else was going to get blown up this time and I was perfectly happy with all that.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I didn't want to say that, but I think the nature of the environments kind of played a toll in those [performances]. To tell you the truth, we were there for three and a half extra months, even thinking back - you enjoy this stuff.
RIDLEY SCOTT: I do, I like the place.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: People always ask, “Was it fun? Was it fun working on that movie?” I don't know if that's the operative word. It was challenging and interesting and all those other things, but fun isn't always the operative word.
MoviesOnline: Russell and Leo, what are your memories of making The Quick and The Dead?
RUSSELL CROWE: Fond.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Well, I was eighteen at the time. (to Russell) I don't know how old you were.
RUSSELL CROWE: You were that old? I've been telling everybody you were 12.
MoviesOnline: You looked twelve.
RUSSELL CROWE: I'll do the comedy here, mate [laughs], alright? Bloody hell!
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: We were both hand plucked to do that movie. He had done Romper Stomper and I had done Gilbert Grape and so we were hand plucked to do this big budget film. So we were both very bright eyed and bushy tailed.
RUSSELL CROWE: There's a difference in our ages, but we were both in the same sort of position where the people above us in the cast were Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone and everyone below us in a casting position were all these really famous character actors like Keith David, cats like that, and they were looking at the two of us going, “Who are these guys?” So that naturally kind of put us together in a way where we'd just hang out together because we didn't care about status. We just wanted to enjoy the experience. The two things that have changed about Leo since that time are he can drink legally and he's no longer a virgin.
MoviesOnline: And Leo, what about Russell?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I don't do comedy. But he's the same guy. He really is. I remember when I first started having these interpretations of these images, these cliches of what movie stars are and this and that, and they're egomaniacal pricks and tyrants, but in general, for the most part, they're nice people to tell you the truth. He couldn't be more professional. He couldn't be a more normal guy to hang out with. He's intelligent and great and blah, blah, blah - all that stuff. And he hasn't changed. That's it.
MoviesOnline: How did you get involved with this?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Ridley and I and David Ignatius collaborated on a project at Paramount. We did this idea of David's. It was an original idea of David's. It also was a story set in the Middle East. It was based on a journalist, a Christiane Ammanpour type of character, so we all got to know each other through that experience. David gave us the galleys of this book. We both read it right away and fell in love with it so we teamed up and did it together.
MoviesOnline: Russell and Leo, did either of you do any research in terms of CIA protocol?
RUSSELL CROWE: We can't discuss that with you.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I got to talk to some people who worked in that field. It's a very interesting subject matter to take on. Unless you're talking about the CIA in the general context of history, what they've done historically which we're only now starting to learn about, the basis of it being able to operate is the fact that it's shrouded in secrecy. Otherwise it wouldn't be able to function. So there's a certain leap of faith that you take with all this stuff. It was really David[Ignatius]'s research that he did in the Middle East, talking to Jordanian intelligence and all of that stuff that Bill [Monahan] then adapted and did the screenplay that takes on a life of its own. But we did the best research that we could in that regard.
MoviesOnline: Ridley and David, who came up with the line "Welcome to Guantanamo"?
WILLIAM MONAHAN: That came up somehow in the process with Ridley. The Guantanamo line. I'm interested in your thought that it sums up the whole movie.
DAVID IGNATIUS: That line may be in the book, I can't remember. The larger story of the CIA abroad and this process of seduction and abandonment -- both who it works with and sometimes its own employees. We're living through a period now where we're seeing how horrific the intelligence operations can be, but one of the strengths of the movie is that it transcends the here and now and tells the story that could be told about the agency's operations, I'd like to say this year, 10 years ago, 10 years from now.
WILLIAM MONAHAN: I don't think of it as a topical movie now that I think about it. It's an exciting spy story that very well could have happened during the French Revolution -- this cat-and-mouse spy game thing. It would work in almost any context. It's best to look at it that way.
MoviesOnline: Leo, can you talk about working on Revolutionary Road with Kate Winslett?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: What was it's like to be reunited with Kate Winslet? Hey, what a great question!
RUSSELL CROWE: What was it like, Leo?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Kate has remained one of my closest friends and is the best actress of her generation. She brought this book to me, which was a portrait of America after the war, trying to basically become the idyllic image of what a family is supposed to be. And two people trying to struggle to do that and they're basically torn apart because they feel like they've become cliches and have lost their identity. Kate and I basically knew we could push each other's buttons performance wise and knew we could pull stuff out of each other. We've known each other since we were almost teenagers. So it was something that I jumped at the opportunity to do.
MoviesOnline: Do you play lovers in that film as well?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Lovers? [laughs] Do we play lovers? We play husband and wife and so hopefully (we're lovers).
RUSSELL CROWE: Silly old you.
MoviesOnline: Leo, being in danger while Russell is picking up his kids, is it a commentary on our insulation in the larger world?
RIDLEY SCOTT: It's a comment on cell phones when he's about to engage in the field. He gets a call from his lawyer saying (his ex) wants the house. You've got to go, who wants the house? Then you realize he's engaged in a private condition, which is getting divorced back in Washington. That's what can happen today. The access to everything and instant information to everything has changed the world.
MoviesOnline: So insulation affects their work?
RIDLEY SCOTT: Isn't that always the way? It's the desk paratrooper up front who says Montgomery, Patton, Napoleon, who the great generals in the field were saying, if we put this quarter of a million troops over here, it'll get wiped out but we'll have a million safe over here. What's the right decision? You've got to make a choice. The guy who's running one of the black ops of the CIA, he's in a box that's even more secret than the CIA, he said, independent functionary, it's the least staff as possible. Put as few people as possible because the more people that know the more like it is that you're gonna get a leak. So he's a freewheeling independent functioning within the CIA. In the field he may not have a lot of guys the level of Farris. He may only have a dozen and he may choose to have them all together, and Farris may not know if there's another functionary there on his beat because he chooses not to talk about it. That's why there's an oops when somebody shouldn't have been there.
WILLIAM MONAHAN: It's a commentary on the dynamic that exists in the intelligence community and in the spy trade. The guy on the ground, which is Farris, he's in the middle of it. He has to carry out the operation and he has to answer to a boss, a superior, in this case, Hoffman. And he even says in the movie at one point, you don't know what's going on, you're not here every day in the middle of it. I am. So that's part of the tension between these two characters. That's always going to exist in the intelligence community.
MoviesOnline: One of Ridley’s signatures is the sense of place. How important is it for you when approaching a film to put your actors in these locations?
RIDLEY SCOTT: The location is always like the other character. It's up to me to create a proscenium that's so real that when the actor walks into that proscenium he's actually affected by it. It takes on more (inaudible). I always remember the first time walking on a battlefield in Germania. It was four miles east of Gatwick Airport. But we walked over the hill and into the front and that proscenium was pretty impressive, wasn't it? What I like is he's never seen it until he walks in. It becomes part of the world. The locations are the work.
MoviesOnline: Does that sense of location work for you as actors?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: [to Crowe] You're the one who's done 18,000 movies with him.
RUSSELL CROWE: Well, yes and no. It's wonderful when it's there, but equally you can't rely on it because the next thing you do may have none of that canvas and you may have to run it all in your mind. It's the same thing we talked about before in having a telephone conversation with someone who's not on the other end of the line or doing something in a blue or green screen room where you've got to imagine everything that's around you that everybody else will see. So it's fantastic when you can walk onto a stage of that size, even half of the Coliseum that we built in Malta was better than not having a Coliseum there at all. So it goes both ways. It's fabulous when it works and when you can be in that place and time that the character is supposed to be in. But on the other side of that, being an actor, you can equally shoot Botswana for Texas. The game is a bit more ambiguous.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Of course it's relevant and it would be great to have the real locations constantly. We shot Morocco, which doubled for a lot of different places. It's more the attitude of the director that you're working with and the environment that he wants you to be surrounded in. That's what was great about working with Ridley. He's like a human editing bay. He's constantly saying to himself, “Do I believe this? Do I not believe this? Do I believe the people I've surrounded the main character with? Do I believe what they're saying? Do I believe what I'm seeing through this screen?” He's this filter, this bullshit filter, and he trusts his own instincts on such a gut level. It's great to work with somebody who will come in and say, “Okay, this entire scene is wrong. Get rid of three pages of dialogue or let's move this outside. Whatever it is, I'm not believing it.” Or “I am believing it. Push it to an even more extreme.”
I keep talking about this, but it's amazing to watch him behind the monitor or in the tent with six different monitors and cameras from every different angle and he's just snapping from monitor to monitor, switching and knows exactly, and really efficiently, saying “This is exactly what I'm going to use in the movie and everything else is a profound waste of time. Let's just not do any of that other crap. This is the moment that I'm going to choose and this is the kind of thing that I want and let's go work on something that's actually beneficial to the movie.” And that's the attitude that he has and you go in everyday and feel like you've done a day's work and everything that you put that effort into will wind up for the most part as a part of the movie. That's the great thing about Ridley. Besides the locations it's what I just said.
MoviesOnline: There’s a moment in the film when your character tells Ferris to never have kids. What are your own thoughts on parenthood?
RUSSELL CROWE: It’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever experienced. It continues to get more fun and more complex every day. We did actually debate quite a bit about Ferris’ attitude towards children. I think Hoffman’s attitude is that he’s passing onto a man that he’s trying to use in a certain way so he may be expressing a momentary negative, but what he’s really trying to do is suppress his desire by doing anything else but his job. Another sort of moment we had was when Hoffman is on the phone talking and there’s this sort of thing where his kid went to go to the bathroom. I think there was just sort of a dismissive aspect in the script and I said to Ridley it’s just a function of being a dad that he can still do this thing while he’s taking his kid’s pants down, pointing him in the right direction, making sure he doesn’t get it on the floor. Stuff like that. Then I push him off back to bed while he’s destroying something on the other end of the phone. I think that’s what Hoffman was getting at a little bit before. I think he used the word insulation. He needed distance between him and the reality of what he’s doing so it’s easy for him. He’s playing a video game whereas Ferris is [consigned?] in real life.
MoviesOnline: You have a story that has a love story within it and yet the characters can’t touch each other, how tricky was that?
RIDLEY SCOTT: The book started off with Aisha being a national. In fact she was a French girl in the embassy. I asked David how he felt if she was local, which I felt wasn't initially there as the idea of what it played into. It started to underscore Ferris's attachment and liking for the region that he was in. So when he comes to that little lunch he has with her, where she's obliged to have a chaperone there, which is her sister and the two kids, afterwards she says, "Ironically, my sister wants to go to America." He says, "Well, if you want, I'll swap passports with her." She says, "Don't joke about things like that." He says, "No, I mean it." So you start to get a sense of attachment to this particular place that he's somehow found his own magic in and then what's really nice about it is that she's taken what some would think are ridiculous aspects of the Koran, but in some ways I think is rather charming aspect of the Koran that she can't touch, cannot shake his hands. So you've got to have a chaperone, you can't shake hands until they're fully engaged in an acknowledged relationship, which probably means family, et cetera, et cetera. And if you go there in the scale and spectrum from where we are today in our society, all that stuff, anything goes, right? So I think that's a balance, there's a plus for reappraising some of the better aspects of being a little more reserved about relationships and how fast they travel.
MoviesOnline: Why do you do your own story boards?
RIDLEY SCOTT: Focus. It’s all about focus. If I get lost I just sit there and I will doodle. The doodle will start, because I spent a long time in art school so I can really draw. So I'll doodle and suddenly I'll find the beginning of the movie in one picture. Usually, I start my stuff on the telephone. Right by the telephone I've got a book of doodles. When I'm on the phone, I'll be doing a drawing eventually this big if the phone session's long.
RUSSELL CROWE: It's not just that he draws. He not only draws but he can draw upside down. So he can put a piece of paper in front of you so you're looking at the piece of paper and he can draw the frame for you. It's a very strange talent.
MoviesOnline: For Russell and Ridley, one of the best movies you guys did together was A Good Year. Do you have any more movies coming out?
RUSSELL CROWE: Yeah. We’re doing another one. It’s called A Gooder Year.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: A Gooderer year?
RUSSELL CROWE: A Gooder Year.
RIDLEY SCOTT: I think what happens is that people don’t expect something from Russell, expect something from me, so you step into a new arena and everyone is so taken aback by it that we basically got fundamentally beaten up, mercilessly by British press and French press. At the end of the day, you can't give a shit. All you can do is actually be your own critic. That's key. Doing what we do, you have to be your own critic and judge and adjudicate as to what you do and how it turned out. How it turned out, I look at it and I'm very happy about it. Actually I was thrilled with this and the process was really great. Apart from that, it was great fun.
MoviesOnline: Leo, can you talk to us about working with Mark Strong who gave such a good performance?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: He sure did. He gave a fantastic performance. He came in, he was one of the last people to be cast in this film. He’s done a lot of theatre in England and he came in and I think he was immediately taken aback by these sleazy 70’s suits that he had to wear and the cheesy attire that he had on, but jumped into the role full force. He’s so subtly conniving and deceitful in this movie. He embraced the character and just had such a great attitude even though he came in literally the last week of filming, but he’s fantastic in this movie. I don’t really know what else to say except that he just knocks it out of the park. We really needed to have somebody on Russell’s end to be able to be the flip side of that coin. We needed somebody with some weight to them and gravitas to be able to match up power wise when they sit in a room together like whose got the upper hand. Thank God we got Mark Strong.
MoviesOnline: Leo, everyone knows about your commitment to the environment and a green economy. We’re facing the hugest bailout in history and I was wondering how you feel about that?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: What specifically?
MoviesOnline: A good deal of this money that might have been earmarked for the economy or environment will not be available now.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Well if you’re talking about the environment and our country shifting to alternative technologies in ways to power the country, I’ve been profoundly disappointed for years so it’s no news. We should have started eight years ago to be less dependant on foreign oil and start to invest in some of these new technologies, but now we’re way behind of the curve again and the United States should be the one to set an example for the rest of the world. Brazil is doing it. Other countries are starting to adapt these principles, but we haven’t. The only thing that I really want in this new election, because I get asked a lot, I’ve been an outward supportive as a Democrat in the past and have gone out for [John] Kerry and all these things. My new thing is to say alright, obviously people don’t want other people to tell them how to think or what to believe or what’s right politically and what’s wrong. The only point for me in this election is I want enough young people to go out to the polls and actually vote this time. To register and vote because then we’ll get a real consensus of what this country is. We’ll really understand where morally our country is. These young people will be able to dictate policies for the next 50-100 years. It’s about time that we do that. That’s my only wish—that we get a real representation of the future of this country in this next election, whoever wins.
MoviesOnline: Russell, can you talk about your friend Nicole Kidman and her new baby and do you have any advice for her?
RUSSELL CROWE: Sunday Rose was born on the same day as my son Tennyson, [which is] the 7th of July. Nicole and Keith brought Sunday Rose around on a Sunday, which I thought was appropriate. Nicole had one look at my younger son Tennyson, and looked up at me and said, “I'm a great believer in arranged marriages.” I believe she made the connection between Sunday and Tennyson now – so Tennyson is already engaged! But Sunday Rose is a beautiful child with beautiful delicate features and it was fun when she brought her around Sunday – it was nice. I’m not going to be giving Nicole any advice. She’s already brought up two children. She’s pretty well versed.
MoviesOnline: Ridley, can you talk about the torture scene? How do you know how long it should be and when it’s too much for the audience to keep watching?
RIDLEY SCOTT: Well, experience. How long do you know when you've seen enough of a man throw himself on a kitchen table and give birth to something coming out of his chest? So you start there and the studio said to me, "It's gross." I said, "Hang on, I'm being paid to be gross, okay?" Because that was a horror movie. In this instance, the scene was always tricky because we're going down a dreadful cliché, but the cliché is real and horrible. I would not do any research so much as I would consider it immoral of me to watch a beheading. However accessible it was I couldn't do it and I wouldn't do it. Believe me, I'm not queasy, it just would feel wrong even entertaining watching it. Therefore, what has to happen, who's watched a beheading here? Anybody admit it? So first of all, you've got to imagine what that would be, but then also, what we've got is a very good text. We've got a good scene, got good words, got great actors so there's a dynamic in that scene that I know I have to keep it flying, as does Leo because one of our challenges will be that none of the audience are ever going to believe for a second that he's going to die in this scene. One of the challenges from that point of view is to put you on the edge of, because it is theater, it is a film, is he gonna die or isn't he going to die? Do you think he's going to die? I thought about it. I thought, "Go on, cut his f*cking head off."
RUSSELL CROWE: Can I just clarify something? Did you just ask this room full of people, "Who here has been to a beheading?"
RIDLEY SCOTT: Who's watched one?
RUSSELL CROWE: Sorry, just struck me as funny.
RIDLEY SCOTT: I could not watch one.
RUSSELL CROWE: Well, I'm glad none of you have been to a beheading.
MoviesOnline: Leo, what was it like to see yourself in the scenes being tortured?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: That whole scene without giving the ending of the movie so I don’t even like to use that term because I don’t want to talk about what happens, but we knew that there was this pivotal end moment in the movie where I’m in the hands of the enemy and this was something I think I know way back when Bill Monahan first gave me the script and told me about this project and told me about Ridley and about the whole relationship. We talked about that scene. This was the scene that needed to be the pivotal moment in the film that unless that worked and was believable and had the guts to it and the intensity to it and the weight, the film wouldn’t work almost. It was something we talked about at great length and analyzed in every possible direction. What would a CIA agent trying to do his best in this world finally say if he’s in that situation? What are the words that would come out of his mouth? What kind of tactics would he use to try to get out of the situation? What is he thinking about? Is he thinking about his own survival, the betterment of his country, what secrets does he release? It was one of the more complimented scenes for the movie and one of the most intense in the sense that we knew we had to knock it out of the park. I actually got sick after the scene for three days because there was just so much intensity put into that.
RIDLEY SCOTT: What evolved, I don't know whether you thought about it, I thought about it always during. There's an evolution of the character which there's a large part of it in the book that we don't actually have. The part of the book which is now the only part of the book we have is the guy is Ferris sitting in one corner present at a scene where there's a guy being cross examined with a cricket bat. And after that, obviously the man dies. So you're starting off a film with a man who is coming to a point of deep reflection as to whether he's actually doing the right job or not, and if he is, is this the right way to do it? So you're already starting a film with a guy who's already halfway out the gate. He's already in disarray in terms of being a functionary and to do what he's doing and I think what's interesting is Hoffman starts to sense that. So you jump to the end and what I would think that if you believe in karma, which I do, I've got this inherent belief in karma, that doing what you're doing, you're carrying it all the way through to where you finally get to does Ferris think about this as retribution and what must be at this moment will have to be, therefore I'm in acceptance of what is about to be dealt me. If that comes out of the scene, then that's what it is.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Well put.
MoviesOnline: Russell, what was your favorite food to fatten up on for this role?
RUSSELL CROWE: It’s not really a matter of that. It's the other way around. It’s a matter of choosing a sedentary lifestyle and that’s what I do when I want to change things up. I do enjoy the fact that I’ve gone through periods of time when there isn’t any control. You’re not looking at the menu going, “Hmmm.” You go whatever tickles my fancy so that’s cool. It really is for me for my metabolism, it's that. I just don’t exercise. As soon as we started the movie I was actually at the beginning at the place I wanted to be so I’d ride my bike to set everyday and all of that sort of stuff because I wanted to stay at a certain point.
MoviesOnline: Russell, what are you doing next?
RUSSELL CROWE: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.
MoviesOnline: Have you done Robin Hood?
RUSSELL CROWE: No, we haven’t done that yet. It’s one of those things where we’re taking our time with because you don’t want to be doing Robin Hood unless you’re going to be doing it really f*cking well. It’s got to be the best one ever done otherwise you should be doing something else.
MoviesOnline: Do you think you can compete with the Errol Flynn version?
RUSSELL CROWE: The Errol Flynn version?
MoviesOnline: Will you wear tights?
RUSSELL CROWE: I will not wear tights because according to our research they were not invented for another 300 years. I apologize to you all and to Sienna Miller.