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Andrew Niccol – The Art of Lord of War

Andrew Niccol with Nicolas Cage and Ethan Hawke on the set of "Lord of War."

Andrew Niccol with Nicolas Cage and Ethan Hawke on the set of “Lord of War.”

Andrew Niccol

The Art of Lord of War

by Jay S. Jacobs

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 vision.

You started your directing career in TV ads.  How did you decide to make the jump to features?

It’s because, I think it was English advertising.  In Britain there’s more of an obligation to entertain in those commercials.  You are truly making short stories, short films.  It’s sort of the place where Ridley Scott comes from and Tony Scott and Alan Parker and such.  That’s our film school, in a way.

When you wrote The Truman Show, did you 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 job.

When he was signed up for The Truman Show, Jim Carrey was best known for goofy comedies like Ace Ventura and The Mask.  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 it after The Truman Show, your first feature to be released was Gattaca.  It was also your directing debut.  What was it like to be in charge of the creative vision?

Terrifying.  (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 wonderful motivator.

Andrew Niccol with Al Pacino on the set of "Simone."

Andrew Niccol with Al Pacino on the set of “Simone.”

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 to explore that contrast with the film, or was that more of a coincidence?

It came with the story.  I didn’t notice it at first.  But as soon as someone pointed it out I could see, yeah, Simone was The Truman Show inside-out.

What was Pacino like to work with?

Pacino is… I mean, there is a moment when he was doing a very simple shot, actually – a reaction to his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) when she’s asking him inside, to come into the house after a long time.   And he… you know, Pacino likes to do a series of takes… he started doing this series and each one that he did, each reaction was better than the last one.  I couldn’t 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.  I’ll never get rid of those dailies, because even the editor said when he saw it, “You know, you could use the worst one of those and it would be brilliant.”

The Terminal 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 didn’t want to write it or direct it really was because I felt I’d covered that ground before.  It would be better for someone else to have some input into it.  I really couldn’t get better input than Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  (laughs)  It’s great.  But I still gave them as many thoughts as they would tolerate.

Nicolas Cage and Bridget Moynihan in "Lord of War."

Nicolas Cage and Bridget Moynihan in “Lord of War.”

What inspired you to make a comedy about gun-running?

I’m not sure it’s necessarily a comedy as much as it is…

I’m sorry.  Not a comedy, but it definitely has a lot of comic aspects to it…

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 it’s 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.  There’s an absurdist nature to that I wanted to capture.

Now I hear that Nicolas Cage’s 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 instance…  All of these tanks lined up on this runway.  Fifty Soviet tanks and they all belong to one man.  He said, “There’s just one catch, I need them all back by December, because I’m selling them to Libya.”  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 Yuri’s near complete self-involvement may make him a little unsympathetic to audiences?

Well, I hope so, in some ways.  Because I think some people will find themselves rooting for him in this film.  If that’s true then you are definitely rooting for the villain.  It’s an anti-hero that Nicolas Cage is playing.  But they don’t see themselves as bad guys.  We would say, “You’re responsible for the deaths of tens and hundreds of thousands of people.”  They would say, “No, I’m not responsible for any death.  Because I never pull the trigger.”

Ethan Hawke and Nicolas Cage in "Lord of War."

Ethan Hawke and Nicolas Cage in “Lord of War.”

Lord of War is the second time you’ve 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.  He’s also flawed this character, in that he doesn’t 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.  It’s interesting to me, because he’s 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 it’s absurdist, I want to give it that quality.

The follies of war also get a skewering in the film – 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 aren’t concerned with the war du jour.  Because they know there’s always going to be another one.  They can be quite confident in human nature that violence is not something we’re shedding any time soon.

Nicolas Cage and Jared Leto in "Lord of War."

Nicolas Cage and Jared Leto in “Lord of War.”

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 that’s 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 don’t see much difference.  Someone’s blown away on the news.  Someone’s blown away in the game.  What’s the difference?

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 it’s maybe sometimes easier when you don’t come from the belly of the beast.  You can just look at it from an outsider’s perspective.  It does give you some distance.  And if you come from New Zealand, one thing you’ve 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 viewer?

I think obviously there are more escapist films than my own, but I think it’s 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.

Photo Credits:
#1 © 2005.  Courtesy of Lions Gate Films.  All rights reserved.
#2 © 2002.  Courtesy of New Line Cinema.  All rights reserved.
#3 © 2005.  Courtesy of Lions Gate Films.  All rights reserved.
#4 © 2005.  Courtesy of Lions Gate Films.  All rights reserved.
#5 © 2005.  Courtesy of Lions Gate Films.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2005   All rights reserved.  Posted: September 10, 2005.

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