Thursday, November 04, 2010

Thirteen Days - The Roger Donaldson Interview

Seeing Anne Billson digging through her archives for some great vintage interviews to post on her blog MULTIGLOM (Go! Read them now! I’ll wait.) has inspired me to look back through my own cache of long-forgotten witterings to see if I can find anything blog-worthy. Here goes...

Back in the early months of 2001 I’d already been writing for the film website 6degrees for well over a year, but I was about to pop my interviewing cherry by sitting down with director Roger Donaldson who was in London to promote the release of Thirteen Days, a terrific film chronicling the terrifying moment in October 1962 when the world was teetering precariously on the brink of nuclear war. (Side note: I was one of the only reviewers who wasn’t given any access to the film’s star Kevin Costner, although he did brush past me in a corridor as I left.) It would be one of the last articles published on the site, just before it folded up and drifted away in the mass implosion of the first dotcom crash.

I’d been a huge fan of Donaldson’s No Way Out for years, so I was excited and nervous. About 80% nervous to 20% excited. I turned up at the Dorchester Hotel over an hour early and just paced around outside chain-smoking trying to get my head straight, worrying about whether the DAT recorder I’d borrowed would explode or how often I would mindlessly go “ummm” and “errr” (answer: a lot. They all disappeared thanks to the magic of transcription, along with a painful amount of my fatuous interjections.)

Before I switched on the DAT recorder, I told Mr. Donaldson that he was my first ever interview, so if he wanted to just talk freely if I stumbled, that would be fine with me. (I have no shame. None.) He was a gracious and charming interview subject, even though he’d been sitting there all day talking to journalists and he was saddled with me for his last interview of the day as we headed into the early evening. Looking back at the interview now, I can’t help noticing the section towards the end when he digresses to talk about starting out in a career, as if he’s talking directly to me.

One more thing to bear in mind. This interview took place in March 2001 - six months before the events of September 11th and a couple of years before Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, which makes this interview something of an interesting relic from a different time. Enough preamble - let’s get to it:

6degrees – The first thing that struck me about Thirteen Days is that it works on quite a few levels: there is the obvious epic scope of the whole thing and its global ramifications, then you have the relatively intimate portrayal of a group of men making incredibly hard decisions, and then you also have the relationship between the Kennedy brothers and Kenny O’Donnell. Which of these elements in particular attracted you to this film?

Roger Donaldson – Well I think, to be honest, before I read the script I thought I knew a lot about the event, and as I read the script I realized first of all how little I knew, and then secondly how dramatic and suspenseful this story was and how so many things went wrong it’s a wonder that it didn’t end badly, and as I turned every page I just wanted to know what happened next, and I thought that if I feel this way about the script, I’ve got to be able to make an exciting, thrilling movie about this. There were a number of other reasons, of course, that I was attracted to it, but the most basic thing was that I just really did feel like it was a good story that I could tell well.

6degrees - Did you know going in that you wanted to do it as a political thriller?

RD - Yeah. The movie was a political thriller, and the script was a political thriller, and I’ve always been interested in thrillers. In a way, every movie I make I think of as a thriller, whatever it is there’s always an element of tension and building suspense. Even a movie like Cocktail in its own way for me has got an element of that. I like movies that are about relationships and how they resolve themselves and how the politics of relationships play out, and in this particular case I just felt like, boy, this is a very tense story, the stakes were enormous, the characters were going into uncharted territory as these events played out, and I’ve got to be able to make a compelling story out of this material.

6degrees – Did you find that we were much closer to apocalypse than anybody could have possibly imagined? Do you think the people in that room were the only ones who really understood the implications of what was happening?

RD – Well, first of all the script made that point. But I was interested to know what the reality of it was with some of the people that had experienced it, and one of the things that I managed to do was to hunt down a lot of people who had been part of the real story. I managed to find the guy who had flown the first low-level photography runs over Cuba, I managed to find Ted Sorensen who was the speech writer for Kennedy, people like Robert McNamara are still alive who I spoke to and every one of these people reiterated that at the time they believed that it was going to happen, they really thought there was going to be a war, and they were convinced it was going to be a nuclear war, and they had this feeling of inevitability about it, accepting that there was nothing they could do to stop this thing happening, and you talk to someone like Robert McNamara now and he says “I don’t know how it didn’t happen”.

6degrees – And there are moments in the film where it’s so close.

RD – And that’s how he felt. He really thought that on that night when they delivered the ultimatum to the Russians and Bobby Kennedy goes off to speak to Dobrynin that there was no way the Russians were going to back down. They were painted into a corner because of this U2 being shot down, they felt like they had to take a pre-emptive strike against the missile sites and then all hell would have broken loose.

6degrees – Apart from the fact that the story is incredibly dramatic, do you also feel that it is incredibly relevant, in that this is something that could conceivably happen again?

RD – Well, things are different these days, and there’s one big difference, and that is that communications now are instant. Now, the President of the United States can get on the telephone and get through to Putin, and vice versa. So there is that instant communication. However, that doesn’t necessarily make resolving conflict any easier as we’ve seen.

6degrees – The film also seems to hammer home the fact that these massive events are dealt with by a select group of people, and these events succeed or fail on the merits of the key decision makers.

RD - Yeah. Look at how the Second and First World Wars got going, or the Bosnian War, or the wars that are happening right now in Africa. Take the Middle East, for example. There are a half dozen people calling all the shots, and you hope that there are some smart ones there! Because they’re not always that smart, and some of them just get there because they’re the most ambitious, but not necessarily the smartest.

6degrees – Another thing that struck me about the film was the fact that in recent years, and this is particularly relevant for younger audiences seeing this film, the name Kennedy is usually heard in association with Marilyn Monroe or Lee Harvey Oswald, and it’s refreshing to see Kennedy portrayed as a politician. Was this a side of him you consciously chose to put across?

RD – First of all, I made this movie for the young man I once was. I think that there is a lot of crap out there for young people, there are a lot of movies that speak down to them, that treat them like they’re stupid, as if all they care about is getting laid and going to dance clubs. Now, I was that kid too once, but there was also another side of me that was a serious person who cared about the world, who was idealistic, who cared about politics, and who felt that on the one hand, I was not really able to affect what happened in the world, but at the same time, realising that I was part of it.

At the time of the Vietnam War, I felt like I was a pawn in America’s plans and I got conscripted to go to Vietnam. I don’t know where I got it from, but ultimately I got this savvy and realized that this was not a bright idea, and as an 18 year old kid to get the courage to stand up to everybody, to all these adults who are going to put you in jail, or put you up against a wall and shoot you, or whatever, it takes a bit of courage to stand up and say “I’m not going to do what you tell me to do”. So I’ve always had that idealism and I remember that idealism that tends with age to pass you by a bit, and you get more of a realist about the world as you see the reality. I just think that there are a lot of issues now to do with nuclear weapons that young people should not just sit back and think everything is OK, because it’s not OK, and I would love this movie to be a focal point for examining the past and examining the present. I feel quite strongly about that. But the movie is entertainment too. I don’t think it’s a boring movie. It’s a history lesson, and you get your money’s worth.

6degrees – Are there any other historical moments that you would be particularly attracted to in terms of any future projects?

RD – History comes with baggage, unfortunately. And the further back you go the easier it becomes because people either don’t remember or they don’t care or it’s irrelevant. If you’re making something about Cleopatra, nobody even knows if she was Egyptian or if she was from Timbuktu, nobody really knows. I’m not a great history buff. The thing I would like to do is things that I’m passionate about, and I think this movie reminded me of that passion that I started my filmmaking career with and I don’t want to lose sight of that passion that I know I have. One of the great things about being young and getting out there and starting out your career is you have a passion and you know how hard it is to make headway. Your own ambition can take you a long way too, and you’re only as good as you know you are. The hardest person to convince is yourself, and it doesn’t get any easier as you get older. You still have to face the reality of your life, and how hard it is to get creative things happening, how tough it is to withstand the criticism that creativity always attracts, how single-minded you have to be, how prepared you have to be to sacrifice everything to get what you want, and yet, you’ve got to be a realist too, and you’ve got to make a living.

The movies that I want to make are the ones that I’m passionate about and where I feel that I’ve got something to say. Not in a preaching way, but just how I feel about whatever the movie is about. One of the most passionate movies that I ever made is a movie called Smash Palace, which I wrote, produced and directed myself, and its about a divorce, and it’s a gut-wrenching, up close and personal look at divorce but it’s also funny, entertaining, horrific and shocking, and it was a very successful movie for me and I keep remembering how hard it was to make, and how good I felt when I felt I’d made a movie I’d succeeded in, and I feel that way about Thirteen Days too. Thirteen Days was a very personal movie for me to make, even though it wasn’t my idea to make it. It was a very personal movie for me to be involved in because it was about issues that I have very strong opinions about, but it also embraced my strengths as a filmmaker who has succeeded in making some good thrillers.

One of the best reviews I’ve got was a review that said that the movie could be added to the fairly short list of great movies that have been made about the Cold War, movies like Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May, which are some of my favourite movies of all-time. So, sometime you get patted on the back and you go, Yep, you got it, and I feel like I got what I wanted to get, but I’m sure that there will be other reviews that won’t see it in the same light and they won’t see the relevance of it.

6degrees – I also thought it could be added to quite a select group of films that illustrate that men in rooms talking can be a phenomenally cinematic thing, films like Twelve Angry Men and Glengarry Glen Ross.

RD – And they don’t come along often. In some ways, it’s the hardest part of making movies, to make straight dialogue gripping and to get the audience listening. It’s hard. People aren’t used to listening for long periods of time.