Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, September 02, 2008

More about Steve's part in the making of 'Traitor'
'Traitor' resulted from quest for a cerebral thriller

By Ellen McCarthy • Washington Post • September 2, 2008

After Sept. 11, 2001, Steve Martin had an idea for a political thriller.

Yes, that Steve Martin -- the "Wild and Crazy" guy from "The Jerk" and "Father of the Bride."

The story line for the film, as he conceived it, would wade through the culture of Islamic extremists, the psychology of suicide terrorists and the bureaucratic chasms dividing federal agencies.

Martin pitched the concept, Disney bought it and an up-and-coming writer-director named Jeffrey Nachmanoff was brought in to craft the screenplay and make the movie. When Don Cheadle signed on to star in the film, called "Traitor," it seemed like a potential home run.

"The idea was to make this into a big commercial movie," Nachmanoff says. "But -- even though they liked the script at the studio -- they just felt it was too sensitive a subject to make as a mainstream release."

So the project sat and sat. It remained untouched for almost four years, until Disney released its rights and Nachmanoff persuaded his producers, including Martin, to make the film as an independent release.

Once "Traitor" found a home (plus a roughly $20 million to $30 million budget) at Overture Films, it took little more than a year to produce the film and get it onto the big screen.

"In 2002, no one had tried to take on the subject in a commercial way. It was a little bit early," the director concedes. "Everything was a little bit raw."

He is hoping that although the rawness has receded, the topic remains relevant enough to lure audiences to a cat-and-mouse chase film that follows a terror cell across the Middle East and Europe and into America.

"It has to be appealing to both a broad audience and a sophisticated art audience," Nachmanoff says. "We want a smart movie that provokes us, and we also want it to play in the rest of the country -- not just something that people in New York or L.A. or Washington are going to go see."

The first time Guy Pearce, who stars opposite Cheadle as an FBI agent, read the script, his impression was that "it was very well-observed and didn't feel as if it was shying away from anything," he recalls during a press tour with Nachmanoff. "That felt very real."

It was as real as Nachmanoff could make it, based on months of reading every book he could find about the FBI and CIA approach to Islamic terror threats in the 1980s and 1990s. He consulted with such national defense experts as Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution and former analysts involved in tracking al-Qaeda networks.

He also drilled into the other side of the equation, reading the journals of captured terror suspects who'd been radicalized by extremist sects at an early age and examining the incongruous lives of the Sept. 11 attackers.

"Once you start reading the stories of the real personalities -- well, you can't make this stuff up, as they say," Nachmanoff says. "We worked with a lot of Islamic and Muslim consultants who would read the scripts and give me notes. So we tried to do our best to get that part of the story right."

"Traitor" was made with a bigger budget than the typical indie flick and is being released with a nationwide advertising campaign. Nachmanoff hopes that will help counter an industry trend that he thinks is failing audiences. "It feels like we're being increasingly forced to choose between pure entertainment and thought-provoking movies that are good for you, but that you don't want to go see," he says.

Classic, '70s-era thrillers such as "All the President's Men" and "French Connection" provided the model for "Traitor," which leaves a question mark by its heroes and villains throughout the film.

"Maybe it's being greedy, but we'd like people to have essentially a terrific entertaining thrill ride on the movie and then go out to dinner talking about the ideas underlying the movie," Nachmanoff says. "We'll find out if that's how people experience the movie. But that would be my goal for it."


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