Stephen Gaghan, the writer and director of Syriana, lived in Carrboro in 1989, during which time he wrote fiction, ate Greek grilled cheese sandwiches at Hector's, watched movies at the Varsity and saw the Pixies play in his favorite dive, Cat's Cradle. He also developed a taste for UNC basketball. His new film is inspired by ex-CIA agent Robert Baer's memoir See No Evil and has received strong reviews (with the vigorous exception of Godfrey Cheshire's in this issue). Recently, the 40-year-old Gaghan, who earned an Oscar in 2000 for his script for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, spoke with the Independent Weekly by phone from Atlanta.
Independent: You started out writing fiction. Did you ever think of approaching the material of Syriana as a giant novel?
Stephen Gaghan: There was a guy who was a really important consultant on the film, Paul Berman, who wrote a book called Terror and Liberalism. He read the screenplay and said, "Have you ever read the work of John Dos Passos, the U.S.A. trilogy in particular?"
I'm a huge fan of 19th-century literature, particularly Tolstoy's War and Peace. I'm pretty steeped in that book, particularly in terms of his transitions and how he created context, and the juxtapositions from the Napoleonic front and then back to the drawing rooms. I definitely tried to do that in Syriana, but I never thought of doing Syriana as anything but a movie.
Did you have any cinematic models for this? I remember Soderbergh talking a lot about Battle of Algiers when Traffic came out.
For me the models were a little different. The real things that I was thinking about were Wages of Fear. Z, particularly Z. Then some of the ones from the '70s, like All the President's Men and The Parallax View. Parallax View was the last movie I showed the crew before we went off and made the film. And also Three Days of the Condor. In Condor, you have Robert Redford on the steps of The New York Times. He's got a little box of evidence, and Cliff Robertson's there, says, "What makes you think they'll listen? This is Big Oil. And Big Oil's bigger than you."
And I thought, "Ah, Big Oil: Fade in, now what?"
A lot of the films you cite, like All the President's Men, are from the Nixon era. There's a late-Nixonian feel to the present administration--is there something similar in the zeitgeist today that makes Syriana possible?
I think Hollywood and Washington are linked in a certain way that follows the nation rather than leading it, which I think is kind of a shame. But I think early on after '01, after Sept. 11, I think I was feeling very uneasy about our response. I always thought it sounded precipitous, you know--The Crusades, the Evil Doers--it's scary stuff! And I felt the country accelerate and change course. I was deeply unsettled.
Just this week Randy "Duke" Cunningham--he's a congressman from San Diego and he's going to go to jail, but this guy lived on a boat in the Tidal Basin called "The Duke-Stir," provided for him by a military contractor. He drove a Rolls Royce. This was achieved on a congressman's salary, a guy who lives on a yacht in sight of the Capitol!
Wait, you mean that yacht was in D.C.?
Yes. This has been going on for years. And nobody says a word. You know why? Because people in glass houses do not throw stones. Why would Syriana come along? Because the corruption is so malodorous. The atmosphere? We're all breathing it.
There's the Abramoff scandal--they were having people rubbed out down in Florida.
Oh, that [Michael] Scanlon turning state's evidence? That guy is going to bring down so many people. When this Tom DeLay investigation is finished, there are going to be 25 empty seats in Congress. Twenty-five.
Are you confident that the justice system will not be bought off?
[Long pause] You know, I think we've hit a tipping point. I think people are going to look back on this as one of the great eras. It's going to be like Tammany Hall, like any of the great corruption periods in American history, and this will be considered the greatest period of corruption in our history.
Will the Fitzgerald investigation make a good movie?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Very much an All the President's Men kind of deal. I think it's fascinating. The Abramoff scandal would make an incredible movie too.
Redford could come back and play Bob Woodward again.
So funny you bring that up! I've been talking about nothing but Woodward. As William Goldman so memorably put it, "Follow the money." And where's the money here? The money here is in the seven-figure advances Woodward's been getting for those books that he writes predicated on access to the Bush White House. It's like Dalton Trumbo said in the early '50s, "They pay you a thousand bucks a week and pretty soon you think you need it."
From your Syriana contacts, what's your sense of the CIA today? It seems like a troubled institution.
It's been so misused. These poor guys. They found themselves pulled into a threshing machine of top-down intelligence where at the very top someone makes up what the answer is and these poor bastards out in the field have to prove it. No one says that explicitly. They're all too smart to put their names on that memo.
It seems like there's some faction of the CIA that's pushing the Fitzgerald investigation.
Oh, believe you me. You know how Deep Throat turned out to be that FBI guy [Mark Felt]? Here's the thing about the CIA guys, the ones who really earned it and got up there. They're really, really smart. And they're really, really tricky. You just do not want Bob Baer gunning for you. I promise you that. He's better.