Interview date: 05/14/2008
Run date: 06/18/2008
John Cusack is no stranger to politically-minded fare. As early as 1989, the year of his star-making turn as Lloyd Dobler in "Say Anything," he also appeared in "Fat Man and Little Boy," based on the Manhattan Project. Nineties films with a political bent would follow, including "True Colors," "City Hall," and "The Thin Red Line." This month, the activism-inclined actor unleashes "War, Inc.," a blistering satire on privatization and profiteering in Iraq – or in this case, the fictional Turaqistan – that he also co-wrote. Cusack called Bullz-Eye from London to talk politics, genre-deconstruction, Hillary Duff, and why this surreal political cartoon is actually very pro-American.
BE: Hi, John.
JC: How are you?
BE: Thanks for taking the time.
JC: Yeah, man, I'm happy to. Thanks for doing this.
BE: Before we dive into "War, Inc.," you are in London right now shooting a new film.
JC: Yeah, it's called "Shanghai." It's a movie directed by Mikael Hafstrom, who I did "1408" with. It's a movie about Shanghai in 1941 just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Japan had taken over most of China, but there was sort of an uneasy truce because Shanghai was an international city so they didn't want to declare war on the British or the Americans yet. So it was a very tense situation over there. So it's got myself, and Chow Yun-Fat, and Ken Watanabe, and Gong Li is the female lead. It's got a great cast.
BE: So I caught "War, Inc." over at the Tribeca Film Festival, and had no idea what to expect. I went in pretty cold, and it was nice to be completely surprised by a film.
JC: Oh, cool.
BE: I didn't know that I was in for half a comedy.
JC: What do you mean by half a comedy?
BE: Well, I didn't know in advance that, with so much charged political subject matter, I was also going to, you know, laugh.
JC: Yeah, that's why the people who like it really seem to love it, but then the people who don't (like it) seem not to understand that it's a hybrid of genres and things, you know. It's a comedy, but it's also a strange kind of fever-dream movie. It's not meant to be funny sometimes. Sometimes it's just meant to make you uncomfortable, or it's meant to be provocative, or it's meant to subvert the genre that it's switched to, in some ways. So it's kind of experimental in that way. And some people say, "Well, it's not funny enough," or, "It's not serious enough.' And I say, well, it's not supposed to…you know, we didn't make "The Wedding Crashers"! (laughs)
BE: You've described the film as punk rock, which I thought was interesting. It seemed to me that one of the challenges of the film was balancing the tone, where you had some scenes that bordered on farce, very pitch-black satire, mixed with scenes of more hard-hitting political commentary. And I thought you pulled this off well by not attempting to blur those lines, but by making the comic relief bits more pronounced – often by way of your sister Joan – and then making the dead-serious moments just that. It seemed to me that it was almost structured in a way where you're almost lulled into something a little lighter, and then, wham.
JC: Yeah, that's actually very astute. If you read (co-writer) Mark Leyner's stuff, his forte is these radical shifts in tones. But he weaves them together in some way that it makes some sort of sense. It's kind of rhythmic in a way. But what he doesn't do is explain, or wait for anybody to catch up. He's very kind of quantum and hyper-kinetic. So we were very aware of this, and asked ourselves, "What if we tried to mix a political cartoon, and the Marx Brothers, and something very black and surreal and then melodramatic? And what if we mix all these things with a Telemundo soap opera and put them in a blender?" Like, why can't we? It's not like anyone was giving us a bunch of money to make the film, or had any huge expectations for it, so why not be experimental?
BE: Now, despite the film's pretty harsh indictment of such things as American war profiteering, you've described the piece as actually quite pro-American.
JC: Well, I do think it's very pro-American, in that I'm not ready to cede the future of the country to the neo-liberal vision of the world. And I think subversion and dissent and satire are within a tradition of fearless, ribald mockery of elites and orthodoxies. In that sense, it's very pro-American, you know? Look, Mark Twain was pretty pro-American. Obviously, I'm not saying we're on these levels. But I'm saying those are the traditions that you're working from. You know, someone said something that I loved the other day, and I thought this was a good distillation of five years of cinematic work. You will like this… (Searches for, and then reads from, a recent review of "War, Inc.") "Whereas Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 'Dr. Strangelove' showed that the power of military technology in the hands of man could be extremely disastrous, 'War, Inc.' shows that disaster in the hands of man can create an extremely powerful and immoral economy." And I thought, well, I don't know if the guy gave us a good review or a bad review, but he got the movie!
BE: Right, right.
JC: And I think that's the spirit with which we made this. Like, let's go make this crazy movie. We don't have the money to do it, we don't have the time, it's kind of an impossible thing to try to do, it's very experimental, but let's just do it anyway, and let's just hope we make it interesting enough or strange enough that people will want to talk about the ideas in it, and people will want to listen to the message. Because, you know, when you do a movie that's very serious about this stuff, it's so serious, and it's so radical, and it's so big that I can understand when people are finishing work or finishing doing stuff that they don't want to go to the movies to be reminded of all this depressing shit. But if we can put it into a place of where it can feel like, "Hey, let's fight back, let's recapture that subversive, revolutionary spirit, let's remember that subversion is supposed to feel good," you know, if there is that way into this stuff, maybe that's a good way to get this stuff out there. So that was kind of the thinking there. But I think if anyone wants to really understand the ideas in this, I would really recommend them checking out "The Shock Doctrine," by Naomi Klein. In a large way I think "War, Inc." is inspired by her spirit and her work. and all these other great journalists that have uncovered this corrupt and completely illegal and immoral new industry, where all the core functions of state are farmed out to for-profit businesses, you know? Which is basically a fundamentalist ideological war against The New Deal and Keynesian economics in some way. But I think people don't understand what "privatization" really means, you know? You think of it as an abstract word. But if there are 180,000 contractors versus 140,000 troops, "War, Inc." is just taking this trend to its logical conclusion, and that will be a time when war is entirely a corporate affair.
JC: The other thing is. people probably don't get is, even if you thought that it was fitting for private soldiers to fight wars... let's say, maybe Shell and Exxon, even though their profits are soaring right now due to the price of oil, let's say you conceded the point that it makes sense for corporations to have their own armies. It's insane, but let's concede that point, okay? For argument's sake, let's go down that rabbit hole and say, "It is a good thing for corporations to have their own armies." And, you know, there's a logic to it, right? They've got their oil fields and they have to protect them, right? I don't know what the role of nations and international law is in that case, but let's just concede that. Well, the problem is, that's not the case. The problem is, that's a lie, too! Because Exxon isn't paying Blackwater to protect them. We are! Blackwater is funded by you and me. By the interviewer and the interviewee and all the people reading this article. So it's, like, not only are these guys who are preaching the free market and privatization, but they want to do it on our dime! They're the biggest welfare freaks on the planet. I mean, it's the biggest perverse, immoral movement, that is basically very open – Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation – the total privatization of all core functions of government. If you basically have interrogation and jails…which means torture and border patrol… if all those things are a for-profit business, I don't know where there is a state anymore, or if we have a state. So some people have said of the movie, "The movie is kind of crass," and they don't like that, or they go, 'It's not funny enough." And I say, you're right! It's not really that funny!
BE: You were a co-writer on this film. I'm curious about the evolution of the story from original concept to filming, because obviously a lot of new revelations -- such as the extent to which the war effort has become privatized – have come increasingly into focus over the last three or four years.
JC: Yeah, but we sort of knew that by that time, though. We sort of knew, too, that more and more would come out. It was pretty clear, when you did any research into it, you thought, "Oh, my God, when people know about this, they're going to freak out."
BE: Right. People were already learning about Halliburton's role in Iraq, but they didn't know much about Blackwater yet, for example.
JC: Yeah, Blackwater is kind of like the gateway drug into understanding about more of it. Because it would a huge mistake for people to think it's just Blackwater. You've got Blackwater, Parsons, Bechtel, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing…it's a massive new economy, really, that's been created, much like the dot com economy of the nineties, and I'm sure it dwarfs that.
BE: I know that this project originated in some ways from a place of personal outrage. Was writing and producing such a bracing bit of satire a cathartic experience? And has seeing it resonate with those that it is connecting with also been somehow therapeutic?
JC: You know, whenever you get the opportunity to do something creative and somehow express how you feel, I think it's kind of an honor in a way. What's happened to this country is so extreme, and what's been killed also is a sense even of outrage, or what's been killed is almost a spirit… like there's a sense of corporatist inevitability. Like, "This is just the way things are, and there's nothing we can do…" So I think the people working on this film wanted to do something… and the first thing was just… reclaim your sense of outrage, reclaim your sense of subversion. And let's first just call something what it is, and let's name it and shame it, and then mock it and then try to deprive it of oxygen just by relentless assault. So I think to do something in that spirit feels better than just being depressed. So there was I think kind of an activist element to it that I think was kind of key.
BE: Now, your character, corporate assassin-for-hire Brand Hauser, seems to be going through some kind of crisis of conscience at the beginning of the film. He describes himself as "a refugee from 'The Island of Dr. Moreau.'"
JC: Yes! (Laughs)
BE: And once he gets to Turaqistan, in some ways he's still able to go through the motions of the gig, but he also seems increasingly conflicted in a way that maybe he can't yet access.
JC: Well, I think that he's a character that has been numbed by his choice of profession. So I think, you know, there is something about living in a mercenary age that is kind of soul-numbing. So he's sort of a comic archetype of that tradition. Very much like a post-modern Samurai, in a way, you know? That how Mark Leyner and I always sort of saw it. Like, in these Samurai movies, these guys are wandering around in the wasteland, they've kind of been put out of their house, or their lord's house has fallen, and there's corruption all around them, and they came from corruption, and they have a code, but they've fallen, so they're sort of these wandering spirits, lost in the fallen world, looking for meaning or somehow to ply their trade. So I think a comic take on that was sort of what we had in mind.
BE: Was it difficult at all to get actors to sign on to the project? Specifically, was Central Asian pop tart Yonika Babyyeah a tough sell to Hillary Duff, or was she eager to play so against type like that?
JC: Yeah, someone mentioned her name to us, and I thought, well, what would that mean? What is the meaning of that? And I didn't know, but I thought in a branding sense it was very interesting, since the movie was about that, and since she was kind of a one-woman industry in a way. But I didn't know much about her as a person or as an actress. I just sort of knew of "Hillary Duff, Incorporated." But she'd read it, and she really, really wanted to do it, and she loved it. And I met her, and she ended up being better than any of us had dreamed of. I thought she was going to be kind of beautiful and charismatic, but I didn't know she'd be as talented as she was, but she's a very, very gifted actress and comedian and really smart and has a huge, big future ahead of her.
BE: We've seen a lot of 9/11 films and Iraq war films come out over the last several years, and they are all very diverse in tone and message. In some ways, that recalls the films coming out about Vietnam in the late sixties and early seventies. We look at those films now as historical, but many of those films were made before the last chapter of that conflict had been written. Where do you think "War, Inc." fits in with the other films that are coming out about the current situation in Iraq, etcetera? For instance, you came out with another Iraq war film last year in "Grace Is Gone. "
JC: I really don't know. What's been really interesting about this one is that all of the support – and there's been a whole bunch of support for the movie – has been in non-traditional media; it's all been people who write about politics or culture or government – it's all those types of people. It's Raw Story, it's Crooks and Liars, it's you guys. It's not the tastemakers in the moviemaking structure or any of the people in the moviemaking corporations. All the interest in this movie is outside that box. In that sense, I think it's really, really interesting. And who knows what people will say about it? But we did this MySpace thing that's done really well, where we had quotes from people that we showed it to, which is basically people like writers, and political folks, and we got some really great quotes, and we're starting to send those around. So it's been a totally viral affair. All of the interest in this movie has stemmed from that. So I don't know how it will place, but maybe people will think that we were ahead of the curve in understanding or diagnosing some of the deeper meanings of what this war was really about, and they'll probably think we were ahead of the curve a little bit. Maybe it will be a cult hit. But I've been very encouraged by people like you and stuff, who like it. It seems to energize people who aren't used to seeing 40 movies at Christmas at a junket, and then having to write about all of them. (Laughs)
BE: Now, it looks like our presidential candidates are pretty well set now in Obama and McCain. These two have extremely different perspectives on Iraq, so obviously this issue is going to come into sharp relief in the coming months. Complicating matters is the fact that you have one candidate in McCain, who is outspoken against torture, which is a slight departure from the party line on the right. And then you have Obama, who says that he not only wants to end the war in Iraq, but that he wants to end the "mindset that got us into war in the first place." What are you hoping to hear from the candidates over the coming months about Iraq, and specifically about the war privatization issue as we move toward November?
JC: I'm looking to try to help Obama take this on by putting pressure on the Democrats to understand the importance of taking on this new economy and basically restoring some sense of order to this. In the sense of, "The law matters and you will be held accountable." The most wonderful thing I heard Obama say is that, yes, he will look into prosecution for illegal acts. That didn't get much play, but I thought that was the most important thing that he said, in my mind. I thought that was a wonderfully powerful moment. You know, when you have Pelosi say "impeachment is off the table," what is that? So that means no matter what you do, the rule of law doesn't matter if it looks like the Democrats can win an election. I mean, that's a horrible message to be sending to the country. And I think the principles have to matter. Otherwise, it's just total chaos. So we have to pressure the Democratic party and Obama to address that, and hopefully he will show the leadership to take this on.
BE: Obviously, you're really proud of this work and playing this character in Brand Hauser. Looking back over your filmography, there are many roles that have been very memorable for people: Lane Meyer, Lloyd Dobler, Martin Q. Blank, Rob Gordon, and so on. I'm curious about which roles or films, when you see them again, still resonate for you, that you remain particularly proud of.
JC: I don't really know. I sort of think back about these films going by the experiences or what I learned on them, or the relationships that I started or made there, and you don't really remember the characters or the films so much. Because nothing's perfect, and you always just did your best. But you definitely have a sense of their spirit, and maybe you just remember them as a bit of a fever dream, and it's a good memory. I have some things like that. But the ones that you mentioned, I like those films. And a couple of other ones. I remember working with Stephen Frears when I was 24 or 25, when I did a movie called "The Grifters," and just learning a whole lot from him, and getting to work with Anjelica Houston. And I remember working with Woody Allen (on "Bullets Over Broadway") and having conversations with him about comedy and pace and things. I've just been very, very fortunate that I've gotten to work with a lot of my heroes from growing up. So I've been very, very blessed. Oh, and there's a movie I did called "Max"…
BE: …yeah, that's in the Netflix queue…
JC: Oh, is it? Good, good.
BE: I'll have to bump it up a few notches.
JC: Yeah, that's another one where, five years ago, we could have done terrific if we had done the same thing we've done with "War, Inc." Because it's a movie people talk to me a lot now about, but it's a movie at the time that people didn't really understand. But ("War, Inc.") is going to be an interesting one. Because if the movie does well, it will be just because of people outside the movie business who are interested in politics and culture and all these ideas decide that they don't need a middle man to tell them what's good or what's bad.