Movies: 'Syriana'

Stephen Gaghan
Director, Screenwriter
Tuesday, November 15, 2005; 1:00 PM

"Syriana," a thriller starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright, uses multiple plotlines to tell a larger story about political intrigue, the oil industry and U.S.-Middle East relations. Based on Robert S. Baer's book, "See No Evil," and partially filmed in Washington, D.C., the movie opens in limited release Nov. 25, and in Washington area theaters on Dec. 9.

Stephen Gaghan , an Academy Award winner for his screenplay for "Traffic," wrote and directed "Syriana" and was online Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the film and his movie career.

A transcript follows.

____________________ Stephen Gaghan should be with us shortly.


Stephen Gaghan: I'm Stephen Gaghan, the writer/director of "Syriana." I'm delighted to be on The Washington Post Web site. I have a lot of friends who are writers for The Washington Post and I'm going to see them tonight. So bring on the questions.


Anonymous: Mr. Gaghan,

Thank you for taking questions today. Were you ever approached by the CIA to moderate the content of the film? I know the agency has a very active unit that studies books written by agents and ex-officers.

Looking forward to the movie...

Stephen Gaghan: Thank you. That's a great question. I think because so much of my research time was spent with active and former CIA officers, primarily case officers in what they call the D.O. (director of operations), I think that the CIA felt pretty well covered in "Syriana." An interesting aside: I was walking with Bob Baer across a square in Damascus and he looked up at a balcony and paused and said, "Oh never mind." And I said, "What?" And he said, "Well, we had a very effective agent here in the '70s who was hung from that balcony with piano wire." Then he took a pause and said, "His cover was as a filmmaker, too." Categorically, on the record, I have never worked for the CIA. And nor will they have me.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Are you prepared to hear the typical arguments from people opposed to Mr. Baer's viewpoint?

i.e. There go those "liberals" again in Hollywood!

Stephen Gaghan: Well, hopefully people that know me will tell you I'm pretty much, straight up, a Kentucky moderate. I think once people see the film they'll say it was an evenhanded look. That's my hope.

The Bob Baer character is only about a third of the movie So my research took me into a lot of different worlds. But number one, I tried to check the veracity of the crazy stories Baer was telling me. Anyone he had had a conflict with, particularly people mentioned in his book as having wronged him, I would try to find those people and ask things I'd been asking Bob, to come up with a broader perspective than just Bob Baer's. In fact, only three or four sentences of his memoir were used in the movie. The rest is sort of original, fictional stories that I made up. To Bob's credit, he was totally open and generous to introducing me to all the people that disagree with him.


Escanaba, Mich.:

Good afternoon, sir. Is your movie meant to be a statement against the war or what many suspect to be the war's true motives?

Thank you...

Stephen Gaghan: That's a great question. It's tricky to ask a filmmaker to explain his own work, usually we're the least qualified to make sense of what we've done, unfortunately, because of the tunnel vision required to create anything over four years. But I found the war on drugs to be a war on an abstraction, a war on brain chemistry, a war on human nature. And I find the war on terror to be another war with an abstraction at the heart of its semantics. And I don't think that our democracy exportation project is working very well. If anybody had been with me in Damascus and the Syrian desert in '02 speaking to the Iraqis that I met, they wouldn't have been very optimistic about the democracy exportation project either. I think the war on terror has succeeded in creating more terror, more terrorists, a less safe America and a less safe world. But I have to qualify this by saying I'm not an expert. My research was cursory at best but I did try, flying repeatedly to the Middle East and asking a lot of experts their opinion on the same subject. General Odom, Reagan's national security advisor, recently said that he thought the second Iraqi war would turn out to be the single greatest strategic mistake in the history of the United States. I tend to not feel like I know enough to be so absolute, but as I read recently in a profile of Brett Scowbroft, who said that he believes in the fallibility of human nature, that if human beings can mess up something, they will, and that we have to always hope for the best outcome and plan for the worst.


Columbia, MD: Is the title, "Syriana" a PUN alluding to something else? Is it a combination of Syria and something else? Thanks. BTW, the trailer looks good and my wife and I plan on seeing the movie.

Stephen Gaghan: Firstly, thank you. We need all the support we can get.

"Syriana" was a term that I heard in think tanks in Washington, I believe it referenced the pox "Syriana" but in the fall of '02 it seemed to stand for a hypothetical redrawing of the boundaries in the Middle East. For my purposes, I thought it was just a great word that could stand for man's perpetual hope of remaking any geographic region to suit his own needs, a dream that in the case of the Middle East has been going on at least since the time of Caesar in 80 B.C. I also always loved the title "Brazil" for the Terry Gilliam movie and at various times considered calling "Syriana" "Singapore" for no good reason at all, other than it sounds like it could be a meditation on one possibility of what the future could look like. Because I believe decisions we -- and by we, I mean our government and the American people -- are making right now are going to impact all of us for a very, very long time to come.


San Antonio, Tex.: When did you start working on the screenplay? When did you finish? When did production start on the film? How much did you change or not change Baer's book?

How much is art imitating life in this film? Most compelling reason to go see "Syriana"? Do you get back to Louisville much?

Stephen Gaghan: Most importantly, I luv Luavul!

I started researching "Syriana" in the fall of 2001. But I started thinking about oil politics and terrorism in 1998 when I realized that at the Pentagon the Bureau of Counternarcotics and Counterterrorism was the same bureau. I researched for 18 months and wrote for about a year, and finished the movie a week ago Tuesday at 2:15 in the afternoon.

It was a long haul. I think that in the case of this movie art imitates life AND life imitates art. Several of our obsessions in 2001 -- the rise of the power of Iran in the Middle East and what it would mean when China goes from having 10 million cars to 100 million cars in the next 20 years -- have been validated in the news recently.


Studio City, California: Where do you get your inspirations for films? Do you get your news from papers, TV or the Internet?

Stephen Gaghan: I love the op-ed pages of the L.A. Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times. There's just no substitute for the people who are thinking and writing on those pages. Truthfully, it's my pornography.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Mr. Gaghan,

During the trailer, I noticed what seemed to be a highly visceral, visual aesthetic. Would you say the images in your film are at the service of characterization and narrative or, rather, lend themselves more effectively to creating an overall mood and style? Moreover, why and what was the thought process behind that decision, especially given your background as a screenwriter?

Stephen Gaghan: I can't separate the process of writing from the visual process. I'm speaking only for myself here but I'm a highly visual writer. In my imagination, when I'm thinking of a scene I think of every last detail of it: The space, the color palette, the blocking of the actors, the placement of the camera. And I really believe in the power of a screenplay to convey a lot of visual information, so I labor over the exposition as much if not more than the dialogue. So when I moved onto directing, it felt like an extension of that original vision. Beyond that, I've always been into photography. I took pictures in high school, I worked as an assistant to a National Geographic photographer, traveling with him, and I think working with the cinematographer is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job. For "Syriana" I wanted formal compositions that felt like they were grabbed as we fell off the truck. I wanted a subjective lens that gave the illusion of an objective lens. I hope that we achieved this.


Carrboro, N.C.: Stephen,

"Syriana" seems like an awfully timely movie in light of the increased amount of discussion about Peak Oil these days.

Is this coincidence, and if not, did you consult with folks like Matt Simmons who are leading the discussion about where we are headed with energy in the 21st Century?

I know your movie has already sparked discussion over at the Oil Drum blog. (

Stephen Gaghan: We had many, many experts and consultants working on this film. I was standing on the trading floor of Bank of Paribus in fall of '02 with their head oil trader when oil was $27 a barrel. He claimed that the Bush White House had already been in contact with people in his profession to help try and stabilize oil prices in the event of an Iraqi War. I asked him what he thought would happen. He said, succinctly, "Buy and hold. It's going to $75 a barrel." And this is exactly what came to pass. I personally have been feeling the pinch as I fill up my family station wagon and I imagine everybody else has, too. War and, apparently, hurricanes are very good for the oil business. But I've got to believe at a certain point, as a nation, we're going to go in a different direction toward an increased sense of personal responsibility, a lowering of each individual's carbon footprint and a real collaborative effort to help sustain our planet.


Stephen Gaghan: I'd just like to thank The Washington Post and the readers for their smart questions. I hope everybody goes to see "Syriana" on Dec. 9 and brings their friends and their friends' friends.


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