Talking With John Cusack
Friday, June 20, 2008; 2:00 PM
John Cusack has been starring in movies for more than two decades. Known best for his work in comedies like "Say Anything..." and "High Fidelity," the Chicago native also has taken on dramatic roles in such films as "The Thin Red Line" and "Max."
In his latest movie, "War, Inc.," Cusack uses humor to tackle a serious subject, creating a pointed satire of America's military actions abroad. Cusack produced, co-wrote and stars in "War, Inc.," which is now playing in select cities and opens in Washington, D.C. on June 27.
Cusack was online Friday, June 20 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the movie, his politics and his career.
The actor's long list of movie credits include "The Sure Thing," "Better Off Dead," "The Grifters," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Being John Malkovich," "Grosse Pointe Blank," "Runaway Jury" and "The Ice Harvest."
In addition to his work in Hollywood, Cusack has become a vocal critic of the Bush administration, recently appearing in this MoveOn.org video that criticizes both President Bush's and John McCain's policies.
A transcript follows.
washingtonpost.com: John will be with us momentarily...
Carrboro, N.C.: Has adding years to your life changed the way you view making movies? Why "War, Inc." and not "High Digital Fidelity 2"? Oh and thanks for appearing to be somewhat "normal" in the weird entertainment industry.
John Cusack: Thank you, I guess.
As far as "War, Inc." now, I think it's done from a place of I think outrage that the lies we were forced to swallow as citizens were so blatant and egregious. And the movie business and mainstream media in general seem to be giving the Bush administration a pass on things that were so fundamental. I thought the only way to address that was with a theater of the absurd.
Eric from Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi John-
I saw this movie when it opened at Tribeca, and I want to first compliment you on using your starpower to get this political film made.
This film had a lot that it was trying to say. As one of the co-writers and someone who has acted in 50+ films, do you think it was necessary to do this as a satire? Or, could you have made some of the same statements in a different format?
As someone who works in government and has a passion for film, I guess I'm just curious as to whether we're going to see filmmakers turn more to satire to deal with contentious political issues.
John Cusack: I think in a way satire or absurdity is the only way to approach things that are this extreme. In many ways, satire or absurdism is only looking at the current trends and taking them to their horrible, logical conclusions. As I said, in this sense the crimes and the kind of appeasement of the culture seemed so grotesque and distorted that the only lens with which we could tell the story seemed to be in an absurdist satire.
Sometimes when you put that lens on the facts it allows you to see things from a different perspective. I also had done a film that was a much more sober look,. At the time, people were so depressed by the state of the administration and the war, after living their lives people don't want to go to the theater and be reminded of how depressing the situation is. What satire enables you to do is to take a step to the left or right, a step back, and look at the patterns in a broader context. It allows you to reclaim your sense of indignation and sense of spirit, and hopefully allows you to remember subversion should be pleasurable when directed at the right subjects.
It's supposed to feel good to throw a brick at the right people. There is a long tradition of naming and ridiculing and shaming and calling the villains what they are. Usually it was the artistocracy of the day and satire was the only way to speak truth to power. Today that artistocracy resides in a revolving door betwene corporate power and government enablers. So it's sort of a corporate aristocracy that needs enabling today. I think it's very improtant and healthy to tell differnt stories than the corporatist narratives we are being asked to swallow hook, line and sinker. When you see a culture where the intellectual architects of the invasion are not shamed for their behavior but rewarded within the mainstream media culture, black comedy, satire, absurdism is the only response.
When you realize this is the most privatized war in modern history, and that within this Republican ideology, literally everything, every core function of state, is to be turned into a for-profit entrepreneurial opportunity then we're through the looking glass and the nightmare is real. There is no function of the state they don't want to turn into a business. Once you have opened up prisoner interrogation, wiretapping, border patrol, jailing and the services of the military, when this has been turned into a for-profit business in this endless war, then we're in deep trouble.
Whether or not we want to admit it to ourselves, not only is the American government taking away habeas corpus and torturing people, they have turned torture into a niche for-profit business. Not only is it a state-sanctioned crime, but it is being farmed out at cost-plus. What other answer is there to these crimes but punk rock, ridicule, satire? Blackwater has been working incredibly hard as a friendly McMercenary company with nothing to be afraid of. Eric Prince likes to compare what he's doing with the military to what FedEx did with the post office. The man actually compared running a for-profit operation to delivering the mail. Even if you thought to yourself that you would go along with the tortured logic that corporations have the right to hire private armies to do their dirty work overseas to ensure their profit, if you could make that moral and legal stretch, the only problem with it is even that isn't true. They are not paying for Blackwater, we are, the U.S. taxpayers. And not only Blackwater, most of these other corporations are fully subsidized by the U.S. taxpayers, ensuring a profit. This is a horror beyond imagining.
I am not saying anything new. And these are not particularlt subtle facts. It's very out in the open. And beyond dispute.
Rockville, Md.: Mr. Cusack:
While I don't necessarily disagree with your political views, I'm interested in understanding more about why high-profile personalities take strong public positions on political issues. To put it bluntly, why should people listen to you, an artist, as opposed to various persons who are ostensibly legal and policy experts? This kind of endorsement is more and more prevalent. Do you use your celebrity hoping that people will hop on the bandwagon because of that? Or is it just another way to open up dialogue?
John Cusack: I think it's, primarily from my point of view, an honest expression of beliefs, hopefully from a thoughtful and informed perspective. I would challenge the premise of the questions in some ways. I would ask what gives the people allowed to speak on television any more moral authority than an artist? Given the fact that we can assume our intentions are from a sincere place, I wouldn't cede any more moral authority to any other citizen than I would to myself. I certainly wouldn't when it comes to the fact that many of the people pontificating on television every day are not even journalists. They are, in effect, PR spokesmen.
As far as bandwagons go, I'm not affiliated with any political agenda in its entirety or any organization, including the Democratic party. I've been very careful to say that everyone who has stood with the Bush administration in my view should be forced to reckon with that, including the enablers in the Democratic Party. I don't endorse everything MoveOn says. And I don't work for or get paid by any organization. I'm an individual citizen expressing what I believe.
Naperville, Ill.: Hi John
Congrats on your "War Inc." success. The movie has certainly touched many.
Do you think you will be helping Obama out more as the election comes nearer?
John Cusack: Yes, I will be working for Sen. Obama. What I hope to do with the film is encourage conversation about this very difficult and serious issue. And perhaps help motivate and inspire people to capture their spirit of defiance and outrage to motivate them to take action.
And I certainly hope to put pressure on the Democratic Party to deal with this nightmarish, corporatist reality we have in the Middle East and hold them accountable. I was very happy to her Sen. Obama say that he would be open to prosecuting these crimes, and I would just add that hopefully as a citizen he would be more than open, he would find it to be a Constitutional mandate. It seems to me that any serious, well-meaning Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian would want to band together and expose and name and shame this very, very corporate criminal application of a far right-wing ideology as manifested in the Project for a New American Century, many of whose signatories are part of McCain's consultants and strike at the core of the modern Republican movement.
Reading, Pa.: John :
A lot of buzz is saying the only reason you've gotten so political now is because you're promoting your new movie. When did you realize the U.S. ship of state was off course and why did you keep it to yourself for so long ?
John Cusack: I wouldn't expect whoever wrote that to be following my public statements closely because why would they? Because that isn't the case. I have been speaking out and making films about the Iraq war duruing the Bush administration that I produced. And I have been openly critical and vocal about this issue for seven years. It would be very easy to check if you cared to do so.
If you look at the film, and realize that it was written and conceived at the very high point of appeasement to the Bush administration when spokesmen were telling people to watch what they say, the statue had just fallen and the country was uniformly accepting and praising and calling the administration heroic for what they have done, I am hardly opportunistic here, as the process was started three or four years ago. I would recommend reading "The Shock Doctrime" by Naomi Klein or Jeremy Scahill's "Blackwater." I started making the film around the time those books were being written.
Memphis, Tenn.: What role has the Internet played in the promotion of "War, Inc." and based on your experience, how would you recommend other independent filmmakers go about promoting their films on the Internet?
John Cusack: In this case, the entire success of the film has come from the Internet. We've had almost no advertising, minimal small ads in the papers, no commercials, no radio/TV plays, and almost no ad buys on the Internet. What we have had is a MySpace page, which I hope you'll check out, with information abuot the film, resource material, and a list of supporters and benefactors of the film that are an eclectic, impressive collection of some of the brightest people I know: writers, journalists, actors, comedians. And some of the people, writers anyway, have written some of the preeminent books on Iraq and spent a lot of time on the ground reporting from the front lines. I think the endorsement of our own group of so-called critics and the spread of that online has been the reason for our success.
All of the interest has come outside the traditional movie structures that promote films. The writers who wanted to talk to us who had written about politics and culture and had been part of the blogging community, from Crooks and Liars to Huffington Post to MoveOn.org to Alternet to Raw Story, these types of organzations -- Daily Koz -- and many others have fueled interest in the film. Traditional media has followed their enthusiasm and come pretty late to the party. So in that sense it's been quite new, at least for anything I've been invovled in.
I think the idea of taking your content directly to your audeince in a way not possible before seems very exciting. Also, we know how wrong the mainstream media has been about things in the past eight or nine years. So I think there is a hunger and willingness to accept things outside the box and the corporate-approved methods the film business has fallen into. The interesting thing is the wide gap, sort of the canyon between the people who get the film and those who don't. I would invite people to look at the MySpace page and get a sense of the people who get it. But the gap suggests our schism in I think how you see the Iraq conflict and what this film is. It isn't a traditional film. It's an incendiary, political, aggressive cartoon that merges and mangles different styles in a purposeful distortion. Conversely, the Iraq War is not an ordinary conflict. It's something far more sinister.
Annapolis, MD: I agree with what you've said about putting the state in the business of torture. But it seems to me there's another danger. By subcontracting military action and torture, the administration is creating a market incentive for war and torture. In effect there are economic incentives to start wars and insurgencies -- and many administrations will find that a tempting benefit, without the political costs of things like the draft and higher taxes and votes.
John Cusack: This is absolutely the point of the film, but I would take it one step further. The war is themselves to these companies who have set up shop in the State Department and are using it like the ATM. Wars, occupations, disaster relief -- these are the new markets. To the neoconservatives, the state is the final Colonial frontier. Now they have taken that ideology to foreign policy and the making and exploitation of war. We have about 180,000 contractors versus 140,000 troops in Iraq, so when countries like Britain or Poland pull out of Iraq, they leave a vaccum that is replaced by mercenary soldiers, often from the same countries. Sometimes they are the same guys who switch from wearing a flag to a corporate logo. This ideology is what Naomi deconstructs in her book. It is called corporate mission creep and it is the real story in Iraq.
In Blackwater's case, remember, we are paying for Blackwater, not Shell or Exxon or Haliburton. When our real soldiers come home, they are not afforded a real G.I. Bill of Rights. In some cases, they didn't have the protection they needed. Blackwater does. They have $6 million contracts from the U.S. We've gotten many comments on our MySpace site about Kellogg, Brown and Root and the contractors getting better treatment than the troops themselves and behaving in exploitative manners. What does this say about the sovreignty of our country?
If anybody can tell me how Blackwater is legal, who is granting them their license to kill and why, I'd feel a whole lot better. But I have talked to Constitutional law professors and I get the same answer: We know that Blackwater was exempted from federal and international law by Paul Bremer and his crew. But this is the same group of peopel that while Iraq was literally still burning, sold off all the assets of the country to their favorite corporations. Also compeletely illegal. Who was paying Blackwater while they were roaming the streets of New Orleans after Katrina? What were they protecting? Who did they represent? Who sent them there? For what?
Arizona Bay, AZ: So, you and Bill O'Reilly are best friends, right?
John Cusack: I've never met him.
Phoenix, Ariz.: You seem to be sure of the facts that you quote during interviews, and you've spoken to many journalists who have been to Iraq. Are you ever concerned that some of these people are spinning things too far to the left in the same way the conventional media and the current administration are spinning facts too far to the right?
John Cusack: No, because many of the people that I speak to aren't part of the traditional left. Lara Logan is not known to be a leftist and I have spoken to her extensively about this. She is the chief foreign correspondent for CBS News. Naomi and Jeremy spent a great deal of time in Iraq. Their books and their reporting and their journalistic integrity are there for all to see. This country has careened so uncontrollably to the right that I don't even know what the left is anymore.
Silver Spring, Md.: Everything I've read about "War, Inc." leads me to believe that it's similar in tone to "Grosse Pointe Blank" - true? Hope so, because "Grosse Pointe Blank" is one of our favorite films to watch as a family.
John Cusack: I have to say I like your family.
I think it's similar in tone on some levels. But while "Grosse Pointe Blank" played with the archetypes within the hitman and romantic comedy genres, "War, inc." is far more stylistically aggressive in mixing surrealism, satire, slapstick, melodrama and grim reality in a more experimental hybrid. Some people find that exhilerating and some people find that deranged, but it was a purposeful choice. I think the politics are far more grotesque and in your face, whereas in "Grosse Pointe" they are more subtle. Different times, different movies.
Arlington, VA: Do you feel at this point in your career that you will only take roles in films which have a political/social message that you believe in? While I share your political views and appreciate your need to inform as well as entertain, I really enjoy your "The Ice Harvest" and "Grosse Point Blank" type of roles. I hope you don't lose your frothy, fun side completely.
John Cusack: Thanks. No, I think I have been lucky to do a whole bunch of different things and hope to continue to. I think in these times with what's been happening with the Bush adminsitration I felt compelled to express myself. Besides voting and acting politically this is what I do. I make films. So I tried to express it in a way that I thought would be new and aggressive and push myself that way. But I certainly hope to get back into different things once Obama is elected and hopefully he starts to turn this ship around. I don't relish speaking out topically in this way. I feel silence by citizens in these times is an endorsement of this lawless behavior so I am just following my conscience and my heart. Whether or not people believe me, I don't know. But I don't really care.
Washington, DC: Had I voted for Bush once or twice, today I would be apologizing for my poor judgement. Why do you think it is so difficult for the same people who put Bush in office and who hear and read the same reports as we do, find it so difficult to see the mess we are in?
John Cusack: That's a really good question. I think it's, and I mean this in all sincerity, perhaps it's akin to having an alcoholic or addict in the family and it being incredibly hard to admit the problem is as severe as it is and that the whole family has a part in it.
I think what's very hard for well-meaning Republicans to understand is that Bush is not an aberration. He's the purest extension of the neoconservative ideology. Total liberation for corporations. Privatize the world and view government or their roles in government as basically to set the optimal conditions for a corporate feeding frenzy. I am sure somewhere they must believe this is doing someone some good. But I have no doubt they know how fundamentally corrupt their actions are, and how their stock prices triple, etc. etc. This is the Milton Friedman playbook in the purest expression. That's a hard thing to swallow and the right-wing response is the only problem with this is that it wasn't done even in a more pure fashion. Something corrupted our perfect holistic system and of course, that something would be democracy and the rule of law. That's a hard thing to swallow, but it's very out in the open. It's a purposeful, above board, well-documented campaign against the New Deal and Keynesian economics. Read Grover Norquist, Bill Kristol and all their ilk. It's in no way a conspiracy. This was the plan.
Arlington, Va.: John, is there anything that gives you hope that there can be any victory in confronting the military-industrial complex, since more than 45 years have passed since Eisenhower's warning, and there appears to be no end in sight?
Also a related question--who invented liquid soap, and why?
John Cusack: I don't know the anwer to the last question, but it is the Riddle of the Sphinx.
I think the answer to the first one is very complex but I like to refer to a quote by Arundhati Roy, the writer, and she says, and I quote, "Our strategy should not be only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it, to deprive it of oxygen, to shame it, to mock it with our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories, stories that are different from the ones we have been brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling -- their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitabillity. Remember this: We be many and they be few. We need us more than we need them."
That always stuck with me as a wonderful call to spirit. And "their notion of inevitability" was the key phrase to me. That's their armor and their last line of defense. I think the more we bring it into the light of day, the better. But there is no easy answer.
Concord, N.H.: You just talked about stylistic differences between "War, Inc." and "Grosse Pointe Blank" (also a favorite in my family). How does "War, Inc." match up stylistically with my favorite movie of all, "Dr. Strangelove"?
John Cusack: Well, I'm not stupid enough to compare our film with a classic. Somebody wrote something funny about the two movies that I liked: "'Dr. Strangelove' points out weapons of mass destruction in the hands of man can create disaster, but 'War, Inc.' points out that disaster in the hand of corporations run by men can create a powerful endless, new economy with no morality except the bottom line and dot.com-sized numbers." I thought that was pretty interesting.
Dearborn, Mich.: Aside from not voting for McCain, how can someone who has little influence on politics (not famous), making $30,000 a year (almost near poverty), truly be heard in regards to actual policy changes, whether it be about war, taxes, foreign trade, etc.?
John Cusack: I'm not sure. I could give you some stock, boilerplate bromides to that situation but I don't know if it would be honest.
I would have to think about that, so that I didn't give you a flippant answer. I guess I would say stay as informed as you can and aschew the corporate narratives of the mainstream media and stay ready. It never hurts to be involved in any political or activist organization. I can never see how participation would be a bad thing. The key is being true to what you participate with and who, and I suppose that would be a much longer conversation.
John Cusack: Thanks for the questions and thanks for having me.
I hope that although i have some very strong statements and it's not easy to get the tone right, that I am saying everything I say with respect for other people's points of view and with humility and understanding of my lack of total knowledge. But it's something I have been studying on and working on for a long time.
I do hope people will look into these issues more and bring them to the attention of our Representatives. And I hope Obama gets elected so I don't have to talk this way anymore. But I think even if he does, I will.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.