Stephen Gaghan is a Hollywood filmmaker who knows George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh on a first-name basis. But inside the writer-director of "Syriana" (see review on Page 28) lurks a Washington policy wonk desperate to emerge.
Why does Gaghan, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Traffic," seem like potential think-tank material? Because he speaks with unabashed enthusiasm about the legislation that gets debated in the nation's capital: "You allocate the dollars, and programs happen and things get started, and I just find it fascinating." Because he has strongly considered moving to the District: "Every time I spend time here, I decide I'm going to live in D.C. for half the year." And because he genuinely admires the political experts who inhabit the small world housed inside the Beltway.
"I was just thinking of, like, 10 fascinating people that I know here personally, and the fact that all these people live in the same place and they're not fighting in the streets is so incredible to me," he says, gesticulating for emphasis while seated in a cushy chair in a suite at the District's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "It's like cats in a giant bag. That's what Washington is to me."
Some of those so-called cats proved helpful to Gaghan during the four years he spent researching, writing and directing "Syriana," a political thriller with multiple storylines and a vast thematic scope. In short, it's about the oil business, the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy, terrorism and corporate corruption. And that's just in short. The screenplay for the film is loosely based on "See No Evil," the book by former CIA agent Robert Baer, one of many sources Gaghan consulted, both in Washington and elsewhere, as he shaped the byzantine narrative. In fact, some moments from Gaghan's investigative experience were so extraordinary they ended up in the film.
That brings us to the time Gaghan was kidnapped -- or, in his words, pseudo-kidnapped -- in Beirut.
The Louisville native had just arrived at the airport on a 2002 trip when he received a phone call from an acquaintance of Baer's. " 'I have something really special you can do, but you have to do it right now and I can't tell you what it is,' " Gaghan recalls the man saying.
Before the day ended, Gaghan would be blindfolded, placed in a vehicle by men carrying guns and driven down Beirut's back roads with people who spoke no English and were taking him to an unknown destination. The reason for all the secrecy, as the screenwriter later discovered, was that he was headed to a private meeting with Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, an Islamist party considered a terrorist organization by much of the Western world. Baer's friend had arranged the get-together but had neglected to warn Gaghan of the precautions that would be taken. Of course, it all worked out. Gaghan lived to tell the tale, replicating the experience in "Syriana" for a scene involving risk-taking CIA agent Bob Barnes (Clooney).
"I tried to portray it in the movie sort of as it happened and as it felt," Gaghan says, adding, with no obvious trace of irony, "it sort of stands out from all the other experiences in my life."
Gaghan clearly loves telling stories like this. He often talks as though he's writing a screenplay out loud, pausing to utter pithy dialogue and peppering his anecdotes with rich details. (His account of Baer's escape from an Islamic uprising is as gripping as almost any moment in "Traffic.") Though his chestnut hair has started to gray, Gaghan's incredibly slight frame and youthful face reinforce the notion that he's in his early thirties at most, when, in fact, he turned 40 this year. During the interview, he wears a vaguely grandfatherly but still hip black sweater and a smart, rectangular-shaped pair of glasses, which make him look like he got lost on his way to an indie rock concert. It's doubtful, however, that Gaghan has done much rocking in recent months.
He traveled extensively while researching and making "Syriana," which was shot on four continents and in more than 200 locations, including several in the Washington area. All of his expenses -- even those incurred before a single word of the screenplay had been written -- were covered by Warner Bros., the studio releasing the film.
"I bought complete leather-bound collections of 'The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization,' all the plays of Sophocles, obscure Middle Eastern musical albums," he recalls. "I'm sending bills, and they're paying them. I know they've got to be going, 'What in God's name is he doing?' "
Presumably the studio's executives aren't asking that anymore. When "Syriana" opened in limited release Thanksgiving weekend, it earned a per-screen average of more than $110,000, a huge number when one considers that the per-screen average for that weekend's top-grosser, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," was just over $21,000.
Not that Gaghan is particularly concerned about box office.
"There has been a pattern for me of turning my back on lucrative situations," he says wryly, referring to two opportunities that came his way after winning an Oscar for "Traffic": The chance to craft screenplays for "The Da Vinci Code" and the next installment of the Indiana Jones franchise.
He ultimately passed on both because his mind was focused on "Syriana." Though he says he would still relish the opportunity to create new adventures for Indy ("I literally would do Indiana Jones for free," he says), he has moved on to his next project, writing and directing an adaptation of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink." Gaghan sounds perfectly comfortable with his choices, particularly opting to do "Syriana," a film that touches on many of the prickly political issues that unleash his inner wonk.
"The past four years have represented a huge shift in American foreign policy, a huge shift in our role in the world, a huge shift in the way people think of us and the way we think of ourselves," he says. "And that's absolutely rich and okay turf for people like me and George . . . to poke our noses into."