John Cusack Outsources 'War Inc.'

A dark comedy about the business of combat debuts today at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. War Inc. stars John Cusack. Director Josh Seftel talks about his first scripted feature film.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Hey, thanks, Mark. So here in New York the seventh annual Tribeca Film Festival is underway. It's 12 days of more than 200 feature films, documentaries and short films from around the world. It's also a preview of some of the flicks you'll be seeing this summer, like the latest from actor John Cusack. A black comedy about outsourcing war in a fictional country with a name that ends in "stan," which has pretty much become the de facto suffix for funny and foreign. Here's a clip from the trailer of the movie, "War, Incorporated".

(Soundbite of movie "War, Inc.")

Mr. JOHN CUSACK: (As Brand Hauser) I feel like a refugee from the island of Doctor Moreau. Some twisted character from a Celine novel. The hot sauce helps.

(Soundbite of music and gunshots)

Mr. CUSACK: (As Brand Hauser) Turaqistan, what's the gig?

Unidentified Actor #1: Terminate Omar Sharif.

Unidentified Actor #2: This is the first war ever to be 100 percent outsourced to private enterprise. Tamerlane soldiers, Tamerlane tanks.

Mr. CUSACK: (As Brand Hauser) Who's my cover?

Unidentified Actor #3: Trade show producer.

MARTIN: Trade show producer. Interesting. Joining us now in the studios, the director of that film, Josh Seftel. Hey, thanks for coming in.

Mr. JOSH SEFTEL (Director, "War, Inc.") Sure, good to be here.

MARTIN: So we heard a little bit in that trailer, kind of, about what the narrative plot is of this film. But explain to us, without giving any spoilers, what this film is about in your words.

Mr. SEFTEL: OK, sure. What happens is John Cusack plays this assassin who is sent to a fictional country called Turaqistan. And he's sent there to kill an oil minister. In the process, his cover is to run a trade show which is essentially profiting on the war which is just winding down. And in the process of that he meets a young Turaqi pop star, played by Hilary Duff. And also a left wing journalist played by Marisa Tomei. And then mayhem ensues.

MIKE PESCA: Now I was always told that they get offended when you call them Turaqi. They prefer Turaqistani. It's not the case?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEFTEL: Well, seeing that it's fictional...

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm sure you had some consultants.

Mr. SEFTEL: Yeah, yeah.

PESCA: How did you come up with the name Turaqistan, by the way?

Mr. SEFTEL: Well, we had - the guys that wrote this script are Jeremy Pikser and Mark Leyner and John Cusack, who are just a great team of guys. Hilarious guys. And I think they had a lot of fun writing this script and just coming up with the names and places and the absurd scenarios.

MARTIN: So this is absurd, parts of this film. I mean, how did you - it's partly inspired, we should say, by Naomi Klein's article in Harper's in 2004. It was called "Baghdad Year Zero." It's about post-war Iraq being this kind of capitalist neo-con utopia. That was the inspiration for this. How, though, did you decide now's the time to take the war film and turn it on its head and do a comedy?

Mr. SEFTEL: Well, that's right. You know, this project did start - John read this article, and that was the impetus for this whole project. The Naomi Klein article, and he said we have to make a film about this, about what's going on. And this became his passion project. It took four, more than four years, I think five years to get this project done. So it's been - we've been thinking about it and talking about it for a long time and saying, how can we come at this from a different angle? And in 2006, when we were shooting the film, it was really controversial to be - to make jokes about the war. It still is. But you know, it's - I think it's the best way sometimes to get at really heavy subjects.

MARTIN: Was it always going to be a comedy or did it take years of sitting with this idea to get to the point where you thought the only way we can do this is actually from a satirical point of view.

Mr. SEFTEL: It was always going to be a comedy.

MARTIN: It was?

Mr. SEFTEL: Yeah.

PESCA: I think about the big anti-war comedies or war spoofs. Things like "Dr. Strangelove," of course, and "Wag the Dog." Those, you know, "Dr. Strangelove" came out during the Cold War and "Wag the Dog" was about Bosnia, but is this the first time a comedy pretty much about a war that's going on came out during the war that you know of?

Mr. SEFTEL: You know, that's a good question. I don't know for sure. I know that, you know, a lot of the Vietnam - the best Vietnam films came out many years after.

PESCA: Right, the only film that came out during Vietnam, set in Vietnam, was "The Green Berets" with John Wayne.

Mr. SEFTEL: That's right. Yeah, that right.

PESCA: And so a spoof is a totally different thing and kind of daring.

Mr. SEFTEL: And you know, the thing is like, you know, everyone knows that the movie is about the Iraq war, that have come out thus far, have not done very well for the most part, you know. And so this is really different. In fact, we don't really think of it necessarily as a war film. It's a comedy, it's a satire, it has a lot of - it's filled with ideas. It's very- it's absurd, it's fun, it's a wild ride. And it also has a lot to say.

MARTIN: Well, let's listen to another clip. Comic genius, in my opinion, Dan Aykroyd, from his earlier years. He makes appearances in this film. Let's listen to a clip of Aykrod's character, a former VP and head of the company that's behind this whole outsourced war, Tamerlane. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie "War, Inc.")

Mr. DAN AYKROYD: (As former VP and Head of Tamerlane) Tamerlane is sponsoring a trade expo. Brand U.S.A. It's our big launch bringing democracy to this part of the world. Plus now that we've bombed the (bleep) out of them, now there's a lot of rebuilding to do.

Mr. CUSACK: (As Brand Hauser) Shows a nice spirit.

Mr. AYKROYD: (As former VP and Head of Tamerlane) Somebody has to help these poor people. This moment presents a great opportunity for Tamerlane and the United States, for that matter.

MARTIN: Now, Josh, you're mainly a documentarian. I mean, you've done work in Romania and Africa. Was it hard for you to take that hat off and put on this satirical hat? Or because it's based on, loosely, real world scenarios, was that a little bit easier to make peace with your, kind of, documentarian inside?

Mr. SEFTEL: Well, I think that, you know, documentarian, maybe people think of serious and intense. And my work has mostly been funny. I've done stuff for "This American Life." I've done stuff for public TV. I've done - a lot of my documentaries are actually funny and dark. So for me it wasn't that much of a stretch. I mean, I think this film fits very well into my body of work in terms of the tone and the kind of content. I like to do films that are about things that are going on in the world, and this film certainly falls in that category.

MARTIN: And provocative.

PESCA: I was just going to say, I think that when you talk about all the failed films about the Iraq war, "Lions for Lambs," all the other ones. Some of them didn't fail artistically. All of them have failed at the box office. Do you think it might be a question of tone that people don't want to be hit over the head with this if they feel very bad about it? And if they are very pro Iraq war they definitely don't want a criticism. Maybe the tone of just talking about all the absurdities surrounding it, that could connect with an audience better than what we've seen so far.

Mr. SEFTEL: Well, you know, any time you can turn on 24-hour cable news and watch something for 24 hours a day, I don't think you want to watch a movie about that.

PESCA: Yeah, why go pay for it?

Mr. SEFTEL: With the same tone.

PESCA: Why go pay and feel bad, and all that?

Mr. SEFTEL: People go to movies to escape the 24-hour news channel. That's what I think. So, you know, we didn't want to make a film like that.

MARTIN: Were there ever any moments in making this, though, that you thought, this is really going to make some people mad? I mean, there are a couple of scenes in there, one in particular, where Marisa Tomei has been abducted, you see this image of her, you know, what we've seen before in real life. People with bags over their faces, masked and she's reading off a list of demands. One of her demands is that she'll be killed if Lebron James isn't traded to the local team, which is very funny! But was there anything inside of you that said, oh maybe we shouldn't go there? Maybe we shouldn't - we should kill this part of it.

Mr. SEFTEL: You know, that was the toughest part, is finding the tone. And sometimes you have got to take a chance. We want people to laugh, and we want people to - but ultimately we want people to really think about this stuff. And you know, that scene in particular, as a director, that was really hard for me because I had watched all the videos, the real videos, of people being beheaded and...

MARTIN: Yeah, there's nothing funny about those.

Mr. SEFTEL: They're terrifying. Terrifying videos. And you know, my job as the director is to interpret the script and say, OK, how do I make this scene work? I do I make this funny? And I remember with that scene, we tried it and Marisa was - Marisa Tomei was playing this reporter who was kidnapped, and she was being held at gunpoint and they were going to kill her. And it was, she was terrified. She played it in the way that she was scared. And I thought this, you know, this isn't working. And so the guys who were playing the terrorists who were standing behind her, I took them aside and I said - they were improv comedians, almost all these guys were - and I said, look you've got to move around more, you have to have fun with this. And so they started to, like, give the thumbs up and, you know, high-five each other every time she read a demand.

MARTIN: Make it so totally different from anything that we've seen.

Mr. SEFTEL: Exactly. And so we had to raise the absurdity level at times to make these scenes funny. And that was the challenge but it's, you know, sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. But that was the challenge for sure.

MARTIN: Well, the movie's called "War, Incorporated." The director Josh Seftel - and actually we'd be remiss if we did not mention that you have - we have a mutual friend in common. There's an NPR connection, right? A woman named Kee Malesky, I understand you know.

Mr. SEFTEL: That's correct. My last film, which was a short film, was a satirical comedy called "Breaking the Mold: - The Kee Malesky Story." Some people might recognize that name if you listen to NPR because she's one of the staff librarians there.

MARTIN: She's the head NPR librarian, and she is usually based in D.C. She happens to be in New York.

KEE MALESKY: That's not my job title. Now you're getting in trouble with my boss.

MARTIN: Here's Kee. Oh, no!

MALESKY: I'm not the head librarian.

MARTIN: She's not the head librarian. What are you, Kee?

MALESKY: I'm not the head librarian. I'm just the oldest librarian.

MARTIN: Oh, you're the oldest!

MALESKY: For many centuries.

MARTIN: What a surprise. It's like "This Is Your Life."

MALESKY: This is my life!

MARTIN: We had a little, small-world moment because yesterday, Kee was in the studio and I said, Kee, we're doing this interview with Josh Seftel. And she said, oh my gosh, I'm his muse.

MALESKY: I know him.

MARTIN: I mean, he was basically...

MALESKY: I made him famous.

Mr. SEFTEL: She was the muse, yes.

MARTIN: She was the muse for your movie based on a young - a fictional account, we should point out.

Mr. SEFTEL: Yeah, what happened was, I was making a film for public TV that was a comedy and I wanted the protagonist to be a librarian.

MARTIN: And unfortunately, we're going to have to, what we'll do, we'll put a little summary of the Kee Malesky story on the Web site because unfortunately we have run out of time. But we did want to bring you two together to have a special little reunion. Josh Seftel is the director of "War, Incorporated." It's at the Tribeca Film Festival going on in New York right at this moment. We appreciate both of you coming in today. And that's it. For this hour of the BPP. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Rachel Martin.

PESCA: And I'm Mike Pesca. This is The Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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