You often hear stories about old screenplays being brought out of obscurity, dusted off and revisited under a new light. You probably wouldn’t expect Tony Gilroy’s name to be on one of those forgotten screenplays, especially after the commercial success of the Bourne franchise and the critical success of Michael Clayton, which earned multiple Oscar nominations back in 2008. Even so, that’s the case with BEIRUT, which finally hits theaters this week.
Gilroy wrote the Beirut script back in the early ‘90s when he was first making inroads as a Hollywood screenwriter, yet it’s a film that still feels as topical and relevant now as it must have been when he first wrote it. If there’s ever any question on when to give up on a script you’ve written, then the 27 years between the conception and release of Beirut should teach writers a valuable lesson.
Jon Hamm stars as Mason Skiles, a former negotiator once stationed in Lebanon during the early ‘70s, who is called back 10 years later to help the U.S. government negotiate the release of a kidnapped CIA agent with whom he was once very close. With the help of his Embassy-assigned handler Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), Mason begins to navigate the treacherous politics of the region, which has changed in the intervening decade.
Beirut is directed by Brad Anderson, who remains best known for his early genre films such as Session 9 (still one of the most disturbing horror films I’ve seen in the past two decades) and The Machinist starring Christian Bale, as well as the train thriller Transsiberian.
The Tracking Board sat down with Gilroy and Anderson in January when Beirut premiered at Sundance, and the result was another interesting conversation about making mid-budget movies in this day and age, And no, Gilroy had absolutely no interest in talking about Rogue One, so we stick to the Jon Hamm movie here. Enjoy.
Tony, this started with a screenplay you wrote 27 years ago, so was this just something you had lying around or you’d been revisiting?
Tony Gilroy: No, they owned it. Interscope, I worked for them and wrote Cutting Edge for them, and this came out of conversations with Robert Cort on the set of that. It was a really big deal for me at the time. Interscope was a big studio job, this serious movie. It was this really serious thing that they were really interested in. When it came in, everyone was very happy, and it had a very thriving, busy, movie star circulation, and there was enough political friction. The movie seemed more controversial 25 years ago, and there was some controversy about it. It was an expensive movie, and it just didn’t happen. But they owned it, and then things disappear, and I never thought of it. And then Mike Weber, who works for Ted Field and Radar, they own the script, this guy just started pounding it. “I’m going to get this movie made,” and I’m like, “Sure, go for it.” He really did. He banged it together, and we’re here.
How long ago was that?
Gilroy: He started, what? I would say three or four years ago.
Brad Anderson: Yeah, he gave me the script maybe three, three and a half years ago.
Gilroy: Yeah, three or four years ago, he started calling, and it was like, “Okay, great. Go for it.” But highly doubtful. (chuckles)
Anderson: It took a while… we still had to get the financing, and obviously, then Jon came on board and Rosamund, but we were lucky. We got a company, ShivHans Pictures, that came onboard and basically financed the whole thing.
Did you guys know each other beforehand from anything else?
Gilroy: We did. We tried to do a movie a few years back, and we couldn’t work out the economics on that, but I loved Transsiberian. I was like, “What is this? Who is this?” I love that movie so much, so we got together on that.
Anderson: We live like three blocks from each other – we’re native New Yorkers.
Gilroy: We tried to do a horror movie together.
When you heard they were reviving it, did you want to go through and take another pass?
Gilroy: I wanted to very much, but I just didn’t believe it was going to happen. When Brad finally came on, and then it looked like there were ways of making financing, and John’s name came into it. All of a sudden, you make a real budget, and Brad had some notes, and I had a lot of things I wanted to do. Then I went back and reworked it. I thought it would take me just a couple weeks. I actually spent a lot more time rewriting it then I thought. It’s not materially different at all – the story is identical. I changed a lot of fabric and corners and drapery, lots of details changed.
You also had decades of life and writing experience you could bring to it.
Gilroy: Yeah, exactly. I put an older, wiser… I’m much more like the character. I was writing about a character that I didn’t understand that much when I wrote it. I was a young man writing about someone who’s had great disappointments. It’s a lot easier to write about disappointments when you’ve had them.
Brad, what first interested you about the project? Did you just like the script or the general environment?
Anderson: Well, yeah, two things – the script, working with Tony together, and the world of the script. I loved the idea of doing a period film, especially period in that world which was very unusual. I knew about as much as the next guy about Beirut and that timeframe. When I get into a project, part of it is the adventure of diving into something, learning about it and exploring, picking it apart, and for me, this was an opportunity to do that for a story and a world I wasn’t so familiar with. I try to do that with all the movies. It’s like you’re always opening new doors. So yeah, that was part of the draw. It was on the page, and when we went to Morocco and started scouting locations, it became apparent this movie could have this real texture to it. Like Tony talks about, you can smell the dog sh*t on the streets, and the gunpowder in the air. It has a real texture, and that’s what we tried to capture when we shot the movie in Tangier, that vibe. That to me is always exciting, the tactile nature of the story is what’s exciting to me.
Was it hard finding references to Lebanon at that time you could use?
Gilroy: God, no.
Anderson: No, there’s so many documentaries. There’s tons of photographs.
Gilroy: Circle of Deceit – just go watch Circle of Deceit, the Volker Schlöndorff movie.
Anderson: He shot it in the Green Line, like in that No Man’s Land…
Gilroy: In ’82! It doesn’t look believable. There’s whole long scenes. There’s a long scene of Bruno Ganz goes on this long wander through the city.
Anderson: It’s not CGI (chuckles)
Gilroy: If you were directing the film, you’d go to the art department and go, “I think it’s too much. It’s too much.”
Anderson: That movie, and again, lots of photographs, lot of iconic photographers. There’s one image in the movie of Jon, and he wanders into this bombed out square, and he sees a couple getting married down the way. And that was a fact, like a lot of Christian couples would go to the Green Zone, the No Man’s Land, and they’d get married there. It was this weird kind of ritual. There’s some famous photographs of this woman in a gown and guy in a tuxedo standing in the rubble. We wanted to mimic that. Another moment, there’s another great shot that was so iconic, and that’s all these kids playing on this old mortar cannon on this hillside, and these kids are playing on it like it’s a jungle gym. To me, that image, too, was so evocative, and we tried to replicate that in the movie. A lot of these little touchstones were taken from the research we did, but most of it was photographs and these documentaries that were made at the time.
Gilroy: It’s very well documented, Beirut, and the civil wars.
I assume you did a lot of research into this when you first wrote the script.
Gilroy: I did the research twice! I did the research in the early ‘90s when you’d literally go to the New York Public Library and the Strand and bookstores and calling people to send me books and talking to people on the phone. It took me a year to write that movie in my office. There’s a picture somewhere with all the walls and everything. You go back to rewrite it a couple years ago right before we started shooting, and I could recheck all of my scholarship in an afternoon on the ‘net. I mean, it’s incredible, and all of the new things that have come out. So I sort of researched this twice.
And you never thought of directing it yourself once you started down that path?
Gilroy: As it started to get really good, I was like, “What the hell am I doing?” No, exactly… there was a little bit of that, but here’s the thing. I could not have done this. I can’t, for the price this movie was made, for the number of days he had, there’s absolutely no way. I couldn’t do it. I’m too spoiled, and it’s amazing to me. But no, I became a full-time supporter right from the very beginning.
Can you talk about how you ended up with Jon Hamm as Mason? Was he the most obvious choice, because he has that stature and appearance that fits Mason?
Anderson: I think it almost feels like Tony wrote the script with Jon in mind, even though he wrote it 20 or 30 years ago, but Jon just fit the part like a glove, in terms of that world-weariness, and the sense of a guy who came from a background, like a Kennedy-esque type background, who had that kind of diplomatic core background. You believed him in the ‘70s in that world, and you believed him as this sort of washed-up character who is trying to redeem himself in the ‘80s. The other thing about Jon is that you can point a camera anywhere on that man, and he’s just so photogenic. He’s beautiful. And to put him, that guy, into this dusty rubble-strewn world was just a great contrast, wearing the suit. That shot where he steps out of the cab, and he’s wearing a suit, and he’s surrounded by devastation, like that, again… those are contrasts that are really exciting. So he came onboard, and when he came onboard – he was really drawn to the script and the character – the movie really started to come together at that point.
Obviously, you got this movie made but is it hard to get a movie like this made?
Gilroy: What do you think? I mean, come on. It’s very rough out there for this particular… this is falling in a diminishing area. The [mid-budget] serious movie. I mean, things are either really, really big or they go second screen.
Anderson: And it’s not a TV series. You’re not going to binge watch it. I mean, the fact we got a distributor, and it will hit a theater or movie screen, that’s an accomplishment these days.
Gilroy: You’re not begging for awards. I hate how everything’s in the fourth quarter now. This fourth quarter-itis, it’s devastating. It’s having all these really bad unintended effects. All these movies come out in the fourth quarter, and you can’t see them all.
Anderson: Yeah, it’s impossible.
Going back to the Morocco location where you shot the movie. You had the reference, but was it hard to recreate it in a modern-day city like that?
Anderson: Oh, Morocco is cool. We chose Tangier, because it’s very like Beirut. It’s a Mediterranean city, colonial architecture, that mix of European and Arabic combination. It’s also a city that’s a little rundown. I mean, it’s not as much anymore, but when we were there, it was a little tawdry. Trying to recreate the ‘70s and ‘80s there wasn’t so hard. We also had a great production designer, an Israeli production designer who had been to Beirut. He was a soldier in the ‘80s, so he knew what the roadblocks would look like, what the Palestinian guys would be wearing. He was very aware of the look and the feel of the world that we were trying to create. But Tangier was a really good canvas to work on. It already had 80% of what we needed there. We were tweaking stuff, and they were very amenable to us shooting [there]. I think, frankly, it was the first American movie that had shot entirely in Tangier. A lot of movies go there, and they do a week, whatever. We were there the whole time, and the whole movie was shot there.
Do you still have to do a lot of CG to get rid of the Starbucks and stuff like that?
Anderson: There’s a little bit, some, but we didn’t have the budget to do that.
Gilroy: Not enough money to do it.
Anderson: We just tried to do it practically, so we did a little but not much. Like that shot where he’s looking out the window of the hotel room, that was obviously CG, but that image, again, was taken from a photograph of what it really was, just buildings falling to pieces.
Do you have any idea what you want to do next as a director, Tony? It’s been a few years now.
Gilroy: Well, I did get out of the house on Rogue, so I did get out of the house for nine months. I’m trying to get out of the house again. I’ve been writing all year. I got two different things to go, so I’m trying to write a really, really big movie for a studio, and if that doesn’t work, then I have a pilot for a seven-hour thing. The middle ground is getting less and less comfortable.
That’s odd because there are so many new companies like Bleecker Street and A24…
Gilroy: I wish them luck. I pray for them. I want it to be that way. I don’t know if wanting it is enough to make it continue. We’ll see. Something surprising will happen, I hope. So I’m writing a big movie and a TV thing…
Since I haven’t seen you in a while, how was the Star Wars experience? Was that very foreign or was it kind of back to the Bourne thing, working within the studio system?
Gilroy: I’m not really… there’s been a lot written about that. I can’t really comment on a lot of that stuff. The statute of limitations hasn’t really worn out on that, but I was out of the house for a large period of time. Now I’ve been back in the house for a year, so it’s time to get back out again. Time to get back out of my room. I like to be out in the world, and it’s time to be out in the world.
And Brad, you’ve been directing a lot of TV…
Gilroy: He works all the time! He never stops.
Anderson: I do work a lot, but I’ve been doing the pilot thing, TV pilots. I just finished Titans, this new DC Comics Warner Bros. show, and I’ll probably do another one, because it’s pilot season now. That’s sort of the bread and butter, but like Tony, I got a couple of my projects. These are generally my own labors of love that I’ve been trying to get off the ground, and hopefully, maybe Beirut will give me the ability to get another one out the gate. But that’s what I like to do. I’m not a studio guy. I just find those projects that I can connect with. I spent two years of my life with this movie. When you find something, you really want to love it, ‘cause you gotta live with it. It’s like getting married for two years. And then you never even get divorced – you’re always with it. (laughs)
Gilroy: (laughs) Boy, that’s true.
Anderson: I’m looking at getting another indie off the ground sometime this year, hopefully. We’ll see.
Directing the TV pilots, do you just do it and walk away and let someone else take over?
Anderson: That’s sort of the beauty of it, yeah. You do it, you set the look and the feel of the show, you set the tone, and then you step away, but you own a piece of the show, so it’s a cash cow. That’s why I do it (laughs). But it’s also good, because it’s like making a movie. You’re not just coming in and directing an episode of a show that’s already been established.
Beirut opens nationwide on Wednesday, April 11.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor