Art of the Deal:
Andrew Niccol Talks About Lord of War
By Jeannette Catsoulis
Lord of War
is a disturbing, dark satire that exposes the
machinations of the global arms trade with slippery
style. Writer-director Andrew Niccol gives us
a charmingly amoral protagonist in Yuri Orlov
(Nicolas Cage), a Ukrainian American who discovers
he has a knack for illusion. Rejecting a career
in his fatherís Brighton Beach restaurant, Yuri,
aided sporadically by his conflicted younger brother,
Vitaly (Jared Leto), enters the arms trade and
is soon selling weapons to tin-pot dictators from
Lebanon to Liberia. He evades captureóand the
frustrated pursuit of a green Interpol agent (Ethan
Hawke)ówith chutzpah, aliases, and a breathtaking
knowledge of international law. Spanning 20 years
and several countries, Lord of War folds
censure and sympathy into the same satirical package,
negating both and creating a world where all that
matters is the deal itself.
REVERSE SHOT: What attracted you to this subject matter? I canít think of another movie that deals with gunrunning except in a very tangential way.
ANDREW NICCOL: Well, you have all of these movies about drug trafficking, but arms trafficking has a far more lethal effect on the world. Most of all, though, I was drawn to the character of Yuri, who is this guy who can compartmentalize his life so much that he can take a toy gun from his kidís toy chest and throw it away and then sell a container load of real guns the very next day. A guy who can be so protective of his own family and yet still be responsible for the destruction of so many other families. He has this ability to separate one from the other, and I think thatís fascinating. I also think that ability is in all of us, at least in partówe all make those little deals with the devil, donít we?
RS: How much
creative control did you have? Your script for
The Truman Show was significantly lightened
for Peter Weirís movie.
AN: Yes, but I helped lighten it. I made my biggest
mistake by writing my most expensive movie first,
and once you know that somebody else is going
to direct your story, then you only have two choices:
You can wash your hands of it, or embrace it.
I chose to embrace it. And even though [Weir]
wanted to go in a lighter direction, I went with
him because it was better from my point of view
to try and still get as many ideas in there as
possible. As far as this movie goes, well, every
movie is a compromise. But because I didnít have
a Hollywood studio looking over my shoulder, I
was able to maintain more of the scriptís dark
RS: You seem to be aiming for both a serious
ďmessageĒ film and an entertaining action-adventure,
which one might view as antithetical goals.
AN: Well, I hope the film is enormously entertaining,
and I donít mind if some people see it for that
reason alone. Itís part of the subversive way
I wanted to make it. I basically wanted to make
a how-to about being an arms dealerówhich no one
thinks I would seriously want to doóand add a
satirical tone. But then some people will hopefully
notice Iím not necessarily in the land of irony,
either, and will take the film literally. The
most interesting approach is to simply see everything
from Yuriís point of view. After one of the screenings,
a woman said, ďWeíre all arms dealers.Ē And itís
really very true; the U.S., Britain, Franceówe
all indirectly profit from the sales of arms made
by our governments. Thatís what paves our roads.
So to me itís interesting that in that sense weíre
all arms dealers. But of course people donít want
to see that thereís a part of them thatís Yuri
RS: Was Amir Mokri your first choice of cinematographer?
His images are so critical to the tone of the
AN: I was originally planning to go back to Slawomir
[Idziak, who shot Niccolís Gattaca], but he wasnít
available. But I think Amir is a very good fit
because heís very much like Slawomir in the way
he moves the camera, which is very, very beautiful.
Because Yuri is always traveling in the film,
the camera is always traveling; and the important
thing about the shooting style is we always move
the camera for a reasonónot for some tricky effect
or to disorient the audience, but to tell you
something about the story. Iím not really into
those kinds of showy visual gymnastics. The trickiest
shot in the film is probably the opening [where
the camera rides a bullet from manufacture to
destination in the brain of a young boy], which
we shot last because I ran out of money and had
to go back to the producers. But itís really importantóit
was in the script from the beginningóbecause it
sets the tone for the whole film. It may not be
a tone everyone loves, but for me it was the right
Amir was also a very good fit because he helped
me with the filmís subversive style by making
it look so slick (which is what youíre saying
some critics have objected to). But the whole
point is, I wanted the devil to be glamorous.
Thatís why I chose Cage: I wanted evil to be charming.
RS: The poster
for the film is being copied somewhat by The
Weather Man , with Cageís pose, framing and
expression virtually identical.
AN: I think thatís the only expression he has!
I fought for that poster, and I really like it.
Cage is a very sweet and also very ironic guy,
and the camera captures both these aspects of
RS: Why did you use Yuriís voiceover narration
AN: We had to span 20 years, so the narration
is just an efficient way of getting us through
that length of time. But I also wanted to get
you into the head of this guy whoís also somewhat
of a sociopath and just see whatís going on in
there. The narration also tied in with the instructional
goal of the film, so itís almost like a quasi-documentary.
RS: Some critics are accusing you of hypocrisy
because, as they see it, you are asking us to
despise national policies yet to empathize with
Yuri, who is glamorized and not even punished
at the end. How would you respond to them?
AN: My response would be that Iím just telling
the truth! The fact that Yuri is released at the
end of the movie is torn from the headlines. A
well known arms dealer who lives in Florida was
about to be indicted on arms trafficking charges.
He got his passport back and was allowed to leave
the country because he was far more valuable to
some government agency on the outside than locked
up in prison. So Iím not manipulating the facts
for my own agenda, thereís a precedent for everything
that happens in the movie. As for glamorizing
the character, thatís just his superficial side.
You also get to see the inside of Yuri, and thereís
nothing glamorous about that to me at all. I doubt
it will become a recruitment film for arms dealers!
But I do understand it will be a very polarizing
film, and a lot of people will think even using
this antihero as my lead character is despicable.
But I just do what I do, and whatever people say
about it is out of my control.
RS: Were the
locations difficult to find and set up?
AN: South Africa has to stand in for 13 countriesówhich
it does very wellóand the Czech Republic stood
in for Ukraine. When you donít have a lot of money
you have to be creative, and in Africa there wasnít
a mosque we could use, and I couldnít build anything,
so we just laid out 10,000 bricks. Because bricks
are cheap, and you just lay out a field of bricks
and it looks like someoneís drying them in the
sun. And the juxtaposition between that and these
hi-tech weapons Yuri is selling is quite powerful.
RS: How much difficulty did you have financing
AN: No Hollywood studio wanted to touch it, so
itís all foreign moneyóa lot of French money,
in particular. One insane French producer actually
spent his own money, which is taboo for a producer.
RS: The press notes say you based the character
of Yuri on five actual gunrunners.
AN: Well, I donít know about five, but definitely
several! Iíve been collecting information for
a long time, because Iím interested in these characters
and the world they move in. The fascinating thingóand
itís also why itís so hard to stop themóis that
you donít know if theyíre legitimate or not. They
always tell you they are, or that they may have
done something in the past but theyíve now cleaned
up their act. Itís hard to get them to divulge
anything unscrupulous, so you have to get that
from news stories. But I really liked these guys;
they were charming salesmen. When one guy said
he was going to bring 15 Soviet tanks onto a military
base at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, they were
there. He was very efficientómore efficient than
my crew! All those guns you see when they walk
into that armory in the film? Theyíre all real,
because it was far easier to get 3,000 real Kalashnikovs
than 3,000 fake ones. All the bullets in the opening
scene are from an ammunitions factory in South
Africa. All the tanks are owned by one arms dealer
in the Czech Republic, and the airplane is owned
by a dealer in Africa. Nothing was fake or digitally
multiplied. In this film, life kept imitating