Beirut featured

Interview: Director Brad Anderson on Making 'Beirut'

April 12, 2018Sherry Li

In his latest film, director Brad Anderson takes us to the Middle East during the '80s, in the midst of the civil war in Lebanon. Beirut, starring Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris and Mark Pellegrino is a complex political thriller set against the backdrop of a beautiful city in disarray, mostly focusing on navigating the difficult personal and political relationships of its main characters. Mason Skiles (Hamm) in particular is grappling with a lot once he finally returns to Beirut after a decade, having to manage his own grief while negotiating with the same terrorist group that killed his wife to try and save a friend's life.

The Reel Roundup caught up with Anderson to talk about what drew him to the project, the film's depiction of the time period, the relationship between the characters, and more.

What attracted you to this project? Was it the script?

Anderson: It's usually the script. I knew Tony Gilroy, the writer, from another project that we had tried to put together before that didn't get off the ground. I had a relationship with him, I knew him, I liked him as a person, and I like his films, and I think he's a really smart writer/director. I got the script sent to me for that reason.

But also because I love the story. I love the world that Tony created in this story and this dark, exotic, dangerous world. It was just really appealing. It seemed like an opportunity to jump into a world that hadn't really been depicted on film either. There's a great lead character in the story. Mason Skiles is a sort of tragic, anti-hero character that Jon Hamm plays so well. That was much of the draw too. It's always about the script, but the script also has to have characters or a character that really pops, and this one did for sure.

I heard that the script was written quite a while ago. What changes have been made to turn it into the film we see today?

Anderson: Yeah it was, it was written 20 odd years ago. [In] the early '90s, Tony wrote it as a spec script. At the time, it got a lot of heat, there were a lot of actors and directors who were interested in doing it. I think the studios and financing people were gun shy because they weren't clear on how a movie set in the Middle East would do and how audiences would respond. So it kind of got shelved. And then it got dusted off when Argo came out and was such a success, and [a] similar story — [a] hostage drama in the Middle East in the late '70s.

Nothing was changed much from then and now. I mean, Tony went through the script and vetted it and made sure it was as accurate as it could be. Even though the story is fictional, it is set in during that time frame during the early '80s. We didn't change much. In fact, he says that when he wrote it in the early '90s, it was barely a period piece. The irony is that 20 years later, he's rewriting himself, because he wrote it as a younger man, and now he's older and more experienced, with more movies under his belt, and went back and checked it out. And he said he was happy with how it was, so we didn't have to change too much.

I think the movie manages to convey a sense of disarray not just in the city of Beirut, but in the Americans and their politics there as well. Considering Beirut is about such a turbulent time in Lebanon's history, how did you ensure that the film presented a fair representation of the time period?

Anderson: We weren't setting to make an exposé or a political documentary about Beirut. It's really about this character and his journey there. The city is really more of a backdrop for this broken man to try and find his place, to find his footing, and try to redeem himself.

But you know, Tony did set it in the early '80s when Israel had designs on Lebanon, and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) were sending missiles into Northern Israel, and the Americans were kind of in-between, and maybe like in the movie, were trying to grease the wheels of an Israeli invasion. The only really heroic character, you could say, in the story is Mason. He comes back and does the right thing and makes sacrifices to save his friends. That's kind of what was most compelling about it. We were just looking to create a story that was less about the accuracy of the political situation and more about the accuracy of the characters' journey, and making that feel real.

The drone shot in the movie that we used to show Beirut, the devastation of the city — we couldn't find any obvious aerial shots of Beirut in that period, so we used footage from a drone of destroyed cities, of homes, in Aleppo in Syria from five years ago.

With Mason and Karim's relationship, I think the audience gets a sense that there was a lot of unspoken dialogue that was built into their interactions. One of Karim's most powerful lines is when he tells Mason that "that night" he wasn't a terrorist, but in the morning he was. What made Karim change? Or has he really changed? Because he does trust Mason, and he does have this bond with him.

Anderson: That's a good question. I mean, how much has he changed, versus how much has he made a practical decision, based off the fact that his brother, who had essentially kidnapped him and brought him into the fold and radicalized him. It's a question of what his allegiances are too. Are they to his brother and the cause, or are they to Mason, who might represent what his future could have been?

Mason has to make the same choice in a way. What is he going to do? Is he going to fight for himself, or is he going to reach beyond that and try to help someone else? Which is ultimately what he does. So he's bitter, he's radicalized himself, in a way. I like that relationship because you sense that connection and the empathy between the two characters, but they're so far apart by the end of the movie.

[Karim] didn't want to become a terrorist, but once he was taken by his brother and taken into that world of violence, he had no choice. So we got to play that the relationship between him and his brother as real, and not depict Karim as a monster, per se. There is the notion that he was under the thumb of his brother and doing what he did. For that reason, is he a full on zealot, hardened terrorist? I don't know. I'm not sure. Maybe he's not.

You have an amazing cast (with Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris and more). So, what are some moments that stand out to you from the production? Especially since you were filming in Morocco, which must have been amazing.

Anderson: Yeah, we were in Tangier, which is a great city, in the north of Morocco. It was a tough shoot, we had not a lot of money and not a lot of time. Every day with Jon Hamm is a pleasure. He's such a nice guy, such a funny guy, and he makes a really difficult situation pleasurable. We were shooting during Ramadan, which is a Muslim holiday, a holy month of fasting, so our Muslim crew couldn't eat or drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset. So there was a lot of tension on the set, and Jon was really good at keeping everyone cool and making sure everyone stayed cool, literally and figuratively. He was just great.

I can't really give any specifics asides from the fact that it was just great hanging out with the guy. Similarly with Rosamund, really lovely and a real pro. It was not an easy shoot for anyone, but everyone committed to it 100 percent and delivered.

What do you think makes Karim and Mason's relationship so compelling for viewers?

Anderson: That there was this long connection with them initially, and that connection for both of them was ripped away. Not only that, but for Mason, he lost his wife in the bargain. Both of them leave that situation radicalized, in a way. Mason's life goes into the shitter, and Karim in some ways as well. When they meet at the end, they're both broken souls, in a way. They both have seen their lives take turns that they would have hoped wouldn't have happened.

So by the end of it, the two of them are there standing, face to face, and there's a connection through their loss, their mutual sense of loss. And that is something very profound, even though they come from different places. I think that hopefully is something that an audience will appreciate.

Beirut is in theaters April 13th.

You May Also Like