Dozens of paparazzi were crouched like lions outside the entrances and exits of a Manhattan hotel last Friday, and not because they're big fans of Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth and really wanted to take a snap of him. The more attractive half of 'Brangelina' is in town, on break from filming A Mighty Heart in India, and she made a late agreement to show up at the junket for her latest project, The Good Shepherd. The film, which is best described as 'The WASP Godfather,' originated with Francis Ford Coppola some years ago and tumbled through many levels of development hell before finally landing at the feet of Robert De Niro. It tells the story of the birth of the CIA through a tight-knit group of ambitious boys, including Matt Damon, who first meet at Yale and then continue their secret-handshake games throughout World War II and into the Cold War. Among other things, the film marks the return of Joe Pesci to the screen after an absence of eight years.
Thanks to the barely controlled chaos of the day and the various gossip columnists who muscled into the event after catching wind of you-know-who's RSVP, Cinematical wasn't able to drum up much time with the attendees, but we were still on hand for most of the day to watch De Niro, Roth, Damon and Jolie sweat it out under the hot lights for the sake of their pet project. Here is a sampling of what went on:
Cinematical: Can you give an update on Atlas Shrugged? What sparked your interest in developing it? "I think it's a wonderful book. I'm a fan of her writing. I think it's an amazing project. It's, in many ways, a controversial and complicated project and I think it needs to be done right. There's been a lot of talk as to how that can be and 'what are the important reasons for making it?' There's a lot of really great people involved. It's being written now, and we'll see as the script comes out, how close we are. Then we'll know how close we are to possibly making it. Everybody involved, the producers involved, we all sat down around a table and we all agreed that if we couldn't do it right, if we couldn't do it justice, if along the way any one piece didn't come together like the right director or the right script, then we would all just fold it and not do it. So that's where we're at right now. We're taking it step by step, and we're going to make damn sure that it's done right."
Cinematical: What are the 'important reasons' you referred to? "I think it's too complicated to get into, because I think the discussion about that project, the misconceptions about her [Ayn Rand], different interpretations of her, that script ... it is a huge subject. So I'd be tentative about speaking lightly about it."
Non-Cinematical Question: Have you ever been made aware of any CIA activity in developing countries during your humanitarian work? "I've never been aware of something specific, but I've witnessed our foreign policy and I've witnessed the change in the perception of America's foreign policy in the last few years. Every trip I take in the field has been different because of the changes we've made. I'm sure the CIA has had a hand in that. What changes are you referring to? Well, to be completely honest, about five years ago when I started traveling and I would say I was American, everyone was very, very excited and they thought it was the greatest thing in the world, the greatest place in the world. Now you feel cautious. You feel that people are not so joyful about that. They question my country or they say things like 'Oh, it's extraordinary that you're here, because you're American.' And that's not true to the American people. The American people are very caring, generous people. That's been proven with the work every individual household has done, the charity they do, and who we are as a people. But it's not what our government has represented in the last few years, so it's been difficult to go to places abroad and see that. I think we all know exactly what I'm saying."
Non-Cinematical Question: Bob De Niro and Matt Damon both met with lots of CIA people in preparation for this role. Did you research by meeting with CIA families? "I didn't, because most of the people they could talk to were men in the CIA. Women like Clover were absent, or quieted, or moved to Arizona. It was almost impossible to talk to the women, and I think the reality is that the women knew so little. There would be very little to talk about. So my choice was almost to really talk to nobody, understand nothing, and be trapped in this world. Sometimes De Niro's character would come in and I hadn't focused on exactly who he was in the script and exactly what he did. I didn't do my research on it, so he walked in and I really wasn't sure who he was. That was kind of how I stayed in the dark."
Non-Cinematical Question: Do you want to work with Brad Pitt again? "Who's going to watch the children?"
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about how you connected with the character. What was it about her that you identified with? "I think that kind of 'feeling alone'. I haven't necessarily felt that in a marriage, per say, but in my life. She's surrounded by a lot of people with a lot of secrets. A lot of quiet, a lot of people just 'accepting'. As much as she's broken, she's also the only person who is desperate to scream out and try to get some reaction, something honest. I've found that in my life a lot. And it would break me, I would start drinking or something terrible, if I was in a situation where I was surrounded by lies or secrets or quiet, and just not a real life."
Non-Cinematical Question: Do you think a certain amount of deception or self-deception is necessary in a relationship? "No, I think quite the opposite is the only thing that works. I don't want to spend my life having to pretend to be someone else. And I don't want the person next to me to have to pretend, ever, because we've got a long life ahead of us. You want to just be able to be who you are in every moment, and that's the only way you'll ever be truly happy, anyway."
Non-Cinematical Question: Are you still interested in Sin City 2? "Yeah, we've talked about it and I read the comic. I don't think the film is being made at this point, so when it's actually going to be, then I'm sure we'll talk about it. It was a funny thing because the idea came to me when I was pregnant. It was this idea that 'I've been Clover and depressed and quiet' and now I'm maternal and pregnant, and here was this idea of....sexy, violent and loud. I thought, 'after I'm pregnant, maybe that will be nice to do'. It didn't come at that time, but we're still talking about it. I have no idea when it might go, and if I'll have time when it does, but I think it's a very interesting project, and I like the comics and I love him as a director, so it's a possibility. A strong possibility."
Non-Cinematical Question: How did you feel about seeing yourself in age make-up in the film? "Well, my mom is aging gracefully, so if I'm anything like my mother....she's lovely. I love age on a face. I know that in this business, there's not a lot of leverage for the way people have an opinion on how people should look, but I personally love it. I love to age in movies. I love to see my face old and in different ways. I actually feel there's something very comforting about feeling yourself as an older woman. You know that when you get to that point, you're going to have earned so many different things and be rooted in so many different ways. There's a kind of comfort to it. Clover was a little different. I hopefully will not break apart as she did. We had these big yellow contacts and yellow teeth. I had 'alcohol age' if you look closely. A lot of broken capillaries and a lot of yellow."
Robert De Niro
Cinematical: There's a big event in the third act of the film that changes our perception of the main character -- did you worry that, in going that direction, you might lose sympathy that had built up for the character? "No, I never worried about sympathy for the character. I felt that if you follow the story and stay with it, you get empathy. You have empathy for the character and the dilemma of the situation. Does that answer your question? Well, at my screening the audience gasped collectively at that moment, so it certainly has a changing effect. It was actually in Eric's original script. He had another version and I said 'I don't believe we should go this way.' I don't know if I should say what it was. He [deleted for spoiler reasons]. So I said 'I don't believe that. We have to pull it back.' I was always concerned about those kinds of things."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about the casting process, and how you arrived at Matt and Angelina. "I was originally going to do it with Leonardo DiCaprio, but it didn't work out schedule-wise. So I went to Matt and he gave me a quick answer and said he would do it. There were only a few actors I would do it with and Matt was one of them, if it came to not doing it with Leonardo. I was very lucky to have him come on board and do it. He's been great on every level. Angelina, the same. I was very lucky to get her. She had always expressed an interest and we had a few meetings. Her wanting to do the part, I sensed. I knew she had some real special feel for it, and about it. She surprised me even more than I thought with what she did."
Non-Cinematical Question: The film explores both CIA and the Skull & Bones club -- were there ever any rules or parameters about something you would not show in the film? "No, there were no rules. We just got information from things that have been written, whatever we could glean from books. Basically, we put that together. I think the skeleton/sword was Eric's thing, I don't know if he got it from something. I just wanted to make it a ritual, a ceremony of a sort, and just put whatever I felt was right and take out what I didn't think was right. I could never expect to find out what they did exactly, and ultimately I don't know if that really matters. I heard about the mud wrestling, and other details are great to use if you can find them. But at the end of the day, you have to try and figure out what you think it could be without making it silly or sensational."
Non-Cinematical Question: Was there a longer version of the film originally? "Yeah, I did have to take some stuff out. And I'll put that in an extended version and put some other scenes in a theatrical DVD version of scenes we have. I will put those in a longer version, hopefully. I'm very happy with the version we have now, so that's okay. I also want to tell the story -- I don't want to confuse the audience. I tried not to, and maybe still there are parts that are confusing. I also think sometimes it doesn't matter if it's not quite that clear. That's okay. You don't always have to have the answer to everything. But there are certain trajectories, character wise, that I took out, so that I could focus on what we had with the other characters."
Non-Cinematical Question: What's something you learned in your research for this film? "I don't know if I learned anything. The only thing I learned is that people in the intelligence world are very smart and very interesting people. The nature of it, the part with deception and so on, which you always hear about and see in movies, is fascinating. All I know is what we did in this movie, and I tried to make that as believable as possible."
Non-Cinematical Question: Some people have called this film a 'preppy Godfather'. "Well, it was started by Coppola, with Eric Roth. Then it went to other directors, and there is a comparison. I was always concerned that it not have certain direct parallels, but how could it not? One is about a secret society and this is about another type of secret society. It's very 'Americana.' One of the best lines in the movie is in the Joe Pesci scene where he says 'What do you people [WASPS] have?' And Matt's character says 'The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.' "
Cinematical: Talk about the evolution of the climactic scene, near the end of the film. De Niro said you wrote two versions of that. "I want to be a little careful. I don't want to give a spoiler that wrecks the movie for people. I'd rather they didn't know some of the machinations of the ending. I wanted it to be an ultimate tragedy -- if you want to call it Greek, fine. So that it had the resonance of Michael Corleone having his brother killed. The ultimate test was to have this guy have to do something that comes back on him. I think the reason the movie, for many years, may not have gotten made was because it was so strong. I won't name the actor, but a big actor was interested in the part but he was very afraid of being remembered for [deleted for spoiler reasons]. I remember saying to him 'Do you really think Al Pacino killed John Cazale?' That's a stretch. But it got changed because when Bob and I came together on this, Bob had been developing a CIA project that took place in a later time period."
He got brought into this by John Frankenheimer. He was going to direct this and then passed away during preparation of this movie. Bob was going to be an actor in it. He had done Ronin with Bob and the two were quite close. And John and I were quite close. So Bob had read the script and John passed away and Bob said 'I'd like to get involved and I'm interested in doing the later years.' So we both made a pact that if he does this one, I'll write the second one, we hope. If this one falls on its ass, that's the end of that. So we always planned when we were doing this one, how could we continue on if there was a part two? We felt [deleted for spoiler reasons]. He might give a sense that he accepts it, but then you have Godfather II, for lack of a better example. And quite honestly, the idea came from Leonardo DiCaprio. We were talking about [deleted for spoiler reasons], and he said 'What if a certain thing happened and [deleted for spoiler reasons]. It was Leonardo's idea and I said, 'that's a pretty interesting idea and very clever'."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about preparing the project with Francis Ford Coppola, and why that didn't come together. "I don't know why he eventually didn't do it. I know there are many tragic personal reasons he didn't work for a long time and this was part of that time period. We're close friends. He also said 'I don't get these people, because they're totally unemotional,' which is how it was intended. I don't know, there's only one Francis, so his point of view would be different than Bob or Marty Scorsese. You can make your own judgments. I think Bob got certain things that Francis probably couldn't have gotten, certain performances and certain other things. I did have other directors. Wayne Wang was on for a while, and the studio changed hands. Phil Kaufman was going to do it. Then after a number of years, Bob came on. But that's the history of a lot of projects. Forrest Gump had a ten year history before I got involved. Benjamin Button had probably seven other writers."
Non-Cinematical Question: What else are you working on? "Well, they're shooting Benjamin Button as we speak, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in New Orleans."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about the casting of Angelina. "Quite honestly, I told her when we met 'I don't believe you as a WASP. You're kind of ethnic-looking to me.' I don't have a problem being honest with people. It would be better to be honest and she didn't like me, than to do a bad job and then the movie's wrecked. I'd rather go down that way. I mean, I'm being respectful. I thought she was a wonderful actress. I just had somebody in mind that was a fair and WASPY kind of person. Like Gwyneth Paltrow? Yeah, or like they did with Diane Keaton in The Godfather. Somebody a little blander, I guess. Not that Gwyneth Paltrow is bland, God knows. But Angelina sparked to it. She took it as a challenge. I always felt she could act it, but I didn't know if it would be believable, and I think she made it believable. I sent her a huge thing of flowers. I didn't think she could, not because of her acting ability, but because of the sense you have of her, plus her persona, and her publicity, and the sort of 'vamp' -- all that stuff.
But she found the dignity in the thing. So it was an interesting combination, because as a personality, as a human being, I think she's not a very repressed human being. I think. I don't know her that intimately, but she seems on face value to be sure of herself. She does what she wants to do for herself. And in that era, under those circumstances, women were very repressed. But the character is sexually aggressive. Yeah, but I think she's a woman who wants something. In other words, I think in a way she also has a point of view about it. I know she's sexually aggressive in that particular instance, but I think it's sort of anger. She's taking her anger out. In another day and age, she could be Angelina Jolie and not be a repressed woman, but this is the 1940s. So then she found herself alone. And everybody said to me 'Why do you have that one moment where she says 'I'm no longer Clover, I've changed my name.' We never talk about it again. It was supposed to be representative of someone saying 'This is who I really am.'"
Non-Cinematical Question: The film was reportedly much longer in its earlier cut: talk about the decision to cut, and what got left out. "We had a problem, and I was part of the problem, in a sense. When he was done filming, whatever the length was, we had to consider either making it into two movies or finding a way to make it a length that was more palatable, to have any chance of people going to see it. We had to make some hard decisions. One in particular was to cut characters out. That's a big block of time and it's always the easiest way to cut a movie -- take out a subsidiary character's part that takes up some time. I think you would have all made the same decision, by the way. It's something that I miss just because it was inside the fabric of the whole piece, but none of you would miss it. I can tell you right now what it was:
Angelina's brother, in the story, is not dead. She thinks he's dead, but he comes back. I had written it for John Frankenheimer, and he's like a Manchurian Candidate. He had been in a Japanese POW camp and the Russians liberated it and he was taken to Russia. And you don't know when he comes back if he's really a Russian agent or not. And we left it totally open-ended. He defects to Russia in the piece. It was driving people crazy because there's no finality to it. He claims he's a double-agent for us and Matt never believes him. That's like twenty minutes of film, so it was an easy block to take out. Now that you know, you might miss it. But when you watch the movie I can guarantee you don't miss it. There are a few other things, there are some scenes I miss, but that happens on every movie. You write things that become your babies and they break your heart. You have to cut them. One of my problems is that I just write too much."
Non-Cinematical Question: Give us an update on the filming of The Bourne Ultimatum. Is Bourne ever going to be happy? "We're almost halfway through. I don't know if that guy can ever be happy. Does he know who he is this time? He will by the end of this one. I don't know how long we can ride that pony. Maybe he'll get a bump on the head at the end. Paul is directing it again, which is huge. That's the reason to do it. He's a really great filmmaker, and we have a story. We have a story to tell. But looking at it, to be fair, I think this should be the last one. I'm half-joking, but his search for identity is going to definitely come to an end. I think the only way to do another Bourne movie would be twenty years down the road."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about the aging makeup and the aging of your character. "We didn't do a lot with makeup. We did little things like shave my hairline back a little bit and then added to it for the 1939 stuff. But really subtle. A little bit of aging stipple around the eyes. You can see mostly in the one shot, where I have the magnifying glass, there are some wrinkles that are makeup, and they look really good. But he [De Niro] didn't want to do anything more than that, because he didn't want anything to distract. Also, the character is only 41 or 42. I'm 36, so I actually had much further to go to get to Yale, than the other way. But then there were the glasses -- those glasses had a real prescription. So I would wear a negative prescription contact lens. It's all details with Bob. The aggregate effect of all those things adds up and makes you go 'I belive what I'm watching.' I've heard stories of him from prop people. On The Departed, the prop guys said the last time they worked with De Niro, he came in to look at a little prop -- it was a little trinket like a cigarette case or something. And he came in on his day off just because he wanted to touch it and hold it and see if he liked it. Everything was like that."
Non-Cinematical Question: Did you witness any of that good-old-boy stuff at Harvard? "I did. I was in the Delta Club at Harvard and I did see some of that. But now, with Skull & Bones for instance, this new generation of kids have totally debunked all of it. There's now a lot of writing about Skull & Bones. 'Okay, here's this right of passage and there's that, and you have to do that, etc..' Starting with around my generation, people stopped taking all of that stuff quite so seriously. Whereas, in 1939 it was of the utmost importance. But nowadays, all of those secrets are out in the open. Skull & Bones is co-ed now."
Non-Cinematical Question: When are you going to write something else? "I don't know. The acting roles have just been so good. All these people I've been able to work with. But Ben and I have been talking about it, and there's one project in particular we're interested in maybe directing together. That's one thing we're looking at. And he just directed Gone, Baby, Gone and I've seen pieces of it and it's just fantastic. And Casey is really great in it. Casey's great in The Assassination of Jesse James actually, too. It's going to be a good year for Casey."