Brad Anderson has never been one for pigeon holes.
A director on acclaimed TV shows like The Wire and The Sinner, he’s also helmed an eclectic range of films including Session 9, Transsiberian and, most notably, The Machinist with Christian Bale
His latest effort, The Negotiator, stars Jon Hamm and is something altogether different: a political thriller and period piece. Hamm stars as Mason Skiles, a former US diplomat sent to turbulent 1980s Beirut to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind.
Based on a script from Tony Gilroy, the writer of the Bourne trilogy and Michael Clayton, it’s a throwback to the kind of thrillers commonplace in the 1990s – something Anderson tells loaded wasn’t simply coincidence.
“This movie totally could have been made with a Kevin Costner back in the ’90s”
“Tony actually wrote this script almost 20 years ago. It ended up sitting on the shelf for several years. Then I met the producer who had optioned it, we spoke, dusted it off and started thinking about how we could make it.”
Indeed, The Negotiator came close to happening a few times in the decades that followed with the likes of director John Frankenheimer and Johnny Depp attached at certain points in time. loaded could definitely imagine the likes of Kevin Costner in Hamm’s role and Anderson concurs.
“This movie totally could have been a made with a Kevin Costner back in the ’90s or, if it had been a little later, someone like George Clooney. You could definitely see that.” In any case, the challenge of taking on something completely different appealed to Anderson.
“I like to genre hop. To try out different types of stories and not necessarily get bogged down in the same sort of storytelling and this seemed like an opportunity to do that.” But it was just about the challenge – the script and chance to do a political thriller also spoke to him.
“I wasn’t totally familiar with the situation in Beirut in the early 1980s. But the more I explored it, the more it intrigued me. It was an opportunity to recreate something different and thoroughly fascinating.”
The early part of the decade saw Israel invade Lebanon as part of a conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organisation based in the region. In the ensuing conflict, countless thousands lost their lives.
Though the film largely steers clear of the complex politics at the heart of this conflict, the chance to work on a historically-set work of fiction appealed to Anderson. “I’ve always loved political thrillers. Those old John Le Carre books and stories like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Those great, dark, dramatic political thrillers. The chance to do something like that as a big draw as well.”
The Negotiator certainly serves as a stark contrast to Anderson’s most notable work, The Machinist.
That particular project gained notoriety for Bale’s infamous weight loss with the actor shedding 62 pounds (28kg) during filming on a diet of water, apples, and coffee. But Bale wasn’t the only one in pain on set – Anderson managed to tear a ligament in his Achilles heel just before shooting began in Barcelona.
“I was running, and I fell so for the first two weeks of production I was on a gurney directing from a TV monitor,” he tells loaded. “It was a little ridiculous. Christian was suffering. He was very weak and just hung out on the periphery of the set, in his own world. But I was also in pain, which kind of helped us bond. It wasn’t an easy shoot.”
There were positives and negatives to Bale’s widely publicised transformation too, as Anderson recalls: “Christian and I both got a little tired of hearing that question about the weight loss while we were promoting The Machinist. Because to him, it was just his method of becoming the character.”
“But if anything, it got more people to go and see the movie out of morbid curiosity. It wasn’t just a stunt though. It had a dramatic purpose. The reason he’s so emaciated is that he is literally being eaten away by his own guilty conscience. Hopefully the story ended up being the main takeaway. Not just the fact someone transformed. That’s just part of the process.”
Working with Hamm on The Negotiator was an entirely different experience though. “When we first spoke about casting, Jon Hamm was someone that immediately came to mind,” Anderson says.
“That suave, diplomat quality. You could buy him in that time period too, because of the work he’d done on Mad Men. You could see him in that world. He doesn’t have any airs about him and that’s kind of what this character is as well. A guy that’s just dealing with life.”
“Mason is this world-weary, fucked up guy who is trying to get back on his feet and is unwittingly put in this situation where he has to help save his friend. He’s an interesting character with a story to tell.” Hamm’s approach couldn’t have contrasted Bale’s anymore either, according to Anderson.
“Christian almost has to live the role…Jon just turns it on, does it, nails it but doesn’t grapple with it so much”
“Christian almost has to live the role. When we did The Machinist he was very much living that character, even off camera. The notion of this haunted, tormented character. Literally, the moment we wrapped that movie he was switched back to being Christian Bale, the convivial guy.
“Jon just turns it on, does it, nails it but doesn’t grapple with it so much. He gets it and does it. Both approaches are viable. It doesn’t matter to me how they get to their place. Once the cameras are rolling and we yell action, if they’ve arrived there then that’s good.”
The Negotiator proved to be a similarly tricky shoot for the film’s crew too. “We shot in Beirut in the middle of the summer during Ramadan, so all the Muslims and Moroccans couldn’t eat or drink all day which was miserable for them, but somehow they pushed on through. But the challenge is what makes it exciting.”
The film’s troubles went beyond that though. When the film’s trailer first debuted, it was met with criticism by some who felt it portrayed a “white saviour” narrative at odds with reality. Anderson sees things differently though.
“I can sympathise a little with that interpretation, but this is one man negotiating in a global conflict, struggling to redeem himself. It doesn’t resonate much beyond that. There are political layers to the movie and the story. Tony wrote this script after speaking to guys who were in the CIA in Beirut around this time. Guys that were thrown into the middle of this political morass. We tried to keep it as close to the bone as possible, but it is a fictional story.”
Ultimately, however, Anderson wonders whether cinema audiences as sick of politics. “There’s so much politics that we’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” he ponders. “You turn on the news and it’s like watching a political thriller. If anything, when you go to the movies you just want to check out for a little bit from it all. Engage with a story that has nothing to do with the reality we’re going through.”
This might just be the exception.
The Negotiator is in cinemas now.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.