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'Syriana' Director on Ruthless Pursuit of Oil, Power


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

(Soundbite of "Syriana")

Unidentified Man: Corruption? We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the street. Corruption is why we win.

CHADWICK: The new film "Syriana," which Mark Jordan Legan just mentioned, is about corruption, but it's also a survey of the complicated inner workings of the global oil industry. The film weaves together stories of Arab royals and CIA agents and businessmen, like you just heard, and terrorists. "Syriana's" writer and director is Stephen Gaghan. He won an Oscar for the screenplay for the 2000 film "Traffic," and he spoke with my colleague Madeleine Brand.


Let's begin with the script. It's based on a book by a former CIA agent, Robert Baer, called "See No Evil." And how did you go about adapting that book?

Mr. STEPHEN GAGHAN (Writer, Director, "Syriana"): I went to Bob, and I said, `I love your voice. I love the fact that all these crazy people are in your book.' And he's like, `Here's what it is. I'll introduce you to anybody you want. You know, let's go. Let's go on an adventure. You want to find out what it's like, pal? All right. Come with me to the south of France in August.' I'm like, `South of France in August?' He goes, `Yeah. You know, nobody in the Middle East--if you're worth your salt, you don't stay there. It's too hot, too humid. You leave, you go to the south of France, a 50-square-mile area. I can introduce you to everybody, and you can ask them whatever you want and see if you can make sense of it.'

BRAND: So from your travels, you come back and you write a script that actually encompasses a lot more than a CIA agent's life. It goes to Pakistan; it goes to the Middle East. It follows the travails of a giant US oil company trying to get Justice Department approval for a merger. It hopscotches all around the world and has many, many characters. And I'm wondering--it's a very dense plot. Many people have already said that they find it confusing, and you've said you wanted it to be intentionally confusing. Why is that? Did you think that that wouldn't--that it's more realistic that way?

Mr. GAGHAN: Well, I wanted the first hour, you know, particularly to give you this feeling of full immersion, like you dropped into a real world that has its own rules, and it operates in a way that feels to you the way the world feels now, to be alive today. What does it feel like to be alive, to be in America? And how does it relate to Duke Cunningham in Washington, you know, the Duke Stir living on his yacht--in plain, broad daylight living on a yacht bought for him by military contractors in view of the Capitol, commuting from his yacht on his Rolls-Royce on his congressman's salary to Capitol Hill? A good man, a Vietnam vet, a fighter pilot went to Washington, and what was it about Washington and what was it about the dollars in Washington that got a good man like Randy Cunningham to cross the line? How does it relate to Nigeria, where $400 billion in profits from oil have been squandered in the last four decades--squandered or lost? How does it all fit together? And I wanted to dramatize that.

And then in the second half of the film, I wanted you to feel these common themes start to emerge, you know, like sort of ideas of very simple shared humanity; that the world is very small; that a man who's in a cave in Afghanistan can bring down the World Trade Centers, but the converse is true; that positive actions here, when the globe is woven so tightly, when the fabric of the globe is so tight, the tiny positive pull on thread here reverberates all over the world.

BRAND: Still, the movie is pretty bleak. You have a pretty jaundiced view of American interests as governed primarily by greed and corruption. And I'm wondering: Did you wrestle with that idea of portraying America and the Americans as the villains in this?

Mr. GAGHAN: I don't think I do portray them as villains. I didn't do what America tends to do, which is generate the answer and then go look for the reasons. A guy from Kentucky lives in LA and writes movies--I didn't have any agenda. I have young children. The stakes feel elevated. I'm concerned. I love my country. You know, all this stuff--it's really basic, and it's emotional. It matters to me. So if I'd gone out and found a bunch of selfless people working for the common wheel, caring about the weakest link of society, believing in representational government, believing that the smallest voice is as valuable as the loudest voice, I would have portrayed that; I would have dramatized that exactly as I saw it. Unfortunately, that's not what I saw.

BRAND: It seems that many of the characters in the film are holding back saying things that they really think, and either for political reasons or to stir up some trouble, but that what they feel doesn't always get repressed. And there is an interesting scene where Matt Damon's character essentially goes off on the crown prince, played by Alexander Siddig, and let's hear a little bit from that scene.

(Soundbite of "Syriana")

Mr. MATT DAMON: (As Bryan Woodman) Twenty years ago you had the highest GNP in the world. Today you're tied with Albania. So good work. Your second-biggest export is secondhand goods, followed closely by dates, for which you lose 5 cents a pound. Do you want to know what the business world thinks of you? We think a hundred years ago you were living out here in tents in the desert chopping each other's heads off, and that's exactly where you're going to be in another hundred.

Mr. ALEXANDER SIDDIG: (As Prince Nasir Al-Subaai) And now you're my economic adviser. Why don't you tell me something I don't already know?

BRAND: I'm wondering if these characters were speaking for you or the average Westerner who has these impressions of the Arab world? And where did you come up with that dialogue?

Mr. GAGHAN: Matt's character on some level represents aggregate American view. It's my view, as a Kentuckian. You know, before I, you know, learned a lot about the people over there, I sort of had that point of view, so I could articulate it pretty easily. I just tapped into that kind of xenophobic, stereotypical thinking that I think we can all be prey to before we, you know, really learn anything. And, you know, Matt feels free to speak like that because he's under extreme emotional duress that comes out of his family life. You know, he's hit a point where he just doesn't feel like he has anything to lose, so he speaks what he perceives as the truth.

And what's interesting about this scene is, you know, those insight--those are--you know, there's some interesting insights in there. I mean, you--that might be something you've felt, not quite articulated to yourself in such a specific way because, unlike the screenwriter, you don't have, like, months to, you know, look at it and hone it and carve it into granite, etc. And yet once the prince hears that, he comes back with something that I don't think anyone would expect him saying. You know, Matt is leveling him. I mean, he is really going after him. And the guy's like, `OK, tell me something I don't know,' because that's what's interesting about this character of Prince Nasir.

And the character of Prince Nasir is based on people that I actually met, very enlightened princes from countries in the Persian Gulf with tremendous educations, huge personal libraries and a really, really sharp perspective. But also because of the realpolitik and because of their access to the real corridors of power, he has knowledge that Matt will never have. You know, he's, on some level, a grown-up while Matt's kind of a little boy.

BRAND: And he is idealistic to some extent, and he wants to use his country's wealth for the good of the people. And he is, for that, not well-received by the Americans, by the CIA, by the big oil companies who want a big chunk of that business.

Mr. GAGHAN: We have benefited from having a system over there that is not democratic; that doesn't aim to give each individual Saudi the true individual value of that wealth. What we do is we have a system--and we helped set this system up and maintain it--that allocates an extraordinarily high percentage of the wealth to one small family, one person. And the reason we do that is that they can use that money to control the rest of the population and keep the oil flowing out of there.

BRAND: You're in Washington now; I'm speaking to you from our studios in Washington. And I'm wondering if you've received any reaction to your film from the powers that be in Washington?

Mr. GAGHAN: The nice thing about "Syriana" is that it engenders a whole bunch of different reactions, and it seems to get people talking. I mean, we had a screening last night, and reps from the AEI, the American Enterprise Institute, walked out of the film last night in the middle. And, you know, this isn't surprising to me. But, you know, I was in Dallas. I had just a whole audience of energy people, executives, people that own energy companies, professors of energy at various universities in Texas. And it started the most incredible discussion about ethics and business and the need for ethics and the need for regulation, the need for--govern our own self-interests, so to speak. And it was just remarkable.

BRAND: Stephen Gaghan is the writer and director of the movie "Syriana."

Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. GAGHAN: Oh, you're welcome.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand recorded that interview a few days ago.

I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.