LAFF 2011: Lee Tamahori Crafts THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE

In light of his directorial debut, the intense 1994 drama Once Were Warriors, New Zealand director Lee Tamahori was a surprising choice to head up several big budget Hollywood action films including the final Pierce Brosnan Bond film, Die Another Day, and Next. In between, he's also explored 40's-set mysteries (Mulholland Falls), battled the studios with the Baldwin and Hopkins against nature pic, The Edge, and even directed an episode of the Sopranos. This year, he's back to smaller budget filmmaking with the very unlikely and based (loosely) on fact tale of Saddam's son, Uday Hussein's body double, The Devil's Double.

In the film, Dominic Cooper (An Education, Captain America: The First Avenger) plays both Uday as well as his double, Latif Yahia, a decent man forced to pretend to be a sadist and a madman in order to protect his family from the Husseins' wrath. Tamahori spoke with Twitch recently about turning the story of the Husseins into a gangster film, keeping the project decidedly apolitical, and the state of his indie filmmaking career.

Twitch: Given how the media's focus on Iraq has receded and the American presence there is dramatically less than what it was before, why were you interested in The Devil's Double?

Lee Tamahori: It was never intended as a political statement about [Iraq]. It was really a gangster movie and it didn't matter where or when it was set. The most intriguing thing for me was [that] it was a variant on the gangster film because there were no police, no RICO act, no FBI, no one could take this guy down. It's quasi-realistic--it seems to be real because it's about real characters, but of course, we've taken huge dramatic license. So it's got movie fiction and very little truth in it. It was never intended to be fact.

With all of the Iraq war movies, I know the history of the success or failure of them, we were very worried that we'd get tarred with the same brush. But I was always, I guess, pretty confident that we'd stay out of that gene pool because our subject matter was nothing about that. We were just getting into a rotten regime and having a glimpse at some arcane values and not touching on the politics at all. In fact, it was more of a bonus to throw in the kind of political aspect of it, that's why we opted for stock footage to remind everyone that this was a horrible point in time and these things actually happened.

A lot of it now--this Arab Spring has just erupted around [the release of] this picture and there's no doubt that by the time it comes out in August that the parallels between the rotten regime in Libya and other rotten regimes right across the Middle East, it's going to have some sort of relevance, even though it's dated by 20 years.

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Twitch: What kind of challenges were there trying to get this project off the ground?

LT: It was very difficult. Nobody wanted to make it and there was virtually no chance of it being financed in America because immediately "Hussein" or "Iraq" was a killer for financing, and it was hard to get it financed anywhere. And it was ultimately it was made on the strength of a Belgian tax shelter--a company in Belgium were the sole [investors]. I guess the CEO of that company loved the story, thought it was a great story and financed it himself.

Twitch: That story--it's based on some truly cartoonish acts of villainy by Uday Hussein. Did you ever feel the need to scale back some of the elements of his story to keep it grounded for audiences?

LT: No, in fact the screenplay was even more lurid than what we did. But there's no doubt that there's a garish and lurid element deliberately in this movie. Because in a way, like Scarface, which had that great sort of garish style of art direction for its time, for cocaine, drugs, and various things going on there, we had a built-in lurid wealth going on around us in the form of untold oil money sloshing around in a kind of mafia family. And people with extraordinarily bad taste in their wealth. Hundreds and hundreds of fabulously expensive cars, terrible taste in clothes, but they still cost a lot.

Twitch: Did you ever feel the inclination to humanize Uday like Tony Montana?

LT: It's interesting: the guy has no redeeming features--not one. In fact, let me preface that by saying I always used to say to Dominic and anyone else, the only redeeming features of the guy were that he loved his mother, he loved his country--allegedly--and he died like a man. At least, he died in a hail of gunfire holding a weapon in his hands and didn't go out like a coward. But that said, there's nothing else. I did not want to shoehorn anything else in there to make him--he's almost like a monstrous construct.

But I built in a shred of sympathy in the scenes I mentioned with him and his mother, which is actually, I'm not sure if it's true or not--we made it up. We wanted to give the audience some kind of scintilla of understanding of why he was so screwed up. Daddy doesn't love him, wasn't going to give him the running of the country--it was going to go to his younger brother--he can't earn his father's respect, he loves his mother, he sees her as a lost figure while his father fucks around with whores. And you know, that's it, that's him.

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Twitch: What other sort of prep did you do with Dominic for his dual roles?

LT: I had no guidance on this. I'd never done what you call "twin shot" movies. It's the kind of thing [like in] The Social Network where we double up one actor into two. I knew it was going to be hard to do, it was going to be exceptionally difficult because he's in the movie all the time, every frame of the movie has got Dominic in it in one character or the other.

So, I did a bit of technical research on how to do it and I knew how to achieve some of it but what I didn't know and what, I guess, we had to make up was, I felt--and I think it's been borne out in the end result--that in talking to Dominic that we had to attack this in a good, old-fashioned acting class, "Drama School 101." We were going to separate these characters through body language and voice and we're going to give them some slight prosthetic help. But really, it's going to be down to the way he walks--one guy walks like this, the other like that. One guy speaks in a slightly higher pitch than the other one--we did voice training [so] one guy says "I shall not do this thing" or "I will not go here" and the other guy says "I won't" and "I shan't." We just changed syntax and language and a lot of it was body language, mannerisms, lots of good old actor's tricks. And I said, "If you could find all these things to separate one character from another," one guy talks very fast because he's a cokehead, the other guy is measured and chooses his words carefully.

And the only thing I offered to [the character of] Latif is I want Latif to be a decent, upstanding guy, and I think we need to draw him like a character out of an American Western. He needs to be the loner, the guy who always came to a town that was enigmatic but has decent morality and is the staple of the American Western. That's Latif: he will not waver from his moral code which is upright and upstanding, and he will fight at every turn against the evil that surrounds him so he can find a way out.

And of course, Uday was much easier because he could bounce off the walls, or you could moderate the measure of his psychosis.

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Twitch: And now that The Devil's Double is getting its release, what do you have next?

LT: Well, I want to climb back into another New Zealand independent film like my first one. It's very Maori, very Polynesian. It's a coming-of-age story from my own era, the late 50's and 60's. And it's written by the same writer who wrote Whale Rider [Witi Ihimaera], and the predominant themes of his writing are older generations and younger generations battling it out for inevitability that's going to occur in both their lives.

It's a great story. It's a long way off--I'm probably going to do something else in between because there's probably a U.S. screenplay sitting there for me that's ready to go and probably has some actors attached. I might do that first--almost probably will. I don't know yet.

Twitch: So the plan is to do one tentpole and one small one?

LT: Yeah, I think I'm going to switch around like that now because I've really enjoyed jumping back into independent film and doing this. Instead of doing back-to-back studio pictures, I'm more interested now in getting back to doing some hardcore independent.

But having said that, I don't want to intrude on the American independent scene at all, really. I think independent films I'm going to shoot in my own country or somewhere else in the world. The only reason for that is I don't want to take away from other directors who should be doing independent films in America. And I think while I'm in America, I'll do studio or indie studio pictures, meaning there's all sorts of financing entities around now that make very, very good, dramatic American thrillers, who are not actually major studios.

So that's probably where I'll live.

Twitch: You bring up a good point, though: we don't actually hear much in the U.S. about indie New Zealand filmmaking.

LT: They just care about Peter Jackson and that's it. Peter is the coalface of high-octane, world-class, top-flight filmmaking and visual effects. You'll only see a Whale Rider every five years or something--or less. I feel a bit like an interloper coming back and doing that now, but there are some stories that I want to tell there which are only New Zealand stories and may have a great international appeal, I think.

You know, I'm still going to be part of that as much as I can, but it doesn't cut out the idea [that] this film was made in Europe [it was shot in Malta], even though it's a Middle Eastern story. I like the idea of working in other parts of the world, too--like South Africa or anywhere. It's attractive.

The Devil's Double is screening as part of the L.A. Film Festival on Monday, June 20th with rapper L'il John hosting. For more information, head over to the LAFF site.

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