As his documentary Standard Operating Procedure hits DVD shelves, director Errol Morris stopped by The Rotten Tomatoes Show on Current TV to share his five favorite films. Check out his diverse list of movies in the video below!
The 14th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards were given on January 8, 2009, to honor the finest achievements in 2008 filmmaking. A list of nominees follows below, with winners in bold:
Best Actress (Tie):
Kate Beckinsale, Nothing But the Truth
Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Best Supporting Actress:
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Vera Farmiga, Nothing But the Truth
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader
One documentary from the US last year spoke to avid videogamers more than any other, and in the process told a brilliantly human story about good, evil and Donkey Kong. In this week’s Further Reading, Kim Newman celebrates The King of Kong.
This is the most exciting, audience-involving film of any kind I’ve seen this year. At none of the previews of the summer’s blockbusters was I part of such a vocal, enthusiastic and wholly-gripped crowd as I was at a relatively small screening of a picture which has made its UK debut as a DVD retail item.
The King of Kong is an aptly ragged-looking documentary which takes a completely uninviting subject — a controversy in the world of retro-computer gaming about whether longtime Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell should cede his title to contender Steve Weibe — and makes it the stuff of legends. Donkey Kong, for those who don’t remember, is (or, rather, was) an early, fiendishly difficult game from the Super Mario Bros stable, in which the plumber tries to ascend various ladders to rescue a princess, while avoiding missiles tossed by a malign ape. From the DVD extras, I learned that the game was originally supposed to feature Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto, but the Japanese designers couldn’t get the rights to the characters and came up with their own.
Billy Mitchell, hailed as ‘the gamer of the century’, is a reptilian, faux-cool smarm-bucket who invokes fanatical loyalty from longtime rivals and associates, including Brian Kuh (the third-highest DK scorer), who scuttles around with Renfield-like devotion to his master, and Walter Day, the bizarre Roberts Blossom lookalike who has taken on the mantle of definitive judge for the field (an accolade confirmed when he strikes an alliance with the Guinness Book of Records).
Though a patriot, a family man, a successful hot sauce tycoon and rated as ultra-cool by his circle, the goateed and distinctively coiffed Mitchell comes across onscreen as a classic villain. Even his closest friends call him devious, but he is also tragically puffed up in his idea of celebrity, flirting with the interviewer and referring to himself in the third person as if he were a world leader planning a counter-coup rather than a probable saddo whose highest achievement (a perfect Pac-Man score) means less and less with every passing minute.
Wiebe, by contrast, is a classic underdog: following a run of near-miss careers in baseball and music, he took up the game after being laid off, then reinvented himself as a science teacher loved by his students. Crucially, in this showing at least, he doesn’t even seem to think that much of his knack for DK, though he is clearly as obsessively devoted to chasing the record as Mitchell is to keeping it.
Director Seth Gordon intended a more general inside-retro-gaming documentary but lucked into an astonishingly potent storyline and must have sorted through acres of footage to get stuff this good. So good, in fact, a dramatised remake is reportedly in the works. It has vivid supporting characters, including Roy Schild (aka ‘Mr Awesome’), a secondary ‘evil mastermind’ in Wiebe’s camp and Wiebe’s amazing children (a young son who shouts ‘stop playing Donkey Kong‘ as Dad is on his first record-breaking attempt, a tweenage daughter who wryly observes that a lot of people ruin their lives trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records).
You also get as many ups and downs as a sports fiction film, with the added plus that since it’s a true story the outcome isn’t decreed by cliché — though there are triumphs and disasters near the end, the story goes on and you can’t stop yourself looking up on the internet to find out who reigns as the current King of Kong. Everyone, including the near-saintly but not sanctimonious Wiebe, reveals more about themselves than the average reality TV contestant would, with many jaw-dropping statements about epochal achievements and grand calamities that took place in a world of game-playing marginalised by the end of the 1980s.
Mitchell and cohorts act in such a way that, even if it turned out Gordon manipulated and edited the hell out of the footage, it would be impossible for your conclusions about these people not to be — to some extent – horribly true. When Wiebe sends in a tape of his first record-breaking score, Day has agents talk their way into his house to assess his personal DK machine to see if it’s been tampered with, Mitchell claims only scores achieved in public count and the record doesn’t go into the books. When Wiebe does it again at a games convention, Mitchell has protégé Doris Self (an 80-year-old Q*Bert whizz) hand over a blurry, splicey tape in which he purportedly sets a higher record which Day and company accept within ten minutes.
I don’t see how this incident could be spun in a way which doesn’t suggest the tiny sub-culture was stacked against the outsider, though there’s a subtle thread later in the film, which I suspect comes from a dawning awareness of what they look like on the record, as Day and his crowd (except the loyal Kuh) begin to feel the long-time champion has been less than honest with them and respond to Wiebe’s essential decency even as they consistently mispronounce his name.
There’s a stunning moment when the antagonists almost meet, for the only time in the film, as Wiebe is openly friendly to Mitchell, who cruises by ignoring him at a games machine while making a snide remark to his wife; it may be that when the cameras weren’t on them, these men have played each other or treated each other courteously, but the audience I saw it with hissed a pantomime villain and cheered for the decent contender. Even Mitchell’s obviously genuine decency towards Doris, a little old lady whose gaming career he enabled and championed, doesn’t take the sting out of his Dick Dastardly act elsewhere.
It makes good use of 1980s inspirational pop music, and — like the best of these ‘American weirdo’ documentaries (American Movie, Spellbound) — works up a vein of melancholy sympathy for folks who fanatically and unselfconsciously pursue goals that seem absurd. The middle-aged guy dressed like a teenager who wistfully remembers thinking that the guys who racked up big arcade scores would have hot babes clustering about them perfectly encapsulates the delusional, funny-sad heroism of the world of Kong.
Good documentaries can be made about significant subjects, like the recent Iraq/torture-themed Standard Operating Procedure and Taxi to the Dark Side, but sometimes outstanding true life films spin gold out of ostensibly ridiculous, trivial material.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival is well underway in the Scottish city, screening hundreds of brand new films and cramming A-listers into posh hotel suites. This year, Rotten Tomatoes is proud to be an official media partner of the festival, and we’ll be presenting an award to one of the films in the programme. Click here for more information.
The festival has, in the past, played home to the world premiere of Serenity and the European first-show for Clerks II. Its programme is open to the public, and provides a wide variety of home-grown, European, American and international cinema. Last year’s festival saw two of the freshest movies of the year play to UK audiences for the first time – Knocked Up and Ratatouille – and they were joined by the indie likes of Hallam Foe and French warbler Les Chansons d’Amour.
In short, there’s something for everyone of every age, gender and nationality, and it’s probably one of the most relaxed and, in turn, exciting festivals on the calendar. It’s also a good place to start or join in that ever-exciting early awards buzz, and with that in mind we thought it’d be a good idea to let you know what we think of the films on display so you can add them to your wish-list.
We’ve picked twenty interesting films from the programme so far to tell you all about. If you didn’t make it to the festival, this is your guide to the hot films to look out for in the coming months!
Set in London at the beginning of the Second World War, The Edge of Love revolves around charmingly scruffy poet Dylan Thomas (played by Matthew Rhys), famed for his intense, romantic verse, and the two loves of his life – wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and childhood sweetheart Vera (Keira Knightley).
The material lets the talented ensemble produce career best work; Knightley, despite an initially jarring Welsh accent, is pitch perfect as the slightly naive but banterous Vera, whilst Miller impresses hugely with her portrayal of an emotionally damaged, promiscuous pleasure-seeker.
It’s all fairly depressing, and not entirely convincing, with the spiralling self-destruction on show dredging up all the ‘tortured poet and his muse’ clichï¿½s found in a million bad TV literary adaptations. The result is a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful stab as serious, romantic drama that is not as clever or affecting as it thinks it is. Orlando Parfitt
Robert Carlyle makes a welcome return to form in Summer, an intelligent and brilliantly-acted family drama. The Scot plays Shaun, an embittered middle aged man who spends much of his time reluctantly caring for his wheelchair bound best friend Daz. The film goes onto examine what bought him to this point in his life, uncovering years of misfortune, bad decisions and an uncaring establishment. Shaun then looks back with rose-tinted glasses at his youth and yearns for the freedom’s of his salad days, before his troubles began. Fairly bleak to-to-be-sure, but intensely moving and powerful too, thanks to the emotionally resonant central performances. OP
With Donkey Punch, you get two great movies for the price of one; a brilliantly set-up, marvellously tense teen thriller, and a barmy, magnificently over-the-top slasher horror. It’s just a shame they’re shoe-horned together in the same film.
We begin with a trio of girls from Leeds, Northern England, on holiday in Mallorca and getting ready for a night on the tiles. Eventually they meet up with four good-looking men who persuade them to continue their night on a yacht they’ve ‘borrowed’ from the harbour master.
Things suddenly take a turn for the nightmarish however when one of the men delivers the donkey punch of the title (we won’t reveal what it is, but it’s kind of disgusting). She drops dead, and now the lads must try and get rid of the body and calm down the two remaining girls.
It’s a brilliant set-up, but suddenly a new film cranks into action, as the girls begin picking off the lads one-by-one in increasingly bizarre, over-the-top and hilarious ways. Those with a strong stomach should still definitely seek out Donkey Punch – a refreshing, if maddeningly schizophrenic antidote Hollywood norm. OP
Very rarely does RT get shocked, sickened or appalled at the cinema these days. This little indie horror film at Edinburgh turned out to have one of the highest concentrations of sheer wrongness we’ve ever seen – in a good way.
Mum and Dad revolves around airport cleaner and Romanian immigrant Lena who, one night, after a series of misadventures, finds herself unable to get back home. ‘Luckily’ her seemingly-happy-go-lucky colleague Birdie offers her a bed for night with her family. Thinking her troubles are over, at least in the short term, Lena accepts, but the invitation turns out to be a one way ticket to a hellishly violent, sadistic suburban hell.
Birdie’s sinister ‘family’ includes ‘Mum’ — a barmy, torture-obsessed housewife whose sadistic deeds are made all the more shocking by her maternal pretentions — and ‘Dad’, a fat, greasy sexual predator who wears a party hat. So begins a nightmarish journey for Lena as she is forced to abandon all humanity to escape this twisted family unit.
if you’re a hardcore horror fan and have a strong constitution — and have a healthy disregard for family values – then you should check this out, just don’t say we didn’t warn you! OP
A deserved winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin this summer, Elite Squad, Jose Padilha‘s testosterone-fuelled actioner revolves around Nascimento, commanding officer of BOPE, the hard-as-nails paramilitary wing of Rio’s police force entrusted with keeping order in the cities drug-cursed favelas.
Macho and ultra-violent, the director defiantly take sides in the drug war through blaming both drug dealers and their rich clients for the violence and social problems their trade creates. However Elite Squad is more even handed than some have suggested, with Padilha not shying from showing the brutality of BOPEs methods and the widespread corruption in the police force. OP
An amusing exercise in ’90s nostalgia, The Wackness is anything but wack…
It’s New York in 1994; Cobain has just shot himself, Biggie and Tupac are still friends and Giuliani has only just been elected mayor. Experiencing it all is Luke (played by former child star Josh Peck) a self-confessed loser in his last year at high school – and also a part-time pot dealer.
We meet him in the office of one of his clients – and best friend – Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), a self-medicating psychiatrist. The film then follows the pair through one long, hot, life-changing summer.
It’s the often hilarious script that stays in the mind. Kingsley generally gets the best lines (when Luke tells him he feels down, he asks “is it because of Kurt Cobain?”), and despite a wavering New York accent, shows a real flair for comedy. OP
Standard Operating Procedure is essential viewing, but often difficult to watch. Master documentary maker Errol Morris (who won an Oscar for his Robert McNamara interview The Fog of War) sits down with (almost) all of the prison guards responsible for the sickening scenes of prisoner humiliation and torture that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
You may find Morris’ empathy with his subjects, almost all of whom show little remorse for their heinous acts, hard to bear, but it’s arguable that by simply letting these individuals have their say they damn themselves far more than any liberal commentator could. Documentary at its most powerful and timely. OP
Imagine the basic conceit of Groundhog Day — a man is forced to relive the same day over-and-over again – re-imagined as an atmospheric, jolly creepy Spanish horror film and you’ll be somewhere near to Timecrimes.
This superbly sinister effort follows Hector — an ordinary suburban guy who one night glimpses a naked woman through the trees. He goes outside to investigate, but finds himself attacked by a rather angry and aggressive man with a bandage head.
The movie is at its most effective in the opening scenes in the woods, with director Nacho Vigalondo proving adapt at conjuring scares and making guys with bandaged heads look very creepy indeed. Timecrimes, along with the similarly well-produced Spanish-horror-thriller [Rec], proves the Iberian peninsula a fertile breeding ground for brilliantly made frighteners with brains. OP
Thomas Turgoose (spectacular as the young skinhead in England) plays Tomo, a teenager from Nottingham who — for reasons that are never explained — arrives by train in London despite not knowing a soul and having nowhere to go. After he’s mugged and loses all his money, he befriends Marek, a Polish boy living with his builder father. They soon become close friends, and both lust after the hot French waitress who works in their local cafe.
It’s a simple, almost plotless story, but one that is made immensely powerful by the characteristically superb and naturalistic performances. The simple shooting style – the film is shot in black and white and features little camera movement – amplifies the bonhomie and natural chemistry of the two young leads as they embark on a series of hilarious scrapes. OP
A spectacularly silly, amusing and gory examination of the world’s problems with fossil fuels, Blood Car is set to become a cult favourite.
Set in the near future – with cars rendered almost non-existent by the scarcity of oil – this low budget effort centres around Archie; an ultra environmentally conscious vegan kindergarten teacher who has been trying to build a car that runs on vegetable juice.
One day, with the car engine refusing to run on the fauna-based liquid, he accidently cuts his hand, a drop of blood dripping into the contraption and immediately starting the motor. The result? Green fingered Archie has inadvertently invented a car that runs on human blood.
It’s a hilariously dark stuff that feels like it could have evolved from a Grindhouse fake trailer. A deliciously tasteless scene towards the end of the film, featuring a trigger-happy government agent and Archie’s kindergarten class, is worth the price of admission alone. OP
The Edinburgh Film Festival drew to a close at the weekend with the world premiere of Faintheart, a sweet and sentimental romantic comedy set in the world of Viking re-enactments.
Faintheart revolves around Richard (Eddie Marsan), an overgrown kid who is far happier brandishing his broad-sword in battle than he is in facing up to family responsibilities at home. When he misses his father-in-law’s funeral in favour of a Viking brawl, wife Cath (Jessica Hynes) kicks him out, leading our hero on a quest of the heart as he struggles to win her back with the help of his Norse chums.
It’s charming stuff, played for laughs by a uniformly excellent cast and the script is chock-full of comic gems, laughing along with its subjects without ever actually poking fun at them. The result is a fine family film that is sure to leave a smile on your face. Chris Tilly
Philippe Petit‘s successful 1974 attempt to cross the gap between the Twin Towers on a tightrope is documented in this kinetic film from James Marsh as a fast-paced caper about a charismatic Frenchman’s drive to do something outrageously necessary. From the moment the Man on Wire starts we’re introduced to Petit as a man with passion and belief who is convinced that these two buildings were built for him to cross.
What follows is an examination of the method behind the madness, as the sheer endurance trial that was the planning of the event is shared through Petit and his key collaborators. He spent 45 minutes on wire, but rigging it, sneaking the rigging into the building and planning the entire operation took years, stretching right back to a news article he read in a dentist’s office about the Twin Towers’ construction. The film leaves its audience in no doubt that Petit is special and that this act of rebellion – the walk was totally illegal – was his gift to the world. Absolutely gripping stuff. Joe Utichi
It’s hard to know how much to reveal about Let the Right One In. Such is the nature of the film’s delicate plotting that it’ll prove to be a different but equally fulfilling experience should you be aware of its subject matter or not before you watch it. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film’s fantastical elements disguise the real human drama of its characters and while it might, on the surface, appear to be a new twist on a familiar genre, at its heart it’s one of the most original coming-of-age stories in years.
As Oskar, young actor Kåre Hedebrant’s confident performance is at turns sweetly innocent and surprisingly dark. If your tolerance for foreign-language films is limited, let this film change your mind. If the idea of a coming-of-age story fills you with dread, let it convince you otherwise. In fact, if you only see one film that’s off the beaten path this year, you’d do very well to let the right one in. JU
When an old man (Brian Cox), fishing by a river, is forced to witness a group of young hoodlums shoot his dog he becomes determined to see justice prevail; pursuing the boys’ fathers (Tom Sizemore and Robert Englund) to encourage them to punish their sons and, when that fails, turning to the law. Red is a heartrending tale of a man who has lost everything trying and who is desperately to hold onto what’s right, Brian Cox is relentless in the lead role, delivering a stunning and strangely disturbing performance as he seeks retribution.
The film may go a little too far before the end, but for the most part it’s brilliantly gripping with shades of Stephen King about its thrilling structure. JU
Walter is a sad, lonely, embittered Connecticut teacher whose life has been on a downward spiral since the passing of his wife. However, all of that changes when he is sent to New York to present a paper on economics, and arrives to discover an immigrant couple living in his long-forgotten apartment. Understandably perturbed, Walter kicks them to the kerb, but compassion leads him to go after them and invite the strangers into his empty home.
The Visitor is stirring, heartbreaking stuff, told at a stately pace perfectly in keeping with the story unfolding. Director Thomas McCarthy truly gives his characters time to breathe, and as their story slowly plays out, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the gut-wrenching emotion of it all. He’s helped out by a grandstanding performance from Richard Jenkins as Walter. It’s brilliantly multi-layered and full of subtlety and nuance.
Combined with McCarthy’s economic script – which brilliantly deals with the sensitive topic of immigration without ever feeling preachy or patronising — it makes for a magical movie-going experience that will provoke thought, discussion, sadness and joy in equal measure. Truly outstanding stuff. CT
One of the most powerful documentaries in a long time, Alone in Four Walls introduces us to the inmates of a Russian prison for boys aged 11-14, interspersing their daily activities with tales of their crimes from the boys themselves and from their families and victims. It’s hard to know what to feel about these inmates as they go through the usual struggles of adolescence and the regional struggles of poverty on one hand and then we’re told, in police report detail, what found them in the institution to begin with.
Emotionally harrowing, with an incredible attention to cinematography, this, like all documentaries should be, is a window on a world we’ll never come across, but more than that it’s a frighteningly appropriate film for a world in the throes of increasing teenage violent crime. Want to keep kids out of jail? Showing them this would be a good place to start. JU
Werner Herzog returns to documentary filmmaking with Encounters at the End of the World, this time travelling to Antarctica to share stories about the people who call the frozen continent home. Starting off, and frequently returning to his base in McMurdo, a desolately grey and dreadfully functional town that most in Antarctica call home.
Herzog’s typically editorialised commentary singes the film with humour, as he shares with us his insistence to financiers that he wouldn’t be travelling all that way to make another movie about penguins, though, of course, he finds a researcher to plug with questions about the flightless birds’ sexual proclivities and mental instabilities. There are moments of extreme humour as he interrupts a woman’s tales of her travels by opining that “her story goes on forever,” and wonders how many languages have died in the time he’s been talking to a man who’s explaining, at great length, how often languages die.
But, equally, there are scenes that seem extended for no reason other than to keep the running time feature length and while Herzog finds plenty of characters, few of them seem compelling enough to warrant the journey. People who call Antarctica home are bound to be slightly weird by our standards, but are they really as crazy as Herzog seemed to hope on his journey out there, or are they just people doing their job exploring extremes so that we don’t have to? JU
Not only is WALL*E one of the freshest films of the year – some critics have even thrown around the word ‘masterpiece’ like they believe it this time – but it’s also one of the loveliest, most charming and most accomplished animated films of all time. Pixar’s tale of a little robot, WALL*E, who dreams of a new companion in the shape of a sleek and shiny probe called EVE is a testament to Pixar’s emphasis on story and emotion.
It shouldn’t work – not in an era of big, noisy and exposition-heavy event movies – and yet it really, truly does. Within a few minutes without even a hint of dialogue the film has you totally invested in this little character’s journey and you’re with him right until the end. Combine such a strong core with some of the most beautiful and creative artwork ever seen on screen and WALL*E deserves to be remembered as a proper classic. JU
The Black Balloon is a typically-bright but satisfyingly-dark Australian drama about a teenage boy, Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield), whose autistic brother Charlie (Luke Ford) requires constant attention and whose acting out is starting to put a strain on the friendships Thomas is developing at a new school. When a girl comes along, in the form of a beautiful school friend, Thomas’ relationship with his brother, and parents who’ve largely ignored him to take care of Charlie, will be tested.
Toni Collette and Erik Thomson co-star, but it’s really a movie for Wakefield and Ford, with the latter particularly brilliant as the autistic Charlie. It’s a selfish side of caring that’s rarely witnessed but inevitably present; a teenager’s desire for a “normal” brother and a relationship with his parents that’s hampered by the special needs of his sibling and it’s handled delicately and emotionally without delivering and overly-sentimental piece. JU
Mancora will be compared to Y Tu Mama Tambien, being that it’s about a sexually-charged road trip involving three hot, young things in a Spanish-speaking country, but there’s something decidedly more real about the consequences of these actions. As incest makes way to tribal drug trips, the characters go on hard, real journeys and push themselves to their limits, perhaps in an attempt to find some feeling within them: as the film begins, our lead, Santiago, has lost his father to suicide and finds that he’s disillusioned with his surroundings.
But, rather disappointingly, the film quite simply isn’t as entertaining as Alfonso Cuaron‘s predecessor, and the conclusion of the journey feels false and all too convenient. Nevertheless, it’s of a high quality and should make stars of its leads if it’s given the exposure in North America that it deserves. It certainly marks Ricardo de Montreuil as a director to watch. JU
With his first documentary, Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock used his own body to examine America’s culture of obesity. And now with Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? he once again puts himself front and centre to look at the so-called “war on terror”. The result is a strange hybrid of movie styles that opts for entertainment rather than provocation.
In person, he’s surprisingly tall (6’2) and a very youthful 37, even with that trademark redneck-style handlebar moustache. He’s also open and friendly, so it’s immediately clear why he puts the interviewees in his films at ease. We start with the genre question…
How do you describe this film? It’s a comedy, road movie, political documentary mash-up.
Morgan Spurlock: I think that’s a genre all to itself. I’m in a genre of one!
The other docs about Iraq and Afghanistan are much more serious. The Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side and Errol Morris‘ Standard Operating Procedure are virtually horror films. How does your film sit alongside them?
MS: I think mine’s funnier. Taxi to the Dark Side is an incredible film and a very scary movie. Alex Gibney is an amazing filmmaker. And Errol Morris makes some of the most beautiful films ever. Someone once asked me to compare my films to his, and I said, “Well, Errol Morris makes poetry; I make popcorn.” I try to make films for a very general audience. I really don’t want to preach to the choir.
Well, you definitely take a more personal, less political approach.
MS: When we started this whole journey, we talked to a lot of politicians who give you the same answer that every politician gives you. For this movie, we shot 900 hours of footage and had about 100 hours of archival material, so we could have gone in three or four different directions. But for me it was a personal journey. What I think the film does really well is that it gives a voice and shows people that I don’t see on television or hear their points of view. And I think that to get to see inside their homes is really nice.
And then there’s the fact that you’re doing this because your wife is pregnant.
MS: We were about two months into preproduction on the film, looking at how you find Osama bin Laden, when we found out Alex was pregnant. Oh, well maybe we shouldn’t do this then! But when she and I started talking about it, she became supportive, because it wasn’t just where is he and why haven’t we caught him or what created him, but what kind of world am I going to bring a kid into. And that really resonated with her as well.
Did you know from the start that you were going to focus on everyday people?
MS: No, not until we got overseas and started talking to them. I knew I wanted to talk to somebody like me – a young father who either is going to have a baby or already has a baby. And once we did the first family interview in Egypt, I said we have to do this everywhere. We were talking to people on the streets who don’t have any vested interest in being re-elected. To have that type of real honesty is rare.
In the film, you travel from Morocco to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. What would a making-of doc be like – On the Road With Morgan?
MS: It was a nightmare. There were definitely things that happened to us that were funnier than what’s on screen, but you can’t put that in there. There were multiple times that somebody got some sort of stomach illness from the food that we were eating. I was laid up a couple of times. Our security advisor was laid up for three days when we were on the base in Kandahar from something we ate while we were out in one of the villages. I’ll try anything, but our local fixers were saying, “You can’t eat that,” and I was like, “Why not? They eat it!” And you’re eating this thing on a stick, and I’m asking, “What is it?” And the fixer says, “They said it’s goat.” And I whisper, “Is it goat?” And the fixer just looks at me as if to say, “That is not goat.” Like it’s some kind of wild Afghan dog. Don’t ask, just eat it and nod, “Mmm, good!”
There must have been some scary situations too?
MS: Well, we were embedded with the troops, and those guys are targets every day. When we first got to Afghanistan we were staying in a guest hotel, and in the middle of the night somebody started banging on my room. This was just after our security advisor had told us that if someone knocks, don’t answer your door, because people had been killed and kidnapped in that environment. So I was like, “Who is it?” And they just keep knocking. So I’m calling our security advisor on the radio, and there’s no answer. Finally I picked up the heaviest object in the room, and I’m standing next to the door, and they keep knocking. And after about 20 minutes they went away. So the next morning we asked the employees, who said, “We have no idea. We didn’t see anyone.” It was scary, and that was my first night in Kabul. And then right before the film opened, just down the road from where we were staying, the Taliban ambushed a hotel and killed I don’t know how many people. Actually, it’s gotten more dangerous in Kabul than when we were there.
Did the experience change your view of America?
MS: Personally, I have this vision of how I want America to be. But you really get a sense of how untrue a lot of the things are when you get overseas, when you talk to people who live in “democracies” that are backed by the US, where the people are oppressed and tortured for speaking out against the government. These people say: “Isn’t it democracy that your country’s all about?” And it’s a lot different hearing somebody say that on television when you can change the channel – enough of that guy, let’s go watch something funny. But here you are in somebody’s home, and you can’t turn it off. You have to really listen to them explain everything that’s happened to them and their families and their neighbours. And it does start to shift your perspective.
Did it change your opinion of Osama bin Laden himself?
MS: No, I think it changed my perspective in terms of what pushes people to follow someone like Osama bin Laden. Because here’s this guy who has kind of manipulated religious teaching for his own political gain to push his agenda, and here are people who have bought into that for a lot of the wrong reasons. There’s families that don’t have any money and don’t have a lot of opportunity. There’s people who feel like they’ve been completely oppressed by their government, which has been backed by the United States. And you start to see the domino effect of what happens. So for me that was the real eye-opener. I think it will affect everything in my life from now on. You can’t go on a trip like this and come home and put blinders back on and be unaffected. You can’t just ignore it.
Does this mean your next film will be more political?
MS: I don’t know. I grew up in a family of educators, so I think there’s a fantastic movie to be made about the public education system. It would be nice to try and do something like that before my kid actually goes to school.
So your son is going to be the bookmark for your whole career.
MS: Yeah, it’ll be like, “Dad, enough about me!”