Larry Spiegel & Judy Goldstein
Q: Talk about the evolution of AVENGER.
Spiegel: The credit for finding the book goes to our colleague Rosemary Tarquinio, who at that time worked for Wolfgang Petersen, our partner on the project and a very dear friend of ours. Rosie found the book, and we brought it to TNT. They really loved the idea and acquired the rights. We all worked together to find who we would hope would be the best writer to adapt the material. It's a wonderful novel, although very challenging to distill into a screenplay, and we were very fortunate to get Alan Sharp.
Q: What were the key elements that you really wanted to stay true to when you started adapting this novel?
Spiegel: One was the character of Dexter, a solitary person who has realized great tragedy in his life and who is a decorated war hero, a Tunnel Rat in Vietnam. It was very important for us to stay as true as possible to the character that Frederick Forsyth created. It was our good fortune to have Sam Elliott agree to do the part. There were a number of other aspects that we wanted to keep. Forsyth is a marvelous historian. He paints wonderful pictures, and we wanted to stay as true as possible to the book, given the allowances one must make for an adaptation into a screenplay.
Goldstein: We tried to capture the spirit of the novel. It's a difficult book to adapt as the majority of it was backstory. So it was quite a challenge for Alan Sharp. He did a fantastic job in capturing the essence of the main character and the spirit of his experiences and past life. Basically he's the thrust of the movie, and that's what we cared about the most and what we tried to stay faithful to.
Q: In the novel, the finale takes place in a fictional town, but you chose to set it in South Africa. What was behind that decision?
Spiegel: It was actually a fictional country called Saint Martin that Forsyth created, and it presented some real problems for us, because a lot of it had been done before in film. Once we came to South Africa and realized that there were locations here that had never been seen before, we were fortunate enough to find what we thought were really great locations. So we decided to see if we could set it in South Africa rather than trying to make South Africa into a fictional South American banana republic that doesn't exist.
Goldstein: A lot of films have been shooting here, but they've been cheating it for other areas. It seemed a shame to have to hide where you are, especially when you're in a beautiful country like this that hasn't been exposed that much on film. It really didn't matter to the story where the bad guy was being hidden, as long as it was remote, so we thought we should take advantage of our location and set the movie in South Africa.
Q: South Africa is something of a new location for making movies. Does it feel good to be in at the beginning?
Spiegel: It feels great to be in at the beginning. South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, is just one of the great places in the world. We have found really very good friends and wonderful people to work with who are enthusiastic and very good at what they do. It's been a great experience working in Cape Town and in South Africa and with the people we are working with.
Q: How would you describe Calvin Dexter, played by Sam Elliott?
Spiegel: This movie is about a man named Calvin Dexter, who is trying to find himself within himself. He is mourning the murder of his daughter. He is mourning the lack of justice in this world. And he's decided to do something about it. In the course of doing that, he discovers himself and makes himself a whole person again. That entails a great deal of drama and a great deal of incredible action.
Goldstein: It's an unusual character in the lead. He's haunted by things that have happened in his past. And those things are the reason he does the things he does. So we're following him on not only his physical journey but also his emotional journey and internal journey. It makes a unique character - one we can become very emotionally involved with.
Q: Is Cal Dexter a good guy or a bad guy?
Goldstein: I think he would be modest and say he doesn't really know, but to us, he's a good guy. He's pure spirit and heart and doing the right thing.
Q: What do you think of Sam Elliott's performance as Calvin Dexter?
Goldstein: Sam is just fantastic. He's popping off the screen. We're just so excited about his presence and how he's captured the character. We were thrilled he agreed to do it. Actually he was familiar with the book, so he had a feeling for the character. And it really shows.
Q: What prompted you to cast Timothy Hutton and James Cromwell in their CIA roles?
Spiegel: Timothy Hutton has brought a very fresh approach to a CIA character. He's given us a great breadth of new character. It's been a lot of fun to work with him. James Cromwell is a phenomenal actor who has taken that role that, on paper, is a good role, but what he's done with it has just been amazing. He's taken those words, and he pops off the screen with them.
Q: Talk about Calvin Dexter's relationship with Frank McBride. Do you think they want they same thing?
Spiegel: McBride is a man loyal to the CIA. However, he has mixed feelings about giving shelter to a war criminal while at the same time having to go after a war hero. There's an ambivalence that results to which Tim brings many shades. So we've taken what would normally be a stock character, a CIA operative, and given him a conscience. It makes for interesting byplay between him and Dexter.
Goldstein: McBride is caught between a couple of worlds. He wants to do good, just as Dexter wants to do good, but he's working in an organization for which the motives are not always pure of heart. And while he believes in the project that he's set up with Devereaux, he finds that Dexter is unfortunately in the way. So he gets caught between his personal feelings and his professional feelings. There's a hesitation on his part to go forward with the project. He has torn feelings about it.
Q: What kind of influence does Wolfgang Petersen bring to a project like this?
Spiegel: Wolfgang's influence is very large. From the very beginning, he had notes for us all the time. Judy and I would sit with him at late dinners and discuss what had to be accomplished for this film. For each draft of the script, he would take the time to make very extensive notes, with his point of view in terms of the story and how the characters were playing out. The film will definitely have Wolfgang's imprimatur.
Q: What did technical advisor Bazzel Baz bring to the project?
Spiegel: I couldn't speak more highly of a person than Baz. He worked with Wolfgang on the series The Agency and has brought an incredible depth of knowledge about the inner workings of the CIA. He's a decorated Marine and a writer, and he understands filmmaking. His role has been far greater than just an advisor. He's been involved in virtually every creative aspect of the project, and Judy and I are so glad that we have him on this project. His contribution is huge.
Goldstein: Sam was insistent in wanting his movements to be as natural as possible, so he interfaced with Baz quite a bit. We brought Baz in as a technical consultant to guide us about the CIA, since he had life experiences both in the CIA and outside the CIA.
Q: How much input has Baz given on the project?
Spiegel: Baz has advised the art department and the costume department. He has made recommendations to Robert Markowitz, the director, as to how somebody in the field would work. So for virtually every scene that Cal Dexter is in, Baz has had some input into how he would dress, how he would act and what he would do to get in or out of a situation.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face filming in the South African rock quarry?
Spiegel: One of the biggest challenges is that the rock in the quarry is not overly stable. And we weren't permitted to actually use explosives here. So we had to create what would look like an explosion just using flame. Any kind of explosion could potentially bring the walls of this quarry tumbling down.
Actually I was told that the foreman of the quarry and his son were hitting a tennis ball against one of these quarry walls a couple of weeks ago. And after they left, part of the wall actually collapsed just from the impact of a tennis ball. These walls are so tender. So we had to be extremely careful how our explosion was done, and it came off in two takes.
Q: What makes a good thriller?
Spiegel: First of all, you can't make a great thriller without having the words on the page. That's very important. You can't make a great thriller without having real suspense in the film. And you certainly cannot make a great thriller without good actors and people behind the camera who contribute to getting that audience at the edge of their seats.
Goldstein: The whole point is to not know what's going to happen next, and that's what Forsyth is a master of. Hopefully we've done that service for him in return.
Q: What are some of the major themes this film tries to cover?
Spiegel: It covers the concept of revenge or avenging and how there are different ways to do that, different ways to come to terms with tragedy. Revenge, an eye for an eye, is not necessarily something which is satisfying. There are other ways to achieve a sense of closure when something very tragic may happen to you. A human being's initial instinct is to lash out at something tragic that might happen, but I think the film shows that there are other ways to accomplish that. I think that's a very important theme. Another theme is the quest for justice that Calvin Dexter is determined to bring. He will not be deterred until this heinous criminal is brought to justice.
Q: How does one distinguish between "revenge" and "avenge"?
Goldstein: People try to find out the difference between "revenge" and "avenge," but it's not really that clear. Being an avenger means dealing with an event that's happened in your life or touched someone in your life and having to do something about it. Some people use exact justice, but it's really bringing something to a satisfactory conclusion for what's happened in the past. So that's what our character does.
Q: Is this movie meant to make some political statement, or is it purely entertainment?
Spiegel: It's entertainment. You can make many kinds of political statements, but that was not our goal, and we were very clear. This is entertainment, and political statements can be left for other projects and other people to make. What we were attempting to do for TNT was to make a rousing, unforgettable piece of entertainment.
Q: Where does the drama come from in AVENGER?
Spiegel: The drama comes from a number of places. Obviously, it's centered on the life of Calvin Dexter, the inner turmoil that he's going through, how he wrestles with himself and what he does to calm this thing within him.
It comes from the interplay between our two CIA characters, the mission that they have set upon and the tremendous conflict between what our CIA operative wants done and what Calvin Dexter wants done. And it comes in the escape and eventual capture of Zorin Zilic, our villain.
Q: How would you classify this movie?
Spiegel: It is a smart thriller. The book is an extremely smart thriller, and I hope we've succeeded in translating that to film, that we've made it into a smart thriller that the viewer will want to come back and revisit a second time and a third time.
Goldstein: We try to differentiate from the Rambo-type movies, which are more instinctual. This is a movie in which Dexter figures out each one of his moves psychologically. It's almost like a psychologist going in and psyching out each person to get what he wants. And I think that makes him a very smart character, a different type of hero. It's refreshing to see something like that.
Q: How has your overall experience been making AVENGER?
Goldstein: It's been a fantastic experience. We were all so sad to leave South Africa. It's just been a joy to work here with these people, and we're so happy we came.