Q: What attracted you to this project?
A: The first thing they told me was that it was based on a book by Frederick Forsyth, which made it immediately attractive. Then it was the fact that Sam Elliott was already attached to it. The third factor was that it was a TNT project, and knowing it was a TNT project meant I was going to have another opportunity to make a film of quality. I've been lucky enough to make other films for TNT, so I recognized the luxury of having a budget that was going to enable me to make a film that would be visually exciting and would enable me to cast the best of actors. Also, I love to make films around the world, and South Africa was a place I had not filmed, so I knew the film would be fresh-looking.
Q: What was it about the story that appealed to you?
A: I think it was the fact that the story and Sam Elliott seemed like the perfect marriage. Sam is an iconic figure in American films. He represents Americana. And he cuts across both political sides, both the red and the blue. People from all walks of life admire him because of his integrity and because of the parts he plays. That quality was married to a story about a man who is on a journey to capture somebody who is the personification of evil. But what really made it unusual and exciting was that Cal Dexter, the part that Sam is playing, was facing his own internal struggle. The story is very well told in bringing those two themes together. So that made me feel that it was going to be exciting and that it had a wonderful mixture of character and action. In fact, all of the action is motivated by Cal Dexter's character. You know it's not exploited, which it is too often in these kinds of films.
Q: What are the things you had to do to make AVENGER a great thriller?
A: I don't know that I would call it a thriller in the classical terms, because it's much larger than that. Thrillers generally are more narrowly focused. This is a film that is epic in size. It's very deceiving, and once I knew it was going to be set and shot in South Africa, we were able to make the film even more ambitious. I really do think it's more a character-driven action-adventure in which the character is taking us on a journey that starts in a small apartment in Washington. It takes us through Bosnia before the story just blows wide open in South Africa, with more than one set piece of visual and character excitement. So in that sense, the film fulfills all of those needs.
Q: Have you done anything unusual in terms of visuals in AVENGER?
A: For a television film, this is visually very ambitious. We have an extraordinary director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg, who is probably, in all the years that I've been making films, the most talented cinematographer I've ever worked with. He has a wonderful story sense and an incredible visual sense. And I think the audience will find that the film is visually exciting. It's very unconventional in the way the story is being told visually, largely because we are telling it through this character.
Q: Everyone on this project talks about how collaborative it was. Did each person have a vision that you then had to come together on, or was it a common vision all along?
A: I have to say that the producers who hired me, Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein, who come from the feature world, are very director-oriented. Their way of working is to allow the director to lead the vision. TNT's Michael Wright and Nick Bogner were very clear on the story they wanted to be told, and their input was there all the way through pre-production until the script was nailed. That became the blueprint we wanted to follow. So Larry and Judy were very generous in allowing me the time to get the story and the vision to evolve, and I must say that Sam Elliott was also a major collaborator. Sam has very strong feelings about the parts he plays and about the story. I had a lot of freedom to take all of those strings and tie them into a cord that enabled me to finally find what I thought was the right way of telling the story, which is another way of talking about a vision.
Q: What has been your vision?
A: The film is very large and epic in size, yet all of that would be terribly uninteresting without understanding Cal Dexter's internal struggle. My vision was to always keep that very close to the story. For example, there is one scene that I think brings the two stories together. It's the next-to-last scene in the film, and it's after Cal Dexter finally captures the man he's been after, Zilic, this Bosnian war criminal. There is a moment when he's transporting Zilic in this big Samil truck, and there is a moment when Dexter stops the truck. Zilic is all tied up, and Dexter's hatred for this man is so overpowering. He went to Bosnia and saw firsthand the devastation that this man did and the evil that he put on this community. In that scene, Dexter has to come to grips with his conscience as to whether he's going to kill him, which he could get away with under these circumstances. Or is he going to deliver him to the man that he promised to deliver him to and bring him to justice so that he would be tried as a war criminal? It's at that moment when the real meaning of the film is illuminated, because it brings the two stories together.
Q: What impact has Bazzel Baz had on this production?
A: Baz had an impact in a very narrow, but very significant, way. There is another element of this film in which Timothy Hutton and James Cromwell are the two main characters. These are two really wonderful actors with great chemistry between them. Cromwell plays Timothy Hutton's boss at the CIA, and that's where Baz came in. He is a former member of the agency, and he was able to help us make the scenes in the CIA authentic when we needed them to be. Keep in mind that this is a movie, a drama, fiction. Frederick Forsyth takes lots of license, and there were times when we followed what Baz said to the letter. There were times when the story dictated another choice, but he was very valuable to us regarding the CIA and the rest of the realities.
Q: Tell us about Timothy Hutton's approach to his character.
A: We didn't want to see McBride as a traditional CIA agent who was one-dimensional. TNT's Michael Wright suggested that McBride have more dimension than that. I certainly was willing to embrace that. I wasn't quite confident that we could execute it until we cast Timothy Hutton. Timothy is very skilled in making his inner conflict visible to the audience in non-dialogue ways. There are two or three places where there's a suggestion of his conflict in the script, but mostly it's played by his interpretation of the character. He did that brilliantly.
Q: What made you decide to pick Timothy Hutton for his role as Frank McBride?
A: I worked with Timothy right after he did Ordinary People on a movie for television called A Long Way Home. There was a connection made between the two of us that turned out to be long-lasting. We hadn't worked together since then, and that was more than 20 years ago. When I heard his name, obviously I looked forward to working with him again, and this was the first opportunity. He is an extraordinary actor who I don't feel has this full recognition. He has a really enormous wide range and is an actor with a great deal of depth. He's one of those rare actors you can watch struggle with two or three emotions at the same time, which is very difficult and very unusual. Most American actors today will follow a very safe path of one emotion at a time. So when you get to a character actor like Timothy, it just becomes a joy to get to the set every day.
Q: Why is James Cromwell perfect in the role of Devereaux?
A: He fully inhabits and embraces that character as a man without any doubts. I think he reflects pretty accurately the point of view, the dedication and even the one-sidedness of the way of looking at things as a CIA director. James understood it and even improved on it. He had ideas regarding his scenes and dialogue that definitely made it clearer. Cromwell chose to make an acting choice to take a characterization that is so extreme in his position, meaning no self-doubt. That allowed Timothy room to create a character that was not as sure. Had Cromwell chosen anything less than that, then that would have left much less room for McBride to have any sort of conflict.
Q: How do you view your role as director?
A: I always use the analogy that it's very much like being the conductor of a symphony orchestra: knowing where to bring in certain themes as far as the story is concerned, where to release things and then, regarding the players, how to balance them, when to bring one forward and when to hold one back.
Q: How do Sam Elliott's and Timothy Hutton's approaches differ from James Cromwell's approach?
A: Cromwell works in a more classical sense in which the reality of the scene and the situation that his character is in drives his choice. It's very specific, and that's why it's so clean and has a lot of power behind it. To Timothy, it's a different instrument with a lot of variation in it, and that leaves room for a different kind of excitement. And then you have someone like Sam, who takes the elements of the character and, in the way the old-time movie stars did, like James Stewart and Spencer Tracy, passes those elements through the prism of who he is. So there's always a bit of Sam Elliott in it. It's quite believable and powerful, and it's not any less acting than what Timothy or James do. It's just a different kind. So they're just three actors with three different styles of acting, and my job as director is to somehow take those and fit them in, so that they're always advancing the narrative and advancing their characters.
Q: Tell us about the climax of the movie.
A: In the book, the last confrontation takes place inside a plane, and we decided that that would be too limiting for a picture of this size. So we've evolved to a story point where Cal Dexter is faced with this last opportunity to capture Zilic, the war criminal who is being held by the CIA in his faraway location in South Africa. They're about to take Zilic and put him on a plane to take him to a place where he is going to be collaborating with the CIA in a deal involving terrorists. Dexter arrives just as the plane is about to land, and the only weapon he has is a fuel truck. What evolves is really quite exciting. He decides to put the fuel truck in the way of that plane landing, because, if the plane lands, they're going to get away with Zilic. So he sends the fuel truck down the airstrip with explosives to stop that plane from landing.
Q: What challenges do you face in putting together a scene like that?
A: So many pieces of a movie are made in post-production. The most complicated part of it is putting all these elements together. The truck, the arrival of the plane, the position of the characters, the dramatic confrontation that follows: All of those are handled separately and then combined with computer-generated effects. So it's a matter of getting every piece in place and making sure that it's done with great precision.
Q: How do you hope audiences react to this film?
A: I hope they find it a really exciting ride and that they're carried along by Cal Dexter. That is my biggest hope. I'm excited about all of the action. That is part of the thrill of watching it. But the reason to watch it is to watch Sam Elliott. That should satisfy you enough to want to see it again.