Written by Dylan Callaghan
In addition to being a rapier example of timely geo-political satire, the new John Cusack film War, Inc. is nearly a parody of that film that never gets made in Hollywood. Imagined from the perspective of a garden-variety development executive, alarm bells ring on this script before the half way mark of the log line: A troubled hit man is hired by an international conglomerate occupying a fictitious middle-eastern country called Turaqistan and run by a crooked vice president.
So Pirates of the Caribbean this ain't. And by the time you get to the bit about the hit man's cover being the wedding of a central Asian pop singer (played by Hilary Duff), this pitch meeting is not happening.
But thanks to some not-so-garden-variety studio execs and the passion and credibility of John Cusack, the pitch meeting, and eventually the film itself, did happen.
“I did not expect to ever see this film on the screen,” says Jeremy Pikser, a veteran screenwriter best known for Bulworth and Reds. He is one of the three writers, including Cusack, responsible for this script. And though his background is tinged with subversive shades, as a teacher of scripting at NYU, he is by far the most qualified screenwriter of the three.
The third writer, on the other hand, would do little to abate a prospective studio exec's swelling dread. Mark Leyner is not only a first-time scripter, but he's a novelist -- the critically lauded and cultishly followed meta-fiction author of Et Tu, Babe and The Tetherballs of Bougainville, among others. His books are the kind of hopscotching absurdist romps that would give any bottom-line-bound producer ague-like symptoms.
“It was a rugged time getting this film made,” Leyner casually acknowledges. “[But] it's been a wonderful time in our lives and I don't think there's anything quite like it.”
The two spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site to explain more about War, Inc., working with John Cusack, and how each lucked into an unexpectedly natural, new, writing relationship
So Jeremy, I was just talking to Mark before you got on the phone, and I understand that you are the sage, professorial, authority figure in this mix.
Photo: © 2008 First Look Pictures
John Cusack and Joan Cusack in War, Inc.
Jeremy Pikser: I hate that...
Mark Leyner: I didn't say he was “professorial” -- he's a debauched person.
Jeremy Pikser: No, I would like to think that I'm almost as crazy as the other two, but it's just that I do have more experience and training in terms of the craft of structuring a screenplay so I was trying to push that role as much as I could on these two guys, one of whom is this fabulous novelist and the other guy who's really an actor thinking mostly about what characters are going to say.
I was the only guy with a lot of experience in terms of story structure. I do teach that at NYU, but I would hate to be thought of as “professorial.”
Mark Leyner: And that's why I took great pains to say that these roles were fluid...
And I was just kind of egging you on...
Mark Leyner:... and fluid is a good word, because Jeremy and I do like our fluids.
Give me each of your synopsis or logline for what this story actually is-- because it's odd. Jeremy, let's just start with you -- what is War, Inc., story-wise?
Jeremy Pikser: I would say a tortured hit man for an international conglomerate has his soul reawakened by his contact with a leftist journalist and a central Asian pop star and ultimately turns against his masters.
That's a fairly succinct description of what the story is, as opposed to the setting and the satire.
Mark, how would you put it?
Mark Leyner: I think that's a very good description. I'm glad you said it's odd, because that's true -- it has a number of axes. One axis is a kind of satirical critique of mercenary warfare and U.S. imperial policy. Then there's the narrative that Jeremy just described.
I would just add that it's also about this disparate group of people who coalesce as one of the weirdest families in the world. I would include the nemesis -- the Ben Kingsley character -- as part of this family. Anyone watching will easily get the massively obvious satire, but I think they'll also find all kinds of interlinking themes in terms of familial relations.
How did you handle the writing? Did you break up chunks of the story?
Jeremy Pikser: The bulk of it was Mark and I together. We would bang some stuff out at his apartment in Hoboken and eventually send it to Johnny. Occasionally, he would send us scenes and we would incorporate them into what we were doing.
The three of us would meet all together as well.
During the Hoboken sessions, who would be at the keyboard?
Mark Leyner: One of us would pace, and then the pacer would type, and the typist would pace...
What's interesting is that Johnny is a really remarkable judge of what his performance will be like. There are things in the movie that I think are very successful that didn't seem like they were going to be on paper. Even at the moment we were about to shoot it, I would say or Jeremy would say, “Are you sure, Johnny? This is a lot of stuff.”
Johnny has a remarkable sense of how stuff will play. That was the great advantage of working with someone like Johnny.
I was going to ask that very question. One of Cusack's big contributions to the writing process was his sense of performance?
Jeremy Pikser: Absolutely. To some extent writing is a form of improvisation. Johnny's a terrific improviser. So when we were all together in a room, he would just go off and start spouting scenes, and we would do our best to copy them down because they were great.
How much rewriting went on with the script and how was it handled?
Jeremy Pikser: There was quite a bit of rewriting that went on all the time. It was kind of catch-as-catch-can. Production issues necessitated a lot of it and sometimes things would just come up as we were doing it.
[For example] as we were going along Joan [Cusack] was doing such a great job with her character that we just wanted to have more stuff for her.
Mark Leyner: Joanie is just an amazing comedic actress. I have analogies that are maybe too old, but to me she's like Eve Arden or Lucille Ball.
Jeremy Pikser: I think it's important to say for your readership that by normal standards, the script was not rewritten to a great degree. We worked on it continually, but there was very little studio interference.
For the most part, Johnny guarded the integrity of this script very jealously -- to an unusual degree. It's pretty much what we intended it to be.
I want to flip around a usual question here. Rather than ask what you thought the other guy brought to this script, I want to ask what you think you brought, starting with Jeremy, because with Reds and Bulworth, there's an obvious skill at political subject matter as well as political satire you bring...
Jeremy Pikser: You know, this is the funny thing; at a certain stage in the development of the idea, I had a particular function that had to do with general, overall story structure -- we're going to need something like this here and something like that there. And it would last two or three minutes until we both got involved in the process of brainstorming.
I would say Mark maybe brought a tiny more wildness to it, and I brought a tiny bit more political focus, but after that, what was more remarkable was how much we were both on the same page in both of those areas.
Mark had thought about all of these political things. And while Mark's writing may not technically be satirical, it really is. The absurd nature of our social life is totally satirical. So I really think we're both satirists.
I've collaborated with a lot of people, but I've never felt as much on the same wavelength as I did with Mark.
So as disparate as your backgrounds may seem, when it came down to it you were two dudes writing a movie and contributing pretty equally?
Mark Leyner: I would say that and I would also say that we kind of did each other's work. We traded disparate backgrounds. I would really challenge anyone watching the film to try to attribute authorship of any one part to anyone with any degree of accuracy. It would be almost impossible.
It's a kind of amazing because we'd never met each other before, never mind worked together before, and we became very good friends. I love your description -- we became like two dudes writing a movie.