There's a terrible myth about artists, especially filmmakers. It's assumed that those who create cinema must also somehow be qualified to speak articulately on the subject. This isn't always the case in fact, it's rarely the case. Director Gavin Hood is an exception to this myth. With this former lawyer from South Africa who comes armed with a prosecutor's passion for, well, just about every subject he starts on the real challenge is to get him to shut up once he starts pontificating.
"The truth is, what does 'do well' mean?" he asks, sitting in a Beverly Hills conference room. With his deliberate enunciation, probably a result of adjusting his South African twang for American ears, nearly every word he spits out comes with its own exclamation point. "Are we so cynical that, if something doesn't crack it at the box office, it wasn't worth making?"
Hood's going on about the nature of Hollywood box office receipts in relation to his first studio production, Rendition, which details a legal loophole that allows for "extraordinary rendition" or removing men and women from U.S. soil to other countries for questioning. In other words, it's about exporting torture. Co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep, the film follows up Hood's Tsotsi, which won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
"We have no idea if this film will do well or not," Hood continues, gesticulating like a TV lawyer delivering a closing argument. "What matters is that if we're just going to become a culture driven by pure decision hey, if we feed them this popcorn, will we put more money in our pocket? then we're a dumbed-down society. And I, for one, would like to see this country revert to the stories of the '70s, when people made films that would last."
His argument is so righteously presented that those in the room actually burst into applause. Someone whistles. And then Jake Gyllenhaal, who's sitting at Hood's right, leans into the director's microphone and announces, "And that's why Gavin is doing Wolverine next."
Hood laughs as hard as his audience at Gyllenhaal's crack, but, before we get to his choice to helm the spin-off to the successful X-Men series, maybe it's a good idea to remind that Gyllenhaal has generally proved incapable of doing interviews. It's his own disinterested ADD, but the director seems to eat it up and together the pair make yet another Hollywood odd couple.
Rendition originally left Hood with nothing but questions when he was first given the script, since he'd never heard of extraordinary rendition. And he'd imagined a movie whose audiences would have similar questions; but the investigation into such is why he got into filmmaking.
"I grew up in a country where we didn't have a constitution," he says. "We had detention without trial in South Africa in the '80s. As a young law student, we looked to the American Constitution as a document our country desperately needed. So, to see the great principles this country was founded on were being slowly chipped away, it was quite a shock.
"Because I have American kids [now], I feel even more strongly about it," he continues. "I believe in the founding principles of this nation, and I thought perhaps this film could in some way contribute to a conversation that's important if we are going to chip away at those principles in any way."
Rendition succeeds at raising all of the questions that Hood hoped it would, even if its converging storylines never entirely come together with the intensity the subject demands. (Bizarrely, lengthy torture scenes fail to go far enough, even if the rendered, but ambiguously innocent Muslim-American husband of Witherspoon's character, played by Omar Metwally, endures isolation, beatings, electrocution and waterboarding. Critics have said that Casino Royale's torture sequence was, in fact, more grueling. This goes lengths to suggest that we've become so desensitized to the reality of what happens to victims of American "torture" even if we've a policy against it that we must demand more than truth just to have a visceral reaction.)
Ultimately, Hood, perhaps in an attempt to make one of those '70s movies he admires so much he names All the President's Men as one settled for ambiguities at almost every turn. He wanted people to walk away with the same moral dilemma he still has: "Do I still think the rendition program and the absence of judicial oversight and the act of right of access to a lawyer is a good thing?" he says. "Is it? We give murderers lawyers. We give potential rapists lawyers, we give child abusers lawyers. What's with this notion the guy who might be a terrorist, that we just suddenly strip everything away [so we] end up with thousands of people in Guantanamo we now don't know what to do with?
"Whatever our point of view about torture is, we can't become a lawless society," he adds.
Which is a good place to, you know, bring up Wolverine since, for all his artistic protestations, Hood has opted for his second studio movie to be a big-budget, comic-book adaptation.
"I'll give you two answers really quickly," he says, laughing. "One is called a college fund for my twins. That's what you're going to say, so why don't we say it?
"You know, it's not often that a script like Rendition comes across your desk," he continues, preparing to go into another lecture. "We think that scripts are just out there and they're not. I read 70 scripts "
Gyllenhaal leans over and whispers into the director's ear, just loud enough to be heard by others too. "[He] wants to know about Wolverine," he says, grinning.
"... just wants to know about Wolverine?" Hood repeats, nodding despite his friend's playful jabbing.
"And if you want to know about Wolverine, I'll tell you why I love Wolverine," Hood laughs. "I love Wolverine partly because it will pay my [daughters'] college fund, that's the cynical answer, but, the truth is, I didn't [want to] at first. When Wolverine was offered to me, I went, 'Well, I'm the wrong guy for this.'
"And then I spoke with Hugh Jackman, and the truth is that what's great about the Wolverine character ... he's really a character who suffers from a great deal of existential angst," he continues. "So you want to know why Gavin Hood is interested, as somebody who loves actors and emotions? It's because, looking at it more closely and I was raised on Greek mythology, not comics "
Gyllenhaal leans over again.
"Get away," Hood insists. "Give me a chance."
"Just give them details about the movie," Gyllenhaal whispers loudly, earning more laughs.
But it doesn't really matter. Wolverine will no doubt "do well," even if Rendition doesn't, and Gavin Hood, an articulate filmmaker certainly, will be around for a long time afterward because of it. That, of course, is the cynical way to put it.Cole Haddon writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]