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Tony Gilroy on the problematic politics that stopped ‘Beirut’ being made for 27 years

The Academy Award nominated writer and director also points out that they really don’t make movies like this anymore
Jon Hamm in Beirut
[Image: Bleecker Street]

Beirut was supposed to be Tony Gilroy’s sophomore film as a writer.

Gilroy, who has since written all three of Matt Damon’s “Bourne” films, wrote and directed “The Bourne Legacy,” and was nominated for an Academy Award for both his writing and directing on “Michael Clayton,” actually started work on “Beirut” back in 1991, a full year before his debut effort as a screenwriter, “The Cutting Edge,” was released.

There are many reasons why it took 27 years for “Beirut” to make it to the big-screen, though. I recently had the chance to talk to Tony Gilroy, during which time we discussed “Beirut,” why no-one would make it for so long, why it was so odd to collaborate with himself, before ultimately surmising that they really don’t make movies like this anymore.

You wrote “Beirut” over 25 years ago, didn’t you?
I wrote it in 1991.

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Why did it take so long to be released?
My first film was being made by Interscope, “Cutting Edge,” the first film I had made, and the producer of that film, Robert Cork, had been in the CIA. He had been an analyst. And we had a lot of political conversations on the set of that film. He really loved the idea of making a film about a negotiator, which we thought was a really cool idea. We looked for a place to set it, decided on Lebanon, and then I looked for a moment in time in Lebanese history where I could set a fictional story in the most realistic way possible. The most tense moment. After a lot of research that seemed to me to be the winter of 1982. The script was really popular. And it was really good for me. Really important. A lot of people got interested. But there was always something holding it back. A lot of people were having a hard time with the politics at the time. Which is hard to believe now when you see it. But the politics were a little bit red lined for people in 1991. It went away for 20 years until Interscope pulled it out of the fire.

What was it about the politics that was so problematic?
I’m not painting a really flattering portrait. I have three real villains in the film in a way. I’m not painting a flattering portrait of the PLO, I’m saying the PLO is essentially corrupt. I’m saying that the Reagan White House is an absolute mess of bad ideas and conflicting signals. And I have Israel down the road just licking their chops and waiting to get over the border and involved in any way they can. My only hero is Jon Hamm. 20-years later none of those issues are debatable anymore. The jury is in on those 3 villains and their behavior has been fully confirmed as what it is. The politics are, as messed up as Beirut was in 1982, as horrifying as it was after the Civil War, there was a still a moment when things could have changed. Just a month after this movie finishes when Israel does invade everything is going to go off the rails. We’re going to have this cascade of events that we’ve lived through. This is before Religious fundamentalism, this is before religion is involved, this is before suicide bombings, it is before Hezbollah, it is before Hamas. This next move will dictate what will happen in our lives.

Did you do a rewrite when you found out the film was finally being made?
I never believed they were going to get the movie made. Even when they got Jon Hamm and Brad Anderson. I just never really thought it would happen. Especially when they told me how much they were going to make it for. I told them, ‘You can’t make the film for that much money. I don’t know how you do that.’ When it finally got real I said I needed to go back in and take a pass at it. And it was a very interesting thing to collaborate with yourself. It was really odd. I re-wrote in a gentle way. I didn’t change the plot. I didn’t add any new characters. I did only think it would take a week but it took me much longer. I really had to dig in. I am a lot more experienced now. I know a lot more. I made it a lot more truthful. A lot more simple. More actor friendly. It was really interesting. I also had to make sure that all of my journalism was correct.

When I watched it it really did feel different to a modern film. Then once I learned that the script was 25-years-old it suddenly made a lot more sense, because it was complicated, it wasn’t spoon feeding us everything -
There used to be a lot of movies like this! There were a lot of movies like this at the time. It was not an unusual script at the time, other than the fact that the politics were a little on the money. There were a lot of films like this. “The Year Of Living Dangerously” was on everyone’s mind at this point. It is more unusual now. That’s fantastic you saw it like that. I love that.

Did you notice anything in your early writing that you were envious of now?
That’s an interesting question … I think when I went back and looked at it. This movie is the beginning for me. It’s not hard to trace, the genetic material of this movie, it pulls forward to a lot of things that I have done. “Proof Of Life” is a fictional journalistic account of a very real thing, which also includes a kidnapping. “Michael Clayton” and this share some of the same issues. Even the “Bourne” films, trying to get down on the ground and making a thriller that is on a human scale. It didn’t feel alien to me. When we finally went to Sundance and saw it with an audience it really felt unusual. Just because no-one else is doing this right now.

Usually a film like this would be on Netflix now
It will be really interesting to see if people will leave their homes to come and see a film like this. That’s what you are really hoping. It helps that we are unusual. You’re absolutely correct that this genre, this aisle of the book store has moved to the small screen. You need a convergence of a certain number of things to even get it to a mass audience in a theatre. It really doesn’t hurt to have Jon Hamm. His performance is, he is a movie star. We’ll find out shortly if people will put down their remote and head out to the theatre to see this. It will be interesting to see whether there is an audience.

“Beirut” is released on April 11.