The following is a transcript of Annie Wagner’s interview with Ayad Akhtar and Tom Glynn, co-writer/star and co-writer of Joseph Castelo’s The War Within, the feature film about Hassan, a Pakistani suicide bomber who takes refuge in the house of a childhood friend in New Jersey while planning to blow up Grand Central Station.
Let’s start at the beginning. You’re both co-writers, is that right?
Ayad Akhtar: We were all at Columbia together; we met there, and we were there when 9/11 hit. We were watching how the world was changing and we were always talking about it. We would be studying at the Columbia library and Tom and I had been working on a film that was about race and identity and Islam. Joey [Castelo, the director of The War Within] read this article that was about a Palestinian suicide bomber… We started talking about it and then an idea for a movie came up. So really it was in the wake of 9/11, watching, feeling the experience, and also watching how the world was changing.
Thinking about the release date, four years after 9/11—here in Seattle, anyway—and coming at the same time as Paradise Now, which I suppose you guys are getting a lot of comparisons to…
AA: We are, yeah.
Obviously, a lot of that lag time has to do with how long it takes to get a film made. But when do you think people are ready for a movie that addresses a major traumatic incident in history?
AA: I don’t know.
Tom Glynn: Yeah. We resisted tackling it in writing classes, and at a certain point we felt like we really had to. But we’re also not trying to rehash what’s already happened, or drag people back through prior events.
AA: In a sense it’s not really a 9/11 film. It’s a film about the world that has emerged since.
TG: This is the daily sort of awareness that everybody has—from gas masks and duct tape, just watching the news around the world.
The film is filled with billboards and signs that remind you of the political situation. Is that something that you suggested to Joseph Castelo?
AA: This gets a little academic and bizarre, but we talked about a sense of alienation, or people living within something that Guy Debord (LINK: “http://www.egs.edu/resources/debord.html”) called the “society of the spectacle.” We were trying to get underneath the level of political discourse that has become pretty stale about a lot of these topics. And to identify the root human cause of people going out and blowing themselves up in some giant statement of protest and murder. So when you start trying to understand why the Other has so much contempt, hate, and disdain for this way of life that they would want to come and decimate it or kill themselves… You start to look at the world that we live in a totally different light. And you start to recognize—the notion of the “society of the spectacle” is a little bizarre, but it’s about individuals sense of being alienated and isolated from something that’s always larger than it, that consumes, that mass produces. It’s something that DeLillo talks about too, writing in this age where writing is over and the age of terrorism has begun. Who is giving voice to the oppressed? It’s no longer Franz Fanon. It’s now the bomb.
TG: And from this very academic point of view you can start to make arguments that something like Columbine—those kids have something in common with terrorists too.
I don’t think you have to be academic to say that. If they are inciting terror, they’re domestic terrorists.
TG: I think that the launching point is sort of the human impetus toward that kind of action, is coming from, I think, a very similar root cause—some people would find that completely appalling, to suggest that kind of thing. Because what within our Western culture is going to produce the same thing that exists for a Palestinian… or for a Pakistani guy who’s getting his master’s in engineering?
I’ve always found this interesting and I don’t think enough people talk about it, but the fact that the targets in 9/11 were the World Trade Center and the Pentagon… The planes going into the World Trade Center were intended as images, intended as televised images, and that’s how they had the biggest impact. And everybody now, looking back on the experience—that is, if they weren’t in New York—talks about it as like, “I was watching TV, or—”
TG: It was turning the spectacle against itself, in that way. It was a very conscious use of the spectacle by the outsider, to sort of destroy itself.
This film takes the Grand Central Station as the ultimate target. How did you guys decide on that?
AA: Joe speaks very eloquently about this. He really deeply loves Grand Central Station. I guess, there were two thoughts. On the one hand it’s obviously what would terrorists be potentially targeting in terms of trying to disrupt life—
TG: Right, and then, that was confirmed by what happened in Madrid.
AA: And then there’s the other element for Hassan in that it’s celestial—it’s sort of a celestial dome or structure. He connects to that in some higher spiritual sense because it reminds him of a mosque back home. He destroys something that he’s actually very connected to. It’s a strange metaphor—
TG: He’s destroying what he loves.
AA: And it underlines the act of suicide as an act of self-destruction. It’s a kind of thematic underpinning throughout the entire script and through my performance. I approached it very much as a portrait of suicide, an element of social depression.
I assume you probably approached a lot of people with the script.
TG: We did, but you know the process actually went surprisingly quickly. We got the script around and got some good feedback pretty quickly and ultimately, though none of the larger kind of production companies in New York took it on, a lot of people said to us, “If we don’t make this movie, we want to help you get it made.” We ran into Jason Kliot and Joana Vicent at Blow Up Pictures, and they read it and immediately said, “We love it. We think it needs to be made right away. It’s an important film. We want to do it.” And unbeknownst to us at the time, they were in negotiations with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, who were putting together this sort of mini-studio called HD-Net—making two million and under, high-definition features—that only a few people know about.
AA: So when they took us on they said, “Listen, we can’t really talk about it, but we have the money to make this movie. Wink, wink.”
TG: That said, it was a brave thing for them to do. Nobody else was willing to take it on—
Were there specific objections that people were raising?
AA: That the American audience was not prepared. And there was also the sense that in some way the film did not really answer the question because it didn’t find the reason, the one reason, why this is happening. And, you know, that was by design.
In terms of Hassan’s motivation?
AA: Well, in terms of an explanation. That the only point to make a film like this is to explain why it’s happening, so to speak, as opposed to simply showing a portrait of what’s happening rife with all kinds of clues as to what it may mean.
And the film does provide the interrogation/torture explanation.
AA: It definitely says that the root metaphor is the process of mistreatment in the hands of the state. Whether the United States or some other country is what we’re referring to by “state”—but the state is somehow responsible, and there is an emotional key that’s instinctual. But I think by the same token, there are so many other pieces of that puzzle that are laid throughout the course of that film that hopefully—
TG: His brother was involved in terrorism, his brother was killed, what effect that had on him, and obviously he was tortured… He came from a pretty well-to-do family, it seems like, but he tells the little boy, “What happens to your brother, happens to you.” And he describes some things that sound vaguely like what’s happening to the Palestinians. He says at that dinner table, you know, “I’m not even interested in having this discussion about why because back home poverty is real and dying is real.”
There’s the house dispossession metaphor, when he’s talking to the little boy.
AA: And the whole notion of brotherhood. Because his brother, and his idea of brotherhood, is also metaphorical.
TG: Our intention was to avoid the pitfall, or what we saw as a pitfall, of enabling a reduction of this question to something that would lose its connection to what’s really out there. As soon as you say, “Oh, guys do this because of this”—I think it’s way more complicated than that. And there are different reasons for different people. If you really want to get to the root of it, you get into that conversation about spectacle or dispossession or alienation.
But how do you fight alienation? Can you wage a war on alienation?
TG: Since we’re actually talking about it… This is something we don’t ever really talk about in these interviews, but the way to win the war on alienation is, I think, through the heart. Through something about human connections to other people, because that stuff is real and in the present and not reducible. And we tried to humanize this guy Hassan, and to create a dramatic and tragic experience.
AA: And to get people feeling as well, because just thinking alone is not enough. Feeling alone, too, does little except get people to do very irrational things. But both together are important. Judicious use of the heart and mind.
Could you talk a little bit about the use of the thriller genre? Is there a way to make a terrorism movie that’s not a thriller?
TG: Is this a thriller?
AA: Yeah. “Is this a thriller?” So coy.
Okay, I’m assuming that this is a thriller.
TG: You know, I’m genuinely happy when it’s like, “Oh, it worked.”
AA: We never saw it as making anything but a thriller. Shadow of a Doubt was a film that Joe talked about quite a bit. It’s the perfect structural metaphor: A stranger shows up in a house that he loved… What is Uncle Charlie really up to here? So, yeah, is there a way to make a terrorist film that’s not a thriller, I don’t know.
TG: When we talk about terrorism, we generally talk about something blowing up or people dying. And that’s going to lend itself to something—death, jeopardy, you know… you have to take those elements out, or you’d have to remove them from the dramatic structure. Put them at the beginning, for example, to make the film about the consequences.
AA: I was just thinking how to write something that wasn’t a thriller based on some kind of impending situation of jeopardy, which is forestalled and avoided…
So, if I can go a little off-topic, I read in the production notes that you, Ayad, worked with Jerzy Grotowski (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotowski). How did you get from that theater-qua-theater thing to something like this?
AA: Well it was never theater-qua-theater for me. My own personal trajectory was that I got into theater sort of as a therapeutic—I mean, it’s a long personal narrative that I shouldn’t bore you with. But my interest in theater initially began at as a quasi-therapeutic, paratheatrical thing. I quickly gravitated toward Grotowski in college and had a teacher that was very interested in Grotowksi—
TG: He wanted to be writer, and is a wonderful writer, and started having success and then fell into a kind of funk and writer’s block and depression about it and a friend said, “Hey, I’m doing a play. Why don’t you try out for it? It’ll be fun.” And it was kind of, I think, therapy, that got him out of himself and doing stuff for other people.
AA: Yeah, it was the only thing that made me feel better. So I majored in theater in college and you know, this strand of self-healing or whatever you want to call it, that was so prevalent, and he is a pioneer in that whole entire approach. So it was natural that I would gravitate to him. And you know, in college when I graduated, Andre Gregory spoke to the graduating class, and I asked my teacher if I could go and pick him up from the airport and he said, “Sure,” and I really, I hit Andre up. I said, “Listen Andre, I know that you’re a friend of Jerzy Grotowski’s. I’d really like to work with him.” Andre’s like, “Do you know what kind of work he does?” And I said, “Yeah, if Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff were alive—” He was an Armenian teacher, a sort of spiritual teacher, involved in these paratheatrical activities (LINK: “http://www.gurdjieff.org/”). I said, “If Gurdjieff were alive, I’d want to work with Gurdjieff, but I want to work with Grotowski.” Andre kind of nodded and he called me two weeks later and said, “I just spoke Jerzy and he’s expecting in Italy, get on a plane.” So I spent a year working with him and then I came back to the United States and I started teaching acting with Andre. And again it was that same thing, of acting as a means of self-knowledge. Problematic tropes, I know, but if you’re asking me frankly, that’s the response.
Whose life is not rife with problematic tropes, if you put it in narrative form?
TG: (Laughs.) We are over-educated.
AA: He was the most uncompromising, creative… You know, Robert Wise described Orson Welles’s presence, he said when Orson Wells walked into a room, he would by his mere entry, change the quality of the air and change the nature of your thinking. And Grotowski is the only person I’ve ever known who had that kind of effect.
So, let’s talk a little about the torture scenario.
TG: The division of the CIA that does extraordinary rendition, that’s just fact. Who they pick up and where they take them is anybody’s guess, but I think it’s often to the country of origin and sometimes to other places, and it’s basically intended to get around the fact that we don’t officially condone, torture, and/or locking somebody up if you don’t have good reasons.
AA: Which is why Guantanamo is not on US soil.
It’s a huge subject to address in such a tiny narrative device. We don’t know really anything about Hassan before that incident. We know he’s talking about going to the movies…
TG: He liked Duran Duran, he’s been—
Right, but we learn about that stuff later. So as far as your entry into his character, it’s as a victim. We never really learn whether he was actually involved with terrorism. So I’m just wondering about issues like empathy and sympathy. How much did you want the audience to directly identify with him and how much did you want to keep them from that?
AA: We wanted them to identify, but we did not want to reduce his Otherness to a known “us-ness.” He’s them, he’s not us, and he must not become us, but we must have a relationship with him that makes us feel, in some significant way, that we can identify with him. So that’s the tricky line that we’re trying to walk.
How do you do that? How do you keep a character who is the protagonist in terms of the structure of the film from being “us”?
TG: I think you don’t give people the connections or the answers that they need. Even as much as the torture is suggested as the thing that specifically turns him to terrorism—maybe he was already involved before he got there.
AA: I think performance in this case is a huge issue. How to represent him in a way that was absolutely authentic… Not to provide too much access, and yet remain compelling. It’s an organic solution, I think. And I don’t know, it’s not my place to say whether it succeeds, but that’s the attempt.