Director Costa-Gavras takes liberties & questions with the press
For a man who makes heavy-handed, politically charged movies, Costa-Gavras is a very elusive interview.
In San Francisco last month promoting "Mad City," a stark condemnation of the current era of exploitive journalism, he seemed a little leery of spending a day trapped in a hotel room with reporters and answered questions about his movie quite cautiously.
Of course, it might have just been me, since the first thing I hit him with was "What happened to your first name?"
Until "Mad City," he had been known as Constantin Costa-Gavras, and my question might have sounded a little accusative, like I thought he was just trying to be cool.
"Why do we need to have a first name?" he frowned, and I began to think we were getting off on the wrong foot.
"Mad City" stars Dustin Hoffman as a television reporter who manipulates a hostage situation for the sake of a better story to advance his career. John Travolta co-stars as a laid off museum guard who, after begging for his job back, takes an elementary school field trip captive at gun point inside the museum.
Being in the media myself, I had some questions about the plausibility of parts of the story. I expressed doubt that in real life a college intern would be taping and editing her own interviews for a major breaking story, as happens in the film.
"In a situation like this," Costa-Gavras said, "when events are going so fast, you don't have time to control them completely."
Not an entirely direct answer. But I imagine these weren't the kind of questions he was expecting.
A distinguished man in his early 60s with severe features but the smiling child-like eyes, Costa-Gavras answered politely but furrowed his brow as I nit-picked these little details.
The intern in the film is really a bit of creative license. The character was not in the original script, the director said, but he wanted to map how someone with good intentions could become corrupted by the scoop-hungry style of today's television news. "We created the character to show how the innocent can be seduced by success."
With a résumé that includes such topics as assassination ("Z"), Nazism ("The Music Box") and Israeli-Palestinian relations ("Hanna K."), the Greek-born, Paris-based director has always been a filmmaker who makes a broad political point with very personal stories. But "political" is not a word that sits well with Costa-Gavras.
"I think a social statement (would be more accurate). Or rather a social exploration. I try to understand what's going on around our lives," he said. "The idea of politics, of making political movies, I don't know exactly what that means because all movies are political. Politics is how you behave every day in your life."
"Mad City" tries to reflect every day lives turned inside out. Travolta's unemployed guard is not a movie bad guy, but a sympathetic Everyman whose frustration leads him to make one bad choice that changes his life.
Hoffman's reporter befriends the gunman and manipulates the situation, passing up several chances to end it swiftly in favor of creating a national media event. His every day life isn't enough for him.
The moral of the story -- that journalism is galloping out of control and somebody is going to get hurt -- is crystal clear from the opening shot of a TV camera man loading his film as if it were ammunition.
"It was a way of introducing the character of Dustin Hoffman to say he was a hunter, a news hunter," Costa-Gavras explained. "I tried to extend that."
The director opines that the media are very close to crossing the line between reporting and guiding the news, and that's what his film is about. He points to the unchecked avalanche of news that hit the airwaves in the wake Princess Diana's death.
"From the moment the major press said she was a saint, it's accepted all over the world. No one said 'Stop. Let's talk about what a saint is first.'"
"Because of the electronic media, because of the fact you have news every 15 seconds on the radio, you need to have scoops. You need to be the first. Nobody has time to think."
In the film, Hoffman continues to milk the crisis while going live on the air several times. But despite his ruthless depiction of the press in "Mad City," Costa-Gavras says he tried to add some sympathy for the reporter in the shooting draft of the script.
"In the original script (he was) kind of a career driven journalist, ready for any kind of bad action to get the story. The character had no conscience."
In the finished film, Hoffman doesn't seem any more honorable than he sounds in the first script, but he has a crisis of conscience at the end that leaves him burdened with guilt about the cutthroat business that news has become.
I ask Costa-Gavras if he thinks the kind of story manipulation depicted in the film is where the American press is headed.
"Yes," he says in his most direct answer of the day. "We are very close to reaching that point."