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STEVEN GAGHAN SHOOTS FROM THE HIP,
HITS GEORGE W. BUSH BETWEEN THE EYES

February 2, 2001
from the Associate Press

With a Golden Globe under his belt and Oscar prospects for his B>Traffic running hot, film and TV writer B>Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement, The Practice, NYPD Blue) has waded into the awards season with verbal guns blazing. He talks -- boldly -- with Inside about the drug war, Orrin Hatch, Roe v. Wade, George W.'s missing year and what makes TV stupid.

Inside: Did you meet studio resistance to Traffic's content?

Stephen Gaghan: Traffic had a very unusual provenance, in that we really didn't know which studio was going to pay for the movie until a few weeks before we started shooting. At that point, there was very little time to interfere with the content of the script. Prior to that, the script had gone around to all the studios, and most of them said the same thing. ''This is interesting, nobody wants to see a movie about drugs, and nobody wants to see a movie about the war on drugs. Nice try. Noble effort. It will look good in your drawer.''

Inside: What sort of support did you receive from Washington?

Gaghan: If you are even a semi-legitimate filmmaker, almost anybody will talk to you. My feeling is, you could call up Bill Clinton two days out of office and just say ''Hey, I'm thinking about making a movie about an ex-President,'' and he would say, ''Hey, come on over.''

I went to the National Office of Drug Control Policy, the DEA, the Council of Mayors, the Council of Police Chiefs, I was in think tanks, you name it. Everybody wanted to see something about the subject. Unique to this movie is the reaction. Almost everyone who has seen the movie has seen it as taking their point of view, and I talked to people from widely disparate points of view. Way out on the right and way out on the left, and everywhere in between.

Inside: What was it like working with politicians in a film?

Gaghan: Charlton Heston is darn lucky that Orrin Hatch never became an actor, because he would have completely replaced him. He is pretty amazing off the cuff. I found that most of the people had serious viewpoints on the subject of drug interdiction and drug policy in this country and they wanted to be able to say it. And we let them say it. ... We had stuff scripted, (so) if Orrin Hatch wasn't as good as he was, we had stuff we could go back to with actors, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

Inside: Do you think your film will have an impact on the drug war?

Gaghan: Absolutely not! No, I don't know. ... I had limited goals for the movie in that respect. I hoped that people would see (it) and they would imbibe some of the despair that I felt all the people who are involved in the war on drugs are feeling. I just hoped that anybody seeing the movie would come out scratching their head, feeling like, ''Why? What? How? Huh? I don't get it.''

That seems like a reasonable goal, and maybe one that Traffic could achieve.

We just had a Presidential election where neither candidate talked about the war on drugs. Both of them have used drugs in the past, and yet they are content to lock up casual users, when they, themselves, have been casual users. Do I think Traffic is going to change that? George Bush is going to watch Traffic and go, ''Oh, the year and a half that I was AWOL from the Army Reserve, and nobody knows where I was. Maybe I should suddenly dredge up some compassion for people just like me.''

No, I think George Bush would watch Traffic and go, ''Fuck those scumbags, let's lock 'em all up!'' Forgetting that he was himself one of those scumbags. I think that's unfortunate, but it's the way it is.

Inside: Do you think four years of a Bush administration will affect filmmaking?

Gaghan: It will be the best thing to happen to Hollywood in 50 years. It is going to be the death of conservative leadership, but I think we are going to go down four years into such a hole, and I think that those four years are going to be the best time for arts in America in a long, long time.

Look what happened with the savings and loans. ''Let's deregulate them, we'll just transfer all the money right out of the saving and loans into the hands of a few really rich Republicans, and then we'll bail it out with government money.'' How about that? That's a plan!

Well, now they are going to do the same thing with Social Security. They are going to do the same thing with the natural resources in the Interior, they are going to stack the Supreme Court, they are going to overturn Roe v. Wade. You are going to lose the right to have an abortion in this country, which is an absolute war on poor people. Rich people have always been able to get abortions and they always will. I think what is going to happen is this continual war on the actual voting people. ... I am thrilled. It pisses me off so much that a whole movie has evolved in my head that I am working on.

Inside: What about TV? Does it do a good job of representing people's views?

Gaghan: Absolutely not! Mostly, they are asleep at the wheel. I think there has been a steady erosion of viewership because the whole system got so complacent.

''Let them eat cake'' is a political theory at work in a lot of different quadrants of our country; and we give them bread and circuses, and they like it. Look at Survivor ... or How to be a Millionaire, or whatever it is called. Let's put that on 40 hours a week and we'll all just watch some insipid game show with insipid people struggling to answer insipid questions. It's just pathetic! Catering to the lowest common denominator is a fucking disaster for everybody!

Look at how the Nielsen system works. I've been called to be a Nielsen Family twice and they ask me what I do for a living and I say I write movies, and they go, ''I'm sorry, you're disqualified, you can't do it.'' I ask why can't I do it, they say because I work in the media industry. OK, take 10 million college-educated people right out of the pool for Nielsen families. ... It's pathetic. Why are we disqualified? They don't think that we buy Tide, and eat Wheaties? I mean, we're good little consumers. Some of us are superb consumers. Oh yeah, let's disqualify smart people from being in the pool of television viewers.

I'm from the middle of the country, and I've sat in a lot of rooms where people were discussing what that average viewer was like. Mostly those are people that grew up in either New York City or Los Angeles, went to Ivy League colleges, and they've never even been to the center of the country except for their one scenic drive after college to get out West or get back East. They've spent exactly two days in the middle of the country, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to imagine what the rest of country wants. It's ridiculous.


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