"There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?" The opening line of Andrew Niccol's Lord of War captures the film in a phrase: it's serious, it's sardonic, it has a sense of humor and a sense of outrage. It's also the first film to seriously address the reality of arms dealing in the world. It should come as no surprise that Hollywood was afraid to touch the script. The New Zealand-born Niccol, who left a thriving career as writer and director of commercials in London to make films in Hollywood, had to return to Europe to finance Lord of War. Technically speaking, it's a $50 million independent film.
Niccol's first screenplay was The Truman Show, a techno-fantasy satire that rather presciently anticipated the reality TV boom. Hollywood was eager to make the film, just not with first-time director Niccol at the helm. By the time the production came together (under director Peter Weir), Niccol was onto his directorial debut, the cautionary genetics-engineering fable Gattaca, which was released before The Truman Show. Both films, as well as 2002 satire S1m0ne, are what he terms "social science fiction," films set "five minutes into the future."
There is nothing futuristic in Lord of War, which uses the rise of a Russian-American entrepreneur from selling guns on the streets of New York to illegally running arms and equipment to hot spots all over the world to shine a light on the enormous business in international arms trafficking over the past two decades. His presentation of the material may not be subtle, but it is passionate and it is entertaining, maybe entertaining enough to get his message out to audiences that wouldn't otherwise consider the issue.
I sat down with Niccol a few weeks ago, on the Seattle stop of his barnstorming promotional tour, for a brief discussion about Lord of War; I was also able to work in a few questions about his earlier films.
You make your "hero," international arms dealer Yuri Vitale, a very attractive, appealing figure. Why?
Because I think the Devil is that way. The Devil is charming, the Devil is glamorous, the Devil is probably a very witty guy. It's more subversive that way, somehow, and also I just think that's way it is. These guys are very slick businessmen, that's how they see themselves, so Nicolas Cage's character should be that as well. It was a lot of the reason for casting Nic; he does make the Devil charming.
Cage is also an executive producer on the film. Did he get on board the production early on?
Yeah. He was drawn to the material and he wanted to also explore that darker side of human nature and this project gave him that, so he attached his company to this project. I think he was also interested in the issue itself. He made Amnesty International a big part of it; he made sure they were one of the groups to benefit from the film. That's the charity attached to the film.
Was it hard to find backing for the film?
Yeah. It was made with foreign financing and then a studio acquired it afterwards, but they didn't really want to touch it to begin with. The timing was the timing from hell. The script was submitted a week before the latest Iraq invasion. But I don't really see the connection, clearly because there are always wars. Arms dealing goes on and on, whatever the current politics are. In fact, it almost has no politics. Whether Clinton is president or Bush is president, America is still the biggest arms dealer in the world.
You make the observation in the film that guns have no politics, but you show a changing of the guard with a veteran arms dealer named Simeon Weisz [played by Ian Holm] who takes sides in the wars, and he is contrasted with the new face of the arms dealer in Yuri, whose attitude is: "Money has no politics. I'll sell to anybody." Is this something you found in your research?
Absolutely. The end of the Cold War was a real change in the arms dealing profession. These guys that used to sell only to factions that they supported were replaced by cowboys like Yuri, who really had only allegiance to money. As he says, you're not a true internationalist until you sell weapons to kill your own countrymen. He really doesn't see himself as belonging to any nation.
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