Everybody loves John Cusack. No matter how many crap movies he makes – The Ice Harvest, Must Love Dogs, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil – his appeal never diminishes. Being Lloyd Dobler and Martin Q. Blank and Rob Gordon is his get-out-of-jail-free card. NOW recently sat down with America’s sweetheart and his War, Inc. co-screenwriter Mark Leyner to talk about their new film, a satire about the military-industrial complex and the privatization of war. The result turned out to be more surreal conversation than straightforward Q&A.
How did this project come about?
John Cusack: We wanted to make something about the Iraq invasion. Mark and I started talking about samurai movies, the roving, wasted ronin. And we came up with this character who’s a bit like the assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank, an errant knight in a fallen world looking for a place to ply his trade. We started playing around with that mythology.
Mark Leyner: So we superimposed that onto the idea of the privatization of the military, starting wars in order to create the need for your product.
Cusack: The medium is the message. The war itself is the business venture, and the outcome is secondary. Even if they eventually do pull out the troops, 160,000 private contractors are still over there. Let’s say these soldiers leave the battlefield and some of them come back; they take off their country’s flag and put on a corporate logo. Naomi Klein calls that “corporate mission creep.”
Leyner: You can’t think that if you just sweep out one administration and bring in a new one, things will change.
Cusack: It’s like a hydra. Every head gets replaced by a new head.
On one level the film is kind of like anti-propaganda.
Cusack: Every great piece of propaganda has a bit of truth. Take Captain Kirk. What did he represent? Benevolent empire, the very good part of America, the ideal personified by JFK. I was once on an aircraft carrier in Africa. I asked who the ideal military hero is; they all said Captain Kirk – he’s tough but really good to his men. And who doesn’t love Star Trek?
Leyner: The movie makes a lot of interesting correlations. It says a lot about family. In the end, the leftist journalist played by Marisa Tomei has been reduced to this crazed Brooklyn gun moll.
Cusack: Like Barbarella.
Leyner: And the dad is like, “We’re going to be a family again,” and the crazy pop star played by Hilary Duff is waving around an Uzi.
Cusack: And the actress playing the girl with the Uzi is a branded Disney family star. Another layer of subversion and commentary. But maybe that’s too inside baseball.
Leyner: And Ben Kingsley is in there as Walken, not a nice character. He sticks his tongue in John’s ear, and people always point out that it’s Gandhi sticking his tongue in John’s ear. That scene starts with the tongue in the ear and ends with Gandhi being crushed in the back of a garbage truck. That sounds like a great movie to me.
War, Inc. is also very chaotic in its tone.
Leyner: We wanted the movie to succumb to its masturbatory flights.
Cusack: Let’s say fetishistic flights.
Leyner: It gets lost in its own pleasure and seduces you to join it. When it veers toward melodrama, it goes there. We don’t make it satire; we explore it on its own terms so it feels like you’ve entered another movie. It’s like every five minutes you need to check your ticket stub to make sure you’re in the War, Inc. movie.
Cusack: Those shifts from subtlety to surreality to melodrama to action to whatever, we love those quantum leaps it takes.
Leyner: It’s been criticized, reviled by people who say they don’t know what this is.
Cusack: That’s great.
Leyner: Do you want to know what you’re seeing because you’ve seen it before, know exactly what to expect, or be challenged constantly?