The Day After Tomorrow writer and first-time feature film director Jeffrey Nachmanoff brings audiences another heart-pounding thriller that gets you shouting at the big screen as the unexpected happens again and again. Starring Don Cheadle as Samir Horn, Traitor is the story of a man zeroed in on by the FBI and seen as an extremely violent and threatening informant who needs to be taken down. Connecting Samir to a prison break in Yemen, a bombing in Nice and a raid in London, this guy in hiding has got the world on his shoulders (in a bad way). As his struggle continues, the good guys and bad guys become harder to identify as world’s collide and danger resides around every corner.
Although you’ll have to wait to see the film to find out more about the story and all of its unexpected twists and turns, Nachmanoff takes Acted By behind the scenes as he discusses where the story originates, how it developed, what led him to the project, and everything else you may not have otherwise known about the making of Traitor.
AB: Thank you so much for talking to us, Jeffrey.
Nachmanoff: Of course. I’m happy to do it!
AB: Fantastic! So, how did the concept of Traitor originate?
Nachmanoff: Well, the producer, David Hoberman, was making Bringing Down the House with Steve Martin. And 9-11 had just happened and Steve is a deep thinker, writer and essayist and he came up with a terrorist story idea. But David thought he was kidding. So, when he didn’t show up to a meeting, Steve said, ‘Why didn’t you come by to hear the idea?’ And David told me he said, ‘I didn’t think you were serious?’ And Steve said, ‘Yes, I’m serious.’
So, Steve wrote a five page treatment, Disney bought it but…they needed a writer. This wasn’t the type of story Steve writes and that’s where I came in.
AB: They contacted you to come in for a meeting?
Nachmanoff: Yep, and honestly, I’m a HUGE fan of Steve Martin and I wanted to meet him. That’s why I really wanted to come, initially. So, David and I met and they showed me the idea and I was hesitant about it.
AB: Really, why?
Nachmanoff: Well, first off, I wasn’t sure if this was a movie the studio would make and secondly, my politics came into play. I’m only interested in making a movie that plays a very even-handed approach to the issue of Islam and the West. I don’t feel it makes a good movie if you treat a villain as only the villain.
Nachmanoff: Exactly! See, I grew up in London, England in the ‘80s when the IRA were bombing and there were a lot of terrorist attacks. Maybe America doesn’t know this, but women and children were being blown up by the IRA. They were the same as Al Qaeda but the only difference was the IRA were white people. And, there cause was one we could understand.
AB: When you mention the IRA to me, my thoughts are pretty positive. I think of rebellious leaders who fought for their rights. But, when you mention Al Qaeda, I visualize evil maniacs who have no cause. They are just out to hurt America.
Nachmanoff: I know, I know. But everyone has a cause, in their own mind. I wanted to make a movie in which you attempt to look at the current conflict through the eyes of fully rounded characters from both sides. It just makes for better storytelling to see characters that way. It’s the only way to do it.
AB: From what you are saying, although the original story came from Steve Martin, you were also a huge part in creating it, yes?
Nachmanoff: Sure. I mean…there was no script before I got involved. There was a brief treatment and it had elements with the general notion that the main character was going to do a trick to get the terrorists to be in one spot. But, the characters themselves, they weren’t flushed out. Actually, a lot of the character’s personalities come from the actor’s themselves. Don collaborated extensively to help make the character real.
AB: Did you have any influence in casting?
Nachmanoff: The casting was a dream cast for me. I’m very lucky because the only element of the cast that was decided before I came on board was Don. He read the script before I was attached as the director. I was thrilled! I’m a huge fan. He’s such a talented actor. Once we had a chance to meet and I was chosen as the director, as well, it was even better. And I got lucky because I got to cast the other parts.
AB: Really? That’s rare.
Nachmanoff: It really is. Normally, the director works with the studio and they push stars into the movie. For me, I was able to cast actors. I cast out of L.A., Toronto, London, Paris and other places around the world. This is one of the greatest experiences as a director. The most important job is casting the movie. So, if you get a movie already cast, as a director, although that can be great, you may or many not like what has happened. I was lucky because there was no cast. I got to make all the choices and was really happy with all the people I got.
AB: So, obviously, you enjoyed working with the actors and directing this film?
Nachmanoff: Yes! It was one of the most pleasant surprises because it’s the area where I had the least amount of experience. There’s nothing like directing great actors.
AB: Were you nervous?
Nachmanoff: No, I wasn’t nervous for two reasons. First, I got to choose the actors so it wasn’t like a forced marriage. And that makes your relationship a little different. Second, I had worked with Don for several months before we got to the set so it wasn’t like stepping onto a movie set with an intimidating star you don’t know. Respect was built up prior to shooting and basically, it was two professionals trying to give their best performance possible.
AB: What is it like to direct a talented cast? Easier, I imagine?
Nachmanoff: The job of a director when it comes to really strong actors is to get out of the way and let them do their job and watch their back. It’s like coaching a great ballplayer, I suppose. You need a good coach to make sure the team performs but you don’t need to tell Michael Jordan how to dribble a ball. They know what to do.
My job is to understand the big picture, inform them of what we are telling in a particular part of the movie and remind them of where the character is at this point in the story.
AB: How do you get to be a good director?
Nachmanoff: You direct. How do you get to direct? Well, not everyone gets that chance but you have to be really prepared to do it well when you do get the chance and I think if you are prepared, it comes naturally.
AB: Since many of our readers are aspiring writers, actors and directors, what advice would you give them? What are your words of wisdom?
Nachmanoff: (laughs) My advice is to distrust all words of wisdom. If my path is any example, you really can’t plan your path.
AB: That’s awesome! Any final words of…not “wisdom” but advice for actors?
Nachmanoff: During the audition process, when you [the actor] doesn’t get a job, it’s almost certainly not because of what you did or didn’t do. Auditions are a strange thing. You are really looking to see if a person is right for the part. Rarely, are you looking to see how well or how poorly an actor can act. A good actor shines through but a decision is often made before you even arrive. Actors worry that they are to blame when they don’t get cast but that’s not necessarily true. Directors already know what they are looking for with the part. They are just sort of waiting for it to walk into the room.
AB: And when Guy Pearce, Said Taghmaoui, Neal McDonough, Aly Khan, Archie Panjabi, Jeff Daniels and the other cast members walked in, you knew!
Traitor opens nationwide this Wednesday, August 27th in theatres near you. According to Nachmanoff, the thriller turned out just as he could have hoped.
“Traitor is the movie I set out to make,” said Nachmanoff. “I have no apologies. I feel like I got the backing from the studio to make the movie I originally envisioned. I got the actors I wanted. It’s exactly as I wanted it to be and I have nothing to complain about.
“I enjoyed the process so much. I’m really proud to see it finished but the process was the most important thing.”