Most discussions of “War, Inc.” have concentrated on John
Cusack’s outspoken politics and have ignored or dismissed the contribution of
the director, Josh Seftel. Which is a shame because the Tufts grad and longtime
Somerville resident not only gave the film a big budget look on a shoestring
but also brought in some genuine war zone experience, and I’m not just talking
about his documentary “Taking on the Kennedys.” Here’s
a transcription of our phone conversation from a few days back.
PK: Are you
still on the Kennedy hate list?
always ask me, “Do the Kennedy’s hate you?” and I just think it’s a funny question,
and it’s not…. I’ve hung out with Patrick since the film, it’s just so not a
big deal with them.
PK: So this
is your first feature-length feature film. How did you get involved in making
JS: Well, I
made a short film called “Breaking the Mold: The Kee Malesky Story". Maryland Public Television asked me if I wanted to
direct a fiction film. And I said “sure, it sounds like fun,” and they said,
“there’s one catch: it has to teach middle-aged children about indoor air
quality.” So I said, look, I’ll do it if I can write it, and I can do a
director’s cut that I can enter into film festivals, and they said sure, go for
it. So I made the film, I shot it in Lowell Mass, and worked with all improv
comedians from the Boston area, and that film did well, I mean it played in
festivals and was kind of a sleeper. Alexander Payne saw it in Seattle, at a festival, and he called me, and
he said, “look,” he said, “you have an original voice, you should be directing
features.” And he said, “I have a script I want you to read, tell me what you
think of it,” so he sent me a script for a film called “Et tu, Babe” and
I liked the script a lot, and he said, “Well, I’m going to introduce you to the
guys who wrote it.” And it was written by Mark Leyner and John Cusack. And from
that point forward, I got to know John and Mark and John’s producing partner,
Grace Loh, and we started talking and hanging out for probably it was a period
of 2 to 3 years, where we were talking about finding ways to work together.
PK: So that
film was not made.
JS: That film
hadn’t been made, no, we talked about a few different projects, and a couple
projects almost happened but didn’t quite happen. And then this one came along,
and it was just the right timing.
PK: Did you
find this to be more challenging than making an independent short film about
JS: Is it
more challenging? I mean in some ways yes, in some ways no, right? Obviously
it’s a bigger scope, bigger budget, I mean we weren’t blowing things up. We
weren’t blowing shit up in Lowell. But we were in Bulgaria.
PK: Not that Lowell couldn’t use a
little blowing up.
JS: No, I
And it’s an up-and-coming city, right?
PK: I guess. I don’t know what that means. It’s no Lynn,
that’s for sure.
JS: Exactly. So, you know, one of the great things about working on a film of this
size and with this kind of cast is having that cast to work with. It’s like
being the coach of the dream team,
PK: You also
had kind of a low budget. When I found out it had such a low budget,
after seeing it, I thought, how’d they do that?
is a magical place. The budget goes a lot further there. You take 10 million
dollars and really it becomes 40 million on the screen. To have extras in Bulgaria …people
work for a really small amount of money. And we had a great Bulgarian crew, I
mean,he guy on the set, our pyro guy, the guy that blows stuff up? He
actually used to work for the Bulgarian mafia.
PK: Ah, great
on a resume.
JS: He told
us his job was to blow up cars for the mafia. So we had a lot of authenticity
with our pyro guy.
didn’t have any dealings with the Bulgarian mafia other than this guy, right?
JS: Not that
I know of.
PK: Do you
think the word is going to get out that the so-called liberal “War, Inc.”
people were exploiting Bulgarian workers?
JS: I never
said they were exploited.
PK: I was
especially impressed in a scene in a war zone -- Falafel? Or Falaf? It kind of
reminded me of the fortress at the end of the river in “Apocalypse Now” meshed
with the Battle of Hue in “Full Metal Jacket.” How did you put that together?
JS: Well, you
know, "Full Metal Jacket" definitely something that came to mind when I saw – we
found this set, it was actually an old factory that was being torn down, it was
in the process of being torn down, we found the set, and we said, “Stop what
you’re doing, this is great.” It was a bunch of buildings, that were – all that
was left were the frames and a lot of rubble around it. And so they halted the
demolition for the time we took to shoot it, and we just came in and had an
amazing production designer who actually did the film “Delicatessen,” Miljen Kreka Kljakovic
and he just did amazing things with what was there. That was a big part of it,
was finding things that were already there, and making the most of them.
PK: Like that
palace on the hill... Was that a found location also?
JS: That was
that’s so disillusioning.
JS: There was
a house, there was a structure up there, but we made it look more majestic, I
think, as I recall. Sorry.
ok. You’ve worked in documentaries up until this point. Did you find that was
an asset in making this movie, which is kind of surreal?
JS: The work
I’ve done in documentaries was
invaluable. When I read the script, I was struck by the absurdity of it and at
the same time, there’s so much truth and reality to the absurd moments, and a
lot of this stuff I’ve seen in real life. I’ve been in war zones, in hot-spots,
I’ve been in the back rooms of political campaigns, I’ve followed pop-stars
around as a journalist. I felt like I could bring that to the table, and try to…try
to interpret that.
PK: This is
all from your work on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” that you got all this
most of the war-zone stuff, yeah. No, you know, I was in Bosnia, and in
PK: Why were
you in Bosnia
JS: I was
covering the war. It was kind of a youthful adventure.
dangerous. I learned that it’s not fun to be shot at.
PK: Aww, come
on. You young guys.
JS: I know,
right? This was in Mostar.
saw some nasty stuff.
Pretty scary stuff. And just devastation. You’re walking around and the streets
are all pock-marked with shelling, and buildings, all the windows are blown out,
it’s just a wasteland.
you were able to bring this sensibility to “War Inc.” You said in an interview
that you like to combine the depressing with the funny.
is different from the other films made about what’s going on in Iraq. It’s a
different tone, it’s funny, I’d have to say it’s a wild ride, it’s face paced,
funnier than “Lions for Lambs,” let’s put it that way.
JS: You need
to give people a different flavor on this topic, they’ve already seen everything
on CNN in a serious tone, and it’s just another way of getting at this subject.
PK: Do you
think films can change things?
change things, or help people, or teach people, you know, what have you. That’s
what matters to me the most about the time I’m spending on my work. It may
teach people not to put scorpions down their pants, I don’t know.
PK: Or it may
encourage people to do it now, ‘cause they saw Hilary Duff do it. I tried it.
No big deal.
JS: How did
you like Hilary Duff?
PK: I almost
didn’t recognize her.
JS: Do you
know the story behind that look and everything? I went online and I printed out
the trampiest pictures of our trampiest pop-stars in their trampiest moments.
And I tried to take the most horrific aspects of several of them and try to
combine it into one person.
PK: That’s a
lot to work with there.
JS: That is a
lot to work with. So we took, you know, purple hair extensions, and the right
kind of eye make-up, and the right kind of clothing, we just kept adding more
and we looked at her and she still looked really adorable, and so we added more
and more, and finally after several applications of make-up and other trampy
things, we felt like we hit our mark, but it took a lot to overcome the
wholesome factor. And then she just did a great job, I thought, in terms of her
performance. I thought it was a revelation.
Hilary making great strides for women. By the way, do you think the election is
going to energize the popularity of the movie, because people are so much into
JS: I think
there is something happening right now, things are shifting for sure, and I
think this film could be…. I think it’s going to inspire people, for sure, and
I think that, you know, like I said, I hope that it changes the way that people
see things, or maybe the way people vote.
PK: And maybe
the way people make movies too.
JS: Um… we’ll
see about that.