"War"'s unsung hero: director Joshua Seftel

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?

JS: People 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 this movie?

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 air quality?

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 love Lowell. 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?

JS: Bulgaria 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.

PK: You 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 CGI.

PK: Oh, 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.

PK: That’s 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 experience?

JS: Yeah, most of the war-zone stuff, yeah. No, you know, I was in Bosnia, and in Romanian orphanages.

PK: Why were you in Bosnia in 1995?

JS: I was covering the war. It was kind of a youthful adventure.

PK: Dangerous.

JS: Very 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.

PK: Probably saw some nasty stuff.

JS: Yes. 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.

PK:  And 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.

 JS:  This 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, it’s weird…

PK: It’s 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?

JS: Yeah, 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. 

PK: Another 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 politics now?

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.


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