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JAN
22
4 YEARS

SUNDANCE Q&A: Lee Tamahori Debuts First Indie in 15 Years

Lee Tamahori

Lee Tamahori has helmed two independent films in his nearly two-decade career as a director, and both have brought him to Sundance: He made his first trip in 1995 in support of his feature directorial debut, Once Were Warriors.

Since then, he's directed mainstream fare such as Die Another Day, Along Came a Spider and The Edge. This year, Tamahori is back at Sundance with The Devil's Double, which is being screened as part of the festival's Premieres program. The film, which opens at the Eccles Theatre on January 22 at 9:30 p.m., tells the story of the body double of Uday Hussein - the brutal son of dictator Saddam Hussein. The film is based on the life of Latif Yahia; in a unique turn, actor Dominic Cooper plays both the disgusted Yahia and the nefarious Uday Hussein. Tamahori discussed the film, Cooper's “breakout performance,” and his own return to Sundance with The Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter: How does it feel coming back to Sundance after not doing an independent film in so long?

Tamahori: When I actually had the chance to make an independent film like I did 15 years ago it was great. You get drawn into it and it's great. There's a great camaraderie where you are in with a bunch of directors much like yourself. There's newcomers, upstarts and people like that. I seem to miss that. Once I climbed into the system you get a whole different frame of reference and a way of doing things. I'm very happy to be going back with a film that has been chosen to be in Sundance.

THR: Do you have any fond memories of your first trip to the festival?

Tamahori: The funniest moment I remember is I had no idea (what was going on) because it was my first film festival ever. I was sitting there not knowing what was going on and kind of getting carried away, and I thought, “I need a drink, I need to get out of this.” I went to this bar and I was the only person in this bar at Sundance because everybody else was on the streets and hustling and everything else. Then a guy comes into the bar and sits right next me and says the same thing, “Quick, I need a drink.” I look at this guy and I go, “You're Tim Roth, aren't you?” He goes, “Yeah,” and I go, “Hi, I'm pleased to meet you.” So I meet Tim Roth because both of us were both exhausted by the process and badly in need of a drink and we were the only two in the bar and struck up a conversation. It was very funny at the time.

THR: Let's talk about Dominic Cooper's performance in this film.

Tamahori: It's a breakout performance if I do say myself. From the beginning I always said this film stands or falls on the credibility of the actor that plays both these parts. The whole story is irrelevant if this guy does not have both the talent to pull it off with the two characters, or make the audience believe that we are watching two different characters rather than one actor playing two roles. There have been versions of this before, but not a lot.

THR: How were you and Cooper able to make it work?

Tamahori: We went into the business of creating two different characters, which meant slight adaptations to the screenplay and everything. One is basically psychotic and has an Oedipal complex and is a rapist, killer, murderer and thug, but there is something weirdly attractive about him like Tony Montana. He is a charismatic villain. I stripped (the Yahia) character back to what is essentially a character from an American Western and stripped his morality down to an absolutely clean slate of pure moral principles:  (He's) an upright guy, he's going to go into the family business with his father because that's what he's supposed to do. He has a strong moral code; he will not do things that go against his moral center. Luckily, once we figured these characters out, and Dominic knew what he was doing with both of him, he was able to switch in and out of them quite remarkably. We didn't know if we could psychologically put that pressure on him on a daily basis. He loved it. Being a young technical actor and being very good instinctive actor with good dramatic training behind him, he was able to pull off some marvelous stuff.

THR: What was it like getting back in the indie saddle after so many years of doing big studio films?

Tamahori: In doing this movie I wanted to remind myself that I hadn't lost the ability to jump back into independent film and (that I hadn't) become a dull studio hack of some sort. You got to remind yourself, can I still do it? It's up to others to judge, but it was interesting getting into the editing room. We had some problems and I'd say I know what to do here. It all came from doing American studio films.

THR: Did this experience with The Devil's Double wet your appetite for another indie feature?

Tamahori: I'm going to make another feature in New Zealand very much along the lines of my first feature.