'Diamond' is rough, for a bigger purpose
EmptyTwo of the movies opening this week boast grisly, disturbing violence that raises the question: Where is the line between violent and too violent? While Edward Zwick's 1980s African drama "Blood Diamond" doesn't feature rolling severed heads, its brutal mayhem, hand hackings and child kidnappings come close to matching the intensity of Mel Gibson's Mayan period adventure "Apocalypto." The difference -- which will be a crucial one for Oscar voters -- is that Gibson's movie is an unpretentious, viscerally thrilling actioner, while the filmmakers behind "Diamond" had more than entertainment on their minds.
One Academy member reports that she repeatedly covered her eyes at a recent "Diamond" screening. Yet she did go to see it; she refuses to view "Apocalypto." "You have a different response when it's about a real time and place," says one of "Diamond's" many producers, Paula Weinstein, who was raised by her activist mother, Hannah, to bring politics into such films as the South African expose "A Dry White Season" and Peter Weir's plane crash drama "Fearless." "You have to make sure you're telling the truth. It's R-rated. This is a war movie. This is not beating someone up on the street."
Weinstein knows Africa well. She and her late husband, Mark Rosenberg, were passionate fundraisers for the anti-apartheid African National Congress. She visited Zimbabwe and Johannesburg during apartheid and sighs when she recalls that Rosenberg died just after they celebrated Nelson Mandela's investiture. "For me to go address a movie about Africa, it couldn't be just an adventure story, no way," she says.
In 2000, Warner Bros. Pictures production executive Polly Cohen, who now runs Warner Independent Pictures, dusted off an old African adventure script and suggested to Weinstein, who has a first-look deal at Warners, that it could be turned into "Traffic" in Africa. Weinstein brought in screenwriter Charles Leavitt ("The Mighty"), who came up with the idea of setting the story amid the intense conflicts that surrounded Sierra Leone's diamond trade in the '80s. "Chuck made it about something," she says.
Leavitt's script attracted producers Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick ("Glory," "The Last Samurai"), who wanted the movie "to be unflinching," Weinstein says. "Ed wasn't going to direct 'Blood Diamond' unless Warners let him fully explore the subject. He wanted the movie to be entertaining, but not a faux version of reality."
To lend star luster to the movie, the filmmakers approached Leonardo DiCaprio, who at 30 was younger than the character Leavitt had created, and his producer, Graham King. Neither had planned for their other collaboration "The Departed," which took Martin Scorsese a year to edit, and "Diamond," which Zwick rushed to finish by the end of 2006, to come out so close together.
Zwick immersed himself in the material to make sure he was close to accurate. "I don't think many directors would be willing to put themselves through what he did to do this movie," Weinstein says. "It was hard to plan and orchestrate."
The filmmakers spent three months shooting the diamond mines in Port Edward, South Africa, and two months in Maputo, Mozambique, the setting for the fall of Freetown. Zwick even hoisted one of the seven roving Steadicams for an elaborate battle sequence.
"Diamond" actually pulls its punches in regard to the real violence that took place in Sierra Leone during this period, says actor Djimon Hounsou ("In America," "Gladiator"), who was raised in deprived circumstances in the West African republic of Benin until he left at age 13. "Nothing's easy growing up in Africa," he says, adding that documentary footage shot by the film's adviser, Sorious Samura, displayed far worse horrors than anything Zwick put onscreen: "He shot so many atrocities I saw that were so heartbreaking and unwatchable, it would be impossible for an audience to see it."
Weinstein insists that the studio never questioned the movie's unstinting approach, nor did Warners president Alan Horn ask for the violence to be toned down. "Alan sent us off with, 'Do not be gratuitous,' " she says. "I would never want any movie to go so far that the audience doesn't want to go see the movie. There's a difference between being honest and exploitative. We couldn't tell this story without seeing the violence of the time. "Test screenings show, Weinstein says, that audiences find the movie to be "real, tough, and they accept it."
The question is, how far are audiences willing to go? This season, grim subject matter might have dimmed moviegoers' enthusiasm for movies like "Catch a Fire" (gross: $4.3 million domestic), another true African story rife with scenes of torture and massacre. Nor has the Uganda drama "The Last King of Scotland," which conjures the real-life reign of terror of dictator Idi Amin, cleaned up at the boxoffice ($3.5 million to date), though an Oscar nomination for Forest Whitaker could move that film into the success category the way Don Cheadle's nomination for 2004's "Hotel Rwanda" did -- it wound up grossing $33.5 million worldwide.
"Blood Diamond," with its hefty $100 million budget, will have to do a lot better than that. Which is why Warners is pushing for a boost from Oscar. If voters view it as a war movie with a message -- like such Oscar winners as "Platoon," "The Deer Hunter" or "The Mission" -- they just may get it.