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As screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan flipped through the channels on his TV screen one afternoon searching for the USC football game, he happened upon a CNN news story reporting the drowning of four soldiers in Iraq. He quickly changed the channel.
“What an awful way to go out, I thought — so awful that I couldn’t get past the report fast enough for fear the story would stick in my mind and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my football game,” Carnahan recalls.
Only later, after the scene kept nagging at his consciousness, did Carnahan, usually verbose and full of opinions, realize he was like many Americans with comfortable lives and uncomfortable opinions about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His talking never really translated into action.
So Carnahan — who wrote Universal’s “The Kingdom” as well as the upcoming “State of Play” — set out to write “Lions for Lambs” as a stage play for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre from nothing more than his desire to put his money where his mouth was, plus the need to satisfy his lingering passion for political thrillers.
He never dreamed that his play about a professor, a politician and a journalist — each with his or her own agenda and moral dilemma about the war — would become a film directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, let alone the first major release from the Tom Cruise/Paula Wagner-led United Artists.
“Once Meryl said yes, everything sort of got a little more believable,” Carnahan says. “Bob was the real Hail Mary. Then Tom came, and it became the first film to launch the brand. It was like lightning striking at the same time three or four times.”
The film took only a year to complete. He described the experience on the Los Angeles set to be “focused and intense.”
“When you throw out a subject matter that everybody has strong opinions on, there weren’t a lot of jokes and laughs. There’s no blooper reel per se. To delve into this water, you better do it right,” he says.
While, like Redford, he touts the dialogue-driven “Lions” as a human drama rather than a war drama, he admits much of the script extended out of the process of writing the “Kingdom” and his fascination with that film’s political scenes.
“Obviously there’s a difference between a $30 million film and a $70 million movie, where you know eventually you’re going to be filming scenes in Saudi Arabia. But I was enamored by the political side — that seemingly 45-minute meeting in D.C. behind closed doors that can have such a ripple effect across the world,” he says.
While none of the characters was overhauled once the A-list cast was set, Redford and Cruise were mindful of Cruise’s portrayal of Sen. Jasper Irving as not just an “over-the-top” prowar Republican.
Says Carnahan: “I think some of the most compelling arguments in the movie are made by Cruise’s character. What do we do? Do we leave? If we leave Iraq shattered and Afghanistan devastated, will we just be back? He raises good arguments that I hope go past the standard arguments and boiler-plate positions of both parties.”
He also hopes that audiences won’t mind exploring these questions and that critics won’t judge the film’s success on boxoffice alone.
“I think that a lot of Americans don’t want to pay attention to this — that 4,000 people are dead in violent ways, and we can’t quite remember what the most recent justification for the war in Iraq is,” Carnahan adds. “Those questions are maybe too much for people to ponder, but I couldn’t get it out of my head so I had to write it.”
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