Commentary: 'Traitor' is an edge-of-seat thriller with a twist

Recalls '70s films with something to think about

"Traitor" talk: When we think of movies being pitched, what comes to mind is an entirely different scene than the one that ultimately led to the making of Jeffrey Nachmanoff's killer thriller "Traitor."

If you envision a writer sitting in an office facing a studio executive who's barely paying attention to the ongoing description of who's doing what to whom in act two of the proposed project, then you aren't picturing the way in which "Traitor" originated. For one thing, there wasn't a writer involved yet because at that point there wasn't anything to be involved with. All there was was an off the cuff idea that had just occurred to Steve Martin in the midst of filming the comedy "Bringing Down the House." Martin mentioned it to the film's producer David Hoberman, who thought there could indeed be something there -- but that's getting ahead of a good story.

"Traitor," opening Wed., Aug. 27 via Overture Films, will keep you right on the edge of your seat the way really good thrillers do, but also will give you something to think about. Written and directed by Nachmanoff, its story is by Martin and Nachmanoff. It was produced by Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Silver and executive produced by Ashok Amritraj, Martin, Arlene Gibbs and Kay Liberman. Starring are Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Said Taghmaoui, Neal McDonough and Jeff Daniels.

The movie marks the feature directorial debut for Nachmanoff, who'd previously written with Roland Emmerich the screenplay for Emmerich's 2004 ecological disaster blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow." With "Traitor" Nachmanoff takes a major step forward, establishing himself as a director who works equally well with actors, special effects and big action set pieces.

"Traitor" is a contemporary international thriller set in the world of terrorism in which we sadly live these days. It's the story of an FBI investigator (Pearce) searching for a renegade U.S. military operative (Cheadle) who holds the secret to a global conspiracy. Cheadle's character turns up just as major terrorist operations go down but manages to disappear before anyone can question him. The question is whether he's an elusive ex-military operative who's gone bad or something far more complicated than that.

It's the sort of movie that leaves you wanting to talk about what you've just seen so after enjoying an early look at "Traitor" I was happy to be able to have that conversation with Nachmanoff Tuesday morning. "This definitely has to be one of the most twisting turning unusual paths for a writer-director to make a film in terms of the origins of a project," he told me. "It started with an idea by Steve Martin when he was making a movie with David Hoberman. It was a great idea (involving a very clever twist at the end that you definitely don't want to read about here before seeing the movie). David and Disney, who was making that film with him, recognized that there was a mainstream thriller in this so they bought the idea.

"Steve had written it up as a five page treatment and then they went out to a few writers and I was one of those people. When I came on board I was really brought in to write a mainstream studio thriller with a big twist at the end. When I started working on it I quickly realized that it's too important and serious (a subject) to treat it frivolously. We need to make a movie that addresses the real fears of people about what's going on in the world as well as the significantly and dramatically interesting nuanced layers of psychology that go into the motivations of all of the country's enemies."

Nachmanoff wrote his screenplay, he explained, "after doing a lot of research and we figured out that it just wasn't a script that was going to be comfortable for the studio to make. I was just incredibly fortunate to end up being given the opportunity first of all to come on and actually direct the movie I had written, to make it with the actors that I wanted to -- people like Cheadle and Pearce and Daniels and everybody else -- and then to be able to find a company (Overture) which just happened to respond to this material and then was willing to take a chance and make that movie."

He was hired in 2003 to do the screenplay and finished it in '04, Nachmanoff said, because "it took a while to write. But then it really sat for a couple of years trying to find a home as a studio movie. A year and a half or, maybe, two years ago my agent Frank Wuliger (at The Gersh Agency) started pestering David saying, 'Maybe you should think about Jeffrey to direct this. Maybe you should consider the idea of taking this out of the studio system.' David Hoberman finally kind of embraced that idea.

"Then Don Cheadle came on board and as soon as Don and I met it really started taking on the life it would have to become the movie (it is). It only took about a year to make the movie -- that is, from the time I first met with (Overture CEO) Chris McGurk and he and Danny (Overture chief operating officer Danny Rosett) said they wanted to do it and the time when we finished it. (It took) a year and four months or so."

Cheadle, Nachmanoff added, was the only piece of the puzzle that came with him to Overture: "Don has a longstanding relationship with Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett and I think that helped play a role in their decision to back the movie. Also, I knew coming out of the writing world I had to make an impression on people and explain how I could direct the movie. So I actually put together what some people call a 'look book.' I basically researched photo archives from old films and put together a visual presentation in a book with storyboards I'd drawn by hand."

Basically, he pointed out, "I treated it as an art project and said, 'Let me show you what my vision for this movie is.' I think that helped allay people's fears and give them a sense of confidence that I had a real visual story that I wanted to tell and the fact that I had Don Cheadle in the room with me really, I think, spoke a lot to them about the fact that I would be able to work with top quality actors and have their approval. Those things combined with the fact that I'd written the script were what made them take a chance and not only back me but really let me go off to make this movie."

What makes "Traitor" work so well is that it's a thriller that comes to grips with the villains of today and involves serious issues but in a very entertaining way. "I think all too often right now we're forced to make a choice in the movie marketplace between pure escapist popcorn entertainment with deliberately nothing on its mind," he explained, "versus overly self-important or serious movies that are seen as unentertaining. I think there's an appetite out there for movies -- and in the '70s these were very common movies -- that attempt to grapple with the political realities of our world in the framework of entertainment.

"You go back to 'The French Connection,' 'Three Days of the Condor' and 'All the President's Men,' those were mainstream entertainment. And I think that's coming back. I wanted to put 'Traitor' in that category. 'The Constant Gardener' a few years ago was an inspiration to me, as well. And I think 'The Dark Knight' is showing that there's an appetite for movies that are thinking about what's going on in the world around us, but are doing it in a away that allows us also to have our (entertainment) cake and eat it, too."

Thinking back to the movies of the '70s, he added, "I think it was more common that movies were both about something and entertaining. I thought that there was a way to do that with this subject matter. It was a very delicate line, obviously. A little bit too much of the real world and maybe people would be depressed or turned off. And if you take the subject too frivolously without being honest about what's going on out there, then I think you're actually doing something slightly irresponsible.

"I was in London during the '80s and the IRA was bombing London. That was a part of daily life. And yet there were these incredibly entertaining movies (like) 'In the Name of the Father,' 'Cal,' 'The Long Good Friday' that were made at that time that were what we would call mainstream entertainment. But at the same time they grappled with what was also our deeper fears and our realities of what the world was."

During the Cold War years, Nachmanoff continued, "we did this, too. We made movies about the world. I think there's been more hesitancy (today) to do that. Maybe it's because there hasn't been as much success doing it, but I don't think that's a reason not to do it. To my mind, there's a little bit of a window here. Not that many people are making movies like this so I'm hoping there's a grown-up adult audience that wants to have entertainment but is also hungry to think a little bit."

The compliment he got during production that made him feel good, he recalled, was that even though as a first time feature director he might not have known how to do everything, he knew exactly what he wanted. "Maybe that's because I was the writer on this," he said. "And maybe it was because I was also forced in order to sell myself to people to really think out the entire movie visually, as well, before I was shooting. My job became explaining what I want to people that have done it before for years and years, the old pros, and then making sure it happens.

"I don't know how to blow up a car. I've never done that. But I know where I want the camera. I know how big I want the explosion to be. So then it becomes trusting the people around you to make sure it happens properly once you've explained what you want. And, of course, you learn something. By the end of the film I was a much bigger expert on these things than I was at the beginning and I'm sure on the next movie I'll look back and think of all the things I didn't know when I was making this movie."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel