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A thinking man’s thriller based on an idea by Steve Martin, Traitor takes the global conflict with Islamic extremists as its starting point and gives it a resounding twist, as debuting director Jeffrey Nachmanoff explains to Andrew L. Urban.

Jeffrey Nachmanoff has been a fan of Australian actor Guy Pearce “for a long time,” he says, speaking from Los Angeles on the eve of the Australian release of his debut feature, Traitor. “From Priscilla to Memento to L.A. Confidential to the role in Traitor, which is the sort of role that could have been played by Brad Pitt. Guy has extraordinary range; he can play anything. And he’s a great complement to Don Cheadle.”

Traitor is what Nachmanoff calls a thinking man’s thriller. FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) leads an investigation into a dangerous international conspiracy, in which all clues lead to former U.S. Special Operations officer, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle). A mysterious figure with a web of connections to terrorist organizations, Horn has a knack for emerging on the scene just as a major operation goes down. The task force links Horn to a prison break in Yemen, a bombing in Nice and a raid in London, but a tangle of contradictory evidence emerges, forcing Clayton to question whether his quarry is a disaffected former military operative - or something far more complicated. Obsessed with discovering the truth, Clayton tracks Horn across the globe as the elusive ex-soldier burrows deeper and deeper into the world of Middle East terrorism.

The original idea, in the form of a short story, comes from comedic actor and writer Steve Martin. It was a cat and mouse story about a US secret agent trying to trick terrorists into coming to the US with a plot, so they could be captured.

When Nachmanoff was given a short treatment of the basic plot, he “immediately thought ‘Wow, this is a great twist ending,’ but I had no idea how you could get there,” says Nachmanoff. “I started thinking about the character and who he might be. I decided that it would raise the stakes to make the protagonist a Muslim American who finds himself in the middle of the conflict.”

"I was interested in that grey area between good and evil"

That inspired decision provides the makings of the twist in the film and was driven by the fact that Nachmanoff was not so keen on making a film about terrorists per se; “if I’m going to tell a story about the global conflict I’d like to make the main character a Muslim. Not all Muslims are devotees of extremism. I was interested in that grey area between good and evil.”

This makes Traitor stand out from the recent crop of films with similar themes and settings, like Body of Lies, Vantage Point, The Kingdom or Syriana.

The screenplay gives Samir Horn some daunting – but very real - moral dilemmas, and while it would spoil the movie to reveal the details of what those dilemmas are or why he faces them, it provides the film with its density and its provocative element.

For Cheadle, Traitor’s nuanced take on a popular genre was the drawing card. “It’s a spy thriller and hopefully it succeeds on that level,” he says. “And in addition to the action and intrigue, Traitor is about a man who is struggling to do the right thing while, at the same time, trying to figure out what ‘the right thing’ means. It’s a provocative question—how far will you go for what you believe?

“Putting people in dangerous situations and having to sacrifice lives is something his superiors may require, but it’s something that his faith prohibits him from doing and speaks directly against,” the actor continues. “So he’s in a conundrum—how many lives do you sacrifice for the greater good, and how can an individual make that decision?”

That question and Cheadle’s response to it are central to the plot, says Nachmanoff. “The question of who Horn is—what his real motivations are, what he’s trying to do and how he’s trying to achieve his goals—is the intriguing part of the film.”

First an editor then a writer and now a director, Nachmanoff set out “to capture the urgent realism of the films of the 70s like The French Connection, Three Days of the Condor or All The President’s Men. It’s an entertaining opakcage that sucks you in till the very end – and you can think about after you walk out of the cinema.”

It was a challenge to shoot the film (without the usual large budgets of a major studio) on location in five different countries. “And I couldn’t have done it if I had prima donnas in the cast. Both these actors are real pros; they do lots of preparation, but they respect the script and if they have any inputs it’s always good. They’re a dream to work with and I just hope I’ll be this lucky again. They helped me a lot to understand how a good actor/director partnership works.”

"difficult but wonderfully rewarding experience"

The filmmakers committed to making the most accurate film they could about the hidden world they were depicting. Nachmanoff spoke with professionals in the fields of espionage and intelligence gathering as well as academics and authors specializing in the film’s wide-ranging subject matter. The deeper he dug into the world he was recreating in the film, the more he wanted to know. “I started finding that there were all sorts of fascinating and rich, real details that could be layered into the film,” he says. “I felt like wherever I could find moments of reality, and things that really rang true, that would be to the benefit of the movie and to anyone who watches the movie.”

For his first feature, Traitor was a “difficult but wonderfully rewarding experience. I was able to make the movie I wanted to make.”

Published November 6, 2008

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Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Don Cheadle


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