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A dark and edgy film about the American military directed by Gregor Jordan, before he made Ned Kelly, was completed just before September 11, 2001. It’s taken this long to get the star-studded film out to the public, as Jordan explains to David Edwards.

As a relatively inexperienced director, and an Australian one working with major stars in America for the first time, Gregor Jordan found it was Ed Harris who eased him into the job. “The first scene with Ed and much of the cast was a big scene with a lot of extras. I didn’t know Ed very well and just as we were about to walk on set, he motions for me to come over and says ‘Hey, listen Gregor, you know I don’t need to say this, but don’t be afraid to ask me to do anything. Anything you want me to do, doesn’t matter how stupid it is, I’ll give it a try. Don’t worry about it, anything you want me to do, I’ll do.’ It was such an amazing thing because I guess he could tell I was nervous. Telling a director something like that, which is basically saying, ‘Listen, I’m there for you, I believe in what you’re doing, it’s going to be fine,’ was fantastic.” 

He was between his highly successful first film, Two Hands (1999), and his latest work, Ned Kelly (2003). Jordan was making Buffalo Soldiers (2001) but like several other films, Buffalo Soldiers’ release was a casualty of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (although it has been screened at several festivals).

“The film was premiered in Toronto and was actually sold to Miramax on the night of September 10, 2001. I guess it [then] became clear that releasing the film had become even more precarious than before. So Miramax decided to delay the release and wait to see what happened. It was hard to write and it was hard to make so that fact that it’s hard to release is no surprise,” says Jordan. “It’s a movie that’s not conventional at all. It’s black comedy, it follows an anti-hero story, it’s quite anti-establishment – more so now than when it was made!”

Buffalo Soldiers tells the story of Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), a soldier with too much time on his hands and not enough money in his pocket. The time is 1989, the place is West Germany, and the Cold War is still raging. But in this quiet little pocket of the US military machine, it doesn’t so much rage as limp along. In this environment, the entrepreneurial Elwood is running a very profitable Black Market operation under the nose of his unsuspecting CO (Ed Harris). But the arrival of a new sergeant (Scott Glenn) threatens Elwood’s comfortable existence. So he fights back in the best way he knows how – by dating the sergeant’s attractive daughter (Anna Paquin).

"the European-ness of the film"

Despite its focus on the American military, Jordan doesn’t think of Buffalo Soldiers as an ‘American’ film as such. “The weird thing is, it’s an American film, but it never really was American, you know. The producer of the film was German; the writer of the book’s American; the production company the financed the film, Film Four, are British; it was all shot in Germany with a mostly English crew; the actors are all American… I guess it is an American story but in a way the European-ness of the film is big part of it as well; you know that fact that its about Americans in a foreign land. So, yes, it’s an American film, but it never really felt like it.

“It felt like an international film; the crew came from all over the place – the gaffer was Irish, the electrics crew were all Swedish, the production designer and the editor were Australian. So it felt like a film of the world.”

It was Jordan’s work on Two Hands that landed him the job. “The producer, Reiner Grupe, had been given a copy of Two Hands and he said he watched it twice and got on the phone and said, ‘Let’s get Gregor’. He had this idea that an Australian should direct this film. The reason was, he said, that he liked the way Australians kept this kind of peculiar objectivity on the world. I guess when I think about it now, it’s kind of crazy – the idea of bringing over this relatively inexperienced director from Australia to make a film about American soldiers in Germany.”

Jordan says he was attracted to the project by the originality of the film’s concept. ‘I’d never seen that world portrayed before in a film. I also liked the ideology behind the film – the idea that a lot of people like war and if you don’t gave them a war, they’ll make one of their own. I hadn’t really seen that idea before in a film. To me, war films always portrayed the opposite: that war is hell and war is a terrible thing. I’d never seen the idea that war is kind of cool, and there are a lot of people out there who really like it. So I guess I was intrigued by the material.” 

"far from an armchair ride"

It was, however, far from an armchair ride for Jordan, who came on board at an embryonic stage in the production. “There was no financing, no script. I mean, basically the script was unreadable,” he explains. “The script was a mess; because the book was so non-linear it was very hard to adapt. I had to think about it for a couple of months, and then I said to the producer, ‘Look, I want to do the film, but I want to re-write it from scratch. I want to give it a proper three-act structure; stylistically, I want to take this kind of angle, and do this with the characters’ and he said, ‘OK.’ 

“He was a bit shocked when I handed him the script and there basically wasn’t a single word from the other script in it. But then interest started being generated, because Financiers started getting interested. A company called Good Machine (who are now Focus), became involved with international sales. The head of that [company], James Schamus, then developed the screenplay with me from my first draft to a shooting draft; then Film Four became involved… and then we cast it.”

Part of the re-writing process involved finding the right ‘pitch’ for the film. As Jordan describes it, ‘The book’s fantastic but quite dark. Elwood’s a much darker character in the book. Finding the right level of darkness was crucial. If you make it too dark it becomes like Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992) and if you make it too light it becomes like Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981). So finding that middle ground was quite tricky.”

Jordan also strove to give the material an edge. ‘It was quite difficult in that I was trying to make a film about the military that would still somehow be ‘hip’ and ‘groovy’; that would feel cool and energetic. 

“All the films I’d seen about the Army were… you know, they were Army movies. They were either gung-ho or very bleak. There’s nothing ‘cool’ about Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) – I mean, it’s an amazing movie, but it doesn’t feel ‘hip’.

"He doesn’t really give a shit about anyone or anything"

So the influences behind Buffalo Soldiers did not come from traditional war movies. “When I saw Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999) I was very impressed with its hip-hop, MTV feel, even though it was a film about the military. So that was one of the inspirations; but there were a lot of other films that I used as kind of references. There were obvious ones like Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970) and Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964); but also things like Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967). And one of the biggest influences was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986), because I was trying to work out how to portray the character of Elwood, and I realized he’s really a slightly darker version of Ferris Bueller. He’s a guy who, at the end of the day, simply wants not to be bored. He doesn’t really give a shit about anyone or anything – he just wants to have some fun!”

Jordan was blessed with a fine cast of young and experienced American actors, including Oscar winners Ed Harris and Anna Paquin. The crucial role however was that of Elwood, and Jordan did his homework before casting Joaquin Phoenix for the part. “I hadn’t seen him play this character before, so I had sat down and watched all his movies. I guess there were like little bits of what I wanted him to do; of how I wanted that character to be – like [in] To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995) and 8 MM (Joel Schumacher, 1999). But I saw Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) and I went ‘Oh, he’s totally wrong for this’; simply because the character he played in Gladiator was nothing like Elwood at all. It was only after a while that I realized that this guy is a seriously good actor who can transform himself and be extremely convincing in a whole range of roles.”

Snaring the actor himself it seems was a lot less complicated. “Joaquin read the screenplay and knew in a second that he wanted to do the film. So at our first meeting, he said ‘Hey, the script’s great’ and I went, ‘Yeah, thanks very much. Do you want to do it?’ and he goes, ‘Yeah’ and I went, ‘OK, cool,’” 

Since the day after September 10, 2001, times have changed enough to see Buffalo Soldiers get its US release on May 6, 2003. As Jordan explains, ‘We tested the film in the East Village in New York in January 2002, and there was this overwhelming response of disbelief. They didn’t believe that what they were seeing could possibly be real. In other words, they couldn’t cope with the concept of their military being anything less than total heroes. I think it was a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

"a non-glorified way"

But then Miramax tested the film in exactly the same theatre in the East Village in December [2002] and the reaction was pretty well the opposite. “We got the overwhelming response that it was refreshing to see the military portrayed in a non-glorified way. They were getting so sick of being blindly patronized in the portrayal of all these elements of American society. It was quite amazing how the American public – or this one section of it anyway – seemed to have changed their way of thinking so much.”

Published August 21, 2003

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... on the set with Joaquin Phoenix



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