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Against the Grain: BRUCE ROBINSON

An excerpt from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue

Writer/director Bruce Robinson at his desk in his home office, February 2006

Photography by DAVID BLACK


Monday, July 17, 2006

In February, the 59-year-old writer of The Killing Fields (1984), Withnail & I (1987) and the novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman sat down at his home in rural England for an in-depth interview, offering his take on the world, as well as insights on his future projects: an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's novel The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp, and a two-part nonfiction book about Jack the Ripper.

Below is an excerpt of that conversation, available in full in Issue 26: The U.K. Issue, which is available for purchase here


The Stop Smiling Interview with Bruce Robinson

By JC Gabel

Stop Smiling: Do you think there was ever a time when movie studios welcomed the creativity and passion of writers and took their ideas more seriously?

Bruce Robinson: You could answer that question with a yes and also a no and be just as accurate with either. Writers came late into the film industry as a kind of technological accident. When movies started, sound hadn’t been invented, so they didn’t need writers. They just needed producers, directors, cameramen and actors. So the industry was very well established by the time the technology evolved to add some words. Writers started coming in about 30 years later and were always the unwanted guests at the wedding. We were put up with. A writer does his job and delivers it. At least a year is going to go by and by then they’ve forgotten who the writer is and anyway by now he’s probably writing something else. So writers aren’t part of the filmmaking process. It’s hard to get used to, but if you want to be a screenwriter, you have to.

SS: Do you or your family ever go to see films in the theater?

BR: We live in a remote part of England and rarely go to the movies. The last picture I went to see was a memorable walkout — what was that film — about Martians destroying the world? There were spaceships hanging over Washington, over the entire world?

SS: Independence Day.

BR: Independence Day. There was this huge thing, a mile up, hanging over Washington. And the line was, “There’s going to be some very frightened people out there, Mr. President.” Fucking A there will be. Can you imagine a thing the size of Catalina Island hanging over the city and the only line they can come up with is, “There’ll be some very frightened people out there”? Who wrote that shit? No screenwriter on earth could write a line like that.

SS: In a way though, don’t you think that Independence Day, fluffy as it was, epitomized the pre-9/11 paranoia?

BR: The great abiding tradition in American entertainment is enemies. They gotta have them. They gotta have the fear. It’s a seamless slip from Commies to Arabs — hardly anybody noticed it happen. When you look through the binoculars of American entertainment, it’s stuffed with fear. Hollywood is basically about Yanks running away from special effects. From the infantile end of Scooby Doo, right up to the mainstream, it’s the same ethic of fear. There are monsters and madmen and Arabs out to get you and like I say, the only place with no fear are the ads. It’s a phenomena of America — unfortunately taking root here. Michael Moore made the point in his film. Cut to the weatherman who says, “The Midwest is cool and in Los Angeles it’s 68 degrees. It’s snowing in Vermont and today a lady in Tennessee was bitten by a rare and dangerous snake — so look out for those snakes, folks.” Fear, fear and you’re watching the fucking weather forecast. Oil that gun, there’s snakes out there and it’s 65 in Dallas. The real fear I have is that our whole political system is evolving into an optical illusion whose currency is fear. It’s a cliché, but it truly is becoming Orwellian. In my view Mr. Bush has nothing to sell anybody but fear. If kids are afraid they run to their parents. If people are afraid they run to the authorities, empowering them, who then sell them more fear. September 11 and the events around it were a true catastrophe, but unlike Independence Day, that terrible attack didn’t come out of the blue. As a matter of fact it came out of Saudi Arabia, it came out of sanctions that killed half a million Arab kids in Iraq, and it came out of a dozen years of bombing the south of that same country. But that isn’t like anyone wants to hear it. Better to keep it like Independence Day and sell them the fear. And the more fear you can inculcate, the more control you’ve got. McCarthy understood that and I can’t believe we’re falling for it again. This is the New McCarthyism. I went into East Berlin in the ’70s, Checkpoint Charlie, and there were all these stern-looking idiots with mirrors on poles under the car. Thirty odd years later I went into Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue and got the same thing. Is that how we want to live? It’s a pantomime the whole of America is being sucked into, a show in one act called Homeland Security. And it will never have an end. The only real security anyone can ever have is being told the absolute truth.

SS: Does it feel like the Fifties to you?

BR: Different enemy, same fear. Satan then resided in the USSR. The invasion of Iraq was the grandest act of brainless duplicity that I’m aware of in my lifetime. Anyone who had read a 99-cent paperback on the history of Iraq would know it was going to be a disaster. Plus a million people marched on London’s streets against this war, and any one of them — a kid with a placard — was better informed than Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. How could they have pulled the cork on that joint? Somehow they persuaded themselves that there were going to be flowers thrown at the tanks, give them all a can of Budweiser and a cheeseburger, and steal the oil. Oil is what we’re there for, and let no one mistake our motive.

SS: As Wolfowitz said, “The oil will pay for the reconstruction.”

BR: It’s a good thing there’s a lot of it because there’s a lot to reconstruct. If this adventure is successful, which I sincerely doubt, Iraq will have mortgaged its future to certain well-known multinational corporations and these guys will have to install a Saddam Hussein II to keep the lid on. The rest is clap trap. And Christians with cluster bombs. The worst thing about Iraq, the very worst, is that it had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. It’s a hard truth to grasp, but it is the truth. Shitbag that Saddam Hussein is, he did not fly planes into the World Trade Center and most certainly did not tolerate terrorists in Iraq. Iraq is now awash with terrorism and the most alarming sectarian violence that may well result in civil war. We are in great part responsible for that. It didn’t come out of the blue like a spaceship, it came as a result of our leaders’ misguided decisions. We can’t change those decisions, but must truthfully face the result of them. Until that happens, I don’t believe we’ve got a hope in hell of sorting out this mess. We went in there on a lie and it seems to me the only way out is on truth. We have to face the truth of where we’re at and who has done the lying. It was obvious to me that Saddam’s supposed possession of nuclear weapons was a brainless nonsense from day one. If our respective governments had really believed he had them, no way would they have amassed 250,000 troops on the Iraq border. If he’d had the weapons, even one weapon, he could have won the war there and then. One nuclear device would have wiped out our armies. But he didn’t do it because he couldn’t do it and they knew it. This WMD fiasco was a lie from day one, what is quaintly called spin. And even the word spin is itself spin because what spin means is propaganda, i.e. lying. I had the misfortune to watch a “news show” on Fox TV and was shocked that a great nation with the corporate intelligence of America could tolerate this. It was propaganda for infants, balls fit for a plot of Scooby Doo.


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