Award Winner Filmmaker Ian Olds Interview on New Movie BURN COUNTRY [Transcript]
Filmmaker and Princess Grace Award winner, Ian Olds, talks with the Princess Grace Foundation-USA (PGF-USA) about his latest film BURN COUNTRY. The film, based on Ian’s 2009 HBO documentary, “The Fixer,” premieres domestically on November 9, 2016, centering around a young Afghan journalist who worked as a fixer in his home country settles in a small Northern California hamlet, but he gets sucked into the local backwoods subculture of violence when he decides to investigate a murder. Ian’s crime drama co-stars James Franco, Dominic Rains, Rachel Brosnahan, and Academy Award winner Melissa Leo.
PGF-USA: This story vastly differs from your documentary, “The Fixer.” What inspired the change?
IAN OLDS: I was in Afghanistan making a film about the mechanics of war journalism, and that was the HBO film called “The Fixer,” about Ajmal Naqshbandi – a young Afghan journalist, translator and coordinator – and one of his clients, an American journalist. During that process – when we were back in the US – one of our translators, our fixer, was kidnapped and eventually murdered by the Taliban – which was a tremendously heartbreaking experience, as you can imagine, for his family and everybody. But one of our fixers wound up making it to asylum in the West. What was interesting was he spent his entire life thinking about getting out of Afghanistan and getting to safety and once he got to the West – he didn’t quite know what to do with himself and was facing a quieter existential crisis. I became really interested in that experience and felt like we weren’t seeing those stories. We are so used to seeing Afghan through the lens of war trauma and not seeing these more subtle stories. That became the loose inspiration for it. And the second part of it that was key was that Paul Felton, my writing partner, and I realized we had the chance to invert this very familiar trope. We all know the story of the Western journalist who goes to a faraway land and then reports on it – so we decided we wanted to make a story about an Afghan journalist in America. That became the organizing principal and inspiration for the film.
PGF-USA: Did you purposely pass up the chance to tell a more mainstream film for a more nuanced story?
IAN OLDS: That’s a good question. Each project is its own experiment. Every film is its own experiment in a way. This one – there was something very personal about this for me. I knew I had to make it. I wasn’t so worried about how big it would get. I believe we just needed to make a great film and it was fine. And for me, it was about really wanting to grapple with this character and for personal reasons of coming back from war zones and having always wanted to write about this area of where I grew up in Northern California. So the film is this heightened portrait of this strange landscape. It was really personal and a film I had to make. Paul and I joke that next time we will write an actual mystery rather than an existential one. But in this case it was about needing to make the film we needed to make and let it find its audience.
PGF-USA: On the main character, Osman—is he based on anyone specific?
IAN OLDS: He was loosely inspired by people I met in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I worked a lot with local translators but this is a purely fictional character—a composite of people I’ve met. Part of the process of writing fiction, of course, is over time the character takes on a life of its own. The character started to surprise us and take us in new directions. You start with this premise and idea but not let it constrain the film. We let the character lead us on this journey.
PGF-USA: Have you spoken with fixers in the US about their stories?
IAN OLDS: I have actually. I have talked to several fixers who came to the US and Europe and it was very different experiences but the specifics of this – in terms of working at a police blotter is completely fictional. Its process of trying to find purpose outside of war is very common. I heard from several Afghan friends is this refrain of hating being pitied in a way—about most of these stories in a way—about Afghan characters not embracing a sense of humor or sexuality or a full human being. That was part of it. We wanted to make a film about this complex human being who embraced his entire humanity opposed to just being looked at as a victim of history. We didn’t want it to be simplistic—we wanted to treat it him with the dignity he deserved.
PGF-USA: How did James Franco and Melissa Leo become attached to this project?
IAN OLDS: I worked with James Franco over a number of years as an editor and sometimes a writer for some of his projects so we knew each other personally and through working together. So I just asked him if he was interested in the role. He was and wanted to do it and he was very generous with his time. Both James and Melissa Leo worked for the same rate as every other actor did – so it allowed us to do this with a reasonable budget. With Melissa Leo, I worked with her when I was a graduate student at Columbia University- so we really got along and we wrote the role with her in mind. I sent her the script and she made herself available. Working with acclaimed actor- known actors – and local actors was a great combination.
PGF-USA: There is a timeliness of the film and main character–a Muslim man coming to the US and trying to find his way. Is there a take away for you?
IAN OLDS: I did realize the timeliness of this film is more relevant because of the dehumanizing language we heard on the campaign trail this year and the increase of hate crimes. I think we need more stories about Muslim characters that fit in. Here is a film where the lead character is a Muslim man but that isn’t the central point of it. The central point of it is his humanity and his attempt to become the fullest version of himself—the same struggle we all share. He obviously has a specific and more difficult background but the idea of a shared humanity is important to all of us.
PGF-USA: What do you want people to talk about when they leave the theater?
IAN OLDS: I think of film as a very specific medium. Unlike a message – if there was something about sending a message – I would just write an essay. For me, it’s about taking someone on a deeply human journey. And that’s the fundamental goal of this particular piece of art. For me, on a philosophical level, one of the things I was thinking was – about this character who is confronting this existential crisis – of finding a way to belong –finding purpose outside of war. And, ultimately, discover he isn’t needed. And have to confront what do you do then? And what I would posit is that even if you can think your way out of life – you have to go forward anyway. Here’s this crisis. This moment of complete emptiness- this character who has been running and running – trying to get to the bottom of something – and solve this and he can’t fix it and he has to go on any way. That’s why at the end when Osman, Dominic’s character, and Melissa Leo’s character are dancing it’s so crucial. It’s those moments of human connection that provide a kind of transcendence – that can give us some hope and purpose. The reason why there isn’t an easy answer is because I have very clear intentions of what I want the film to build to, but I also want to leave people grappling with this—something in themselves and this character’s journey.
PGF-USA: On how being a Princess Grace Award winner has meant to you:
IAN OLDS: Being a Princess Grace Award winner has been a huge help to me. I got that grant early in my career when I was just starting to get recognition for my documentary work and I can’t say enough about how important it was to receive this grant. Those moments of being recognized as an artist feeds us to make more work. It’s such a difficult journey for all artists – at least the ones I know. Your own struggle to create work – to make a living – an attempt to reach people –when I got my grant from you - it was a huge boon that really couldn’t have come at a better time. The work you do is essential for emerging artists. We need this. The on-going support the Foundation gives us - feeds us and makes us know that our work is valuable and important. We know we are part of this special community and it’s really incredible.
December 9, 2016