After working as a script doctor for several years, Jeffrey Nachmanoff got his first major credit as the screenwriter of the box office hit The Day After Tomorrow, which he co-wrote with director Roland Emmerich. Now he’s getting a chance to show he can do it all himself with the release of Traitor, which hits theaters on August 27th. The film, which stemmed from an idea from Steve Martin (yes, Three Amigos Steve Martin), was written and directed by Nachmanoff and stars Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce. Shortly before the film’s release, Nachmanoff talked with MM about the luxury of starting a screenplay with the end already in place and the challenges (and perks) of directing actors who only speak Arabic.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): The story for Traitor seems to come from a fairly unlikely place—Steve Martin on the set of Bringing Down the House. How long had the idea been in development when it came to you?
Jeffrey Nachmanoff (JN): I don’t remember how Steve had originally pitched it but when I got it, it was basically a five-page treatment; so it was as developed as five pages can be. There are some twists and turns in the plot and one of the best ones is Steve’s idea.
MM: The twist at the end?
JN: Yeah. That’s why we sometimes say that I kind of reverse-engineered the movie. (laughs) It was like, ‘Wow, that’s a great ending. Now we just need 100 pages to get there.’
MM: So what was that process like? Is that something you’re used to—that approach to screenwriting?
JN: You know, screenwriting is screenwriting; there’s no right or wrong way. I feel more comfortable when I have a strong outline. My personal process is to begin with cards and treatments, and essentially try and really get the shape of it down before I start writing pages. I just find that more comforting.
Part of it is just getting yourself to a place where you have something to fix. For me, I begin by thinking big picture anyway, so having the ending is actually really helpful. In the future I might try to do that again. (laughs)
It’s so hard to end screenplays. I fixed scripts and made my living doing it before I had the chance to direct this movie. People rarely come to you and say, “We’re having a big problem with our first act. Can you help us?” That’s not the phone call you get.
MM: You must have done a ton of research to write the screenplay, so how did that inform your directing?
JN: It was really helpful, particularly when I first sat down with the actors. Because as a first-time director, to win the confidence of world-class actors like Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce and the other people who I have in the movie, you really have to have some idea what you’re talking about. That can’t come from being a famous director because you’re not a famous director.
The only thing you do have is the ability to know your script really well—to know the world really well and know your game plan really well. There’s no better way to know your script really well than writing it yourself. Knowing the world really well came from doing all that research, which as you said was a huge help. And knowing the game plan is just the question of preparation.
MM: How has this experience of directing affected your approach to writing new projects now? Do you write with a director’s mentality at all?
JN: I suppose what I learned is that in writing, you really have to think a little about what you’re trying to get the actors to do. There is a little bit of a push and pull, back and forth, between what the plot requires and what you have to create for the actors.
At the end of the day when you’re on set, what’s right for the actors—what’s right for the character—will win out. Sometimes you write lines for the sake of the plot—’Oh, we need to have someone say this here.’ Everybody falls into that trap. The more you can avoid those, the better off you’ll be on set. I call them ‘groaners’—you know the lines no one wants to hear? Well guess what? The actors don’t want to say them. I think you get more of an ear for that if you’ve actually had to work on set and listen to the actors try and say lines.
MM: I’m sure another challenge for you as a director was having to direct scenes where the actors are speaking Arabic, a language you don’t speak.
JN: I was surprised at how honesty creeps through regardless of language. You can just tell when someone is believable in what they’re saying and what they’re doing, regardless of whether you understand the language.
That happened in the audition process. I brought people in and they auditioned for me in Arabic. There were some people I was just riveted watching and others, I could tell they were mouthing lines. Even though I didn’t understand the words, I knew what they were saying.
MM: Now that you’re saying that, it seems like it might be a more organic way to judge acting.
JN: Yeah. Look, we all watch foreign films and sometimes some of our favorite actors, we’ve never heard them say a word of English.
We all look back at Cassavetes and admire the work he did and other people that have worked in that genre of really naturalistic performances. Sometimes not having words is actually more helpful. Words can get you caught up and confused. Performances really aren’t about the words at all. If you don’t speak the language, it makes it very pure. You’re either believing what that person is emoting or you’re not.
MM: With this film and your other major credit, The Day After Tomorrow, it seems like you’re packaging important issues as entertainment. You get people into the theater to see this espionage thriller or disaster movie and then force them to contemplate these important issues. Is that a conscious decision or just coincidence?
JN: Both. I just think it happened that these are the two scripts that got made, but you can’t accidentally write something. I like to say that you can luck into directing well sometimes, but you can’t luck into writing well. And the same is probably true for intention.
For me, I have a naturally commercial sensibility. I like entertaining films and I’m not interested in dry, informational movies. I’d like to continue doing things that are both meaningful and interesting to me, but that are entertaining films that people will want to go see and have a good time at the movies.
There are a couple filmmakers I admire who do this, who are making entertaining films that obviously have something on their minds. I put Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in that category; the films of Paul Greengrass tend to be like that. I think it’s a great use of the medium, but it is a little harder to get them made, I think.