Talking with Traitorous filmmaker Jeffrey Nachmanoff
“I spent six months researching before I even put pencil to paper,” assures writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff regarding his controversial war-on-terror thriller, Traitor.
Nachmanoff, who burst onto the Hollywood scene with the big-ticket sale of his environmental disaster script for The Day After Tomorrow, consulted with experts in the fields of espionage and intelligence to make his script more authentic. The filmmaker even managed to float an early draft of Traitor past a follower of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric who masterminded the first World Trade Center Bombing. Though connected only indirectly to that terrorist plot, the man vouched for the veracity of Nachmanoff’s vision. “I showed him the scene where Omar [played by Saïd Taghmaoui] tries to recruit the teenage Muslims. He said, ‘It’s just like that.’ ”
Given America’s divisive political climate and the war-torn state of the world, now might be viewed as a difficult time to release a film dealing with the day-to-day intricacies of Islamic terrorism. Nachmanoff sees his film more like a thriller with a well-researched, true-life backdrop than a film driven by politics and religion. Still, the film does push buttons, as early test-screenings proved. “About 10 percent of the audience thinks it’s too sympathetic to Muslim terrorists,” confirms Nachmanoff. On the other hand, “another smaller percentage—maybe 5 percent—thinks the exact opposite.” Neither a terrorist sympathizer nor a flag-waving American jingoist, Nachmanoff worked hard to keep his post-9/11 drama balanced.
Asked about the recent spate of war- and terrorism-based films that have failed to ignite the box office, Nachmanoff concedes, “During the Vietnam War it was hard to make films about the war.” A decade later, however, America was more willing to address the issue in films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. Nachmanoff feels the tide is changing and that his film is more in line with spy thrillers like The Bourne Ultimatum than with “dour” and “polemic-driven” films like In The Valley of Elah.
Nachmanoff’s “thinking man’s thriller” quickly attracted the attentions of Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle, who came on board early as both its star and executive producer. Following close on his heels were veteran actors Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels and Taghmaoui (star of dozens of films in his native France). So, how does a relatively unknown screenwriter-turned-director attract such talent? “It’s twofold. No. 1, when you already have an actual celebrity attached, it gives the project a certain status and people want to be involved in it. The other is, I was fortunate enough to have people respond to the script in a way that gave me the opportunity to get this terrific cast. It’s the one tool you have when you’re trying to draw an actor--other than large sums of money, which was not the case here.”
With the film completed and left to the whims of the box office, Nachmanoff can only wait and see how his ripped-from-the-headlines project will fare. “I think it’s the kind of film people will talk about, and I hope it’s the kind of film that will grow,” he says philosophically. “We’re eager to have people see it and to tell other people about it. We think that’s the best way to get the word out there, because it doesn’t fit into a neat little category.”