An elite FBI investigator crosses three continents in search of a renegade U.S. military operative who holds the secret to a shocking conspiracy in Traitor, a taut international thriller set in the treacherous world of covert counter-espionage operations.
Academy Award® nominee Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Crash), Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential), Golden Globe® nominee Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale), Neal McDonough (Minority Report), Archie Panjabi (A Mighty Heart), Aly Khan (A Mighty Heart) and Saïd Taghmaoui (The Kite Runner) star in a globe-hopping thriller that will keep audiences guessing until its stunning climax. The film is written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff (screenwriter of The Day After Tomorrow). David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Silver produce. Ashok Amritraj, Steve Martin, Arlene Gibbs and Kay Liberman serve as executive producers.
When FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) heads up the investigation into a dangerous international conspiracy, all clues seem to lead back to former U.S. Special Operations officer Samir Horn (Don Cheadle). A mysterious figure with a complex web of international connections, Horn has a knack for emerging on the scene just as a major operation goes down and disappearing before the authorities can question him.
The inter-agency task force looking into the case meets with Carter (Jeff Daniels), an amoral, veteran CIA contractor who seems to have his own agenda, and FBI agent Max Archer (Neal McDonough). The task force links Horn to illicit activities in Yemen, Nice and London, but a tangle of contradictory evidence emerges, forcing Clayton to question whether his quarry is a disaffected former military operative--or something far more complicated.
Obsessed with discovering the truth, Clayton tracks Horn across the globe as the elusive ex-soldier burrows deeper and deeper into a world constructed of secrets and lies.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Traitor began its journey to the big screen when Steve Martin presented an intriguing idea to producer David Hoberman while they were working together on the blockbuster comedy Bringing Down the House. Martin's "What if…" scenario immediately captured Hoberman's imagination with its provocative contemporary themes and surprising final twist.
The concept of a former U.S. operative who goes on the run was rich with creative possibilities, says Hoberman. "I thought it was a fantastic starting point for a film." Hoberman and his partner Todd Lieberman chose Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who wrote the script for the climate change action thriller The Day After Tomorrow, to develop Martin's concept into a script.
Nachmanoff was given a short treatment of the basic plot of Traitor. "I immediately thought 'Wow, this is a great twist ending,' but I had no idea how you could get there," says Nachmanoff. "I started thinking about the character and who he might be. I decided that it would raise the stakes to make the protagonist a Muslim American who finds himself in the middle of the conflict."
Shortly after Nachmanoff turned in his first draft, actor Don Cheadle read it and approached the filmmakers. The depth with which Nachmanoff presented his story, even at that early stage, drew Cheadle's production company to the project, says executive producer Arlene Gibbs, who serves as senior vice president of production at Crescendo Productions. "We liked the script because it had so many layers. Jeffrey took a very complicated issue and made it entertaining."
"For me, as a first-time director, to have a star and producing partner like Don Cheadle was just an incredible gift," says Nachmanoff. "He's one of the most talented actors we have, and he's also an incredibly smart man."
For Cheadle, Traitor's nuanced take on a popular genre was the drawing card. "It's a spy thriller and hopefully it succeeds on that level," he says. "And in addition to the action and intrigue, Traitor is about a man who is struggling to do the right thing while, at the same time, trying to figure out what 'the right thing' means. It's a provocative question--how far will you go for what you believe?
"Putting people in dangerous situations and having to sacrifice lives is something his superiors may require, but it's something that his faith prohibits him from doing and speaks directly against," the actor continues. "So he's in a conundrum--how many lives do you sacrifice for the greater good, and how can an individual make that decision?"
That question and Cheadle's response to it are central to the plot, says Nachmanoff. "The question of who Horn is--what his real motivations are, what he's trying to do and how he's trying to achieve his goals--is the intriguing part of the film."
"I feel like this is my ideal movie," the director adds. "It's a mix of action and politics and espionage, and it's about ideas that I find interesting. I'm a big fan of action movies and I love it when a movie can blend both elements. We get a chance to blow some things up, have some amazing fight sequences, some gunfire, and those kinds of exciting elements within a broader story that is a character-based drama."
Cheadle and Nachmanoff spent considerable time refining the script. "We worked through it together, a number of times," says Nachmanoff. "I think some actors take the title of producer but don't really do much. Don really thinks about the whole movie."
When the project was put in turnaround and the director who was originally proposed departed to pursue another project, Nachmanoff knew he wanted to direct the film himself. "I made my case to the producers. I told them, 'I have the passion for this, I have the energy, I know how to do this and I'll do it on a smaller budget.' Somehow I convinced the producers I was the right person for this. Don agreed to roll the dice with me. It had really become very much a partnership by then."
Crescendo approached Chris McGurk, the CEO of newly created Overture Films, with whom Cheadle had worked previously on Hotel Rwanda. McGurk and Overture president of production Danny Rosett responded positively to the script and Nachmanoff was approved as director. With a green light from Overture, the production began to move forward again.
Cheadle says he and Nachmanoff had many conversations about the script before filming started and the conversations continued throughout the shoot, but he was careful not to micromanage the director's process. "We had to make sure we were tracking the story properly moment to moment, beat to beat to beat," says Cheadle, who previously served as producer of the Academy Award-winning drama Crash. "It's really two stories going on: There's the story of Guy Pearce's character and his investigation, and then there's us, on the other side, whom they're trying to investigate. So trying to make sure both of those sides are balanced was tricky."
Producer Jeffery Silver had been brought in by David Hoberman to pull together the production's formidable logistics. He quickly discovered Traitor was a challenging project for a studio or a financier to get behind. "It's a difficult subject. It does not follow the conventional doctrine. What is a man of faith to do in a world where atrocious acts are being committed regularly? Much to Overture's credit, they recognized the inherent drama of this.
"I loved the subject matter," he adds. "To me it's a zeitgeist film. This film looks at difficult questions about the world, and it does it in a very entertaining package."
The filmmakers committed to making the most accurate film they could about the hidden world they were depicting. Nachmanoff spoke with professionals in the fields of espionage and intelligence gathering as well as academics and authors specializing in the film's wide-ranging subject matter. The deeper he dug into the world he was recreating in the film, the more he wanted to know. "I started finding that there were all sorts of fascinating and rich, real details that could be layered into the film," he says. "I felt like wherever I could find moments of reality, and things that really rang true, that would be to the benefit of the movie and to anyone who watches the movie."
Despite the film's potentially controversial subject matter, the filmmakers never lost sight of their original intent. Hoberman explains, "Our goal has always been to make an entertaining movie with the byproduct of having something to say about the world. We wanted to make it entertaining and realistic at the same time--a thinking man's thriller."
"You know, there's a line in the movie where someone says 'I just want the truth,'" Cheadle recalls. "And Horn says, 'The truth is complicated.' And I think ultimately what people take away from the film will be that."
ABOUT THE CASTING
The story of Samir Horn, the figure at the center of Traitor's international race against time, is counterbalanced by that of Roy Clayton, the FBI agent pursuing him. The filmmakers turned to Guy Pearce to play Clayton, whom they envisioned as an FBI agent unlike any previously seen in films. "We wanted to depict Clayton as a nontraditional FBI agent," says producer Jeffrey Silver. "Somebody who did not rely on the old culture of the FBI, but came to it fresh from academia."
Nachmanoff was aware of Pearce's abilities from his memorable performances in critically acclaimed films such as Memento and L.A. Confidential. "Guy is one of those actors who is hard to take your eyes off when he is very still. He has a way of holding the screen with a tremendous intensity. When you see him on screen, you can see the wheels turning in his head and a certain intelligence in his eyes. He makes scenes come to life without doing a lot of flashy action work."
Pearce observes that the conflict in the film is rooted in a lack of communication. "It's that old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees," he says. "You've got these giant organizations that are either answering to the government or trying to dictate to the government. And somewhere along the way, the simplest form of communication between one person and the next collapses. We have the CIA doing one thing and the FBI doing another, which is probably representative of how protective all those organizations felt they needed to become because of what happened on September 11th and its aftermath."
Pearce says he enjoyed working with Cheadle, although their scenes together were actually quite brief. "It was almost like two film shoots, with two different stories," he says. "Don and his team have an objective, and part of that objective is to not be caught by us. We turn up in another country in every scene, because we're always right on their tails."
Clayton's partner, Max Archer, is an old school law-enforcement type. For the part, the filmmakers selected an actor with a distinctly different energy from Pearce: veteran character actor Neal McDonough. "Neal gave a completely different reading from anyone else I saw," says Nachmanoff. "He had a certain humor about him that I thought was really needed for the movie. He brings a strong presence, but he also brings a lightness to the role."
"I'm the old FBI, Guy's the new," says McDonough. "There's a great scene in the film that defines the two trains of thought. Clayton and Archer are interrogating Samir and they differ about how to get information out of a guy. There's Guy's way, which is talking about it, and there's my way, which is punching it out of him."
But Archer isn't just a stereotypical "bad cop." He's also the character who articulates the questions that will be on the minds of many audience members. "He's the one who asks, 'Why don't we just throw all the Muslims in jail?'" says Silver. "He says, 'Look at the trouble they're causing in the world. Look at honor killing. Isn't that a terrible thing? Doesn't that besmirch the name of all Muslims?' Neal, being the fantastic all-American actor that he is, asks those questions in a sharp way, in a humorous way."
It falls to Pearce and Cheadle's characters to answers those questions, says the producer.
"Archer is your traditional FBI agent who comes at it from a law enforcement perspective," Silver says. "He is out there to fight crime, and he sees crime, and he's going after it. He does the job that we expect the FBI to do."
Jeff Daniels plays one of the film's most mysterious and morally ambiguous characters, Carter, a shadowy independent contractor for the CIA and the person closest to the truth about Samir Horn.
"I think one of the central themes of the movie is devotion to a belief system," says Nachmanoff. "Carter recognizes that sometimes you have to cross the line of right and wrong for a greater right. Jeff Daniels has a sort of world-weariness that's wonderful for the part of someone who lives in a gray area where some things can fall through the cracks and oversight can get a little bit difficult."
Daniels relished the opportunity to explore his character's apparent contradictions. "There's the book on how to do it, and then there's the book on how Carter does it," says the actor. "In his book, sometimes what the government doesn't know won't hurt it, especially if it's for the same common goal. Carter is one of these guys that you don't read about because they are doing things that aren't necessarily what people on either side of the aisle would deem proper. He's one of those guys that will do whatever it takes to get to his goal."
While both Silver and Nachmanoff acknowledge that plenty of talented non-Arab Hollywood actors have played Arab roles convincingly, Silver says, "We didn't want to go that way. We wanted to go out into the Arab community and find the actors. We got Aly Khan, we got Saïd Taghmaoui and we cast many individuals from Morocco. The truth that they bring to the role as Arabs, many of them as Muslims, imbues the film with a quality that you can't direct."
French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui, who recently appeared in both The Kite Runner and Vantage Point, was cast in the pivotal role of Omar. "Omar was one of the key roles I had to cast," says Nachmanoff. "He's a character who represents something I think most people in the American audience will find reprehensible. On the other hand, I wanted the character to be likable. So, it was a tricky balance trying to find an actor that could pull those two things off--the intensity and threat that Omar needs to hold, but also the humanity and the charisma that pulls the audience in so they can identify with him just a little."
Silver says that what makes the character both believable and sympathetic is his complexity. "We try to look at him with the same lens that we look at anybody fighting on behalf of any cause. Does he choose the right path? No. But there's something relatable about the cause."
Taghmaoui, who grew up Muslim just outside of Paris, believes his background gives him valuable insight into his character. "Omar is definitely not a brain," says the actor. "He's more like a weapon. He's totally devoted to the cause. He and Samir are like two soldiers on the battlefield, fighting for the same cause."
Although relatively new to Hollywood films, Taghmaoui has been a star in France since his 1996 César Award nomination for Most Promising Actor for his role in Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine. Working with Nachmanoff, he says, has been uniquely rewarding. "Jeffrey has that amazing quality of listening, of hearing what people say and trying to integrate that into the movie. He gave us a lot of space for creativity."
Aly Khan, who plays the mysterious money man Fareed, appeared in the film A Mighty Heart playing real-life figure Omar Sheik, one of the models that Nachmanoff used to create the character of Omar. "I was so struck by his performance, I immediately inquired about him," says Nachmanoff. "He's such a refined and powerful presence. He's a terrific Fareed: hard to dislike, because he has such charm and charisma. The character is one of the less sympathetic in the movie, but Aly makes it work."
If the producers thought that casting Arab actors in these parts would simplify the language issues, they were mistaken. "In each of the areas in the film, people speak a different dialect of Arabic," says Silver. "Since the film is shot in Morocco, most of our speakers are Moroccan Arabic speakers. We thought at first they could speak a more classical Arabic, the style of which is spoken in Yemen, but in a pragmatic sense, that's difficult for an actor. It's like asking somebody to speak in an accent. In the end, each of them spoke in their native dialect."
Because the film features scenes in which all the dialogue is in Arabic, Nachmanoff found himself directing actors performing in a language he does not speak. "My first AD is an Arabic speaker, but I would still have to be there as both writer and director, really just trying to feel it and sense if a scene was playing the way I wanted it to. It's an interesting experience; you're removed one step."
Don Cheadle was the only actor who had to learn Arabic for the film. "It was definitely challenging but it was necessary for this character, who was steeped in his faith and steeped in this world," he says. "I worked with dialect coaches and language professors who helped define the proper way to talk. It's a very rich language and there are many different dialects. Our default was trying to go to classic Arabic, the Arabic that the Koran is written in. Trying to find the exact word was difficult sometimes. If you asked five different people, you got five different answers."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
JEFFREY NACHMANOFF (Writer and Director) penned the script for 2004's blockbuster hit The Day After Tomorrow with Roland Emmerich. He is the writer of Prince of Persia, Jerry Bruckheimer's cinematic adaptation of the popular video game that is scheduled for a June 2009 release.
Nachmanoff was born in Arlington, Virginia and holds a B.A. from Harvard University. He graduated from USC film school in 1994. After spending some time editing documentary films, he wrote a script that was optioned. Since then, he has worked steadily as a screenwriter, writing everything from science fiction to action comedy for various studios and producers. Nachmanoff currently resides in Hollywood, California.
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