"The Informant!" is a dark comedy about corporate espionage, multinational price fixing, wiretapping, embezzlement, FBI investigations and a high-level company whistleblower. What's so funny about that? In the hands of director Steven Soderbergh, pretty much everything. "There should be a TV show about a guy who calls home
The film follows the somewhat strange and unpredictable journey of Mark Whitacre from corporate golden boy to FBI informant in the years from 1992 to 1996. "The more I learned about the story, the more I responded to the material," Soderbergh says. "But I knew there have been serious films done on similar subject matters by great filmmakers. I thought one way to do something distinctive was to play the irony of the situation. Everything fell into place once that decision was made."
Matt Damon, who stars in the role of Mark Whitacre, observes, "It's like peeling an onion. You start with a certain set of assumptions and then realize you can't assume anything as the situation becomes utterly ridiculous. It's a great story and a really incredible character."
The plot of "The Informant!" was first told in-depth in a book by Kurt Eichenwald, who also served as a producer on the movie. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns was introduced to the story when he heard an interview with Eichenwald on the radio. He tells, "I was on my way to a brunch and I ended up driving around the restaurant for the entire hour. I went directly from there to buy the book and spent the rest of the day reading it."
The screenwriter recalls that when he and Soderbergh first began talking about how to adapt the book, "Steven said he wanted to make it a comedy. At first I wasn't sure what to make of that, but as we started working on the script, I realized that most of the things that happened were pretty outrageous."
Burns ultimately hit on the concept that became the key to finding the film's overriding humor. Soderbergh reveals, "It was Scott who came up with the idea of the voiceover. Once that happened, it was clear which direction the movie was going."
Producer Gregory Jacobs affirms, "One of the amazing things Scott brought to the table was the idea of weaving in Mark Whitacre's inner monologue. Little by little it reveals what's going on beneath the surface with Mark, and what's fun is how it doles out that information. It's a unique perspective and I think it's what makes this script so intriguing."
Producer Jennifer Fox adds, "It was a great way to show the absurdity of the situation, the idea of an unreliable narrator--the most unreliable narrator because he's someone who has a hard time distinguishing the truth."
In fact, as Damon remarks, Whitacre's narration is not only unreliable, it is also not necessarily related to the scene unfolding on the screen. "It's more of a stream of consciousness, a kind of digressive thinking," he says. "He might be in the middle of a conversation with someone when something triggers this inner monologue that can spin off in any direction: ties, polar bears, frequent flier miles…whatever."
Burns relates that in writing Whitacre's voiceover, "a lot of it was just allowing my mind to wander. As a writer, it was fun for me to think of the sort of tangents someone in his position could go off on at any particular moment in the story. What came out of that generated a kind of comedy that Steven and Matt really responded to."
one day and he's there. He answers…only it's someone else.
He's somehow divided into two…"
From the start, Matt Damon was Steven Soderbergh's first and only choice for the central role of Mark Whitacre. "Matt has been involved from the beginning, even before there was a script," Jacobs confirms. "Steven always felt that he was perfect for this role and, really, Matt can do anything--action, comedy, drama…""Seven thirty a.m…I am approaching the
"Matt is incredibly charismatic, which was important for the role," Fox says. "Despite learning what his character has been doing and cringing at some of his decisions, you have to kind of love him."
A biochemist as well as an astute businessman, Mark Whitacre is on the fast track at agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a company with a vested interest in virtually every aisle of the supermarket. His job puts him in a position to know, and play a part in, the inner workings of ADM…most above board but some, well, under the table. Perhaps it's a crisis of conscience, perhaps something more, but Mark suddenly turns whistleblower, exposing to the FBI a multi-national price-fixing scheme regarding the price of a new food additive called lysine. As we hear him say, "It's all very scientific, but if you're a stockholder, all that matters is that corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other."
Damon describes, "He's a successful guy--a brilliant young executive on the rise at this huge company, which raises the question about why he does what he does. It could well be for altruistic purposes--maybe he really is conflicted about the illegal price fixing--but slowly you start to realize that something is a little 'off.' That's one of the things that made him such a fascinating character to play."
"Matt has an inherent believability, a 'nice young man' quality that I think is very difficult to fake," says Soderbergh. "That was crucial to the story because you have to continually believe what Mark is saying, particularly when he says, 'That's it; I've told you everything.' Every time he says that, you need to believe him. Matt embodies a wonderful kind of boyish charm and optimism that allows him to pull that off."
The director continues, "I also know he is fearless and would embrace every aspect of the character, no matter how we made him look. Whether it was his weight or his hair, I knew Matt would disappear into this character without hesitation."
Damon, who did gain about 30 pounds to play Whitacre, notes, "His face is also rounder than mine so I had little things stuck in my gums to push my cheeks out. And I wore a fake mustache. Whitacre was also bald and wore a hairpiece, but the hairpiece was so good that no one knew he didn't have hair. It's actually a great metaphor for the character. It was right there in front of everybody and nobody ever figured it out."
entrance to the office. Entrance breached."
Whitacre's firsthand account of ADM's involvement in price fixing certainly gets the attention of the government, but it's not enough to build a case against the company. In order to get the evidence they need, the FBI asks him to wear a wire. If only in his mind, Mark immediately gains secret agent status, with the state-of-the-art gadgets to prove it--Agent 0014 because he's "twice as smart as 007." For a man who had built his career on feeding sugar to microbes to create lysine, it was an exciting time."He seems like a really good guy. I hope he doesn't mind me
Damon offers, "It is absolutely exhilarating for him to have to steer conversations and try to get people to say certain words and get them on tape. And he's very good at it. He has to be really clever and Mark loves being the smartest guy in the room."
"Mark could not be more excited to wear a wire," Jacobs agrees. "I think it shows another aspect of his personality--thinking of himself as some kind of action hero. It's thrilling for him to feel like an FBI agent, one of the guys. And for the FBI agents, it's great that he's willing and eager to get them the information they need."
Mark's involvement with the FBI wasn't something he initially sought out. Jacobs explains, "Mark originally tells his boss that ADM is being blackmailed by a Japanese competitor who is sabotaging ADM's lysine production with some kind of virus. For ten million dollars, they will provide the cure. We never specify whether or not it's true, but Mark assumes ADM will simply pay the money. Instead, when the FBI gets called in, it completely throws Mark for a loop."
Because Mark claims that the blackmail call came to his house, the FBI sends an agent out to put a tap on his home phone. But as the FBI agent is leaving, Mark's wife, Ginger, gives a clear indication that there is a lot more going on, giving her husband an ultimatum: "Are you going to say something or am I?"
Ginger is played by Melanie Lynskey, who notes, "I'm not sure how much Ginger actually knows; I think she got only pieces of information from Mark. Ginger loves her husband; she believes in him even in the times when he is a lot more sure than she is that everything will be okay. I think she is an amazing wife and a remarkable woman."
Soderbergh comments, "Ginger may not know everything Mark is involved in, but her attitude is, 'My husband is my husband and that's all there is to discuss.' Melanie has a quality that makes you understand that Ginger is someone who is totally dedicated to her husband and her children. She has stuck in my mind since the first time I saw her in 'Heavenly Creatures,' and 16 years later I am even more impressed by her. She is so watchable, so emotionally real."
Lynskey has equal praise for her director, saying, "I have always loved Steven's movies, so I felt so lucky to be a part of this film. He was so much fun to work with, and Matt was amazing. He's just the kindest person and a very generous actor."
calling him Brian instead of Agent Shepard. Might even try 'Bri' out."
When the FBI has to send an agent to Mark's house, there is no question who will get the case: Agent Brian Shepard, who happens to be the only FBI agent in Decatur, Illinois. Manning his small office, Shepard never imagines that a relatively routine assignment will lead to the biggest case of his career."When it's over, the board of directors at ADM is gonna
Brian Shepard is played by Scott Bakula, who acknowledges, "Brian is the only agent in town so when the investigation started, he was the guy. All of a sudden this giant case falls in his lap; it is the opportunity of a lifetime, but he has no way of knowing where it will ultimately lead. It's complicated to begin with, never mind trying to decipher what is true and not becoming distracted by Mark's behavior, which isn't necessarily lining up with what Shepard expected. When you add those elements, the whole thing becomes completely bizarre."
"Scott was perfect for role of Brian Shepard," Soderbergh states. "His ability to portray someone who is completely sincere and earnest convinced me we had to have him. It was wonderful to watch him transform himself into this very straightforward, honest FBI agent for whom the world is black and white. He really understood what I was looking for and what the part needed. As the film goes on, the way he plays Shepard's frustration with Whitacre is funny, but it's also real. He represents all the people in the FBI and Justice Department who didn't know what to make of Whitacre after a while."
When the government learns the scope of Whitacre's claims about ADM's price fixing, they immediately assign another agent from the state capital office to work with Shepard. Joel McHale, who plays Agent Bob Herndon, says, "It's too big a case for the one guy to handle alone, so my character is brought in to help out. He's stays a little more reserved than Shepard, who becomes really entrenched in the case and with Whitacre. Bob is also younger than Shepard and I'm way younger than Scott Bakula," he teases. "I feel like I grew up watching him on 'Quantum Leap' and 'Enterprise,' so it was great to work with him."
Taking it in stride, Bakula says, "Joel is a character. He's very funny and we had a lot of laughs. We're complete opposites in our approach, as are our characters. I think it creates an interesting dynamic on screen."
"Joel had the perfect energy to counterbalance Scott because they need to be almost a comedy duo," concurs Soderbergh. "Scott was the perfect straight man, while Joel's energy was much edgier. They had great contrast."
understand. They're gonna see the position I was in
and that I acted in everyone's best interests."
The casting of Joel McHale was part of a larger concept that Soderbergh had for "The Informant!" cast. The director explains, "When we began casting, I started thinking about stand-up comedians and how their energy is so unique. I asked our casting director, Carmen Cuba, to start trolling comedy clubs. I wanted people who were not necessarily widely known to the public, and I couldn't be happier with the choices we made.""Didn't these people see The Firm or
Gregory Jacobs adds, "Steven's take on it was it's such a crazy story and the events are so bizarre to begin with, so he thought if we cast comics--get them to play it straight but put their own mark on it--it would be a great way to go. It was such a brilliant idea and another example of what makes Steven such an interesting filmmaker. And we were really lucky to get the cream of the crop; they came in and just knocked it out of the park."
Joining the cast of "The Informant!" are comedians Tom Papa, Tom Wilson, Rick Overton, Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins and, in something of a casting coup, the Smothers Brothers.
Papa was cast as Mick Andreas, Vice Chairman of ADM, not to mention the son of ADM Chairman, Dwayne Andreas, and heir-apparent to the "throne." Papa offers, "You can take any character and put him into a situation that's absurd and, even if it's troubling and intense, a lot of funny stuff will come out of it."
Wilson plays ADM Head of Security Mark Cheviron, who has no idea of the major security breach right under his nose. "What's interesting is that Steven never told me, or anyone else, to play it for laughs," Wilson notes. "He let us do our thing. And all of the comedians, including myself, came at our roles straight on. To paraphrase Neil Simon, 'You play comedy exactly the way you play drama, except you play the comedy a little more seriously."
"Sometimes the truth is absurd and this is a classic example," says Overton, who plays Terry Wilson, President of everything corn-related at ADM. "The glory of this story is that it is based on true events; the joke is in the circumstances."
Comedians Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins appear as FBI Agents Herbst and D'Angelo. Tony Hale plays Jim Epstein, Whitacre's attorney who tries to help him cut a deal with the government.
Comedy legends Tom and Dick Smothers appear in "The Informant!" in cameo roles. "It was amazing to have them on the set," says Jacobs. "I know their fellow comedians were in awe…I think we all were. But what's great about the Smothers Brothers is that they are so down to earth. During lunch, they did routines for the cast and crew and, of course, Tommy did a whole routine with his yo-yo. It was fantastic."
Tom Smothers plays the all-powerful Chairman of ADM, Dwayne Andreas. Dick Smothers is seen as Judge Harold Baker, who presides over a pivotal trial in the film. "This is the first time my brother and I have been in the same movie but not in the same scenes," Tom Smothers relates. "This is our 50th anniversary--50 years in show business--and it's great to be in a Steven Soderbergh movie. This is a terrific opportunity for me because our career is just about over," he deadpans. "I think it's brave of Steven to put a bunch of comics in the movie because we're notorious for going off script."
"The Informant!" cast also includes Ann Cusack as Robin Mann, from the U.S. Department of Justice; Clancy Brown as ADM attorney Aubrey Daniel; and Soderbergh veteran Eddie Jemison as Whitacre's friend and co-worker Kirk Schmidt.
read the book? It's all there."
After more than two years of secretly recorded meetings and conversations, the Justice Department has all the evidence they need to move in on ADM. Naturally, when all of ADM's ranking executives are taken down, there will be a void at the top. And, logic notwithstanding, because he would be the only one left, Mark Whitacre assumes he will be chosen to fill that void."I've always thought when this was over there'd still be
Matt Damon observes, "From the outside, it seems delusional to think that after bringing this company down, they are going to make you the president. But to his way of thinking, the ADM brass are the bad guys; they are doing something illegal. So why wouldn't they reward the guy who is cleaning house and restoring the reputation of this great company? What a great signal to shareholders to have this guy running the place. Whether or not that's a sound argument is another question."
It's a question even Ginger has to ask. Melanie Lynskey affirms, "There are times she has to admit that what Mark is telling her doesn't make any sense. But he is so sure everything is going to be fine that she just puts her faith in him. She has to trust that he is telling her the truth…until it all comes crashing down around her."
Scott Bakula adds, "Nobody really knows what's going on inside Whitacre's head except Whitacre. For the FBI, the 'fish' on the line is so big that they have their sights on that and just keep hanging on…even when the line begins to unravel."
With their eyes on the prize, the FBI doesn't see that Mark Whitacre has been hiding a lot more than a wire. What they learn about their star witness ultimately calls into question everything Whitacre has ever told them. And when the other shoe drops, it's going to come down right on the government's entire case.
a place for me at ADM. I've still got a lot of friends there."
One of the most integral creative elements of "The Informant!" is the score, written by Oscar®-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch and marking his first film score in more than a decade. Soderbergh recalls, "I was watching Woody Allen's 'Bananas' and was reminded of how much I loved Marvin Hamlisch's spectacular score. Greg Jacobs, who was watching the movie with me, must have been reading my mind because he said, 'We should get Marvin for 'The Informant!' My response was one word, which is repeatedly uttered by Mark Whitacre in the film: 'Absolutely!'"
Already a fan of Soderbergh's work, Hamlisch says, "I obviously knew that he was a brilliant, innovative director. But I came to learn that he also has great instincts when it comes to the use of music in film. It made the job a joy."
Jennifer Fox says that Hamlisch's music puts the finishing touch on "The Informant!" "Marvin's score immediately sets the comedic tone of the film and puts the audience in the right frame of mind for this incredible story. I honestly can't imagine the movie without that music now."
Matt Damon concludes, "It sets an interesting tone for a movie dealing with a subject you might not think would lend itself to comedy. But the story and the way it's told is so absurd that you can't help but shake your head and laugh."
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