By Ali Moosavi.
I think the 1970s was the golden age of cinema….I very much think that there are certain standards that 1970s established that still exist today and for good reason.”
In the new conspiracy thriller/action movie Agent Game CIA officers Bill (Jason Isaacs), Harris (Dermot Mulroney) and Visser (Annie Ilonzeh) are responsible for interrogation of foreign terrorist suspects, including one named Omar (Barkhad Abdi) in an un-named, Guantanamo Bay type location while a shady CIA officer (Mel Gibson) is busy recruiting operatives (Adan Canto, Katie Cassidy, Rhys Coiro), for a secret mission. The story moves back and forth in time and the filmmakers have made maximum use of the footage that they’ve got from their big name stars, specially the few minutes of Mel Gibson’s appearance, by placing him at different timelines and locations within the movie, including at the first scene, uttering that oft spoken line; “we have a problem”!.
I spoke to the film’s director, Grant Johnson.
At what point did you get involved with this with this movie?
I got involved in August 2020. I had been working with Tyler Konney who’s the co-writer and producer of the film for a number of years on various projects and we had shown some projects to one another. He showed me the script of Agent Game and said do you have any comments and I gave him a bunch of notes and he said these are great; they’re very directorial notes rather than screenplay notes and asked if I liked the script and I said I love it. I read many scripts and this was one of the only ones I could get through in one sitting. I thought it was very readable, very enjoyable and very exciting. I didn’t have many notes for him, but the main one was that though the script was great, it read a little bit dated to me, like one of the great 90s action movies. I wanted to make something more modern, not make a movie that’s been made before. I wanted to give a new breath of fresh air into this genre and he liked that and that’s where we started. That was August of 2020 and by December we were sending out the screenplay that I had revised to actors and by the end of March of 2021 we were filming.
At what point did they various stars become attached to the movie?
The first role that we had attached was Rhys Coiro, who plays Reese. When I read the screenplay I said to Tyler that I either wanted to delete the role of Reese or rewrite it specifically for Rhys Coiro who I know quite well and Tyler liked that idea so we cast him in December of 2020 and in January of 2021 we were able to cast a few more roles. Dermot Mulroney was always our dream to play Harris but it wasn’t until mid or late February of 2021 where we got Mel [Gibson] and that’s when everything started to snowball even though we were at that point just six weeks away from filming. When Mel got on it allowed us to really dream cast the movie because Mel had given it that stamp of approval and we went out to Jason Isaacs who was always our dream person to play Bill. It turned out that this exact type of role of a CIA interrogator was one that Jason had always been wanting to play and in fact one of Jason’s hobbies is to learn about CIA interrogation methods! We were very lucky that he happens to be interested in this very specific niche and once we got him I said to Tyler we really only have one role left to cast and it was Omar and once we got Jason I said let’s get Barkhad [Abdi], he’s the best guy to play this role and he has an Oscar nomination for Captain Phillips. We also cast some people that maybe are not household names yet but people that I really wanted. The role of Kavinsky who’s the lead role is played by Adan Canto because I had seen him on a number of shows including Designated Survivor and felt he had tremendous range and was kind of like the classic action movie leading man of the 1970s. I hit it off with all these actors which was really great. There’s a reason why all these actors are successful, it’s not just because they’re talented, they’re also good people and they treat the cast and the crew well. They want to be collaborative and build a long term relationship, so it was a very positive experience.
With each new big name star who was added to this script did you have to rewrite the script to accommodate that star?
That is a great question, and the answer is absolutely yes. In the case of Dermot, the role had been mostly written for him but once I got to know him a little, I did rewrite it a little bit because I understood his sense of humor and I thought that there were some moments that we should add in some dry sense of humor for him. The role of Olsen however was originally written for someone else and once we cast Mel Gibson, he has a lot more range than the person that we were originally thinking about and I thought that it was a great opportunity to maximize the minutes and the pages that he had by giving him a lot to chew on. Jason being a very active collaborator had me rewrite the entire role for him, even though we had been thinking of him as we worked on the role. Because of how thoughtful he is, he did challenge me quite a lot more than I have been by another actor to rewrite every single scene that he was in and he was right about the suggestions he was making. There’s a reason why he’s had an incredible 35-year career and there were certain things that he suggested that we never would have thought of but they were totally accurate because he really understood the character at a level I hadn’t seen before. Otherwise the roles were definitely tinkered with. The role of Miller was originally written for someone younger, someone about 24, so when Katie Cassidy came on to the project I did change it for her a little and made it less of a naive rookie which is what it was supposed to be with a 24 year old actress. But Jason really is the one who challenged me to bring the script up to up to his level of standard and it was worth it.
The film is kind of reminder of the conspiracy movies of the 70s, are you a fan of those type of movies?
I very much am and that’s interesting because when I was casting Adan as Kavinsky I did have those movies in mind. I think the 1970s was the golden age of cinema and I think a lot of people would agree and perhaps a lot of people would disagree. My favorite movies are from that era. More the early part of Seventies: Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, The Godfather, but also at the end of the 70s you had Apocalypse Now and you had some other really fantastic movies. I very much think that there are certain standards that 1970s established that still exist today and for good reason. While I often reference movies from that era or more recent ones, like Heat from the 90s by Michael Mann or Sicario which is just a few years old, I have to make sure that what I’m making today is very modern.
You make an interesting visual contrast between the brightly lit offices of the CIA powers, like Mel Gibson’s character, with dark and dingy location of the CIA interrogation place, emphasizing the difference between those who give the orders and those who carry them out.
I think that in a movie that has three different timelines, the first one being the present, which is the mission at hand, the second is a few weeks earlier where our heroes are being recruited for the mission by Mel Gibson’s character Olsen, and then in a couple weeks before that is what happens in the ‘Black Site’ with Bill and Harris and Visser, you shouldn’t make them all feel the same. It goes to repetitiveness, you need a breath and they need to be individualized because three very different things are happening: one is happening somewhere in Europe on a mission, the other one is happening in DC Langley area with these interviews and interrogation is happening in a place you’re not supposed to know the location of and if those three timelines feel too similar it wouldn’t ring true because they really wouldn’t feel similar in real life. They need to feel very distinct as you’re watching the movie so you understand that they are happening at different times in different places, but that makes it a great payoff when I then tie them all together by the end of act two and you understand how they’re all related because they seemed like totally separate films and hopefully the Black Site and the hero plotline at first seemed like just totally unrelated and I wanted to shoot it that way because that creates some mystery about how is this film going to tie all this together. Hopefully the audience has that an a-ha moment versus something that was made more predictable. I like it when people say about my movie: I didn’t know how you were gonna tie it all together and then you did. Because I do film the timelines differently and I score them differently and I just treated them all like separate parts and I hate for someone to say oh yeah I saw it coming. So for me to individualize each timeline and each character in each timeline allows for that really good act two reveal.
Mel Gibson, being a director himself and an Oscar winning one in that, did he make any comments during the filming, for example about camera placement, lighting, etc.?
That’s a good question and I was asking myself that before I met Mel. I was wondering if he was gonna do that but what was really wonderful about Mel is on this film he’s an actor only and he very much treated it as such. Look, if he were to have given me some sort of directorial note, I would have listened because of how wonderful he is and how smart he is, but in this film he very much wanted to be an actor in the movie and not more than that. But that didn’t stop me from picking his brain on certain occasions about various things, mostly sort of lessons learned. I would never say to him how do you want to do this shot but hearing about his experiences on his directorial films there’s a lot of good nuggets of information there that I could extrapolate for myself during Agent Game and moving forward. But on this movie he wanted to be an actor that wants to be directed by the director and it allowed for a really wonderful collaboration. He obviously brings some of that directorial experience into his acting, there’s no way they could be super compartmentalized, they do blend together but it was great to work with him as just an actor on this one.
What are you working on now?
Fortunately Tyler and I really hit it off on this project and agreed to work together on a few more things. We very much wanted to take advantage of the momentum of Agent Game and it looks like we will be involved in a bunch of really big films this year, one of them I did write and I will direct which I’m really excited about. It’s actually a very different genre than this one. It’s a senior citizen rom-com, the main characters being in their 60s and 70s. I like challenging myself with a different genre because I find that having that range actually makes you a lot better across the board versus doing the same genre over and over again.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).