By Ali Moosavi.
One thing that I loved about [Chris Pine’s] performance is how vulnerable he is…. He is not just a tough guy running around with a gun, but a real man with real fear and that creates real stakes important in film.
The Contractor is the latest film from the Swedish director Tarik Saleh. Chris Pine plays a U.S. Special Forces sergeant who for not toeing the line has been honorably discharged, but with no pension and medical cover. With and a wife and son to support, he immediately accepts best friend Ben Foster’s offer of an “easy job with a big pay day”, but when you see that the client is played by Kiefer Sutherland, you know that trouble is in store. What starts as “baby sitting someone” turns into an assassination. Since the Chris Pine character is very patriotic, when he’s told that the assassination target is a Syrian scientist with links to Al-Qaeda, wo is involved in developing biological weapons of mass destruction, Pine will ask no more questions and the Syrian’s claims that he is developing a vaccine to defeat viruses and pleas for his life fall on deaf ears. It is at this point that the story takes several twists and turns and things are not what they seem. Saleh’s previous movie, The Nile Hilton Incident, was a taut conspiracy thriller set in Egypt during the Arab Spring, in which a corrupt policeman finds that he does have some moral values after all when he investigates the murder of a beautiful singer, which is being covered up on the orders of a very influential man.
Both The Contractor and The Nile Hilton Incident involve very high level conspiracies and both have a kind of anti-hero as the main character. In The Contractor the hero is essentially a mercenary and in The Nile Hilton Incident he is a corrupt policeman. Are you interested in dark thrillers where there is no black and white and everything is in a grey zone?
Absolutely, I am a film noir fanatic as you can tell and what I love about film noir is that it’s an existential genre of film where we explore our own dark sides and I think that most of us when we look into the mirror, that’s where we see the enemy most of the time. I love that you pick up that because I think what drew me to The Contractor was that I really loved the script and how well written the main character was, and his motivations and his ideals. He is a person who strongly believes in certain values.
He is shown to be very patriotic and religious.
Yes, and I think it’s a sincere thing in this character. He is a father but there is a void in him and that void has been filled with a strong sense of belief and patriotism. There is also a memory and a question that haunts him and he’s been branded since he was very young and I think that was what interested me. I think the film is really about fatherhood and I think that in in a way The Nile Hilton Incident is also about fatherhood because in that film the main character has a relationship with his father and his boss, who is his uncle and also a father figure and he is like a Crown Prince who would inherit this Kingdom if he just follows what his uncle tells him. But he can’t because of his morals, he has to believe in what he does and I think that for me on a personal level interests me a lot. I think that I am torn between my beliefs and in doing the right thing and you could say I am a fanatic at heart, a film fanatic but still a fanatic. I am willing to go very far to do the film that I believed in and sometimes I go too far. I realized that I’m willing to sacrifice a lot sometimes; I get almost blinded by the vision and blinded to my own private needs and that’s why I can relate to those characters.
In The Nile Hilton Incident the moral comes from his father who is a very different character to his corrupt uncle.
That’s the heartbreaking thing. I think that growing up in Sweden with my father who emigrated from Egypt, and is one of the most important people in my life, he had some very strong moral beliefs. I’m reminded every day by my father of how lucky I am and what I should accomplish to fulfill, not what he did but what my grandparents did when they left their villages to get education. That is why I could also relate to James (Chris Pine) in The Contractor, who chases the ghost of his father and is trying to understand who his father was and he is trying in a way to be his father, who he really didn’t know.
How did you get involved with The Contractor?
After Sundance the producers had seen The Nile Hilton Incident and this script was offered to me which I could see the point in why I should make it. I met with Chris Pine and felt that me and him had a connection and that is very important as this is a film where I needed know that Chris Pine was willing to do what he did in the film. One thing that I loved about his performance in the film is how vulnerable he is and how much of the fear in what is happening to him he is willing to show. He is not just a tough guy running around with a gun, but a real man with real fear and that creates real stakes important in film.
One of the things in The Contractor which goes against the norm and is quite brave is that there’s virtually no action in the first half an hour, where you establish the characters and I was wondering if the producers were getting a bit edgy and asking where’s the action?! But it works because when the action comes it has much greater impact than if you had started people shooting from the word go.
The producers of this film are very intelligent and have done great films and they were on my side. I always use the metaphor of the roller coaster, in order for the roller coaster to work you have to go up and the further you go up before you start to go down the harder the impact and the more assured you are that you are gonna die! So I always said the higher we can go in the first act, once we go down we never stop. I think there is this misconception in film today that people have no patience and want to be entertained constantly from the get go and that they will change channel or go to another film. But I’m old school in that way, I’m 50 years old and when I watch a film I want the film to take over. I don’t want to sit there with a remote and control the narrative. I want the narrative to take control over me. I think there’s a lot of unconventional things in this film that I was kind of of shocked that they let me do them. James becomes like you say an anti-hero in a way and he has to confront the consequences of what he has done. These were the things in the script that made me think that I want to make this film.
When James (Chris Pine) is given the mission, he’s told that there is this Syrian scientist making biological weapons and they mention Al Qaeda and of course not only he will immediately believe that, probably most of the western audiences would be convinced that the guy is a terrorist, as they have that preconception of what a terrorist is and of course there are twists in the tale.
When I read the script for the first time, I was ready to put it down at a certain point and say do they think that I will make a film where you play off the fear? but fortunately I continued to read. I’ve been subjected to so much racism and I understand it here and it’s not that it’s totally unfair. I understand we live in a world where there are people who want to do harm but I think that we all make a big mistake when we let these kind of prejudice play in because for me, having lived in different countries I know that there are more things we have in common than the differences and the most common factor is that the overriding majority want the same thing, which is something better for their children and to create a better future for them. For some reason people in power are trying to pretend that’s not the case and I think that this film actually helps us to debunk some of those things because I love the way the script actually shows the consequences of the violence, not just the violence as entertainment.
The storyline about the vaccine and the powers that are trying to prevent its distribution is a very hot topic these days and there are a lot of people who believe in conspiracies with regards to vaccine.
Mind you that the script was written long before COVID and we shot the film before COVID. I’m a big believer in science and I’m not saying that there are not people who are trying to become rich from disasters but ultimately I think that science has proven to save humans from disaster. I think if it had been an anti-vaccine film I wouldn’t have bought into that at all. I believe that it’s been an amazing thing to see how the world has been able to recover from this thing but it was scary that some of the things in the film were so close to things that really happened, especially when vaccine became politicized and when the rich countries got hold of the vaccine while the poor countries didn’t have it, you start to realize what people were willing to do for the vaccine and break up all the alliances. There were all these things happening and every day I was trying to say OK this has nothing to do with the film we’re making but it was very difficult.
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).