Matthew Michael Carnahan Explains Lions for Lambs Agenda

Redford-directed drama joins slew of recent Iraq pics.

by | November 8, 2007 | Comments

Eric Charbonneau/

While many recent films concerning Iraq have taken a political stance, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan sought to do something different. The result, this week’s Lions for Lambs, attempts to engage the audience in as non-partisan a debate as you’ll find in Hollywood. Whereas Carnahan agrees he doesn’t like the idea of war, he tries to make the case for how we can pull out, and why it is important for the American public to be less apathetic towards the war and to do something.

Carnahan is the brother of Narc director Joe Carnahan, to whom he attributes much of his success. Yet it is hard to say Hollywood has treated him like the nepotistic brother; his first film, The Kingdom (which also involved the war on terror) was an $80 million affair directed by Peter Berg, and another political potboiler script, State of Play, is currently filming under director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland). Remarkably, Carnahan began writing Lions for Lambs as a stage play before the script fell into the hands of actor-director Robert Redford; the rest, as they say, is history. Soon the busy scribe will pen a big-screen version of The Zebra Murders, about the racially-motivated serial killings in 1970s San Francisco, and collaborate with his brother on an adaptation of James Ellroy’s White Jazz.

RT caught up with Carnahan at a roundtable in Los Angeles, touching base on the war on terror, the apathetic nature of youth, and what it means to write a call to action.

How did Robert Redford get attached to direct?

Matthew Michael Carnahan: It was really a Hail Mary. I had heard it was going to Redford and thought it would be wonderful if he even flipped past the title page. And then it came down that he had actually read the whole thing and responded to it. And then I got a message from him and saved it for as long as I could: “Matt, Bob Redford. Let’s talk about this.”

With The Kingdom and now Lions for Lambs, do you have any more projects involving political drama or the war on terror?

MMC: Nothing right now. Because I really do feel like I’m tapped out. I’ve said pretty much everything I can say. And I don’t even know if at the end of the day it’s going to make much of a difference, but just from the sheer fact that I was able to write it down and get it out there, I’ll take it. But I am writing a story called the Zebra Murders, a true story in San Francisco about a mass murder that nobody really remembers. It was lost in the Watergate, Vietnam, Zodiac kind of time. And the one I’m supposed to write after that is Guest of the Ayatollah, which is the Bowden book on the Iran hostage crisis. Which is really one of my earliest memories.

And if/when the WGA strike goes?

MMC: Who knows when I’ll get to it?

Where did the idea come for Lions for Lambs? From your own indifference or a consciousness of the indifference of others?

MMC: Both! My indifference is the thing that pushed the button. I’m the first to rant and rave about fighting a war on two fronts. I mean that’s the last thing you want to do. And here we are fighting on two fronts in a war where the only thing that separates those two fronts is a country (Iran) that might despise us more than the two countries we’re fighting in. And yet with all of that I never did anything about it.

I’m a graduate of USC and searching the channels for the SC game, and I past a news report about a Humvee that had flipped into a river. And four or five American soldiers had drowned. I thought, what an awful way to die, when you’re at war and you die in what is essentially a traffic accident. And I couldn’t get past it fast enough, because God forbid it ruin my experience of watching the game. And it hit me that I’m just as much a part of the problem as everyone I like to point the finger at.

Would you say this movie is a call to action?

MMC: I can’t really come up with a better way to put it. A call to action in so far as I wrote this down to see if it would resonate with anybody else.

But then don’t you face the same thing that that news report did, with people passing over it?

MMC: Hopefully [when] you get three of the biggest movie stars alive involved, maybe that will trump at least some of that intransigence to go to yet another movie about the middle east and the war on terror.

So then if it’s a call to action, what’s the “action”?

MMC: To make this war, and the loss of American lives… and the fact that four thousand of my countrymen…the fact that they are dying and it’s not a part of our daily lives. That it’s not a daily cognition on my part that as we are having this discussion there are people a lot younger than us fighting and dying and going through some of the most terrifying moments imaginable. Basically I just wanted us in our daily lives to become cognizant of that.

What were some of the biggest difficulties you came across in writing?

MMC: The biggest challenge was having originally written it as a stage play. And the more I started to write the military scenes, particularly the helicopter scenes, I realized there’s not a stage in existence that could do that justice. I kept visualizing the scene in Rushmore. (Laughs) And I think when you watch it, it still feels like a stage play. And whether or not that’s good or bad I don’t know. I just didn’t know how to get into those subjects without talking.

Was the Todd character [played by Andrew Garfield] anything like you at that age?

MMC: It was completely autobiographical. That Todd character is me in college. I had the idea early on… that I could do less and still get by. I wish I had a teacher that put his foot in my back side. Maybe I would have listened.

Who would you most like to see this movie? Who was it made for?

MMC: Students. And the test screenings we did all over the country at universities went extremely well. And now it’s just a matter of, can we get them in there to see it?

What do you think the response of the administration will be?

MMC: Frankly, I don’t really care. I don’t want to piss people off, just to piss them off. I wanted to talk about these questions in the most balanced way I possibly can.

Lions for Lambs hits theaters Friday.

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