Beirut – A fictional thriller grounded in reality that took 26 years to reach the Big Screen

BEIRUT

“We wanted to put a negotiator in a historical setting where it could feel true to life without actually being a true story.”

A taut action thriller from director Brad Anderson and writer-producer Tony Gilroy, Beirut takes an unflinching look at the cost of freedom.

Caught in the crossfires of civil war, CIA operatives (Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris) must send a former U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm) to Beirut to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind.

The story of Beirut begins long before Tony Gilroy established himself as the acclaimed storyteller behind The Bourne Identity, Academy Award Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton and global hit Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Back in 1991 while working on the romantic comedy The Cutting Edge, Gilroy met producer Robert Cort, who happened to be a former CIA analyst.

“We had a lot of geopolitical conversations and Robert thought a movie about a foreign-service diplomatic negotiator would be fascinating,” Gilroy says. “At the time, Beirut was a hot topic because Tom Friedman’s book From Beirut to Jerusalem had just come out. We wanted to put a negotiator in a historical setting where it could feel true to life without actually being a true story.”

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Writer-producer Tony Gilroy

Gilroy built his fictional script around facts on the ground including the 1984 kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley. “For me, that was very much the model for what would happen if a high-level CIA officer were kidnapped,” Gilroy says. “Buckley’s body actually turned up just as I was finishing the script and there was a lot of reporting about that case that I drew on. It was all very garish and gothic and horrifying and dramatic.”

Immersing himself in research, Gilroy uncovered a trove of details, which he used to devise events that could plausibly have happened in Lebanon some three decades earlier. “Between talking to people on the phone and building this massive library, I dug into the particular three-month period of time we cover in the film when Mason goes back to Lebanon,” Gilroy explains. “There were many surprising things I learned. I didn’t have any idea the PLO was so complicated and stratified and corrupt. I had no idea about the complexity of the Israeli desire to get into Lebanon or the contortions Israel put itself through to justify the invasion of this region. I knew about the Reagan White House when George Schultz and Oliver North and Robert McFarland came in, and I knew about the events leading up to the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut. But until I started doing my research, l did not know all the intricate details.”

Against the backdrop of a politically dysfunctional Lebanon, Gilroy strived to develop the interior psychology of his hero in the manner of master spy novelist John Le Carré. “His books were extraordinary, although they didn’t always make for good movies because they were so hard to condense,” he says. “I was highly motivated by the idea of designing a LeCarré-type film that could be put in a two-hour frame. And then the idea of a character like Mason, who’s faced with great disappointment — that’s very much a John Le Carré thing.”

Beirut’s central character prefigured the flawed heroes that would later anchor some of Gilroy’s best-known works. “Mason was the beginning of my fascination with characters in need of redemption, which is also true for Jason Bourne and Michael Clayton,” Gilroy says. “With Beirut, I was interested in writing about people trapped inside a political situation, while at the same time Mason is forced to confront his past and his own weakness.”

After Gilroy finished his script in 1992, numerous A-list actors and directors circled the project, known at the time as High Wire Act. But Gilroy’s fictionalized portrayal of U.S., Israeli and PLO scheming in 1982 Lebanon ultimately proved too hot to handle. “The problem was that the script is accurate,” Gilroy muses. “The PLO didn’t have exemplary behavior. Israel did not have exemplary behavior. The U.S. State Department did not have exemplary behavior. Nobody looked good at that moment in time except for the hero of this story.”

When Beirut failed to generate a studio green light, Gilroy put the screenplay aside and moved on. Cut to 2003, when Radar Pictures producer Mike Weber came across the script. “It’s one of the first things I read when I started at Radar,” Weber recalls. “The script was great but I wondered how I could ever make Beirut, given that all the things that are challenging about getting it made are also the things that make it so good. Over the years I always had ‘Beirut’ written on a Post-it note stuck to the corner of my computer screen.”

The project graduated from a Post-it to a commercially viable project after Argo came out in 2012. The movie, set in 1979, won the Best Picture Academy Award and grossed $232 million worldwide, proving that political thrillers set in the Middle East could succeed critically and financially. Weber resuscitated Beirut with Gilroy’s blessings.

“The drama in the script was still very intense but the political radioactivity had completely subsided,” says Gilroy, who spent three months revising the screenplay. “There’s not much argument anymore about what happened in Lebanon in the winter of 1982. At this point, we’ve moved on to the grandchildren of this original problem.” 

TONY GILROY (Screenwriter, Producer) made his feature film directorial debut with Michael Clayton, which earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. The film garnered him Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, as well as Directors Guild and Writers Guild award nominations. The writer/director/producer then followed Michael Clayton with his second directorial effort based on his own screenplay, the critically acclaimed thriller Duplicity. 

A veteran screenwriter, Gilroy also spent seven years working on the first three Bourne films: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. In 2012, Gilroy co-wrote and directed the fourth installment of the series, The Bourne Legacy. 

Gilroy has written three screenplays for director Taylor Hackford: Dolores ClaiborneThe Devil’s Advocate, and Proof of Life, starring Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, which Gilroy also executive produced. Gilroy also co-wrote the screenplays for Universal Pictures’ State of Play, and Yimou Zhang’s The Great Wall.

Gilroy’s additional writing credits include Michael Bay’s blockbuster Armageddon, Michael Apted’s Extreme Measures, s and The Cutting Edge, starring D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly.

Raised in upstate New York, Gilroy is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker Frank D. Gilroy. His brother Dan Gilroy is a screenwriter who co-wrote the screenplay for The Bourne Legacy, and his brother John Gilroy is a film editor who also worked on Michael Clayton, Duplicity and The Bourne Legacy. The Gilroy brothers also collaborated on the 2014 hit thriller Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed, on which Gilroy served as a producer.

A Director’s Vision

With Weber’s ambition to make Beirut reinvigorated, the producer asked Brad Anderson to direct the picture.

BRAD ANDERSON (Director) had his first feature, The Darien Gap, screen in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. Since then he’s directed numerous features spanning various genres, such as horror (Session 9), comedy (Next Stop Wonderland), and thriller (The Call). Four of his films have premiered at Sundance, including Happy Accidents, The Machinist and Transsiberian. He has directed multiple TV episodes, including “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Man in the High Castle,” as well as several pilots, the latest being “Titans,” based on the DC Comic.

brad anderson

A veteran indie film writer-director, Anderson had demonstrated a flair for character-driven suspense in his own movies including The Machinist, starring Christian Bale and Transsiberian, starring Woody Harrelson. “Brad really understands tension and pacing,” Weber says. “Transsiberian had the kind of nonstop momentum that Beirut needed. He understood how to bring out the thriller aspects and instilled a real sense of excitement to the story.”

Anderson says he responded strongly to the script’s exotic milieu and interpersonal drama. “I was very taken by the world of Tony’s story. I frankly didn’t know very much about Beirut, so for me it was more the character elements that drew me in. I was fascinated with Mason as this tortured soul who’s trying to redeem himself by saving his friend. That’s a very classic dramatic sensibility.”

In terms of tone, Anderson cites Peter Weir’s 1982 Indonesia-set film The Year of Living Dangerously as a major touchstone. “That movie really puts you into this sensual, dangerous world,” Anderson says. “It’s also an emotional journey about characters in this war-torn part of the world who are trying to find some goodness or something hopeful that they can hang onto. That’s one of the things we wanted to do in Beirut. We also looked at unresolved dramas like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold that take place in the world of espionage.”

Once Anderson agreed to helm Beirut, Weber brought the project to ShivHans Pictures producing partners Shivani Rawat and Monica Levinson. “I felt Tony’s script had drama, mystery, suspense — it’s the perfect thriller.,” says Rawat, whose credits include Captain Fantastic and Trumbo. “Thrillers today tend to be violent, over-the-top action movies or else they rely heavily on some kind of technological solution, whereas Beirut is very human.”

When Rawat and Levinson met with Anderson, they came away impressed with the filmmaker’s commitment to authenticity. “Brad had a real vision for how he would tell the story,” Levinson says. “He immediately started talking about locations, so we went on a preliminary scout to Morocco. Walking through the city of Tangier, Brad knew exactly what he wanted to shoot and I could see the movie taking shape just by the way he perceived things. In that sense, Brad took the story much deeper than I could have imagined when I read it on the page.”

Jon Hamm – The Negotiator

Sorting through a stack of offers after completing his Emmy®-winning run as Don Draper in the hit “Mad Men” TV series, Jon Hamm was pleased to find Beirut, a thoughtful thriller that offered a refreshing alternative to formulaic action blockbusters that currently dominate Hollywood. “Big political themes don’t get addressed very often in movies anymore,” the actor notes. “I was excited to make a movie that dealt with something important rather than just having the action element or a comic-book element, which seems to be the tenor of most large-scale movies right now.”

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Hamm was also intrigued by Beirut’s straight-shooting protagonist Mason Skiles. “He’s a communicator rather than just a terminator,” Hamm says. “He’s not some guy who solves everything by throwing a magic hammer or casting a spell or doing things that don’t really exist in life. As a negotiator, Mason’s gift is that he’s able to talk to people not in a backhanded or sneaky way but by basically saying, ‘You have something I want and I have something you want. We have to find that place where we both leave something on the table and ideally, each of us gets a little of what we want.’”

To infuse his character with that pragmatic, horse-trading demeanor, Hamm drew inspiration from real-life statesmen. “I’ve had the good fortune to meet several career diplomats in my life and it’s always interesting to hear their take on situations,” Hamm says. “When people live in a country not their own they need to have tremendous respect for local culture and local politics to understand what’s actually happening on the ground. That’s pretty much what I tried to do with the character of Mason. He’s a facilitator. He wants both sides to win. He’s not there to undermine the other government at all. There’s a great deal of respect and intelligence that goes along with that approach.”

As he schooled himself in the world of Beirut, Hamm, a self-proclaimed Tony Gilroy fan, plied the author with questions about the political quagmire dramatized in his script. “Tony told me that tensions have been percolating for a long time but we’ve only recently seen large-scale eruptions, whether it’s 9/11 or Syria or Islamic State. Tony said all these things are interconnected geopolitically and that really struck a chord for me. When you think about the terrorism and fundamentalism and the political intractability in Beirut, which is all still sadly true today, I think it’s important to look at the reasons behind all that. How did we get here?”

In addition to Beirut’s politically charged themes, Hamm looked forward to exploring the personal trauma that lends depth to Mason’s journey. “When we first meet Mason, he seems to have it all together, trying to do good things in the world.” Hamm says. Then, in a few terrifying seconds, Mason’s life falls apart. “It takes a while for Mason to pull himself out of this profound tragedy. When he goes back to the place where it all happened, that’s where Mason begins to find some happiness and his place in the world.”

Using Gilroy’s script as the blueprint for his performance, Hamm relied on director Anderson to keep a firm hand on the tiller once filming began. “Brad was intensely knowledgeable about the script and what he wanted to see in the frame,” Hamm says. “At the same time, he allowed everybody to bring a little something to the table to create this kind of creative buffet of sights and sounds and experiences and words and images. Brad was like the conductor of an orchestra, intimately aware of the music each person needed to play.”