The Contractor – A character-driven action thriller with a deep, emotional core and a marked political subtext

Director Tarik Saleh believes that screenwriter J.P Davis has done something unique with his screenplay for The Contractor. “He has managed to create something that is appealing and important at the same time. A trojan horse. It deals with large themes. The American Dream, patriotism and the moral corruption of the soul – What happens when we’re being misled?’

“We’re still living the consequences of what seems to be an endless war,” says Saleh, a director, screenwriter and producer who got his start in the mid-1980s as one of Sweden’s most acclaimed graffiti artists and made his directorial debut with Sacrificio – Who betrayed Che Guevara?

“I was shooting a doc at the Pentagon April 9, 2003, the day Sadam’s statue fell. I remember standing just meters away from Rumsfeld declaring victory. It was a scary moment for me. I remembered what my uncle had told me just a month before: “When Sadam falls, that is when the real war starts – that is when people have something to die for.”  I wish he would have been wrong. That was nineteen years ago.”

Director Tarik Saleh with Ben Foster during the filming of The Contractor. © 2021 STX Global Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

“Young men and women in the free world being told that there is still a code, a possibility to serve your country, like our fathers did – being sent to a place you couldn’t point out on a map to kill a man, woman or child – that has done nothing. So, there should be tons of movies made about this, right? Where is the “Born on the 4th of July”? Where is the “Platoon”? The “Apocalypse Now”?  “The full metal Jacket”? The three days of the condor?”

“Someone like James (in The Contractor), a classic hero who the system trained to be a killer – that is now being used to kill someone who is doing good, to protect not lives but a corporation who probably doesn’t give a damn about America. The story tells us something new (and true) that the real sacrifice is not the heroic act of giving your life to the flag – but the sacrifice of all of those left behind: who lose a brother, a father, a husband.” 

“My job as a director is to tell the world… Not what they want to hear – but what they need to hear. I’m not making films as steps in a career anymore – every film I make is my last film: this one is for my daughters – to say to them: listen, the world was at this crazy point – but we tried to make sense of it – to tell people: look you’re not crazy, you are not alone feeling lost. Expose the truth so we can do better. Life is too short to make films that don’t matter.”

J.P Davis’ screenplay for The Contractor found its way to Thunder Road, the production company behind Sicario and the John Wick series. “His management sent it to us as a sample of JP’s writing and we fell in love with it,” says producer Basil Iwanyk. “I had a similar reaction when I read Sicario. The details felt so real, the character details, and it had such specificity to it, I said to myself, ‘I want to make this.’ It reminded me of those brooding 70’s films, where there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, there wasn’t a lot of plot, but there’s a lot of atmosphere, a lot of tone, and a lot of character. And I bought into that.”

Taking its name from a military expression used by the US Army and Special Forces, The Contractor  centres on James Harper (Chris Pine), a former Green Beret trying to re-enter the real world after being honourably discharged without his pension. Harper takes a job as a military contractor in Berlin where he finds himself being hunted by the people who employed him.

Chris Pine signed on almost immediately to play James Harper

“In some ways, it’s a deceptive story, a simple story because there’s a thriller aspect, a Bourne aspect to it,” says Pine, “but within that is this very beautiful, primal story of a man facing the big waves of life and trying to figure things out. I knew from the first five pages if it continued on the line I thought, I would be really invested in it, and I was. It felt very, very ancient while also being very, very modern. It’s a very 21st-century view of warfare, that has nothing of the black and white morally monochrome, World War II vision of the world, of good versus evil, this is way beyond that. It is a beautifully simple, well-wrought yarn, but it’s much, much more than that. This is not good versus bad. This is not about killing the bad guy. This is about who you are as a human being, as a man.”

“We’ve seen films about warriors in their 20s and early 30s, we’ve seen aged warriors, but it’s very rare that we see the transition of warrior to once were warrior,” says Iwanyk. “And the painful, banal stuff that happens to you — your ACL tears, or you have injuries to your knees,” notes Iwanyk. “What I loved so much about James was he was a man in transition, trying to figure out who he is, because he’s a generational soldier, his father clearly was a cold, tough man. Said ‘You’re a soldier. This is what you do. His entire identity was in the army. Now he’s out and wondering, Who am I? Who am I fighting for? And why do I fight? What I loved about Chris is that he is at that age of transition himself in a lot of ways. He was the matinee idol and is getting older and he’s realizing, as an actor, I need to test myself. Chris is a very serious guy. He reads two or three newspapers a day. He takes the world very seriously. Now, he’s fun to be around, but he’s in it to win it.”

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“I was reading Yuval Harari [author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind] about the same time I was reading the screenplay,” reveals Pine, “and he talks about one of the things that separate us from all the things with heartbeats, and that is our ability to create a narrative by which to live. And I thought, that’s interesting, that is precisely this man, who was branded with a narrative, branded with a story, branded with a flag. God, family, country. Freedom, democracy, equality. Manifest, destiny, success. Free market capitalism. And this is a story of a man where all of that is burned up and he is just left with the skeleton of himself. For me, it was encapsulated in the first five pages of the screenplay — there is no speaking in the first five pages. The first 30 pages barely have any action. The film’s European in that way. But when the action comes it’s non-stop, stress-inducing. So, it has many of the greatest parts of a Hollywood blockbuster, but we also have our cake and eat it.”

Both Iwanyk and Pine were drawn to the theme of fatherhood, with the screenplay presenting many different ideas of the father-son relationship. “I love movies about fathers and sons. And when all is said and done, this film is about fathers and sons,” says Iwanyk. “This is about James escaping the malicious tradition of his father and realizing that’s not who I am. I do not want to put that on my own son. His father couldn’t figure it out, left the family home and probably killed himself. And so James is looking at himself, asking, ‘Do I have the strength to do what my father couldn’t do? To go home and be a decent father and a good husband.’ It’s about a man being caught between these two worlds.”

“As a man, I am very interested in the genealogy of the care or lack thereof between generations of men, between boys and their fathers,” concurs Pine. “It’s a deep, deep relationship, and the first image you have [in the film] is a father reading a magazine while his son gets tattooed. There’s no malice in it. It’s a way of teaching a young boy about pain. About how we as men teach younger men what it means to be alive, which is there’s harshness, you’ll have to deal with it, figure it out, there’s no coddling. And then to see me with my son in the film, we decided he was this creation of sensitivity, probably not good at sports. He likes to draw. There’s not really judgments to be made there, it’s just visions of care and nurturing amongst men.”

When Saleh read the screenplay for The Contractor, it was an immediate yes. “There was anger in this script that I responded to. After the first 15 pages, I really had an emotional response to the main character. I asked myself: ‘What is he going to do?’ Not ‘What’s going to happen to him?’ ‘What is he going to do?’ Which is a very interesting dramatic question.”

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Working with J.P Davis, Pine and Saleh set about reworking the screenplay

“I come from a documentary background and it was very important to bring a reality to the screenplay,” says Saleh. “So that was my contribution, to make it more grounded. Especially the European part, because I’m European and I know a lot of things about Europe that the American scriptwriter had only seen from the outside.” Originally, the European action was set in Poland but Saleh relocated it to Berlin. “Poland is a very interesting place, but the stakes are not as high as if it’s in Germany. Germany is an ally to America. One of the most important allies in Europe.”

“Germany has more of a Graham Greene vibe,” adds Iwanyk. “Germany evokes danger and espionage. I actually liked the fact it was in Poland. But I think Tarik was right. People will believe something bad could come out of Germany.”

In addition, Saleh had Davis deepen the personal relationships as well as layer in even more political subtext, including the financial struggles military families go through, as well as how soldiers are mistreated once they’re discharged from the army.  “James is a believer. A believer in America and the values,” says Saleh. “And the biggest betrayal of all is that when they come home, they get nothing, they’re forgotten. I spoke to a lot of veterans preparing for the film and it was heart-breaking.”

“This is about a family in middle America, who’s lost their healthcare and pension, they have no home, they might lose the home they’re renting, they have a son to support. What will that family do?” says Pine. “And this man, who has only known warfare his entire adult life, is he really going to go to Home Depot and work a $40,000 job, even though he was probably making about that in the army? Or is he going to make six figures being a private mercenary? The answer is pretty obvious, and he takes it to a real extreme.”

For Pine, the screenplay also shone a very important light on a horrific but little-known statistic regarding the US military. “Another reason why I was very invested in this story is that the country in which I live has been waging a war for nearly 20 years, men and women are still dying in that war, and yet news about these deaths is now relegated to the inside pages of newspapers. They’re not even on the news anymore,” he reveals. “And more soldiers are killing themselves than are dying on the battlefield. That is alarming.”

Screenwriter J.P Davis

J.P. Davis is an American is an American screenwriter, director, and actor. Davis’ first screenplay was Fighting Tommy Riley. William Goldman was one of the first people to read the script and he mentored and encouraged Davis to move to Los Angeles and make the film. Davis procured a micro budget to shoot Fighting Tommy Riley. Fighting Tommy Riley premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and then went on to play at the Hamptons Film Festival (where it won the Kodak Award) and at the San Francisco Film Festival. The film opened theatrically in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco. JP most recently wrote the screenplay for Lionsgate’s The Plane which stars Gerard Butler and begins shooting in July 2021. Davis was born and raised in New York City. He’s a graduate of The Berkshire School and of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Director Tarik Saleh

Director, screenwriter and producer Tarik Saleh (b. 1972) got his start in the mid 1980s as one of Sweden’s most acclaimed graffiti artists. His mural Fascinate from 1989 is the first graffiti mural to be protected by the Swedish state as a cultural heritage, and is one of the world’s oldest existing graffiti paintings.    In 2001, he made his directorial debut with Sacrificio – Who betrayed Che Guevara? together with Erik Gandini. Saleh again teamed up with Gandini for Gitmo (2005), a documentary about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Both documentaries won several awards and sparked international debate. Saleh moved on to create the critically acclaimed Metropia (2009), a dystopian computer animated drama that landed him several prestigious awards and nominations, among them the Future Film Festival Digital Award at the Venice Film Festival.

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The year 2017 saw the premiere of his latest feature film, The Nile Hilton Incident, which won him the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and  became a great success, winning numerous awards including  ‘Best Film’ at the Guldbagge Awards (Sweden’s Oscar equivalent).

Saleh runs one of Sweden’s most innovative production companies: Atmo and has stayed active in his home market of Stockholm and abroad.  He is currently writing and directing with the “House of Cards” creator, Beau Willimon, a show on the Saudi Arabian Royal dynasty, which will be tonally like “The Sopranos”.