Mad City: About The Production

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Writer Tom Matthews, a former print journalist and Hollywood publicist, began writing the script for "Mad City" in 1993 with partner Eric Williams, around the time of the infamous Branch Davidian confrontation in Waco, Texas. "As the event dragged on for weeks and weeks and journalists were forced to come up with something new to report, the coverage moved beyond the facts into rampant delivery of rumor and speculation -- the things which used to be the bane of traditional journalism," he says.

"Live television, with its immediacy and its impact, is particularly potent. The technology enables anyone to stand before a live camera and address the entire world and we, as an audience, will listen. What do we really know about the person in front of that camera? Are they truly giving us nothing but the facts, or is there some other agenda coloring their story?

"In 'Mad City,' Brackett is able to position the story of Sam's standoff to turn a criminal into a hero. Despite the fact that people have been taken hostage, the television audience can relate to Sam's desperation and regret that the innocent have become involved. They love the entertainment value of having this story presented to them in an unexpected way, and they buy right into it. Of course, what's interesting is that there are several truths to every story, and we see, as this one unfolds, that the divisions between right and wrong are not as simple as they originally appeared to be."

Matthews' script found its way to Costa-Gavras, whose previous films had firmly established him as someone fascinated by the larger issues that beset people &endash; the struggle to live safely and securely in one's own culture without betraying one's personal beliefs and ideals. Gavras immediately recognized these themes in "Mad City."

"This film is about a relationship, a love story if you will, between two men from completely different backgrounds," he says. "Brackett is educated and aggressive; Sam, uneducated and insecure. Despite their differences, they are both suffering the indifference of the system that once employed them, which makes them joined in their emotions. They come together because of a quirk of fate and slowly begin to trust one another."

Once producer Arnold Kopelson heard that Tom Matthews' script was available, he states, "I knew that I had to produce this film. I was struck with the quality of the writing; the characters were extremely well drawn. For an intimate, character-driven piece set practically all at one location -- inside and outside a museum -- this aspect is essential. The relationship between Brackett and Baily was unique: two people from very different backgrounds drawn together and impacting each others' lives."

Kopelson continues, "Since seeing 'Z,' I've always admired the work of Costa-Gavras. Costa had already read the script and wanted to direct the film. He has taken on many social issues, and I greatly respect his perspective. The match between director and material seemed perfect."


The next task facing the filmmakers was one of casting. Clearly, two strong actors with the ability to express many nuances of emotion were needed to enable "Mad City" to succeed. Both Kopelson and Costa-Gavras were extremely pleased to draw Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta, two of the film world's most charismatic and respected actors, to the project.

Hoffman was cast as the savvy former network correspondent because of his passion for the role. Says Gavras, "Dustin has an uncanny ability to capture the very essence of his character. He immersed himself so deeply into the part that he genuinely understands the mentality of this particular journalist, a man who has everything to lose unless he can pull himself up through the ranks again."

Kopelson adds, "Dustin unites with his director, producer and co- stars in total collaboration to make all of the characters leap from the pages of the screenplay. It is never about his role. It is always about what is best for the film."

To prepare for his role, Hoffman watched hours of videotapes he received from several different news correspondents, though he emphasizes that he did not pattern himself after any one particular journalist. However, he recalls one incident during his initial research that did profoundly influence his perception of the character. It involved a visit to a New York Times photojournalism exhibit. Upon viewing a noted shot taken during the Vietnam War of a monk self-immolating, Hoffman asked the photographer why he didn't put out the fire. His reply: "You never put out the fire -- you just take the picture."

"To me that was all the research I needed," Hoffman states. "News today is not far from what we might term 'Hollywood.' People want to see the bodies, the car crash. Years ago, newspapers had to compromise their ethics to compete with television news. Today, television news has to compromise its ethics to compete with tabloids. These are issues we never heard about when I did `All the President's Men' 20 years ago."

Hoffman emphasizes that he would not have taken the role had John Travolta not agreed to play Sam Baily. "I said to Costa, `I'd like to do this film, but I think the most important ingredient is the portrayal of the other character.' I didn't know Travolta personally, but when I read this, I felt immediately that he was the key to the film. I couldn't think of any other actor who had his combination of qualities."

According to Kopelson, "John had already seen the script and was interested in the part of Sam Baily, but he had other commitments. Based on their mutual appreciation for the material and their desire to work with each other, Dustin and John decided to arrange their schedules and accommodate the needs of this production, for which Costa and I are most grateful."

Agrees Costa-Gavras, "It was fascinating to watch these two very persuasive men intellectually seduce each other into making this movie. They essentially laid the ground-work for their on-screen friendship before filming ever began!"

Says Kopelson about Travolta, "John brings to life a character most of America will recognize: the average working-class citizen who may be just two paychecks away from homelessness. John is one of the few actors who is instantly believable as the everyday man. His warmth and sincerity, coupled with his extraordinary acting ability, make him uniquely qualified to play Sam Baily."

Travolta agrees that he did have an immediate affinity for Sam. "l think people are basically good, and sometimes they end up doing bad things, especially when they get confused. There's morality and immorality within all of us. Sam is a confused man who is at his wits' end. He's got a wife and kids to care for; he's just been fired; and he becomes crazed. How is he going to make ends meet? Thanks to the way the role was written, I felt I could get inside Sam's head and evoke shades of good and evil in an entertaining way."

Gavras observes that, not unlike Brackett, Sam is a victim of the television age. "Sam is not particularly bright, and he learned from watching television that guns speak louder than words. He thinks that if you have a gun, people will listen. This is why he takes his arsenal to the museum, so Mrs. Banks will pay attention and give him his job back. He is naive, an innocent."

The relationship that evolves between Sam and Brackett causes Brackett to cross the line of professional journalistic objectivity. Explains Hoffman, "Though Brackett may be exploiting Sam's situation by becoming part of the story, he is not evil. He is a decent man who has not lost his humanity. He is a journalist, caught up in the maelstrom of his industry, who is doing the job he needs to do in order to play ball with the big boys."

Travolta relates, "I think at first Brackett sees an opportunity to capture an interesting story for the world to see. But as the story unfolds, Brackett finds himself caring about Sam, which is something he didn't bargain for. What he thought he had was a story about some jerk with a gun. What he got was a decent fellow who is somewhat confused and a bit stupid. He doesn't want to embrace Sam, but he finds himself incapable of not embracing Sam."

A different kind of relationship evolves between Brackett and his ambitious young assistant, Laurie, played by Mia Kirshner. "There's definitely a chemistry between these two characters," Kirshner observes. "Laurie, who's young and living in a small town, idolizes Brackett, maybe even has a bit of a crush on him. She wants to be Brackett. For her, he is the consummate journalist, someone who's been in the big leagues and knows what that world is about."

Says Kopelson of Kirshner, "Costa and I interviewed many actresses but, from the moment we met Mia, we knew we had found Laurie. Mia's father is a journalist and this exposure to the media gave her the sensibility for the part. She began interviewing us just as a journalist would. She understood the character and the material and displayed an inner strength which we needed."

To portray network anchorman Kevin Hollander, "the man America most trusts," the filmmakers cast veteran performer Alan Alda. "It was clear from the very beginning that Alan should play Hollander," Gavras recalls. "He has the appearance of being trustworthy and honest. In addition, he brings his own interesting viewpoints to the character."

Alda states, "Before I had gotten halfway through the script, I knew I wanted to be a part of this film. It's an exciting story that, for me, raises a lot of important questions."

Preparing for the Roles

During pre-production, Hoffman, Gavras and Kopelson worked with television news producer Roberta Hollander, a veteran of CBS News for over 20 years. Hollander prepared several background papers for the actors, replete with information about TV news mentality, argot and technology.

As part of her role, Mia Kirshner was required to operate video and audio equipment with expertise. To learn the basics, Kirshner spent weeks training with Los Angeles' KCAL veteran news camera operator Kris Smith, who also acted as on-set technical consultant.

Kirshner recalls, "I basically shadowed Kris during her evening shift, sometimes returning home well after midnight. We covered one story involving a helicopter crash in the Antelope Valley. After the shoot, I spent some time in the editing bay with the editor, who kept cutting back to images of the bodies. For me, that summarized what news might be about in this day and age."

"This movie is multi-faceted and we are all very proud to be a part of it," Anne Kopelson states. "People will leave the theater with an awareness of the media they may never have had before. They will discuss the issues and perhaps look at television news in a whole new light."

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