"Their idea was based on an actual event that took place in St. Louis," says Hoberman. "The best hostage negotiator in St. Louis alleged he got framed by people within the police department and ended up taking hostages to smoke out the people he said were the real culprits. And the only guy he felt he could trust was a stranger, so he called in the second-best hostage negotiator in St. Louis to work with him."
What so attracted Hoberman to the project was the story's inherent contradiction of "somebody who epitomizes the law having to break the law in order to prove his innocence; a police officer who commits a crime to prove that he didn't commit the crime they're saying he did. I always thought that was a really interesting premise and moral dilemma."
Hoberman hired screenwriters James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox and began developing the story. "They had a really interesting take on the material and a passion for the story," says Hoberman. "They also had a personal emotional stake in the story because Kevin's family has had policemen in it for generations and they're friends with a lot of cops. So they knew the world really well."
The project was set up at producer Arnon Milchan's New Regency Productions and F. Gary Gray was soon brought on board to direct. "I had seen 'Set It Off,' which I thought was extraordinary," explains Hoberman, "then I showed it to Arnon and the New Regency executives, who loved the movie as much as I did. Like 'The Negotiator,' it was about people pushed against the wall who had to do something illegal in order to survive."
"I thought the story of 'The Negotiator' was very fresh and original," explains Gary Gray. "It's a film that doesn't quite fit into a specific genre and I like that. There are a lot of movies that are specifically action or specifically drama and, to me, this project represents the best of both."
Gray elaborates, "Connecting the kind of large-scale, epic action that we shot in the streets of Chicago with the character-driven moment-by-moment drama that's going on between Danny Roman and Chris Sabian was almost like performing surgery. It was a delicate balance weaving these things together to make sure that one component didn't upstage the other. Because we have such powerful dramatic moments, we were always careful not to have them diminished by the action."
"But beyond that," Arnon Milchan elaborates, "what's particularly interesting is the dynamic of the arena. Hostage negotiators have to go out instantly, without really knowing the hostage-taker personally, become extremely intimate with that person, get into his psychology, be able to relate to him on his level -- and then turn him around and change his behavior. They have to be willing to put themselves out to do that -- and that means making themselves vulnerable."
The filmmakers all believe the strength of the material and the dynamic of the two central characters is what attracted actors of the caliber of Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey to the project.
"I couldn't believe it," says Gray. "When I agreed to direct the film, I sat down with Arnon Milchan, David Matalon and David Hoberman and they said, 'Who would you want, if you could have your dream cast, for the two main characters, Danny Roman and Chris Sabian?' And I said, 'I would love to have Samuel Jackson and Kevin Spacey; they're my first choice and we'll go from there.' So they made offers to Sam and Kevin, they both said yes and I got exactly the two actors I wanted."
"'The Negotiator' is really a dance between the characters Danny Roman and Chris Sabian," explains Milchan, "who have philosophical differences about the approach to hostage negotiation. These two individuals are from different walks of life, from different parts of Chicago. So it was always imperative to get two terrific actors who could play off each other."
"Sam Jackson as an actor is intense and extremely complex, always delivering extraordinary dimension to his characters," says executive producer David Nicksay. "In addition, he always makes you like him which, for this film, is essential. It's very important that we're going to be with this character in going up against the system.
"What the film allows Kevin Spacey to display is his unique intelligence," Nicksay continues. "His character is incredibly well-schooled, psychologically very adept; he understands how to manipulate people, how to scope out the power centers within a situation and the interpersonal relationships within a group of people. Kevin has all that native intelligence, so his character comes across so sharp that he's able to cut right through the various levels to get to the truth."
The prospect of playing opposite Kevin Spacey was a big part of what excited Samuel L. Jackson about the project. "I'd read the script and really responded to the role of Danny Roman, but when the combination of Kevin and myself was presented to me I just broke out into a big smile," says Jackson.
"Kevin and I had briefly touched on trying to work together when we did 'A Time to Kill,' so when I ran into him at a party we talked about 'The Negotiator' and I said, 'If you do it, I'll do it.' And he said, 'Well, if you do it, I'll do it.' And we pretty much made a deal with each other."
"Sam and I have known each other for more than 18 years," says Kevin Spacey. "I used to see Sam in plays and we used to be at the same auditions. And when we did 'A Time to Kill' we had a really great opportunity to sort of feel what it's like to work together. We decided that we wanted to do something together again, and when 'The Negotiator' presented itself we both eagerly agreed to do it."
In addition to working with Spacey, Jackson says, "I responded to this drama, which had great dialogue and a relationship between two guys who do the same job in different ways. When we meet Danny at the beginning of the film, he's negotiating with a guy who's holding someone hostage. That scene is there so the audience will see the difference between how he does it and what Chris Sabian does when he shows up to negotiate with Danny.
"Danny is the kind of guy who will negotiate only so long and then he'll go into a situation and change it or become active in it. On the other hand, Chris is the kind of guy who waits the situation out and figures out ways to manipulate and defuse it. Danny won't necessarily wait; he'll turn up the heat and go in."
"The character of Chris Sabian interested me because he's undefeatable," says Spacey. "I mean, he has a reputation and a history as someone who will negotiate, and the art of negotiation, in his view, is to talk things out. Some professional negotiators that I met during my research for the role want to make a move sooner; they want to try to bring something to an end. Sam's character in the film, for example, is someone who takes risks and he'll go in and try to resolve a situation -- with gunfire, if necessary.
"But Chris Sabian is a character who makes the decision to try to negotiate through dialogue. Sam's the one doing all the dives and jumping off railings, with explosions happening all around him, and I'm 'warm and cozy' in a room.
"One of the things that drew me to the project was that there was not only a conflict in terms of the story and the plot, but also a conflict between the styles of these two negotiators," Spacey continues. "Danny chooses Chris to come in and negotiate because they don't know each other (they've met maybe once or twice in training sessions) and they work in different areas of the Chicago Police Department. Since Danny's been framed, he doesn't know who his friends are anymore. So, as he says in the movie, 'Sometimes the only person you can trust is a stranger.'
"And Chris himself," Spacey explains, "is not only thrust into an unknown situation, but it's a situation in which he doesn't know who is guilty and who's not. So he has to come in with an open mind. Then, as information begins to feed itself to him, he makes decisions about who he's going to test and how he's going to test them."
"I tend to do jobs that allow me to talk, interact with other actors, not just interact with things," says Jackson. "And I prefer to find scripts which have complex characters who express themselves with words because I tend to think of myself as a wordsmith. 'The Negotiator' represented a perfect combination of character and action.
"Even though there's a big thing going on," Jackson explains, "with lots of people on the outside trying to get into a building and I'm inside the building trying to keep them out, between the action scenes there's some interesting character development. Every-body has time to find out something intimate about the characters; they become human beings to the audience."
Both Jackson and Spacey did a fair degree of research for their roles. "I played in the LAPD golf tournament and one of the guys I played with used to be a hostage negotiator for the FBI," says Jackson, "and he told me about the man who actually started the hostage negotiation program. I never got to meet him, but we talked a lot about it. I also read up on them, looked into them -- their backgrounds, the way they work. But most of it's character stuff -- you get inside the hostage building and you know you're trying to save your life and prove your point."
"A number of real hostage negotiators were around in Chicago," says Spacey, "and we also had the opportunity to talk to many of the ex-cops of Call-The-Cops, who work professionally with motion picture productions. They come around and give you a great deal of background, not just in terms of what they would or wouldn't do, but real technical background about any police device we'd be using. And they gave us some of the actual diagrams, plans and instruction manuals for how these various hostage phones and things worked."
"They all brought different things to the table," says Gary Gray, "all different colors that made this painting. And that's what I liked about the ensemble; they were all so different from each other, so no matter what came out of their mouths, there was a strong individual point of view. They made my job a lot easier!"
According to David Nicksay, "The actors brought a great amount of mystery to their roles. As characters, we're not certain where they stand, we're not sure which side they're on, and that's very critical to the storytelling in this film. We need to be suspicious of each character at every step along the way."
David Morse, who plays Commander Beck, the head of the TAC force, at 6'5", with a shaven head, brought enormous power to his role. "Adam Beck, the SWAT Commander, is extremely professional, almost to the point of being annoying," says Morse, "but the thing that's foremost in his mind is the welfare of his men; it's his greatest responsibility and he truly takes it to heart. And he has very little sense of humor about anything. Beck has very strong feelings about the right way to do things, and he's at odds with the way that first Danny Roman and then Chris Sabian do their jobs."
Says Arnon Milchan, "Ron Rifkin's a very unlikely choice to play Commander Frost, a friend and colleague of Danny's who becomes one of the hostages. But he gives a great performance, very understated."
"I'd never done a film like this before, never played this kind of character before, a guy who's deputy chief of police of Chicago," says Ron Rifkin. "I usually play either European, sophisticated people, or urban people, lawyers, doctors. Just on that basis alone, Frost seemed to be an intriguing character for me to play. It was also an interesting cast and I liked the script."
Regina Taylor, who plays Danny's wife Karen, says, "I felt in the character of Karen Roman there was an intriguing personality. I liked the relationship between Karen and Danny, and I wanted to explore it with Sam, with whom I've worked before on an episode of 'I'll Fly Away.' Karen and Danny are newlyweds and they're trying to find the boundaries of their relationship. I think what attracts Karen to Danny is that he's a risk-taker, but that horrifies her as well, because she doesn't want to lose him. And that's her whole drama throughout the film -- she cares about him, but what excites her about him is the same thing that puts all of them in peril."
As for working again with Jackson, Taylor enthuses, "It's a wonderful rapport that we have; there is an innate energy between us and he's such a solid actor that he uses that and we bounce off each other in our scenes."
"My character, Niebaum, is the head of the Chicago IAD and he gets some information through an informant that there's a scam going on," said J.T. Walsh. "Danny Roman takes me hostage and wants me to open up about what I know so he can clear his name, but to his frustration I won't, particularly when I have the whole Chicago police force outside ready to help me. Our interaction tests both of our wills."
John Spencer as Chief Al Davis, Danny's boss, "feels like Chicago," according to Hoberman. "He's the calming influence between Chris Sabian and Commander Beck during their heated differences in the HBT command post."
"Al Travis is kind of an old-fashioned, old-school cop," says John Spencer. "He has standard, old-fashioned values and doesn't understand why Danny Roman, his star negotiator, has freaked out and become a hostage-taker. He looks at his officers as members of his family, so when all of a sudden the 'favorite son' has gone crazy and become a maverick, Travis doesn't get this. He wants to solve the situation without having Danny killed or hurt and wants to have it over with very quickly so he doesn't appear a fool in front of the press.
"I thought the script was intriguing because it's ostensibly an action film, but it's really a character study. And I'm one of five or six people who could be the bad guy."
"From early on we always liked the idea of setting the film in Chicago," says producer David Hoberman, "because it's a great city to shoot in. It's a really masculine city and it has north and south so we could establish Danny and Chris as coming from these different worlds. And we wanted a city with some size and color to it."
"It was incredible -- 400 or so extras every night; 25 to 30 police officers cordoning off the shooting area, re-directing traffic; the city transportation authority re-routing buses and clearing traffic to allow helicopters to fly over the top of city streets; the marine unit of the police department arranging for cessation of traffic on the river; and the police department's cooperation, with their mounted police and K-9 units that worked in the film for crowd control in our riot scenes."
The primary Chicago location was a building at 77 West Wacker Drive, representing the Police Department's Internal Affairs Division offices, where Danny Roman takes Inspector Niebaum and his staff hostage. A nine block perimeter around the building was also used for exterior shooting.
The building, which is the focal point of the story's action, was chosen by the filmmakers because it has the most dramatic architecture of any office structure facing the river on the downtown side.
"At first we were looking for these small, old architectural federal buildings," says Hoberman, "but while scouting the city, Gary and our production designer, Holger Gross, found 77 West Wacker, this extraordinary 50-story structure. It sits right on the Chicago River, which is a wonderful visual element, and on the river happened to be some old construction barges used for maintenance of the bridges. So they came up with the idea of a beat-up old construction barge as the HBT command post across the river. The barge worked well in the story because it allowed a good perspective on the 20th floor, which is where the hostage drama takes place, and it could also keep the police separate from the press, who wouldn't have any access to the barge."
Says Holger Gross, "Before I went to Chicago, David Hoberman told me that Gary wanted to play up the river. I joked 'What are we going to do, put some kind of barge on it?' Then, when I got to Chicago, the first thing I noticed was the construction barges on the river and I couldn't believe it! The concept was the contrast in texture between a very modern-looking IAD building and a messy, dirty construction barge."
Other locations used in the area include the Clark Street Bridge; the intersections of Clark Street & Wacker Drive and Dearborn Street & Wacker Drive; and the Quaker Oats building across the river, which offered dynamic vantage points of the 77 West Wacker building -- its rooftop was used as a landing site for SWAT team snipers rappelling down from a police helicopter, as well as its 39th floor which was used for sniper positions and point-of-view shots.
Adds David Nicksay, "For the aerial unit, coordinated by Cliff Fleming, we had to file flight plans with the FAA and city officials and, since we were flying part of our pattern over the river, we also had to have the Coast Guard involved. So there was an amazing amount of coordination between multiple jurisdictions.
"I think all of this worked right into Gary's vision of the movie," Hoberman adds, "making the scene a big-time hostage situation which elevated the whole story and heightened all the dramatic elements for the better."
Filming continued in Los Angeles at the Raleigh Studios, where key sets were constructed on soundstages. These included the interior of the barge/HBT headquarters and a three-story space covering the interior and partial exterior of the IAD offices.
Los Angeles locations utilized for filming included a restaurant, a park, a police precinct, the interior of the State's Attorney's office, a police firing range and several residential locations.
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