Until now Stuart Townsend was known mostly as a pretty boy Irish actor, famous for making some bad choices in his acting career.
Townsend and his Oscar winning girlfriend Charlize Theron have made one of the most political movies of the year. Based on the protest meetings at the World Trade Organisation in 1999, the film follows several characters as they get involved in the subsequent riot that resulted in Seattle being put into a State Of Emergency.
Stuart and Charlize were in Dublin recently for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, where they took part in a public press conference.
Movies.ie was there to find out more about the couples new film…
Stuart launches the press conference by expressing his excitement to have his own movie showing in Ireland’s biggest cinema auditorium. “ I was born across the street in the Rotunda hospital and I watched a lot of movies in here [Savoy, screen 1], so its sort of like full circle for me. I’m very inspired and I grew to love film, basically from watching movies in this very room, so it’s a real honour to be here”.
Q: What inspired you to make ‘Battle in Seattle’?
ST: I saw a couple of pictures from the riot and they just really visually captured my imagination so I started to research on the internet and within about 4 hours I felt like this was a story and the more I researched the more it came together in my head and I got to a certain point where I thought “I can do this”.
Q: Did you see it as something you could direct as well?
ST: I wanted to direct it because I could see it in my head, but I thought I’d hire a writer to do it, and then after a year and a half of research I was like, well I am not going to give this to someone now, because there is so much to look at and to learn I thought I would give it a shot myself and I’ll do a treatment and if I can’t write a script I will give it to someone else. I spent six months re-writing it and went around town, met a lot of producers and got a producer. I spent a year with that producer then she went cold on it. After about two and half, three years I was sort of back at the start, so I went back and spent a year re-writing it, dismantling it, trying to put it back together and with that draft – the third draft – I managed to secure finance.
Q: Charlize, did he have to persuade you to be involved?
Q: She was the first person to read the script.
CT: I don’t remember which draft [I read], maybe it was the first. He said “Will you read it?” and I said “Yeah of course”, but it was really nerve wracking, this could be the end of our relationship… He left and I sat in the kitchen, I just sat on the floor reading it and I thought it was brilliant. Really, really brilliant. And then I started begging… The great thing about our relationship is that we’re very honest with each other because we want the best for each other. So, it was really great, I gave him some notes, but I have to say, right off the bat, from the first draft that I read, it was really concise and here was a great arc and really… you gave a shit. The people really dragged you into it and I think with anything political you’re always walking this fine line of beating people over the head with a message and I think what Stuart did so beautifully, and the thing that shocked me the most was that he never forgot that he wanted to make a film that was going to be entertaining. I think because of that the message is even more powerful
Q: What influences would you have taken from other movies?
ST: Well first of all, Medium Cool. Medium Cool is actually in the film – real footage. Haskell Wexler wrote this film in 1968, which is about the Democratic Convention riots. That was the last big, mass mobilisation. I always wanted to have a little piece of the riot footage in the film. I worked with this amazing person called Barry Ackroyd who did all of Ken Loach’s films, and I had worked with him twice as an actor, and he is a great guy. He knew Haskell and asked if we could get Medium Cool in the movie and Haskell said yes and then said he could come up and do C camera. So he actually did C camera and then we threw him into the film for a couple of seconds.
Q: It was such a tight budget that you only got to shoot in Seattle for 2 days, and the rest was in Vancouver…
ST: Yeah that was challenging because Seattle’s such a beautiful city, architecturally, so I would have loved to have shot there. It was challenging, but its part of the fun, trying to make one city look like another.
Q: Charlize, what was it like trying to shoot the big action scenes on the streets?
CT: It was amazing. The first day I showed up there was… I don’t know how many extras, but we were shooting on the streets for the scenes where I am trying to get through the crowd. I didn’t really know what to expect because I was actually shooting another film so I literally just came down. We were on the phone every night, we were kind of on the same schedule so every night we would be on the phone bitching to each other; “We need more money!” “We need more days!” But I had no idea what to expect, so when I walked on, there was this incredible energy because Stuart had kept this family of real protesters so there was this authenticity in the air. We weren’t shooting and people were cheering, and it didn’t feel like shooting in the way that Barry (Ackroyd) works. At one point we were both down on our knees and I was like “My god, Barry’s in the crowd with me, and he’s shooting!”. It felt very real, it didn’t feel like we were shooting a film. Then every once in while you’d see Stuart on a ladder with a bullhorn screaming at everybody. So there was this real, kind of, everybody just out there doing it, which was amazing and I think that energy really comes through. You never felt like “Ok, now we’re rolling”, it was just kind of happening all the time.
Q: Was Stuart easy to take direction from?
CT: God, he was a pain in my ass!
ST: I was shouting with the bullhorn “Do it, baby do it!”. There was this one scene where she gets hit, and Charlize has this thing where she gets on set and tells jokes, has a laugh and then it’s like “Action!”. I had my editor with me, and in this scene where she gets hit, and there’s snot coming out [of her nose], and its real snot! And there’s this primal scream coming out of her, then its “Cut” and she gets up and starts telling jokes, and I’m just like, “how does she do that?” So it was pretty amazing!
Q: The film tells both sides, both protesters and police. Did you talk to people from both sides when you were researching the film?
ST: I didn’t talk to anyone – I didn’t know who to go to, so I didn’t talk to protesters, I didn’t talk to WTO, primarily because I didn’t know how to go about doing it. So the internet was my friend and the internet was what really got people there [to the protest]. So I researched a lot of books, a lot of media about the event. The one thing I found really hard to find was anything about the WTO and what happened inside the convention because they are not transparent so there are no media allowed in, there’s not reporting about what actually went on. The only thing I could find, out of a year and half of research was the African delegate. His speech at the end [of the film] is almost verbatim. I found the speech in my research and decided to create a character because I thought that was an important element in the victory. Also it was a way in to the WTO. I really didn’t want to just make it up, because I really wanted to keep it authentic so the Doctors Without Borders [Medcins Sans Frontieres] and the African Delegate were the only way in and they are both real characters.
Q: At the end of the movie it says that not much has changed since 2003, are you any more optimistic now?
ST: Seattle was important because it really derailed the WTO from progressing its negative agenda. They have been stuck in these Doha Rounds for years and they are trying to reach an agreement. It’s difficult because the developed nations have the markets that are centuries old. It is difficult to try and reach an agreement and both nations, both developing and developed can’t seem to reach an agreement. Also, one of the big things I would say is, people have talked about trying to do a parallel WTO body that takes into consideration the environment and workers rights. That’s my message in this; it’s not just about profit. The WTO is very much corporately run but it has to incorporate human values and that just hasn’t happened yet.
Q: Why are you opposed to GM foods?
ST: Primarily because they haven’t been fully tested. Some of the tests they have done on rats, particularly pregnant rats, have concluded that a large percentage of these rats die. Secondly, as a marketing tool, it was put out there that they were going to feed the Third World, and that’s total crap. They are going to feed the bottom line of companies like Monsanto and that’s the truth. GM food is in essence a ploy to take over the world’s food supply. There is a brilliant film called ‘The Future of Food’ and that is like the scariest horror movie you’ve ever seen!
Q: How difficult will it be to distribute this movie because it attacks major corporations?
ST: I went through the Hollywood route and a lot of companies and producers were interested but no one took the bait. There was a company called Participant they are very much about environment and sustainability and I really hoped that they would take it. I put together a 15 minute film of footage with the script, and they didn’t go for it. I re-wrote and they didn’t go for it. That was a moment when I thought “No-one’s going to take it if these guys don’t take it”. Then the Canadians came along! It’s being distributed through an independent distributor. It’s a difficult process and we are just in the middle of that right now. It [the film] is a product, so ironically I am fighting against the model that the film speaks about.
Q: This is completely irrelevant but I would like to know where Charlize keeps her Oscar?
CT: It travels with us. It’s in a little corner office that I use, right beside the bathroom where I make sure all our guests go. So I’m like “It’s right there to the left… Past the Oscar…”
Q: Are you going to the Oscars this year?
CT: No, the Oscars is a special event its great when you get to go, but its also great when you get to sit in your pyjamas and watch it on the couch.
Thanks to Brogen Hayes for her work at the press conference.
‘Battle In Seattle’ will open in Irish cinemas later this year.
Keep visiting Movies.ie for the release date.