When you were researching Beirut, you went the library. Now, you have Google. Do you ever feel nostalgic for going to the library for research or do you just prefer the speed of a Google search?

Man, you just get torn by it. The upside is what you can know and what you can find out, and the amount of research that you can do, and the way you can crosscheck, and the way you can find out to make sure you’re working on something that nobody else is working on and, then, all that stuff is just platinum gold. It’s just so valuable. The distraction, however, to have that at your desk… I mean, smoking was a better habit than the internet for writers. The internet is really, really destructive to your attention span. I know that, and it’s a constant. So, I think as much as it gives, it probably takes away just as much. It’s really a tap suck on your attention span if you’re not an incredibly disciplined human being because there’s always something you could be looking up. You’re always, “Oh, my God. I’m working. I’ve got to look this up.” I’m always learning, but in the end, then the day is gone, and you’ve spent time on nothing but nonsense.

When you’re researching these jobs or parts of the world you’re depicting, do you ever find what’s honest and what’s cinematic clash? Are the two ever at odds for you?

Wow. I’m trying to think of a specific example. You know, no. One of my guiding principles of 15, 20 years has become, really, if there’s a difficult question, a fundamental question, anything that’s difficult – and it could be story point, it could be a really grand sweep of a whole section of a film or a moment between two people – that there’s something there that is bothering you, that you don’t wanna ask the question and you know there’s trouble there, my experience is if you don’t go after it right away, you’re just wasting time.

And number two, almost every major problem that I’ve ever encountered in plotting, or character in anything, if you really go at it, has turned into something much better. You really have to take things that you’re afraid of and the problems that you’re afraid of, and just embrace them and turn them around, and keep twisting them on the chalkboard and figure it out, and there’s always an answer. Then, when you have it solved for something that was just fundamentally wrong, it’s just so exhilarating, and you know you’re on good territory.

You know that your character’s behavior is right, and it’s mostly about behavior. Would this person do that? Would you do that? Would you ever really do that? Would you really ask that question? Would you really wanna go there? Would you really know that? Answering those questions that I used to be afraid to answer. I mean, a lot of young writers, people read the scripts, and they’re afraid to ask those questions. That’s usually a really big solve for people’s problems.

Do you recall a scene or moment from Beirut that felt like a problem you had to fix?

Something specific. I was afraid you were gonna ask me that. I’ll tell you one thing, and this is not exactly the same, but there was one thing in the movie that shocked me later on, reading it as a director. I don’t want a spoiler, but the incident in 1972 at Skiles’ house, I never followed the boy out of the house. I never followed the boy into the car. I just left him. He just disappeared, and when I wrote the script, I was a writer. As a director, now, I was like, “Wow. What did you do? Where is he? What did you do? You don’t have that scene? What’s wrong with you?” That was just such an incredibly necessary thing to have, and the idea that I didn’t know that I needed that 30 years ago is such a tell on my inexperience at that point, to me.

I imagine looking at the Lebanese Civil War was a different experience in 1991 than when you did a couple of years ago. For you, how did time affect the story?

Well, 1982 was not really sexy in 1992. A 10-year gap is not really distinctive enough to light things up. That was one thing. So, I mean, 1982 now is really sexy – the technology, the lack of technology, the vibe, the wardrobe, the rest of it. So, the time period itself just became a lot more interesting. Look, I really accurately set this down in the winter of 1982, and the competing ugly forces that were wreaking havoc on Lebanon at that point, from the PLO to the Reagan White House, to Israel and Syria, and Russia. Those forces all coming down on this one moment in time, which is why I picked that moment in time.

Several months after this movie is over in real time, everything is gonna fall off the plate. Everything is just gonna get so much worse. If you went back and told people in 1982 in Beirut that as bad as things had been and as bad as the civil war had been, and the city destroyed, and everything, that things were gonna deteriorate from there in the Middle East, they’d think you were out of your mind.

So, looking back, it’s really interesting that this is just before religious fundamentalism comes in in a strong way in the Middle East. There’s no Hezbollah. There’s no suicide bombing. The first suicide bombing will happen six months later. The massacres and Shatila and Sabra will happen after these. All these horrible consequences of what happens in this movie explode in its aftermath. Over the course of the next 20 years, the idea of looking back at this moment, it really looks like, and … I’m sure people could pick a couple different points in time that they were real exit ramps in foreign policy where things might have really been different, but if this moment in time had really been handled differently. If there was a different administration, if Israel had been a little more afraid, if the PLO had been a little bit more unified, things might have gone in a different direction, and we know that now.

I read the story was inspired by the kidnapping of William Buckley, but you’ve said that you’re averse to telling true stories. Why is that? What keeps you away from telling true stories?

I’m averse to it for two reasons. One, I feel so incredibly responsible to the truth. The idea that I would change something or put words in someone’s mouth that they didn’t say, I cringe even saying it. That sort of Calvinistic, fundamentalist regard for the truth is really powerful to me. Also, on the flipside of being incredibly inhibited by what actually happened, I really do this so I can shape a story, so I can make it how I want. The idea that I would be trapped by a real event is really inhibiting. So, the whole of thing of it seems so claustrophobic to me. The flipside is the rigor that I put into keeping the background completely accurate. Let me a put a fictional story in the most realistic background that I could possibly do.

So, I don’t know. I’ve watched so many colleagues tear their hair out over either trying to do them or when they do them, what happens to them afterward, in the aftermath, or being really unsatisfied with the experience. Look, there’s a lot of great true-life stories, and I love them. I mean, I can’t wait for the Cheney movie to come out. I look forward to them. I’m into it, but I couldn’t do it.

Right. Just not for you.

Yeah. I just can’t do it. I would clutch up.

I know you’ve been writing a lot in the last year, so any chance we might see you direct another movie in the next year? 

Man, I hope so. I’m trying to get out of my room. I have spent too much time in my room this year. So, my effort is going to be to get out of the room this year. Yes, I would like to get back out into the world.

***

Beirut is now in theaters.

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