Return to Beirut: Brad Anderson recalls the long journey of his wartime drama to the big screen

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In 1991, Russia was one of 15 republics of the soon-to-be-disbanded Soviet Union, apartheid laws existed in South Africa, and the U.S. was engaged in a war in the Middle East. The Internet was made available to unrestricted commercial use. Dr. Seuss died that year, as did Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra, and Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury. Grunge music made its debut with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

That same year, a spec script about the relatively recent crisis in Beirut was picked up by a company called Radar Films. In 2018, the film version of that screenplay was unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival.

It’s a long journey from the page to the screen. In the time between the penning and the production of Beirut, the world changed more than it ever had in any similar timespan. That Tony Gilroy screenplay may well have been written on a typewriter. Film Journal International spoke with director Brad Anderson about the process of getting Beirut to theatres.

“I read the spec in 1991,” Anderson recalls. It was hardly a period piece back then, however, as the events of the hostage situation in Beirut, Lebanon were still very fresh to many Americans. “It was a movie that was a little touchy at the time—a little too close to the bone in early ’91, when it was just after the first Gulf War. A movie about a war-torn Middle Eastern country was too touchy for studios and financiers apparently, so the movie just didn’t get off the ground. So it went onto a shelf at Radar.”

That was a tough break for Gilroy, because “the script had a lot of attention when he first wrote it,” Anderson notes. “Different directors, different actors were attached to various stages.” But it ultimately sat idle, collecting dust. Then, a few years back, a movie about another Middle East hostage crisis from that period earned Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director: Argo.

Radar’s Michael Weber located the old Gilroy script with the aim of finally getting it into production. “I had a relationship with Tony because we had another project at one point we were trying to get off the ground that didn’t materialize.” Weber realized the two might be good collaborators.

“I liked the idea of strictly working with Tony formally and respected him as a director and a writer of course, and sort of the pedigree of the project was intriguing,” Anderson says. “I loved the idea of doing a movie, a period film particularly set in that exotic world, which I wasn’t that familiar with, frankly.

“It reminded me a little bit of a movie that I loved, which was a Peter Weir film called The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. It’s a sort of war-torn love story set in Indonesia in the late ’60s. He plays a war correspondent. And it had the same kind of dark, exotic world that the script evoked.”

Finding financing for the film wouldn’t be easy, of course. They attached Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, however, which got the ball rolling. And, of course, you must have a pretty good story to tell to get two A-list actors like that to jet off to the Middle East.

In Gilroy’s script, a U.S. diplomat (Hamm) flees Lebanon in 1972 after a tragic incident at his home. Ten years later, he is called back to war-torn Beirut by a CIA operative (Pike) to help negotiate the rescue of a friend he left behind.

After considering their options, the filmmakers decided to shoot in Tangier, Morocco. That decision caused a minor stir on Twitter, which subsequently got the attention of The New York Times.

The trailer for the Bleecker Street release has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube, launching its own hashtag calling for a boycott of the movie. So what’s the controversy? For starters, neither Hamm nor Pike, the top-billed actors, is Lebanese. And Morocco, according to maps, isn’t Lebanon.

“We cast [Hamm] because he really felt like a good fit for this guy, Mason Skiles,” says Anderson. “Based on what Jon has done in the past, [like] ‘Mad Men’…there’s a kind of intelligent world-weariness to the guy, there’s a kind of brokenness to him; the recovering from the trauma from his past; a guy who is kind of a little cynical, with a dry sense of humor, that’s Jon.”

Anderson adds, “We needed [someone] like Jon, who could bring that plausibility. You buy him as a member of the diplomatic corps, as a kind of negotiator, a talker… Jon has a lot of the attributes [to play] a guy who is just down on his luck…and given one more opportunity to pull himself up.”

And what about filming in Tangier, as opposed to Beirut? Gilroy told The Times, “Lebanon today is so sleek and modern and so put together. It doesn’t provide the sort of skeleton that we need for an art department to create the kind of destruction that there was in 1982.”

Anderson echoes that sentiment, “We really wanted to just make it look like we were really there…the patina of dust...that kind of special light that that place has… We wanted to make it feel very sort of grounded and real and a little dirty.”

“We did a lot of research…looking at old documentaries from that era and photographs, and there are a lot of visual moments in the movie that we pulled literally right from some of the classic photographs from that war—like there’s one image of these kids playing on this abandoned artillery gun on the mountains around Beirut… We looked for locations and places that evoked what we considered to be what it must’ve been like back then.”

Critics have voiced other complaints as well, such as the fact that Beirut depicts the Middle East as a violent place. Lebanese writer Nasri Atallah told The Times that while he doesn’t want films to downplay the violence of his country’s civil war, what he saw in the plotline of the Beirut trailer “does not appear to make efforts to dissect the time’s political complexities.”

Even the title of the film, Beirut, has come under siege. Philippe Aractingi, a Lebanese director, told The Times that “Gilroy’s use of the name Beirut to signify danger in the American mind [is] offensive and so stereotypical.” If the name of your city does in fact signify danger in people’s minds, that’s probably an issue to take up with your chamber of commerce or your tourism board.

But whether the criticism will affect audiences’ decision to turn out for Beirut on April 11remains to be seen. For filmmakers considering telling similar stories, using non-local actors and shooting in stand-in locations, Beirut’s opening-weekend box-office numbers will certainly be worth watching.