Brad Silberling on the Charm of Monsters in ‘An Ordinary Man’

Pulling himself free from the trenches of the studio system, Brad Silberling partners with Ben Kingsley to serve cosmic karma to some real-life monsters.
An Ordinary Man
By  · Published on April 19th, 2018

Pulling himself free from the trenches of the studio system, Brad Silberling partners with Ben Kingsley to serve cosmic karma to some real-life monsters.

We encounter human evil every time we turn on our television sets. News at 11 – some atrocity passes our screens every few minutes. How do we reconcile with it all? How do we compartmentalize and rationalize these acts of daily misery? It’s all too much.

Writer/director Brad Silberling (Land of the Lost, A Series of Unfortunate Events) lost himself in the endless tragedies surrounding the fallout of the Bosnian conflict. Unable to shake the image of war criminals walking freely through downtown streets, Silberling channeled his confusion and disgust into the screenplay for An Ordinary Man. Here was his opportunity to make amends with the horror and reality of monsters.

On the week of the film’s release, I chatted with Silberling about the challenges of exposing the charisma of villains without betraying their heinous nature. Half the battle is won by casting Ben Kingsley as the unnamed General. Few actors can bounce from a smile to a Cheshire grimace quite like Sir Ben, and he easily stirs your laughter into revulsion.

Having spent years directing television and Hollywood star vehicles, the director needed to rip himself from the studios to tell this story of grotesque humanity. Silberling uses cinema to put these men on trial, using the camera as a hangman’s noose. He found his sense of justice through art.

Here is our conversation in full:

I just watched An Ordinary Man last night and gosh, what a treat it is to have Ben Kingsley for just an entire film.

Yes, yeah. Here’s the secret not so secret selfish instinct that often happens. When I sit down to write, it’s like I just want to spend time on screen with some of these incredible actors and hopefully have a vehicle for them that’s worthy. You nailed it on the head, and actually true of Hera Hilmar as well, and to have that be the special effect of the film, it’s just the performances. These days they’re hard to get made, they’re hard to get done, but it’s literally why I go through the effort on the more intimate movies. He’s incredible.

When did he get involved? Did you write the screenplay with him in mind?

I’m newer to the independent world. The other pictures have all, with the exception of a film I made with Morgan Freeman, 10 Items Or Less, they’ve all been studio films. I know I’m a newbie and so I have nothing to complain about, ’cause I hear the horror stories from people whose pictures have taken 10 years or 15 years to come together. They all smirk when I say, “Gosh, it was a house of cards that kept blowing over,” but no, I often do write with an actor in mind. Interestingly, in this case, the character filled the room up so much that I didn’t have an actor in mind and all I can tell you is that, again, on the independent film journey the most direct way to start is to have a package for your picture.

You’ve got to go out and find your leads and then finance it based on your package, the filmmaker, the leads hopefully, the script. The beauty of any movie when you’re making it is when it’s done, you can’t imagine it any other way, and I was an idiot probably not to have him in my head, to begin with, but no, I went through a journey where there were two other significant actors attached, one of whom had just become a client of the agency I was with at the time when I wrote the script. They were like, “Oh my God, this is the perfect vehicle for him.” We met within days, he was all excited, but the paydays are not there.

The actors can either realize up front that it’s not going to be something that they’re going to go carve that time out for. It can slowly bleed out that they may have just suddenly hit a moment where they’re suddenly making $20 million on their movies and they want to do this desperately artistically, but they keep, whether the deal can’t close or the start date keeps slipping … Anyway, I went on a journey and got understandably frustrated, and then an agent I know, Chris Andrews, who had represented Susan Sarandon back when I made Moonlight Mile, I just happened to read at the right moment that he had taken on Kingsley as a client and I was like, “Oh my God, why have I not thought of Ben Kingsley?” That would be pretty remarkable.

The fine Sir Ben is an incredible worker. He is as compulsive as I am. He bones down and does his work, so I feel like I sent the script to Andrews on a Friday and I was meeting with Kingsley by no later than the Wednesday the following week. He just read it and immediately responded, so met him, we knew we wanted to go make the film together, and then at that point, he was attached. I turn around to the independent financing group at my agency and say, “Okay guys, how do we do this,” and so that’s really the journey at that point, it is finally with a package. You know, movies for grown-ups, it’s not an easy subject matter. Took over a year to get the right financing formula and start date.

So let’s go to that, the subject matter. It’s not like it’s a graphic watch by any means, but the character is a bit of a monster – not a bit, he’s a monster. Why tell his story in this way?

Well, I’ll tell you it’s a little bit of trying to find my own version of cold justice for a set of characters for whom I did not know how else to get at. I took three films over the years to the Sarajevo Film Festival, and that’s how I became familiar with the region, the personalities in the region, and Sarajevo in particular, which was besieged obviously ironically by, in this case, General Ratko Mladić, who was leading the siege at Sarajevo. They just … You’ve seen the footage. When I started to, about ten years ago when I was hearing about Serbia and all of the countries in the Balkans desperately trying to be granted EU status and membership, and the EU turning around and basically saying, “Not until you bring in your most wanted fugitives,” to think about these guys as I read up just moving about in fairly plain sight in these capitals, it to me just drove me crazy.

And having been to Sarajevo, having seen just the cost and the incredible spirit of the people, and I know that it’s true in Serbia because I’ve spent time there, and I know that it’s true in Croatia, so each side has its own story. In the end, it all boils down to human connection, and the only way you can punish somebody is to starve them. You can dangle it and then starve them of it, and as I read up in particular, there was a New York Times piece which was just about a Hague tribunal, and they were just detailing the unbelievably shoddy and banal details of moving these loyalists, in this case, it was Ratko Mladić in Belgrade. I know the same thing happened with his political partner Radovan Karadžić, but what they described shocked me in terms of how threadbare and banal it was.

It’s to a certain extent, “how the mighty have fallen,” and yet at the same time, he was still free which I found just shocking, but in those details at one point they said, ’cause he clearly was a pain in the ass … What I read between the lines as I was hearing these loyalists, the guy clearly was an outsized personality, a huge fucking pain in the ass. They’re moving him from couch to couch, and in the end, they finally at one point put him in his own apartment and he refused security, and the only thing they provided him with was phone cards, groceries, and a maid. I thought that personality, big big man, little little box, his personal hell would be alone in an apartment, but what would that relationship be with the maid? I don’t think he was the only one, but I know in the case of Mladić, his own daughter committed suicide when she finally learned from a credible source about her father’s actions, and so to me that was the root.

I should be more vague, but my wanting to mete out a karmic and cosmic punishment to somebody like this. The character, of course, wants to essentially have a vicarious relationship with his daughter that he never got to have, but because he refuses to take responsibility, he is literally doomed to keep recreating the same loss and that is where I wanted to leave him. I believe it was Hannah Arendt who talked about the banality of evil, and it would be great if all evils were Marvel villains who came with a freeze ray gun. Sadly I don’t believe it’s that, and I think they can be next door, and yet as I say, wanting to meter some justice out. That’s the only way I knew how to do it.

If I was to be 100% honest, I was initially confused by that dynamic because it is so bizarre. The concept of this guy going grocery shopping out in the open and making the rounds. And then Kingsley, because he’s Ben Kingsley, he’s so charismatic. It’s easy to like the General.

Absolutely, and that’s what’s really interesting. There’s YouTube footage of these personalities. Here’s the thing, it’s remarkable, Mladić in particular, gregarious and warm. It’s your fat uncle, handing out candies to kids he’s going to see exterminated within half a day, and seductive, charming like a host and so that’s why, thank God for Ben Kingsley, because when I met him for the first time I said, “Can you actually commit to the seriously entertaining and dastardly charming qualities that I think this guy had. You see how he succeeded.

A number of these guys, they succeeded because they were disarming. Kingsley said, “No, that’s the only reason I’m sitting with you is I do believe that’s how these guys actually get to be able to commit the crimes they do.” The devils aren’t necessarily demonish. The devils are seductive and very winning, so that was the intention, and that freedom you’re talking about, that’s what’s shocking. These guys, Mladić, Karadžić, they have that in Belgrade. When I first went to scout, again I was not sure politically if I’d be able to make the movie there, and the scouts I worked with would just point out the spots. They’d go, “Oh yeah, he was in that building. The other guy, he was there and this is where he shopped.” And I’d say, “Wait, you knew that?” And they said, “Oh yeah, everyone knew.” It was shocking and you’re getting a taste of what shocked me enough to suddenly have my story brain get going.

You mentioned how you jumped from the studio system. You’d done 10 Items Or Less independently, but this was a jump from stuff like Lemony Snicket. What’s the excitement around that or what’s the anxiety around that?

The funny thing with most studio films, for better or worse, when you, and even if it’s something you’ve written yourself, you generally know as you get started almost what day the picture’s going to be released and what the popcorn’s going to taste like. Filmmakers are control freaks. We all are. That’s why we do what we do. What you take on with an independent film is just that much more volatile, but it requires that more passion to a certain extent because of that volatility. You hear these stories, productions days out and the piece of financing falls apart and suddenly you’re back to square one. If you don’t have a really good marriage with your material, you’re not going to make it. That’s why in this case it was a journey, but on the positive side, there’s something incredibly streamlined. It reminds you more of film school. There’s something very streamlined about it on the creative side.

The first morning we were shooting, I have a Polish cinematographer, a woman named Magdalena Górka who did the film, and as we came in and I started having her pull out some of the fill light and some of the touches that I think her earliest days of studio filmmaking burned in to her, she looked at me and said, “Are they going to let us do this?” I looked at her and I smiled, I said, “There is no they. It’s we. It’s us right here. Let’s do it.” That’s the pleasure of it for sure.

An Ordinary Man is now playing in select theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)