John Cusack

The genial actor talks about his new film, past films and politics

John Cusack has been entertaining us in many different ways for the last few decades, from his teen comedies in the 80s to his career renaissance in the late 90s, co-writing and starring in the marvelous flick Grosse Pointe Blank to the slew of movies he's done since then. He is one of my favorite actors, so you could imagine my glee when I got the chance to interview Cusack over the phone about his new film, War, Inc., in which he plays Brand Hauser (best character name of the year so far), a hitman without a country and he also co-wrote and produced the film as well. Here's what he had to say.

So how did you and your co-writers, Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pisker, come up with this concept?

John Cusack: We wanted to do a piece on Iraq War and the invasion, so I knew we wanted to do that. We were talking about samurai movies a lot, because samurai movies, they're these elite warriors who have fallen on hard times because of the corruption of the house that they worked in, with the families. Usually in the movies they're sort of wandering around and they're disillusioned that they've been corrupted and they're living in a fallen world. They're looking for meaning and usually the movie deals with them finding it again. We were playing around with that sort of mythology. We wanted to set it in and around the Middle East and in the future where these companies are invading and completely outsourcing wars. Private enterprise, 100% private. Right now we have about half (Laughs).

(Laughs) Yeah. That's true.

John Cusack: So it was based on that and Mark and Jeremy and I just took all these different influences and threw them in a blender, in a way. We loved Southern, we loved Kafka, we loved samurai movies, Preston Sturges, the Marx Brothers, political cartoons, so we have a bunch of different influences and traditions in here. We tried to just do something new.

When you were all writing this, did you have any of these specific actors in mind for these characters?

John Cusack: Yeah. Actually, we thought Marissa (Tomei) pretty early on, because she had read another one of our scripts and she had really liked it. Who else did we think of... Joanie (Cusack). We thought she could do that. I thought of Dan Aykroyd pretty early on for that part. Hillary (Duff) and Ben Kingsley were kind of the surprises. We thought, 'Oh my God, if they want to do it that'd be great.'

Why was the title changed from Brand Hauser: Stuff Happens to War, Inc.? Brand Hauser is such a great character name and I thought it was a great title.

John Cusack: Oh yeah. I think what happened was as we were doing the movie, getting it together, when we first put it out, it was a different climate. People really appeared to be afraid of dissent and war. The government would say 'These people should be careful about what they say,' as if these kind of hypocrites and profiteers who have the moral authority to judge honest, patriotic dissent in our country. It's such an outrage. So, we thought we were going to get flak for doing this movie anyway, no matter what we do, so we just might as well call it War, Inc., take it head on, you know. That was kind of the impetus for it, just to say head on for what we were doing and just say, 'Screw you.'

(Laughs) That definitely makes sense.

John Cusack: It helped probably explain a little more of what the movie was about and give it more context. I always liked that name too, Brand Hauser.

Absolutely. So, how would you compare Martin Blank to Brand Hauser?

John Cusack: I think they're both samurai's, you know. It's kind of like a movie where people play cops or people play detectives, I mean there are so many different ones. It's an archetype, you know? They're different character but they plow some of the same satiric ground, I suppose. I definitely didn't think I was done with that archetype. I thought I had more in me.

I see you have a lot of projects coming up and, when you look into projects that you're not producing or writing yourself, what kind of factors do you take into consideration when choosing a role?

John Cusack: Sometimes you just do things like this, where you just feel like you want to go out and do it because you're working with brave and inspiring people. Other times, you're trying to play to the system and try to get the best of what you can in Hollywood, which is a tough town, tough business. I'm just looking to try and balance the art and the commerce and do things that are good and challenging and stay viable.

What kind of budget did you film War, Inc. under and how long did you guys shoot for?

John Cusack: It was pretty short. We had about a third of the money we had for Grosse Pointe Blank, 10 years ago. It was a punk rock movie for sure. We made it look like a huge movie, though. The guys did an incredible job.

Oh yeah. Just from the trailer alone, I wasn't sure what the budget was like for that.

John Cusack: We had to all fly to Bulgaria. We shot it in Bulgaria.

So was your shooting schedule pretty quick then?

John Cusack: Yeah, it was pretty quick. Pretty short. I can't remember exactly how many days, but it was rough and tumble.

Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity are my two favorite movies of yours, actually, and they're the two that you've written and produced. Are there any other ideas you're currently working on for writing?

John Cusack: I've written two other scripts with Mark Leyner, that I really love and want to do. I'm always looking to write a new one, but this is what I have so far.

Would you ever consider directing at all?

John Cusack: Yeah, sure. It's just very collaborative, when you're writing a movie and producing it and starring in it, you're working with the director. We had a director who came in and really loved the writing and was into it. I was doing 1408, the pre-production on that. But yeah. I'm down to do it, for sure.

Is there anything you can tell us about either The Factory, Shanghai or Stopping Power? They all look like pretty damn good movies.

John Cusack: Oh, Stopping Power didn't happen. They were having financial problems. The company is in big trouble, I think they went bankrupt. I don't know what's going on with that one except for people are planning on getting sued. But, Shanghai I'm just about to go do and The Factory I just finished.

I saw just on IMDB that it said Stopping Power was filming right now.

John Cusack: Well, maybe they got it together with somebody else. I don't know, but the director we were working with was working and they just pulled the plug on him.

Hmm, interesting. I saw you listed the top 5 movies you performed in, a few years ago for Total Film. With War, Inc. into the mix, would that bump any of your previous top 5 out?

John Cusack: I don't think I did a top 5, did I?

It was from Total Film Magazine in 2006. It was Grifters, Grosse Pointe Blank, Max, The Thin Red Line and High Fidelity.

John Cusack: Oh yeah. Somebody asked me if I had to pick five, you know. I've made like 10 or 15 that are good movies.

Is War, Inc. definitely in that eschelon?

John Cusack: Yeah, for sure. I hope so. It's a way more experimental, crazy movie than any of those other movies.

With the current climate about the way, do you think that this is just a perfect fit for this current climate in America about the war?

John Cusack: I definitely feel things have changed. The stench of lies is so intense that people's eyes are watered. The soldiers have been asked to do something, and they've done it incredibly well, but the ideology behind this and this administration is completely corrupt. You can't say, 'We're not patriotic,' you can't say that the censors are not patriotic and they don't support the troops. That's not going to work anymore. The gig is up and you're being exposed for what you are, which are basically war profiteers and Meseonic idealogues. That's the truth of it, or at least that's what I believe. Other people can believe what they want. We tried to make this movie as politically incorrect as that ideology is obscene. I heard an interesting thing about the original MASH - not that I'm saying we're as good as MASH or anything - but it was during the Vietnam War and Robert Altman said that the war was so obscene, they were just trying to be as tasteless as the war (Laughs). So we tried to remember that too. This isn't going to be a movie for everybody. This isn't going to be a movie that everybody is going to rush to understand. Hopefully I'm wrong, you know, but I knew it was going to be controversial and such a punk rock movie.

I think it's great that it's getting a summer release. Throw in the controversy with all the big heavy hitters.

John Cusack: Why not, right?

Exactly. Finally, one more quick thing, it seems that they're going back to the 80s with all these different projects, like they're doing The A-Team and all these other different projects. Has there ever been any talk about your 80s classics being made like Say Anything or One Crazy Summer or Better Off Dead?

John Cusack: Never. I haven't heard anything.

Oh, neither have I, but the 80s are starting to come back en vogue now, so I was just wondering.

John Cusack: That would be great. I would love that.

Yeah, that would be great. Well, that's about all I have for you, John. Thank you so much for your time. I'm a huge fan of yours.

John Cusack: Oh, thank you. That's really kind of you to say. Thanks a lot.

You can catch the John Cusack's performances in writing, producing and acting in War, Inc. on May 23 when it opens in Los Angeles and New York City.