Is Bashar al-Assad the tyrant Western nations would have you believe? Or is the Syrian dictator just … human? In an amazing scoop, The Chaser Quarterly has snared Sean Penn’s second-ever foray into journalism.
I am standing in the waiting room next to Bashar al-Assad’s office. It is a regular room, square in nature but three-dimensional, with four walls, on the top of each is a ceiling, on the bottom a floor. On the floor is carpet, which is like a rug that you nail to the ground. My heart is pounding in my chest and it feels like a jackhammer would feel if a jackhammer was pounding in my chest – unpleasant. The door to Bashar al-Assad’s office swings open. It’s time.
Jump cutback four months. Rewind. Credit sequence. Star wipe. Fade to black. Then back up again. Interior shot. A board room in downtown Hollywood. I (Sean) am sitting in this room with the head of Sony Pictures, Raymond Knox, and I am telling him my idea for a picture. Close up on my face, then a grapefruit on the table. The shot of the grapefruit shows it is brunch time. Shot of Raymond fiddling with a spoon. This is also a brunch time thing. I finish up my pitch.
There is a pause in the room.‘I love it,’ says Knox.‘It’s Big Wednesday meets The Conversation,’ says another exec. ‘No,’ says Knox, holding up a single finger. ‘It’s Scarface meets Amélie.’
‘And then,’ adds a different, nodding exec excitedly, ‘while Scarface is meeting Amélie, they run into…
‘Gattica,’ finishes Knox with a knowing smile, ‘who joins them at their table for a drink!’ The excitement in the room is now palpable. I am glad of this. The film I am pitching is a labour of love. It’s a biopic of one of the most feared and potentially misunderstood men on the planet – the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Why Bashar al-Assad? It’s very simple. People fascinate me. I am a people-watcher. I watch people all the time. I watch them when I am on the subway, or at one of our nation’s many aquariums or even at an aquarium in an entirely different country to the United States ofAmerica. And I can’t turn it off. Often, I’ll be sitting in the front row of a Lakers game just watching the people in front of me and wondering,who are all these people, really? Very often I am struck with the same answer – ‘professional basketball players’, but not always. After all, is there anything more complex than a human being?
Probably, yes. But aside from a spaceship or a very complicated drawing of a spaceship, there isn’t alot that’s more complicated than a human being. I want to understand this thing we call ‘humanity’. The media is focused on al-Assad as a tyrant, an unhinged dictator who has likely used chemical weapons on his own people and is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths both within Syria and without – but is anyone asking about what kind of towels he likes? Where does he keep his keys? Are they on a hook or is there a bowl by the door? What makes him, to wit, human?
‘It’s a movie about people,’ I suggest to Knox. ‘You don’t get many movies about people, you know.’ I feel there’s a lot of truth to the observation I have just made. Thanks to the Hollywood system, we get films about dogs, or about buildings,or about Flubber, but so rarely do we get a film that’s about human beings. I want to make that movie. We shake hands. Things are happening. This is exciting.
I line up Paul Haggis to write the script. Paul is excited about the project and says he’ll get working on it as soon as he figures out how to escape the special cube of pure energy in which The Church of Scientology has imprisoned him as punishment for his defection.
Two days later I get an unexpected phone call from Knox. Sony is going to pass on the project, he tells me. Knox loves the idea, but he says that Sony is just not the right ‘spiritual home’ for the project. He says he might be able to make it happen on the condition we cast Zac Efron as al-Assad. I think about it for a few days. Efron is a fine and capable actor, but at 5’6’’ he is just too short for the role. I call Knox back and we part ways amicably.
A month passes. I return to the Broadway stage, performing in David Mamet’s new play, Manhattan Yelling. I’m enjoying the run. Mamet has written a beautiful play that explores the theme of men getting cross on the phone. More than that, I feel at home on the stage. Many non-actors don’t realise this, but there is a huge difference between performing on film and on stage.
For example, if someone’s phone rings during a screening of a movie you’re in, there’s nothing you can do about it. In fact, in most cases you won’t even be in the cinema. In a play if that happens, you can reach right out into the audience and break that person’s arm. You can’t do that in a movie. Not even in a 3D movie. I’ve just about forgotten about the film when I get a phone call from my manager. She’s had an interesting call from someone claiming to be Bashar al-Assad’s chief of staff and would like to meet up to talk about it.
Cut to a diner on 96th. I am sitting there with my manager going over it. She is eating soup. I am also eating soup. As we talk, I find myself lost in thought. Do we not, I muse, actually drink soup? Back to matters less philosophical, my manager tells al-Assad has heard about the project and is interested in some kind of involvement. The involvement, we have learnt, is to be chiefly financial. I am obviously torn by this in the way that a piece of paper can be torn or a song by Natalie Imbruglia can be named ‘Torn’. On the one hand, I want to make this picture, I want to tell this story.
I am, at my core, a storyteller. I tell tales. And to tell these tales, sometimes you need money. This won’t be a very expensive story to tell, but once you take into account marketing, crew overtime, catering ,at least nine lights, ‘catering’, script printing, script stapling, clapperboards, big conical directors mega-phones and paying that lady who does the ethereal wailing for the soundtrack of all movies set in the Middle East – then the costs start to add up.
On the other hand, I know the criticism I will receive for taking the money from this source to tell this story. This criticism has already come to pass, with one ‘writer’ from the New ‘York’ Times, calling me the ‘Leni Riefenstahl of the 21st century’. All I can say to this is that it is patently absurd to suggest that I could be someone I have never even heard of.
Cut forward. The year is 2016. It’s the same year it was in the last paragraph, but it is two weeks later. It’s 9:30 on a Tuesday night in Malibu and my cellphone is ringing. I don’t usually carry a cellphone. I am the most technophobic person I know. I don’t own a computer or a television or a toaster and if ever I contract polio I will refuse to be cured. One time Dakota Fanning bought me an iPad as a birthday present. I howled and howled and wouldn’t stop howling until someone brought me a hammer so I could destroy it.
I then decided the hammer was too advanced a piece of technology and hurled it through my skylight and into the ocean, accidentally killing an award-winning seal. I will travel by car but when I do, I insist on calling it ‘a truly fearsome iron horse, English’. I have never watched one of my own films for fear that beholding the gigantic projections of my body will send me mad. I refuse to learn what a fulcrum is.
The phone call is from my manager. It’s all clear, I am going to Syria. I am to fly to Syria on a plane – a sort of sky train that has vodka on it – and while boarding I muse that we often think Syria is much more backward than the United States, when it is in fact ten hours ahead. As I soar over the Pacific Ocean, I begin to ready myself for the days ahead and also watch Shrek 2.
Landing in Syria, I am driven to my hotel by what the Syrians call a ‘taxi’ – it’s a sort of car that you rent but don’t have to drive. On the way, it’s difficult not to let my natural paranoia come to the surface. A lot of this paranoia is a symptom of the extreme lengths of secrecy I’ve gone to in order to secure this meeting. A lot of it is also the fistfuls of prescription drugs I’ve been shovelling into my face for the past 48 hours. I’ve taken more uppers and downers than a roller coaster addict that is also an addict of the drugs colloquially known as ‘uppers’ and ‘downers’.
I look out the window. Could the lady by the shawarma stand be a member of the secret police? Mayhaps. What about the barefoot children kicking around a soccer ball in an empty lot? Do they stop and stare at me because they are taking mental notes to deliver to their bosses at ISIS? Or do they simply recognise me from my award winning turns in movie films like Milk and I Am Sam? It is difficult to say. Both of those movies did good numbers abroad.
Four hours laterI am waiting in the room next to Bashar al-Assad’s office. This is the same scene as the one this journalism article opened with, to be clear. This is not a different time that this happened. The door swings open.Bashar al-Assad is tall. Tall like a big pipe or a bin of an exceptional height.
My Arabic is rusty at best. In local bazaars I can usually get by – humming a few bars of‘Prince Ali’ from the movie Aladdin to establish a cultural rapport – but here, meeting al-Assad, I rely on a translator.
On the day I am to meet the man that the papers call ‘Bashar al-Assad’ he is wearing a suit of a grey colour that covers the top part of his body as well as the bottom half, a combination of both jacket and pants concealing his legs, chest, arms, penis and balls from the world – like a grey fortress hiding his penis and balls. On his feet are shoes, underneath which, I wryly observe to myself, must be socks.
In the middle of al-Assad’s office is a large desk. The desk is made of wood, the kind of wood that one might see on a tree or a cupboard made of wood. On the desk is paper. I reflect to myself that this paper also came from a tree, like the desk, and what an apt metaphor that is for the idea of things that come from trees. Leaves? Birds? Sap? Perhaps.
My Arabic is rusty, at best. In local bazaars I can usually get by – humming a few bars of ‘Prince Ali’ from the movie Aladdin to establish a cultural rapport – but here, meeting al-Assad, I rely on a translator. I am surprised and humbled to find the President of Syria is excited to meet me.
As soon as I enter the room, he pulls from his desk a VHS of the 1996 movie Twister and hands it to me with a Sharpie. My translator tells me that al-Assad would like me to sign it. I explain, again through the translator, that I was not in the movie Twister, and al-Assad nods along, smiling. It is unclear whether I have been understood, and an awkward few moment pass, me not saying anything, and al-Assad moving both his hands in a frenetic circular motion, a motion that I soon realise is meant to emulate the movement of a twister.
I sign his VHS. We sit to talk, tea is served and the President of Syria is full of questions. He wants to know how I am enjoying his country. Very much, I tell him. He then asks if I had any trouble finding parking near the palace. Not really, I say. He tells me that he had meant to organise parking passes for us, but the lady who usually does that, Jenny, was away and her replacement, someone called Kyle, was still working out the parking pass system. I say it was really no trouble and he nods, telling me that there is good parking in the area in any case.
He adds, with a note of irritation, that as President, he doesn’t see why he can’t just have a drawer full of parking passes, and that the whole thing was a bureaucratic nightmare if he’s honest, and that this is the Cab Charge fiasco all over again.
There is a pause, then al-Assad suggests that this problem could be featured in the movie. I tell him that I would be sure to pass it onto the script writer. This seems to please the President and we begin talking about the project. He is excited, I learn through the translator, to see his story told onscreen. I tell him that I am a story-teller, that I tell stories.
He nods. Our conversation turns to casting. Would Marlon Brando, he asks, be available to play the part of his father, Hafez al-Assad? I tell him that Marlon Brando died in 2004. Al-Assad looks shocked and then suggests Sir Alec Guinness. Quickly changing the subject, I ask him if he’d given any thought to casting for the title character. Al-Assad’s eyes light up and he nods emphatically, speaking two words, neither of which require translation.
My heart sinks. I tell him that Zac Efron is simply too short for the role and the President’s demeanor changes significantly. He becomes agitated, speaking too quickly for the translator to keep up. The translator only manages to translate the words ‘abs’, ‘Gomez’ and ‘High School’ before becoming overwhelmed. Seeing Bashar al-Assad angry gives me an insight into why people are so afraid of him. His rage is barely containable. He shouts, waves his arms around, stalks the length of the room and eventually sinks into a deep gloom.
I know that talking to the President now will be pointless,not least of all because he had my translator executed during his tantrum. I sit and finish my tea. A young, awkward man (who I assume is Kyle) hands me a Betamax copy of Jumanji to sign, and I part ways with the President of Syria.