The last thing the world’s troubled banking system needs right now is a movie like The International.
But perhaps that’s the best reason for releasing this high-octane thriller about a predatory world bank which will stop at nothing — even murder — to protect a host of reprehensible activities which include financing terrorism and war.
“I think it’s amazing how timely it has become,” says British actor Clive Owen who plays a dedicated Interpol agent determined to take down a formidable foe — a powerful international bank whose financial and political tentacles extend into the boardrooms of corporate power and into the deepest recesses of government. The film opens Feb. 13.Owen says he and co-star Naomi Watts, who plays a Manhattan district attorney, finished work on the film nearly a year ago. Prior to that German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer had spent another two years fine-tuning and researching the material. But nobody at the time anticipated today’s fiscal crisis or the continuing revelations about the reckless behaviour of major financial institutions.
“The film ultimately does ask questions. Yes, it’s a big entertaining thriller, but it opens up the audience to questioning whether banks use people’s money appropriately and whether they’re completely sound institutions. That’s what everybody’s doing right now, with what’s been going on in the last year.”
The action of the movie moves from Berlin to Milan to New York to Istanbul, and is punctuated by a succession of set piece action scenes — among them a chase across the roof of Istanbul’s renowned Grand Bazaar and a ferocious gun battle inside New York’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum.
“I think the Guggenheim sequence is one of the most exquisitely realized sequences on film I’ve ever been involved in,” Owen remembers. The violence is intense — triggered by an attempt to apprehend the bank’s ruthless assassin, played by Brian F. O’Byrne, but Owen doesn’t consider it to be gratuitous.
“There were concerns about the Guggenheim sequence. A guy gets shot and blood is popping out of his neck, but it was really important to do it that way.”
Owen argues that within the context of the film, the scene is legitimate. “When people get shot, it’s important to see that people are really suffering — it heightens the reality and drama of the scene.”
In that same scene, Owen’s character is no intrepid hero. In fact he’s frightened out of his wits.
“That’s why I’d argue that this isn’t a traditional heroic movie character,” he maintains. “My job is to put people in a place of understanding what your character is going through. At the point when that shoot-up takes off in the Guggenheim, that character will be terrified.”
Owen knows he could have played the “movie kind of way,” making Interpol Agent Louis Salinger “look cool with a gun” — but that approach didn’t interest him.
“I’m more interested in trying to convey what it might really be like to be in that situation. That’s my job as an actor, so I’m never trying to look cool. It’s about trying to put people in your position and think about how terrifying it would be for you right now. That’s the most important thing — to keep that realism going.”
Owen — seen recently as Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and in P.D. James’s futuristic shocker, Children Of Men — emerges as both low-key and committed when talking to reporters. Conservatively clad in a classic blue blazer with open-necked white shirt, he’s anxious to emphasize that it’s possible for an entertaining thriller to deal also with serious subject matter. And, for Owen, quality writing is the starting point.
“There was a lot of research material that came with the script — articles from newspapers, articles about situations where banks had proved to be corrupt — it was a very well-researched film.”
Owen has always been a fan of “Seventies paranoid political thrillers” — films like Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men and The Parallax View — and he feels that Singer’s screenplay for The International met these standards.
“It was well researched, it was based on fact, but at the same time it was very obviously a big, international, exciting thriller . . . So it’s not dumb, it’s planted in proper research, but no one’s pretending it’s not a big movie. And that’s why I really wanted to do it.”
Singer based his script on the real-life scandal of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International — which he calls “the largest criminal corporate enterprise in the history of the world.” BCCI became the most pervasive money laundering operation in history, running a lucrative sideline business in arms trafficking, mercenary armies and terrorism. It finally collapsed in the wake of British and American investigations.
Singer said recently that BCCI was driven by more than simple greed. “They were the bank for those who operate in the black and grey latitudes of this world — intelligence organizations, drug dealers, organized crime, and third-world tyrants looting their own countries . . . The bank in our film is the 21st century version of BCCI and, like its real-world counterparts, is much more sophisticated and therefore destructive than its predecessor.”
Owen became a huge fan of director Tom Tykwer during filming.
“I think he is really special and unique and has a grip on all aspects of filmmaking, probably unlike any director I’ve ever come across,” Owen says now. “He’s just incredibly prepared, incredibly bright. I just had one of the best experiences with him.”
Still, it was a gruelling shoot because of the number of international locations required. And then there was the intricate choreography required for the shoot-up in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which was meticulously recreated on a Berlin sound stage.
“You do hit the ground running. There’s a whole team waiting for you that’s all ready to go. You arrive, there’s no time to acclimatize, and you start shooting.
“You know, on a film like this one, environment is hugely important. You’re trying to suggest that this huge international bank is almighty and powerful, and it’s very important that my character runs around the world trying to get close to these people because that’s how far their reach is. You feel that the location is a huge part of what you’re doing.”
Owen and Watts also welcomed the fact that their characters do not have any kind of romantic moment in the film — which he sees as a “mature” approach to the material and further evidence that The International defies convention.
“That was very important to all of us. It would have been a very cliche thing to suddenly have them fall for each other . . . What drives them is their commitment to what they’re trying to do. There is definitely an attraction — and you know, in another time and another place, there is the possibility they would make a new couple. But ultimately this is about people who are very committed to their cause — that’s the maturity of the relationship. And it’s very delicately played.”