Rafael Motamayor chats with Daniel Zelik Berk on adapting books, shooting in Morocco and more…
How did you come across the book by Howard Kaplan?
was a line producer for Lionsgate years ago and I directed Sometimes They Come Back… for More which is adapted from a Stephen King novel, and though I wasn’t particularly proud of that film it was basically my film school. I realized that the problem I had was the script, which was given to me and I couldn’t change it much – I am not even particularly interested in horror. I decided that I would find a novel to adapt or write a screenplay that I really loved, and said I wouldn’t stop until it got made. I like thrillers and things that are about the Middle East, and there’s a theme in the story about children, which hit me since I recently had a daughter – so I found myself drawn to the novel.
Did you change much from the book?
The first thing I did was change the setting, so it could be at the same time as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mostly because at the time it seemed like an impossible thing – everyone assumed the Cold War would go on forever and this gave the world a lot of hope seemingly out of nowhere. I like that in the film there’s sort of that same feeling for the Middle East, that things could get better. What was so nice about Howard is that he understands that an adaptation has to be a different thing. You can and must change things, but the spine is the same. One thing I liked about the novel, is that there are many twists and turns but it’s all organic. It’s the base of the spy genre, it’s how they work. However, I’ve found that lacking in many spy movies. You sit there, and you work really hard to guess the twists and turns but in the end, it was all a dream or a character that’s never been introduced was the mole all along. You feel tricked. The novel had a really good ending that helped me, and I actually improved upon it. John Hurt, when I sent him the script, called me on the phone and said “I would love to do your movie, but I can’t because there’s something unresolved about my character and I don’t think the ending is completely right.” I asked what he meant, what he wanted changed and he responded, “I have no idea. You’re the writer, you figure it out. I can’t do the film as it is, but if you rewrite it and think of something better for my character, then I’ll do it.” I thought about it and ultimately the ending feels better and even more inevitable than before.
What did you learn this time around? How was the shooting compared to your first film?
That’s a very good question that I think a lot about. This time I basically decided to do whatever it took to get this film made, and I’m not sure I have it in me to do it again. It really took a lot of energy and effort, so I think every decision I’ve made contributed to make the film. Do I have any regrets? No, if anything we could have used more money but we couldn’t. This is not a usual genre for an independent film, this was a ambitious project.
How was shooting on location?
The main shooting was in Morocco, in Casablanca. And that was actually perfect, because you had to double for Damascus and a little bit for Jerusalem. So it ended up being a good double for Syria, as we couldn’t shoot in Damascus obviously, and it is relatively inexpensive. It was very difficult to shoot there because of the language, mainly French and Arabic. And we had to fly a lot of actors in so that was also expensive, but compared to other places it allowed us to shoot for more days and it gave the film a unique look. Israel was spectacular. The problem was that is was a bit more expensive, and you can’t shoot there for too long because you don’t know what can happen the next day. It’s a good place for a couple of days, but insurance for a month becomes risky.
How is Damascus Cover different than spy films like Bond?
I think it’s deeper and old-fashioned. More like a John le Carré story in that there are lots of twists and turns and you can’t trust anyone. It is not really an action film, which got us a bit of trouble in that some people wanted Mission Impossible, when it is more like a puzzle. I think it’s classic, and the ending is something that most people will not guess, but it’s almost inevitable in a way that you will immediately think of course that’s the answer! I think we did thread the needle throughout the film so that neither the audience nor the main character are treated like idiots.
Your IMDb page says you introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino. How did that happen?
This is an interesting, untold story. I was working at a management production company and became friends with John. This was back when his career was not at his best, so he was meeting with lots of directors without much luck. So one day I was at a screening of Reservoir Dogs and I met Quentin, and I talked to him and said I was working with John Travolta and asked if he would be interested in meeting him. Immediately he said “John Travolta? Oh my God, he’s my favourite actor, I don’t have a part for him but I love him.” So interestingly, John had never heard of him. This was a small budget film with unknown actors, so Quentin wasn’t big back then. And John was coming from family film, like the Look Who’s Talking films, and he was a little worried of playing a gangster, and it changing his audience. Then he met with Quentin, and he eventually wrote the part for him and it ended up being a huge turning point in John’s career.
How was directing Jonathan and John?
Johnathan was not only an actor, but also a producer, and he was delightful. He was super prepared and ready. He also took it upon himself to introduce himself to every single person on set and make sure they were comfortable and could rely on him. With John Hurt, we didn’t have that many days together, and it was the first two of days of shooting, which was difficult because nobody knew each other and you’re still stressed and nervous, but John was still fantastic and well prepared. John was very patient, and it was really sad because when we did ADR (automated dialogue replacement) he said to me “You thought I wasn’t going to make it, did you? You thought I’d be dead.” And by that point his voice was all gone and we couldn’t record any more. You know, what’s weird is that at the end of the movie, John Hurt says goodbye. His last line is “goodbye, my friend” to a guy in the scene, but basically he’s saying goodbye to the audience. So we dedicated the movie to him, with the very last card after the credits being a dedication to John.
Daniel Zelik Berk, thank you so much!
Damascus Cover premiered at Manchester Film Festival and is set for a UK release in late 2018.
Rafael Motamayor is a journalist and movie geek based in Norway. You can follow him on Twitter.