What: A civilian feels he can make a difference in Iraq by gradually rebuilding the Green Zone and spreading out from there
Who: Andrew Mangold, civilian, has a brilliant proposal for road reconstruction, sewage repair, and electricity restoration that is immediately dismissed and discarded by his civilian boss, Alberto Barrini. Instead he is awarded the contract, complete with bundles of cold hard cash, to re-open the Baghdad zoo.
THE COALITION PROVISIONAL AUTHORITY
Mangold’s in his boss’s office, his laptop opened to multiple windows. Showing Barrini mock up designs for his invitation to the ‘Grand Reopening of the Baghdad Zoo.’ Slightly different versions for the three major Iraqi sects – but all quite nifty.
Mangold: …I’ve gotta say at first I was a little disappointed that my maiden project here in Iraq was the zoo – but I’ve come around on that one-eighty. It’s something Shia, Sunni, Kurd, everyone could rally around, as a sign of things returning to normal. And I’ve worked up a budget for the event – And I know it might seem a little steep but I think we should do this up right, get the place cleaned up quick, have a menu and special entertainment for each culture, and go after the bigwig Iraqis, from Chalabi to al Sistani, to mayor Tamimi, hell, I don’t see any reason we can’t get Bremer himself to make an appearance…
Barrini, who doesn’t often find himself believing anything good can happen in Iraq – finds himself swayed by Mangold’s enthusiasm, eyeing his proposal quite seriously.
Barrini:…The cage in the cover art, you have deliberately left it empty?
Mangold: Only until the Blackwater security team brings in the Bengal tiger…the tiger is a symbol to the Iraqis of strength and virility.
Barrini: You are assuming the Blackwaters will find it and capture it without killing it?
Mangold: (nods) I’ve got a good feeling about the guy I put in charge… got a good feeling about the whole thing. (beat) And keep in mind, I’ve only had a couple days on this, it’ll all get better, and I’m sure I’ll find twenty or thirty thousand I can hack out of the budget – but I wanted to get you the proposal as quickly as possible because I know it takes time to get the funding together for something like this.
Barrini: …In Emerald City, that is not always the case. (lifts his phone, punches numbers) It is Barrini, I am okaying an expenditure of one-quarter million American – to be extended to one Andrew Mangold.
Barrini hangs up on whoever he called, tears a half page off a yellow pad, saving on the cost of office supplies. Scrawls his signature on it.
Barrini: (Cont’d) Your project is a go, Andrew Mangold, this is your authorization.
Mangold: …But I only asked for a hundred thousand.
Barrini: Money, Andrew Mangold, is not the issue in Iraq.
The trailer living arrangements are, however, an issue, especially as his closest neighbor, Blackwater employee Dan Cutter, likes to hold “trailer parties,” the Green Zone equivalent of raves. He’s not getting any sleep and he’s not making any adjustments, and when his dog defecates on his other neighbor’s pristine lawn, he’s not making any friends.
Mangold’s unknown other neighbor is Lieutenant Monica Lang, military psychologist charged with counseling disturbed soldiers, often against their wills. She is very good at her job, despite Army interference with her closure percentages, and refuses to send soldiers back to combat until she and they understand the deeper dynamics of what brought them to her office in the first place, even when it places her life at risk. Lang has demons of her own which she plays out in her personal life; a life that involves sex games with Cutter and a co-dependent relationship that neither will allow to get to a healthy relationship level. And Lang is also very adept at vengeance, something she puts into place once the dog poop wars begin.
First priority for Mangold: physically cleaning up the zoo and finding the animals that have escaped, not the least of which is the aforementioned very hungry and emaciated tiger that has allegedly been feeding off the neighborhood dogs. Andrew must rely on both civilian Blackwater operatives and native workers, making his job nearly impossible as he is not adept at fording political waters, and these are very political waters. With Cutter assigned to protect Andrew as he searches for the tiger, they encounter a deranged Imam who believes that the tiger is the second coming of Christ; he has been trapping dogs in order to feed and lure the tiger. Things don’t end well for either the tiger or the Imam; and Mangold ends up without a centerpiece for his zoo. He also ends up as a pawn between Cutter and Lang in their psycho-sexual games. This boy is in way over his head.
No Meaner Place: Written as a "M.A.S.H." for an even more cynical age about an even more cynical war, Rice has already set up his main character for a giant fall without a net. The viewer’s trip down the yellow brick road will witness Mangold’s loss of idealism and his hold on reality because neither is present in the Emerald City. It may be this very cynicism without apparent redemption that prevented the production of this script by Showtime, the network that commissioned it. Although Mangold was ostensibly set up as the main character, the bulk of the interest actually lies with the damaged character of Lieutenant Monica Lang and her investigation into her patients’ demons and breakdowns, as well as with her own manipulative sexual games. Although this script is a very well done black comedy, something in the vein of a very dark Candide, it would take more imagination than is commonly (or ever) found in television to make this work.
Life Lessons for Writers: There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
Neely: This was very very dark. Did Showtime pitch this to you or did you pitch the idea to them?
John: All my favorite cable shows are dark, especially when there’s some earned humor in the dark. The show was my idea. The year before I’d sold Showtime a pilot script called “18 Zulu” which they said they couldn’t make, but said they’d buy the next thing I wanted to do. And true to their word, they did. I pitched them this and they told me to go ahead and write it. I had a great experience at Showtime. I have a lot of respect for Bob Greenblatt. He’s there in the room, wants to like what you have, has the smarts to help you shape it.
Neely: Is the Green Zone actually referred to as the Emerald City?
John: Yeah. The whole idea of our enterprise there seemed mutant to me, green and glowing. The imam in the pilot, who peroxided his hair and starting dressing himself like the Virgin Mary after seeing our “shock and awe” -- is actually based on a real character. He was America’s “go-to” Cleric at one point to help us understand Iraq and Islam. The lesioned tiger that was self-mutilating, was doing so because Uday Hussein was zoo tender, and the tiger really did get out because an errant smart-bomb hit the zoo. I read tons of stuff that was simply way too bizarre to make up. That’s what the show was going to be about. The insane truth.
Neely: What was their reaction?
John: Really positive, at first, but then the Bochco series set against the war, “Over There,” came out, and didn’t find much of an audience. I believed my show was different enough that it could have been successful when that show wasn’t. “Emerald City” isn’t just about soldiers fighting a war, it’s about trying to fix something you’ve broken; run a country you know nothing about; the ordinary people driven to madness trying to create order out of chaos. But I understood Showtime’s hesitation. When the war was in the headlines every day, America may not have been ready for a series about Iraq. I think now, with some time past, it could be the kind of show people find and talk about. It’s really quite provocative, the world within the Green Zone, and I’m not just talking about the world of my story.
Neely: You make a few “Wizard of Oz” references in the script. Did you think of making “Emerald City” more of a metaphor?
John: I liked that it was called that but I didn’t want to go too far with it. It’s a wacky place where no one’s really in charge. Paul Bremer was like the Wizard, powerless to do anything about anything.
Neely: Despite the name of the pilot, I hooked into more Candide similarities than Dorothy and Toto, with Mangold as Candide, Lang as Cunegonde, and both Barrini and Cutter as something of a Pangloss character. I’m known for overreaching.
John: It makes sense after the fact. I wish I was smart enough to have thought of it.
Neely: Why this story?
John: Sometimes I try to do things that are worth doing, not just what the town wants to do, and when I started researching what was going on in the early days in Baghdad, I knew I had to add my voice to those trying to wake America up to just what we’d gotten into... not just to make a point, but because it was truly fascinating. An ongoing, multiple train wreck in 3-D. The madness of the truth is extraordinary. Taxpayer dollars were literally flowing into and out of Emerald City, sometimes actually in wheelbarrows. And the bar at the combat mental health unit, at least early on, was really low. The idea was to find a way to get the soldier pronounced sane enough to put his uniform back on and get his ass back to the front lines... we needed soldiers.
Neely: It’s very much Heller’s Catch 22: flying combat missions was clearly insane, but to request an evaluation of one’s mental health under such circumstances showed “a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate indicating it was the process of a rational mind.” So therefore you’re not insane. Your whole script was an exercise in circular logic.
Did you go to Baghdad?
John: No. There was just so much available on the internet. I spent an awful lot of time on my computer. I did talk to different people including someone from Special Forces and Iraq war vets – just some soldiers, relatives or people I’d met before. They really didn’t understand what was going on. How could they? There was a bridge across the Tigris; we blew it up with smart bombs. And then we’d pay to re-build it. And then the insurgents would blow it up. Blow up, rebuild, blow up, rebuild.
Neely: Tell us a little more on how this all evolved. Were you given notes or guidelines on what they wanted?
John: The draft you read is very close to what I wrote. I think it was just too close to the time and place. We are a bit more distant from it now. It struck me that it should be done in the moment and have an effect.
Neely: Anything interesting come up when you were researching Blackwater?
John: I researched Blackwater endlessly. Special Forces soldiers are paid around $42,500 but many quit, lured by private contractors like Blackwater, which pay four times as much for the ex-soldier to do the same thing. This isn’t even hidden war profiteering; it’s boldfaced. Most of the time research is only somewhat interesting to me, but on this project I couldn’t shut Safari down. I liked the idea of exploring that Halliburton/Blackwater world through the Cutter character... during the first season we’d come to know his best buddy -- the Special Forces medic Cutter’s always talking to on his sat-phone, has been dead for two years; got blown up in Afghanistan when he and Cutter were trying to birth the baby out of a dying Afghani woman. Cutter, neighbors Monica and Mangold would come to find out, was way more messed up than any of Monica’s official patients.
Neely: Any other plans for this material? It could make a very interesting allegorical film, using either “The Wizard of Oz” or Candide as a paradigm. Personally I think the subject matter is more suited to film because unlike M.A.S.H., this war is still going on and is like a fresh wound. I’ve pretty much stopped reading about it in the papers because it’s just one suicide bomb after another.
John: It turns out that the Humanitas organization has found some funding to find worthy projects that haven’t been made, and instead of their traditional mandate - to wait for something worthy and then give it a prize - they’ve been looking for projects to make that they’d give a prize to. “Emerald City,” according to my agent, is a finalist, one of very few chosen to be considered. I’ll know the outcome soon. There are incredible writers on the board! It’s heartening to me no matter what happens.
Neely: Essentially all of your past career was in features. What enticed you to television?
John: I’ve sold four series to various networks, although I haven’t had anything produced. Movies are bigger in immediate scope, but I find TV is like writing a novel. You get to be with your characters in lower-case moments. There’s a much greater exploration of character over a much longer period of time. I find the best writing is currently being done on TV, especially cable. And if you think getting something made in television is tough, try features.
Neely: What about directing?
John: I originally wanted to direct and I still do; I went to grad school at USC in their directing program. There’s a project that I wrote that I’m attached to and hope to get made. I’ve tried in the past to write a big enough feature so that I could get to direct my next film.
Neely: You and your features writing partner have a number of credits. Which of your past projects were originally conceived by you and on which ones were you brought on to rewrite. On which projects did you receive screen credit?
John: I’ve written features and some TV with Joe Batteer. I met him at USC where he’d done a fabulous thesis film. We’ve been less about re-writing and more about selling original ideas. “Blown Away” and “Windtalkers” were stories that we pitched, got paid to write, and both first drafts of our screenplays got cast and greenlit, in remarkably short order - both within six months of selling the pitch. We were lucky enough to have stayed on the projects from inception through test-screenings. We didn’t always have a ton of say, but we at least go to be part of the entire process. Having written a lot with partners, I love the process of collaborating. With another writer, producer, director or actor -- trying to hear something not just in their best ideas, but even in the ones you don’t agree with. I recently adapted a book into a screenplay called “Pressure.” I talked to the novelist twice a week. It was incredibly beneficial and we just attached an A-list director, I think in large part because I kept the novelist in the loop. I wish more people in Hollywood would keep the writer in the loop... which I’m sure isn’t (especially among writers) an original idea.
Neely: You have several scripts at the development stage but one notably in so-called “active development” that you are also on board to direct. How far along in the process is that project?
John: “Stan’s Cup” is a hockey movie, a comedy, as much about the eccentric, frozen, hockey-crazed small town and its characters as sport. It tells the story of a guy who never lived up to his father, Stan’s legacy; never filled, in the parlance of the movie, Stan’s (nut) Cup. After screwing up his chance to be part of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team, our hero finally gets a shot at redemption, and a much smaller miracle, thirty years later, in an old-timers’ game against Tretiak and some of the Russians he never got to play against. As to how far along it is, it depends on the day. The financiers recently got a cash infusion... so it seems, today, like it’s close...
Neely: Going all the way back to the beginning, what brought you out here in the first place?
John: I had been working for a Senator in DC after college and it seemed a tad too political (Neely note: go figure!) so I decided to go out to Hollywood. I had made a campaign film and done some media work so it just seemed like it would be more fun to work with fiction on a bigger canvas. I got accepted into the production program at the USC Film School, so I got in my VW and drove out and that’s where I met my writing partner Joe, who was in the same program as me.
Neely: Which of your past projects do you hold most dear? Any interesting stories associated with it?
John: That would be “Windtalkers” because 1) It got made and 2) it was worth being made. We were flown on the corporate jet to DC, stood in the Capitol Rotunda, and watched President Bush give medals to the 4 original Navajo Code Talkers who fought in World War II and were still alive. It took 55 years for their contributions to be fully recognized, and our movie, which my wife produced, helped facilitate them finally getting the honor they deserved. “Blown Away” was pretty cool, too. U2’s my favorite band forever, and there were two of my favorite U2 songs featured in the movie.
Neely: Who would you most like to work with in the future?
John: Bono. I wish he’d produce a project I have called “One,” that’s about religion. Otherwise, let’s see... I’ve been working with McG on a big canvas character-driven action film, so that’s exciting. Actor-wise, I’d love to work with Jeff Bridges again; he’s an amazing human being and a tremendously natural actor. I like Robert Downey Jr. and Will Smith; they have gravitas but don’t take themselves too seriously on screen, and their films get watched. I loved Jeremy Renner in “Hurt Locker.” I love the late Milos Forman’s movies the best – “Amadeus” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I just showed my son “Amadeus” and the next morning he composed his first piece on the piano; it won a prize.
Neely: What about television? Any more projects? What about directing?
John: As I mentioned, I have a feature called “One” that I’m attached to direct that deals with the three Abrahamic religions that used to be one and the same – the Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim Abraham as a prophet, and they share way more notions and common history than most people realize. It’s a “Crash”-like project taking place in Detroit on one day. Dangerous. Written in minor notes.
Neely: Earlier you mentioned that Showtime pretty much gave you free rein to write what you wanted for your second script, “Emerald City”, when they decided they couldn’t produce your first one. What was that first one?
John: “18 Zulu.” It’s a about a Special Forces team in Afghanistan. 18 Zulu is a reference to a position that’s essentially the “Team Daddy” who has to crack some ass in Ass-Crackistan, and try to bring his guys home alive. Basically it’s about hearts and minds and how an Alpha Team, America’s first boots on the ground, tried to win them, and hang onto their own hearts and minds... we were talking to a guy who was stationed in Helmand Province, the stories were incredible... it was pretty intense, eye-opening... Made me really glad I lived in L.A. and could just write about it...
Neely: One thing I did notice was that there is a big gap in the years between “Blown Away” and “Windtalkers.” What happened during that time and why do you think that was?
John: I was in “movie jail” to some degree, I suppose, after “Blown Away.” The movie was profitable, and had an incredible cast -- counting Jeff Bridges’ win last night, four actors who were in the movie have won Academy Awards --- but at one time it was talked about as being an action movie that could be both a big-time critical and commercial hit and help save MGM. When it underperformed, my star, if I ever had one, lost some luster.
Neely: I will definitely watch for more of your scripts and especially for your films which I feel certain will be produced – because movie jail or no movie jail, it’s merely a waiting game...