How did you get Sir John Hurt to do your film? Someone asked during the Q & A after the recent world premiere of Damascus Cover at the Boston Film Festival. The film adaptation of my eponymous novel is a six million dollar independent production filmed primarily in Casablanca with scenic footage shot in Israel without the actors, as the producers could not bear the additional expense of bringing them there from Morocco. On the dais with me was the fabulous star of the film, the Irish actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers best known for Bend it Like Beckham and The Tutors; and the director, Dan Berk. Before sitting for the Q & A, Rhys Meyers stood silently, watched the credits and waited for the newly added last words on the screen IN MEMORY OF JOHN HURT. Rhys Meyers choked up and said, “I knew him for twenty-five years.”
Dan and I have been on this project for twelve years, most of the time raising financing–the film will go into theatrical release in March 2018—and I thought I knew most things about it. Dan had written the screenplay himself. But I had not known Dan’s response to the audience question:
“We sent John Hurt the script and after reading it, he asked to talk to me. He told me that something was missing, that it wasn’t finished and he couldn’t agree to do it until it was.”
Dan went back and wrote a new scene between Hurt who plays the head of the Israeli Secret Service and Igal Naor, the Israeli actor who plays a Syrian General. It appears at the end of the film. It is crucial dialog about the two men are who have been fighting each other for so long and the need for reconciliation. Hurt read it and immediately signed on. If a lesser person had taken that role, that dialog would not exist and the film would have closed without that message.
When Dan was doing ADR’s, additional dialogue replacement, Hurt checked himself out of the hospital for the day, bald from chemotherapy, and met Dan in the London studio to do his replacement lines. Such was his commitment and passion. He said to Dan, “You didn’t think I’d show up did you? Alas those additional lines could not be used as his attenuated voice did not match the vigor of his words filmed in Casablanca.
As for how we got Rhys Meyers, this story I knew well as I had lived through the panic. To tell that story, Dan began, “I’ll tell you the truth…”
James D’Arcy, an actor who had had a small role in Master and Commander with Russell Crowe had signed to do our lead the Israeli spy, Ari Ben-Sion. We are a small film and we were happy to have him. Dan and the crew had been in Morocco, which has a deep film infrastructure and is an inexpensive country where most of the Hollywood Middle East films are shot, prepping two weeks before the cameras were to roll. Dan knew D’Arcy personally. Then D’Arcy’s agents at Creative Artists Agency called and said that he would not be doing the film. He had been offered a role in the Marvel Comics television series, Agent Carter. Dan added that D’Arcy had been paid a million dollars to do the show.
I had heard the details of what happened next from one of our British producers on set in Casablanca. Irate she had called CAA; they had already endured the large cost of preproduction and she demanded a replacement. For tax rebate requirements from England, it had to be both a European Union actor and one available to start in two weeks.
“They gave me a list of eleven actors,” she told me. “Ten I had never heard of and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. I said, ‘I’ll have him.’” On the dais Dan turned to Rhys Meyers and said, “You read the script the day you got it and agreed to do it.” Rhys Meyers smiled and nodded.
I said to the audience, “I coined a phrase that Dan often used throughout the production. ‘We keep failing upward.’”
The audience, including my twenty-four-year-old son, Asher, who had taken the bus up from Brooklyn, broke out laughing. He had mugged on the red carpet before the screening. “This is so much fun,” he told me afterwards. “I’ll always remember it.” As will I.
Prior to Boston, I had only seen versions of the film through a password protected link on my computer. In Casablanca, I had sat at a table in a restaurant scene as an extra. I have joked often that the clout of the writer as such, I landed on the cutting room floor. However as I watched that scene on the large screen, I poked my son and showed him. In a corner of the shot, I am blurred, basically unrecognizable but there.
That night I met the Israeli actor, Aki Avni, on set who had just flown in from Israel with his son to do his scenes in the film. I slept two hours then boarded a flight to Israel via Paris. On the leg to Tel-Aviv, I chatted next to the jovial man next to me, told him about my ten days in Casablanca and just meeting Aki Avni. He mentioned modestly that he and Aki were close friends and that he knew a little bit about film himself. He turned out to be the great Israeli director, Eran Riklis. I believe success is a shifting combination of skill and luck. I’ve been very lucky of late.