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21 July 2011

A Poet of On-Screen Violence

Lee Tamahori insists that his scripts are already dripping with violence when he gets them.

It wasn't his choice to torture James Bond for 14 months in a North Korean prison, having him water-boarded, beaten while dangling from handcuffs and bitten by scorpions—all within the opening credits—in "Die Another Day," the Bond movie he directed in 2002. It was already in the script, he says.

The episode of 'The Sopranos" that he directed begins with Richie Aprile, one of the show's most gleefully twisted characters, getting out of prison and immediately smashing a glass coffee pot (filled with hot coffee) over the head of a pizzeria owner whom he feels has not paid him proper respect. In the last scene, the gangster runs down the same hapless victim, repeatedly backing over his prone body. Blame it on David Chase, the show's creator.

His latest movie, 'The Devil's Double," is no ode to pacifism, either. The film tells the story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi military officer who is forced to become the body double of Saddam Hussein's depraved son, Uday. (Actor Dominic Cooper deftly takes both roles.) Mr. Tamahori says he actually toned down the script to make it more palatable to viewers.

The 61-year old New Zealand director first made a name for himself in 1994 with "Once Were Warriors," a grim depiction of Maori poverty and domestic violence. The indie film attracted widespread critical acclaim and brought offers from Hollywood. Since then, Mr. Tamahori has worked on a checkered assortment of films, ranging from the Nicolas Cage bomb, "Next," to a taut thriller, "The Edge," starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, with a screenplay by David Mamet.

The Wall Street Journal: What attracted you to "The Devil's Double"?

Mr. Tamahori: I've always been perversely fascinated by the rotten sons of dictators. Now you have Gadhafi and his ragtag brood in Libya. They always seem to breed these contemptuous children. They have unlimited funds and they can literally get away with murder.

You've said you used gangster movies as a model for "The Devil's Double."

It kind of screamed out for the gangster genre. It was kind of a mafia family. There was nothing that can take this guy down. The Hussein family almost mirrored the Corleones and that's how I framed it in the film. You've got Saddam as Don Corleone. You've got an out-of-control Sonny who is never going to get the power (in Uday) and Qusay, the younger son, is the Michael of the piece.

It's a pretty dark, violent movie.

We modified some aspects of it. It was a pretty relentless script. This guy was 50 times worse than anything we've done in the film. We couldn't do end-to-end horror stories.

One of the most disturbing scenes is when, as a warning to stay in line, Latif is shown very realistic homemade torture tapes from Uday's private collection. They weren't actual found tapes; they were created for the movie, right?

I wanted that scene to be horrific. I wanted it to come out of nowhere, while Latif was lying around in the lap of luxury, having his feet massaged. Uday used to film everything. I decided that the best person to shoot all the torture video stuff was me because I'm a bad cameraman. We didn't even light it. It was just me and the actors. I had a Handycam as if I was a voyeuristic camera operator. For a lot of people, that scene is the worst in the movie. There is a cut-down version of those torture scenes, (to get an R-rated version for the U.S.)

What did you cut from the scene?

A rape at the beginning, a woman getting gang raped. A man being blow-torched. And a guy having his head drilled. I'm not saying that more is better. It was almost too much for some people.

How did violence become such a big part of your movies?

I grew up in New Zealand and became a great fan of the hard-edged American film directors of the '60s, Bob Aldrich ["The Dirty Dozen"], Sam Peckinpah ["The Wild Bunch"]. When you hadn't seen stuff like that before, it was quite shocking. I started to see that there was a different way of approaching violence in pictures. I'd seen barroom brawls. I've seen quite a bit of it. It was always around me. Fights and brawls between men are usually very vicious and over very fast. The fake American fight scenes, where they would slug it out and people would go through windows, I never really believed it.

What about the violence in "Once Were Warriors"?

In fight scenes, the more that you cut, the more edits you use, the more the audience becomes aware that there is trickery going on. In "Once Were Warriors," we used very few cuts. One shot. I had an ex-bouncer from Glasgow as the stunt coordinator. Glasgow breeds the toughest streetfighters in all of Scotland. The brawling in pubs is almost legendary. I told him I wanted that style of fighting. In a barroom brawl, you hit him before he hits you and you hit him with everything you've got and when he's down, you make sure he's unconscious. That's the simple basic rule of all street fighting. When the movie was released, people would come up to me, boxers, wrestlers, people who had training in hand-to-hand combat, and say, "that is the most realistic film I've ever seen."

How did you get involved in "The Sopranos"?

I watched the first episodes and said, "this is the best television I've ever seen. This is brilliant. I want to do one of these." They got me a meeting with David Chase, who was in town casting season two, and I said "David, just let me do one.''

What was it like to work on the show?

I was a very happy cog in the machine. It came from David and his writing crew. They imposed themselves brilliantly on the show, as they should. It was so tight. Even if I'd tried to change one word in the script, all the writers would go into a huddle and they'd say, "Yeah that's OK," or "Just leave it as it is." It was wonderful to have that level of concentration on the script.

What did you bring to your Bond film?

It was my idea to do all these little homages to Bond history. It's chock full of little tiny set pieces, with echoes of things that have been seen before. Only hard-core Bond fans will notice them. Nobody has picked up all of them.

The Devil's Double Official Trailer 2011