by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Brad Silberling has had an enviable career as a writer, director, and producer. His directing credits range from Casper to City of Angels to A Series of Unfortunate Events to Jane the Virgin. His writing credits include the beloved 10 Items or Less with Morgan Freeman and now An Ordinary Man starring Sir Ben Kingsley.
An Ordinary Man marks Ben Kingsley’s return to greatness. He plays the not-so-ordinary man at the heart of the film, the General. Indeed, Kingsley’s character is the film. We learn from an opening crawl before he even appears on screen that the General is a war criminal. And yet, he’s enchanting.
It’s impossible not to be taken with this fascinating character, despite and perhaps because of his dark past. Brad Silberling, who both wrote and directed An Ordinary Man, says that the idea for the General came to him when he saw a brief story in a newspaper, “almost a footnote in an otherwise quiet news cycle.” The story reported on the testimony of a group of loyalists who had been hiding an accused war criminal in plain sight in the city of Belgrade, keeping him in a series of apartments, alone.
Silberling says, “My storytelling head spun. In short — big, big man… little, little box. Pitting a character who clearly is a social animal with a voracious appetite to charm, control, seduce, and subjugate – pitting this man against himself in a situation where he clearly is starved for human contact – only to have a mysterious young woman accidentally enter his lair… this was the first story spark in my mind.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Silberling about how he created this enigmatic, complicated character. Our conversation follows.
Angela Bourassa: In the projects you choose as a writer, director, and producer — from Casper to City of Angels to An Ordinary Man — there seems to be a pattern of isolated characters who are desperate for human connection.
Brad Silberling: I think you get the view from 30,000 feet and you see patterns and connections that as a writer you’re often unaware of on a micro-level, and I think this is one of them, but I do believe the observation is true.
I am always fascinated by circumstances that bring people to honesty, and I think that oddly enough sometimes strangers or people who are relative unknowns thrown in together in story circumstances that kind of lead to embracing honesty, it’s just always attractive to me. I think it’s a bit of wish for film, because often so many people kind of make their way through their days repeating relationship patterns, not necessarily speaking truth, so it may be my screenwriting magic wand to try to find a way to, in a very condensed period of time, watch people speak their truth honestly and hopefully have it be transformative.
Angela Bourassa: How did you go about fleshing out the character of the General? Did you write an extensive backstory?
Brad Silberling: I had a backstory, but I would not say it was a bible — it wasn’t extensive. Oddly enough, this guy just spoke to me, which I know is a bit of a cliché, but in the case of some characters when you’re writing its true.
So, I just tried to stay out of the way and listen to his speech patterns, to his grandiosity, to his paranoia, and there are still many secrets about him that I know that did not make it into the screenplay.
There was one bit of backstory that was cut when the General goes back to his home village. He shares with Tonya a memory of having almost died as an infant, and an Italian soldier who was billeted with his family — this would have been World War 2 — having helped nurse him to health, and this sort of sense of connection he has to all things patriotic and war and specifically his affection for Italians, which he mentions in the film.
So there was certainly in my mind an emotional backstory, some concrete backstory to his family, his marriage… but again, much of it I literally discovered as I was writing, just listening to the character.
Angela Bourassa: You make a point at the start of An Ordinary Man to underscore the fact that the General is a war criminal who has done truly horrendous things, then when he appears on screen, you show him bantering about vegetables and saving a man’s life. Why introduce him in this way? Would you explain your thought process?
Brad Silberling: What I realized — and I’m not the first to do so — is there is a sort of banality that comes with even the worst of behaviors and the people who perpetrate that behavior, and if I was standing next to a Balkan war criminal who didn’t come with his own video highlights reel, what would I see? What would I learn about him? And what if he happened to be somebody who was incredibly social, who loves to banter — banter not only with his friends but his enemies — loves to subjugate? And so I wanted to put the audience in the shoes of what it would be like for you if suddenly you were next to this man.
Would he come with an evil music sting, or would he even more dangerously be amiable, social, and potentially, sort of, very seductive? So that was a very conscious thing. And for the screenwriters reading, his character description only says, essentially, “greying, open smile, could be your uncle.” Because that to me is the danger of this character, so I wanted the audience to oddly be forced to sit beside that right from the beginning.
Angela Bourassa: You also make a point throughout the film of having the General interact with people who view him as a hero, not a war criminal. Why make that choice?
Brad Silberling: The essential conundrum in a lot of eastern Europe and certainly the Balkan’s is this reemergence of nationalism. We shot in Belgrade, Serbia, and Serbia obviously was quite vilified by the west — which the General complains about — during the Balkan wars, and each of those countries had much to unfortunately own up to in terms of responsibilities, but there is definitely a division in that country which remains today in terms of nationalism and patriotism. And even on my own crew you would have had as many people who thought that these fugitive war criminals were definitely evil figures and those who quietly still think of them as heroes. That is the reality of that region. I was in Poland at a film festival In November, and you can feel the resurgence of tremendous nationalism. So that is why the General encounters the folks he does.
Angela Bourassa: Another choice that I found intriguing was that you never clearly explained why the General did what he did during the war. He clearly felt the weight of his actions, but it seemed as though he would have made the same choices again, even with the benefit of hindsight. But without knowing all the details, it’s much harder for the audience to assess his past. Can you comment on that? Were you purposefully leaving doors open?
Brad Silberling: Certainly for screenwriters, I think, we’re used to like I said the highlights reel. If this were another film, certainly a film coming out of the studios, you would open with probably documentary footage of atrocities and some version of essentially the General’s “credits,” if you will, in a very dark matter. We hear in the picture from the newspapers that he is directly responsible for the killing of 7,000 fighting-age men and boys in a massacre and, chillingly, in his ride to the country with Tonya he not only proudly owns his actions, but he does not want to share credit for them. He says, “I gave the order, I did it, don’t take credit where credit is not due.” So, he not only boldly takes that, but does say, essentially, he would do it again, and that is why he suffers the way he does at the end of picture.
An Ordinary Man is in theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD today.
Angela Bourassa is the editor in chief of LA Screenwriter.