We Are Winning: An Interview with Battle in Seattle Director Stuart TownsendSeptember 16th, 2008
by Brad Listi
Recently I had a chance to sit down with the actor Stuart Townsend. A native of Ireland, Townsend has appeared in a variety of films and television shows, and he has now taken on his most ambitious project to date: writing, directing, and producing Battle in Seattle, a movie centered on the WTO riots of 1999. Battle makes its debut in select theaters on September 19th. New York magazine has called it “a triumph,” and Jeffrey Lyons of NBC’s Reel Talk has hailed it as “a compelling and impassioned film with powerful performances.”
The film’s large ensemble cast includes Woody Harrelson, Ray Liotta, Andre Benjamin, Connie Nielsen, Channing Tatum, Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, and Townsend’s longtime girlfriend, Oscar-winner Charlize Theron.
At the time of our meeting, Mr. Townsend was neck-deep in promotional work, hustling to get the word out about his film. He was sleep-deprived but cordial, passionate about his project and the issues at its core. We had a wide-ranging discussion about the movie and its origins.
BL: Battle in Seattle is your directorial debut, and it’s based on the WTO riots of 1999. Why are you telling this story? How did it come about?
Stuart Townsend: It started when I read a book by Anita Roddick called Take It Personally, which is sort of a primer for anyone interested in the subject. And as soon as I read it I realized that institutions like the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank are basically at the root source of a lot of our big problems.
It’s a corporate agenda that promotes privatization, deregulation, making rich countries richer, poor countries poorer, rich people richer, poor people poorer. Opening up fragile developing markets and creating massive inequality around the world. It’s also an agenda that promotes profit before human values. And you can link that to things like environmental degradation because there are no provisions for the environment or workers’ rights. You can link trade to just about anything. Of course, it’s not the sexiest of subjects. It’s about the least sexy subject on the market. Race, war…all these issues get so much more coverage compared to trade. When you start talking tariffs and subsidies, people nod off.
There’s a lot to know. And there’s a lot it seems you can’t know.
Right. There’s a lot you can’t know. And most people don’t realize that it affects all of our lives. American democracy is challenged because the WTO can impose laws or sanctions on the U.S. without its citizens or government having any say in the matter. For example, the Clean Air Act was overturned because it was deemed an illegal barrier to trade. Which means Americans breathe dirtier air. All 135 member nations face the same types of struggles.
The WTO is at or near the center of so much consequential policymaking.
But we never put that together, and the media is never gonna put that together for you, either. The WTO enacts legally binding laws. It used to be the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was designed to facilitate the flow of free trade and open up borders. The difference between the GATT and the WTO is that the WTO’s laws are legally binding. It can put sanctions on you. An example is when Europeans didn’t want to have American hormone-fed beef.
Why would they not want that?
[Laughs.] I know, right? And of course this was deemed an illegal barrier to trade, so they ended up fining the EU 500 million bucks a year or whatever. I don’t know the exact figure, but the point is that the WTO has teeth. That’s the big thing. And the other big thing to consider is that about 5 percent of what the WTO does is actually about trade. The rest is about intellectual property rights and non-trade services and agriculture. And agriculture is a real sticking point. If you look at food riots, that’s a classic example. For example, take Haiti. They were basically self-sufficient ten, twenty years ago. And then through IMF policies, they started getting loans, and then they started defaulting on the loans. And then they had to open up all their borders to imports because of structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF. They were flooded with heavily subsidized imports. And they lost their self-sufficiency and their ability to feed themselves. And then as soon as the commodity prices skyrocket, you’re left with thousands of people starving. It’s a very difficult thing for people to put together.
Let’s talk about Seattle and the WTO ministerial conference of 1999. What is the significance of that event?
Seattle was the moment when people started to realize that the WTO was something to be concerned about. People knew more about globalization after that event. It put a spotlight on it, brought it into the public consciousness.
How do you take that event in all of its complexity and distill it into a narrative? How do you make a movie out of it?
[Laughs.] It’s difficult. I suppose the basic premise was to create characters that an audience would attach itself to, to try to connect on a different level, not on an explicitly intellectual level, and not even on a political level. I focused on the conflict and the drama and slipped the politics in between. I’m not trying to speechify or hit people over the head. I’m trying to engage people with a really entertaining, visual film. And hopefully they’ll get something out of it at the end.
Cyberspace was a significant factor in the riots, from strategy to execution. This was a new development. What kind of role do you think the Internet will play in civil disobedience and protest movements as we go forward?
It’s a great organization tool. It’s decentralized. And that was the big thing about the direct action tactics of the protesters in Seattle. It was a bottom-up, decentralized approach versus a top-down, hierarchical police force. And the police didn’t really stand a chance. In fact, the RAND Corporation eventually did a study on these tactics because they wanted to be prepared for the next time.
For all of their spirit, it often seems like protests don’t have much of an impact. Seattle did. Why?
Because it was focused and it was well organized and it was tactical. Its intention was to shut down the ministerial conference. To make a point. And that really made a difference. It freaked the authorities out. The protesters shut down a meeting of the most powerful trade organization in the world, an organization that has all the most powerful corporations behind it. It was a clear example of victory. And there aren’t so many victories for the everyday people, the labor unions, the farmers, the students, the Third World. I watched the footage, and I realized that it wasn’t the rich college kids whom I was told about. It was working class Americans, working class people from all around the globe, standing up to an entrenched system. If my film has any value, it is to inspire people to remember that they can actually make a difference.
Some early reviews have talked about the fact that Battle in Seattle doesn’t attempt to be objective in the common manner of contemporary political films. It instead takes the side of the protesters, unabashedly. Do you agree with that assessment?
Not entirely. I give the police a voice. I didn’t want to villainize them or make their actions more extreme than what we see in the actual newsreel footage—and the film does include a good amount of actual footage. Yes, there was police brutality. Yes, they overreacted. But they are not the problem. The police, they’re just working class guys doing their job.
So who is the problem? Who is to blame?
[Laughs] When I was writing the script, people would always ask me, “Who’s the bad guy? Who’s the antagonist?” And I struggled with that. I was like, fuck, I have to have a bad guy. Is the mayor the bad guy? No. That’s kind of what I like about him. He should be the bad guy. He’s the guy who gives the orders for the police to do what they do. He should be the bad guy. But actually he wasn’t. Was the governor the bad guy? No, not really. Is the president the bad guy? No, not really. So I struggled with having no antagonist in the classic sense, but then I came to realize that it’s actually part of what’s so interesting about the film. It’s not cut and dry. The film does have an opinion, yes. After all of my research, I do have an opinion. But it’s not black and white. What I love about this story are the grey areas.
So who’s the bad guy?
At the end of the film, I think you understand as an audience that it’s elusive. It’s the faceless bureaucrats, the corporate lobbyists, the corporate machine, this neoliberal agenda that is still imposed on our world today.
So what’s the answer? What should be done about global trade?
Look, global trade is a good thing. The demonstrators in Seattle were called “anti-globalization protesters.” It was a terrible phrase, because it suggested that they didn’t want the future, they didn’t want modernization. They wanted to live in their huts out in the hills. Which is not true. It was more about global justice.
Well, at least a couple of the protesters from Eugene wanted to live in a hut.
[Laughs.] That’s true. You’re right about that.
Still, getting to the bottom of global justice when it comes to an issue like trade is no easy feat. Defining it. Understanding what it would look like. Understanding why we had such massive protests on our own soil.
And that’s maybe where a movie works. The issue is nuanced, so maybe it’s easier to watch a story, and to be able to absorb the information that way.
The human element.
Exactly. It’s a starting point. And then maybe you get inspired, and you want to learn a little more. If that happens, then maybe the film succeeds in having some sort of educational value, in addition to being entertainment.
If people do want to learn more about this stuff, what should they be reading?
I still think Take It Personally by Anita Roddick is one of the best books on the subject. Very graphic, very simple. Distilled information. It’s like an idiot’s guide. And then there’s a book like Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins. It’s not about the WTO, per se, but it’s about a guy who was out there in Latin America pushing this neoliberal agenda. If they can’t get what they want, they send the jackals in. It’s a pretty amazing account. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine is another one. It’s among the latest books to try and define the situation and its impact, taking into account the profiteers who benefit from war and disaster. And obviously there are plenty more books out there, many of which are listed on the film’s website.
So what about getting this movie made? I would imagine that it wasn’t an easy sell in Hollywood.
No. It took a long time. I ended up getting the script to a certain stage, and I thought it was pretty good. And then I actually cut together a fifteen-minute film of actual documentary footage from the riots in rough chronological order as a sort of visual compendium, and that really changed things. People saw the drama. They saw the action. And that was how it got financed. Still, it was a pretty small budget for what we needed to do.
How long was the shoot?
Twenty-nine days. Mostly in Vancouver and a couple of days in Seattle. It was all contingent upon actors, and we managed at the very last moment to get a great cast. And that makes all the difference. Without them, you’re fucked. You don’t stand a chance.
You yourself are an actor, and this was your first time behind the camera. How did that go for you?
At the end of the day, it’s storytelling. Obviously as a director it’s much more hands-on. You’re there from the beginning to the end. You’re much more a part of the filmmaking process than you are as an actor. But in terms of working with the cast, it’s the same kind of process. It is slightly different in the sense that you’re the one with the goods, and they’re asking you the questions. But a lot of acting is just about talking, discussing, asking questions. Asking questions is really the most important thing, much more important than having the answers. And I love that process.
And the whole thing was shot in a month.
Twenty-nine days, man. There was no time for drama, no time for on-set antics. We had fun. Everybody believed in the project. No one was getting paid a dime. And that’s the irony. Normally you’re on a big movie, and everyone’s getting paid a fortune, and they’re miserable. And then you’re on a tiny movie that you care about, and nobody’s getting paid anything, and everyone has a great time. And that was it. It was like an actor’s conveyor belt. So many actors, coming and going. And that was exciting. Two hours with Ray Liotta, and then you’re with Woody Harrelson, and then you jump to Andre Benjamin and Charlize. It was amazing to work with such talented actors.
Ray Liotta is a favorite of mine.
This one was interesting for him, because he plays a man who’s sort of impotent in a way.
[Laughs.] No. Not literally. He plays Jim Tobin, the mayor. It was sort of a challenge for him, because normally Ray plays the tough guy or the bad guy or the powerful guy, and here he’s the guy who made all the wrong decisions and dug himself a big hole. And it was an interesting process for him to go through. It brought something out in him. He gives a really great performance.
Any preferences in the upcoming presidential election?
I can’t vote, so it doesn’t really matter. [Laughs.] It doesn’t really make a difference what I say. But yeah, I think Obama is streets ahead.
What do you think the world community’s response would be should he win in November?
Well you saw, what, 300,000 people in Berlin come out and see him a few weeks ago? I think that’s a direct reflection of how the world feels about the guy. He’s not perfect, Obama, but he’s a really fascinating, historical character, and an impressive candidate. If he runs the country like he’s run his campaign, we’re in good shape.
What do you think about the value of celebrity endorsements when it comes to politics?
It’s a two-sided coin. There is value, because celebrities attract attention to causes. And that’s why they do it. And that’s why people want them to do it. And that’s understandable. The flip side, of course, is that people will criticize you and say that all celebrities are vacuous.
A rite of sacrifice.
[Laughs.] Get prepared to have your ass handed to you. That’s the way it goes. But it’s understandable that celebrities would advocate. Celebrities are artists. Usually, artists are a product of their environment. They’re able to distill something from contemporary life and communicate it in a unique way. So it’s understandable that they would want to be patriotic and stand up for what they believe in. Look at a guy like Sean Penn. He’s an American. As an American, I think it’s his right to speak out. And he does. He goes to Iraq. He goes to New Orleans. And he understands the issues. He’s not just an actor who’s lending his name to a cause. He’s substantive. But it’s a double-edged sword, and you’re going to fall on that sword no matter what. So if you’re going to get involved in causes, I think you have to be very passionate about them.
And the film comes out when?
September 19th in New York, Seattle, San Francisco. And then we expand to twelve cities the week after. And then, if people go see it, we go bigger.
Why should people go see it?
To see good acting. To see a good story. To get inspired. To feel empowered. I think this year is a good year to do that. A lot of people feel like they’ve lost their voice during the last eight years. They haven’t had anyone listen to them in Washington, and I think that this movie is a clear illustration of the fact that you do count, that you do actually matter, you can make a difference—as long as you stand up, get educated, and take action.
Brad Listi is the author of the bestselling novel Attention. Deficit. Disorder. He has just gotten off the phone with someone who has confirmed that he is sometimes impulsive in his decision-making process.
Tags: Battle in Seattle, Brad Listi, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron, global justice, global trade, IMF, International Monetary Fund, Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Ray Liotta, seattle, Stuart Townsend, Woody Harrelson, World Bank, World Trade Organization, WTO riots