First-time director Larysa Kondracki's film The Whistleblower is a taut thriller made with the same inescapable tension that makes The Parallax View or even The Conversation so great. Her film tells the real life story of former Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac. While doing peace-keeping work in early 2000's Bosnia, she discovered a sex traffic ring cover-up that leads all the way up to the United Nations.
And what's Kondracki's advice for the U.N., the "villains" at the center of her sex trafficking expose as lead by Weisz? "Man up."
I sat down with Kondracki at Chicago's Intercontinental Hotel to discuss her first film, what it was like to work with actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Weisz, and David Strathairn on her first feature, her weird connections to David Cronenberg, and more.
Working with this material, how do you keep set morale up?
First of all, everyone in Eastern Europe has a dark sense of humor. And it wasn’t ike a job for anyone, no one was really getting paid. you weren’t really depressed by the subject matter, everyone was trying to do the best – there was so much problem solving – and everyone from the actors and crew were way more experienced than me, and they were doing A-level stuff on a TV budget.
With all of those different locations, I wouldn’t have considered it a TV budget.
That’s where the crews came in. My DP was outstanding. They’d give him five minutes to light things, and he’d be pre-lighting three locations ahead.
When you are working with Stathairn and Redgrave, do you tend to just let them do their own thing?
Yeah. The other thing is that they were all the type of cast that consider themselves “actors” first as opposed to movie stars. You’re not really dealing with movie stars, but a passionate colleague. You learn to go in there “Here’s your scene,” but then you let them figure it out. And there was a lot of discussion, everyone was eager to do stuff. It wasn’t like “Do this my way,” they’d tell me to f**k off.
But they were still open to listening to you, regardless that you were a first-time director.
It was also a pretty different story. Because I had co-written it, there were a lot of questions. Our co-writer was on set. And we did a lot of re-writing, because we had to compress so many scenes.
When the story began, was the focus the same about focusing on Kathryn’s life?
No, the very first script was probably more like Traffic with different storylines. I think the same subject matter was so difficult that it became kind of boring to people – I thought it was fascinating. Then you’re looking at movies like Silkwood, Serpico or even Silence of the Lambs and you realize that there are so many layers of organization that if you had gone into it with no idea, it was really interesting. And there is a sort of Silkwood thing to this movie – it’s human, she’s not snarky or b*tchy. And I think that’s what Rachel did so well. She was someone you can relate to. Without makeup.
How close do you feel she played Kathy?
They really got along. There is a night and day difference. Katherine is like 6’ 9”, blonde and voluptuous. But they have the same laugh, the same hearty laugh, and the same sense of humor. They’re both moms with challenging jobs. They’re no bullsh*t girls. They hang out all the time. Sometimes it was like, “Can we get back to work?”
There’s a big influence from '70s movies in this film. When Weisz’s character pulls out a phone-tapping device, one can’t help but think of The Conversation. Was that a conscious influence?
Absolutely. I watched All the President’s Men maybe once a month. And The Parallax View where the paranoia is through the characters, it’s not just throwing it on them. But we didn’t have the budget to be on the Space Needle.
That’s such a cool scene.
I still don’t get it. They didn’t have CGI back then. Who did that? And how stong is that net under there? I can’t watch it.
Your short before this film also covered sex trafficking.
Yes, and this script was set-up at Focus. They were really nice about it,. but had a young director named David Cronenberg lined up to do Eastern Promises, so they gave me the script back. I totally loved him. It was an honor for sure. I actually wrote a play, it was the worst play ever, it was “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too?” and David Cronenberg was the guest. And his daughter went to my high school. My mom walked up to him, because I had gotten in trouble. Everyone was allowed to bring a video to watch on this bus trip we were taking for a ski trip, and I brought Naked Lunch. The movie before was “Beauty and the Beast” and the teachers were like, “Oh, a Canadian film. Lovely.” The teachers were dozing and then there’s a big head with fourteen penises. My mom walked up to him and said, “My kid got in a lot of shit for your movie.”
Have you ever met him?
No. His brother-in-law was my art teacher. I took art class where they shot The Fly, where he jumps out of the window.
What are some other lives that interest you that maybe you’d like to share with the world?
There is one script we are working on, based on the book “Burning Rainbow Farm” by Dean Kiper. My co-writer wrote it. It’s about these two guys in Michigan. They have a lot of land, they have motorcycles, they happen to be gay, and they happen to be libertarian, and they really like their pot. It’s a true story. And they were ranked in “High Times.” Eventually the FBI and the ATF are involved. The tone is totally Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a page-turner. I want to tell that story.
Do you have a lot of comedic experience?
No, but this story isn’t a Bridesmaids thing, it also has a sort of western feel to it. But I like to think I’m funny.
When you get Rachel Weisz does that mean everyone else falls into place?
Yes. She makes the movie real. There were different permutations, and then it was like money in the bank with her, she legitimized the project, and we were on our way. I was in Romania and I was getting these phone calls like “Monica Bellucci wants to come." For David Strathairn, we had to write a letter to the Prime Minister of Canada because we're only allowed two Americans for this production, and we had already used that number for smaller parts. We had all of these huge actors from England and Ireland, and they were coming in just for one day to play a small part in this project. We were also shooting when movies like Good Night and Good Luck came out, and then it was like, the war, the economy. And then we were in superhero land. And then the film we shot almost two years ago, about eighteen months ago. That took the wave back from those weird Iraq movies, which weren’t bad, but people were like, “I can watch the embedded reporter on CNN.” I think there’s an energy to this type of film, and there’s a sort of “masculine” energy – it doesn’t feel like a chick flick, although there are a tremendous amount of women roles in this film.
Did you find that some people didn’t know a lot about this subject, or they did their own research?
Everyone from producers to financiers, they did research. The idea that the U.N was covering this up with your tax dollars? I think that’s how we got they cast. It was like, “Jigga what?” People go “Oh, Bosnia, sex trafficking,” but - and I think Sam Goldwyn has done a great job putting us on the festival circuit – the word of mouth is that it’s not a hard film to watch.
And sex trafficking isn’t something we like to talk about much.
No, it’s just like plot points on “Law & Order.” But I think that’s what was happening with the film itself – it’s a corporate thriller.
And yeah, with this idea of Monica Bellucci's character and deception.
Yeah, I really love her. She had a larger storyline, but we had to cut it down. In the Traffic version, it was not commercial stuff. She does it really well. But this is the kind of stuff that would work in a miniseries. And I think we were right to focus the script, make it a tight thriller, and let people go home and Google it themselves. The U.N leaked a memo about the movie. And CNN is doing a piece, the New York Times is doing a piece, I’m really hoping that what Philadelphia did for AIDS, which was humanizing it, we can do too. I remember people, who were homophobic were like, “Well, if Tom Hanks can be gay, and he’s a nice man …” and people thought they must respect him.
What does the U.N memo say?
It says that they’re not sure how to respond to it. The high officials are wondering if they should hold a screening and talking about the issues, or if they should just do a damage control thing. We heard that’s what they’re going to do. We’re trying to force them, and I hope that the press forces them to make a statement. I wrote a letter, and we’re waiting for a response. It’s out in the opening. At this point, if you’re not going to learn from your mistakes, man up.