Traitor With Director Nachmanoff and Actor Don Cheadle

“Traitor” originated as a movie, when Steve Martin presented an intriguing idea to producer David Hoberman while they were working together on the blockbuster comedy Bringing Down the House. Martin's “What if” scenario immediately captured Hoberman's imagination with its provocative contemporary themes and surprising final twist.

The concept of a former U.S. operative who goes on the run was rich with possibilities, says Hoberman. “I thought it was a fantastic starting point for a film.” Hoberman and his partner Todd Lieberman chose Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who wrote the script for the climate-change action thriller “The Day After Tomorrow,” to develop Martin's concept into a script.

Great Twist Ending

Nachmanoff was given a treatment of the basic plot of “Traitor.” “I immediately thought 'Wow, this is a great twist ending,' but I had no idea how you could get there,” says Nachmanoff. “I started thinking about the character and who he might be. I decided that it would raise the stakes to make the protagonist a Muslim American who finds himself in the middle of the conflict.”

Shortly after, Nachmanoff turned in his first draft, actor Don Cheadle read it and approached the filmmakers. The depth with which Nachmanoff presented his story, even at that early stage, drew Cheadle's production company to the project, says executive producer Arlene Gibbs, who serves as senior vice president of production at Crescendo Productions. “We liked the script because it had so many layers. Jeffrey took a very complicated issue and made it entertaining.”

Right Thing to Do

For Cheadle, 'Traitor's nuanced take on a popular genre was the drawing card. “It's a spy thriller and hopefully it succeeds on that level,” he says. “And in addition to the action and intrigue, 'Traitor' is about a man who is struggling to do the right thing while, at the same time, trying to figure out what 'the right thing' means. It's a provocative question–how far will you go for what you believe

“Putting people in dangerous situations and having to sacrifice lives is something his superiors may require, but it's something that his faith prohibits him from doing and speaks directly against,” the actor continues. “So he's in a conundrum-how many lives do you sacrifice for the greater good, and how can an individual make that decision”

Real Motivations

That question and Cheadle's response to it are central to the plot, says Nachmanoff. “The question of who Horn is–what his real motivations are, what he's trying to do and how he's trying to achieve his goals-is the intriguing part of the film.”

“I feel like this is my ideal movie,” the director adds. “It's a mix of action and politics and espionage, and it's about ideas that I find interesting. I'm a big fan of action movies and I love it when a movie can blend both elements. We get a chance to blow some things up, have some amazing fight sequences, some gunfire, and those kinds of exciting elements within a broader story that is a character-based drama.”

Cheadle and Nachmanoff spent considerable time refining the script. “We worked through it together, a number of times,” says Nachmanoff. “I think some actors take the title of producer but don't really do much. Don really thinks about the whole movie.”

When the project was put in turnaround and the director who was originally proposed departed to pursue another project, Nachmanoff knew he wanted to direct the film himself. “I made my case to the producers. I told them, 'I have the passion for this, I have the energy, I know how to do this and I'll do it on a smaller budget.' Somehow I convinced the producers I was the right person for this. Don agreed to roll the dice with me. It had really become very much a partnership by then.”

Crescendo approached Chris McGurk, the CEO of newly created Overture Films, with whom Cheadle had worked previously on “Hotel Rwanda.” McGurk and Overture president of production Danny Rosett responded positively to the script and Nachmanoff was approved as director. With a green light from Overture, the production began to move forward again.

Cheadle says he and Nachmanoff had many conversations about the script before filming started and the conversations continued throughout the shoot, but he was careful not to micromanage the director's process. “We had to make sure we were tracking the story properly moment to moment, beat to beat to beat,” says Cheadle, who previously served as producer of the Oscar-winning drama “Crash.”

Two Stories

“It's really two stories going on: There's the story of Guy Pearce's character and his investigation, and then there's us, on the other side, whom they're trying to investigate. So trying to make sure both of those sides are balanced was tricky.”

A Zeitgeist Film

Producer Jeffery Silver had been brought in by David Hoberman to pull together the production's formidable logistics. He quickly discovered “Traitor” was a challenging project for a studio or a financier to get behind. “It's a difficult subject. It does not follow the conventional doctrine. What is a man of faith to do in a world where atrocious acts are being committed regularly Much to Overture's credit, they recognized the inherent drama of this. “I loved the subject matter,” he adds. “To me it's a zeitgeist film. This film looks at difficult questions about the world, and it does it in a very entertaining package.”

The filmmakers committed to making the most accurate film they could about the hidden world they were depicting. Nachmanoff spoke with professionals in the fields of espionage and intelligence gathering as well as academics and authors specializing in the film's wide-ranging subject matter. The deeper he dug into the world he was recreating in the film, the more he wanted to know. “I started finding that there were all sorts of fascinating and rich, real details that could be layered into the film,” he says. “I felt like wherever I could find moments of reality, and things that really rang true, that would be to the benefit of the movie and to anyone who watches the movie.”

Despite the film's potentially controversial subject matter, the filmmakers never lost sight of their original intent. Hoberman explains, “Our goal has always been to make an entertaining movie with the byproduct of having something to say about the world. We wanted to make it entertaining and realistic at the same time-a thinking man's thriller.”

Truth Is Complicated

“You know, there's a line in the movie where someone says 'I just want the truth,'” Cheadle recalls. “And Horn says, 'The truth is complicated.' And I think ultimately what people take away from the film will be that.”