"Don't tell me about the law. The law is anything I write on a scrap of paper." This quote from Saddam Hussein sets the tone for HBO Films' "House of Saddam," a two-part miniseries charting the rise and fall of one of the most controversial leaders of recent history. The film stars Igal Naor (Hussein), Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (Hussein's wife, Sajida) and Christine Stephen Daly (Hussein's mistress) and is a co-production between HBO and the BBC. Directed by Alex Holmes and Jim O'Hanlon from a script by Holmes and Stephen Butchard, "House of Saddam" premieres this Sunday on HBO. In talking about the project, Holmes shared his insights into bringing this ambitious subject to the small screen, his opinion on what was Hussein's downfall and what Iraqis think of the film's portrayal.
Jim Halterman: Can you talk a little about how you went about getting research on Saddam Hussein since you weren't able to actually interview him yourself?
Alex Holmes: Basically, you start with all the resources and read everything that's been written about him. Fortunately, I had some Arabic speakers working with me so we were able to read stuff that was written in Arabic as well as in English and other European languages. So we cast the net out very wide and it was interesting to see how the things that were written about him had changed over the years. Pretty soon you start to kind of get a sense of the breadth of opinion that there is about this man and then in order to go beyond because when you intend to create a character dramatically, you have to get quite deep into his psychology. In a way, I wanted to know what the experience of being around this man was so we sort of had as many people as we could who had known him personally and individually. There were interesting things that came out of that.
I lost count of the number of people who claimed to me that they had a special relationship with Saddam. He was distrustful of everybody else and there were individuals who he felt he could trust, who he'd turn to for advice. It was fascinating that he clearly made so many different people feel this way and it couldn't have been true that they were all unique. In the process of talking to as many people as we could it reflected on his character and his charisma and really I'm talking here about everybody from the people who worked in the palace - the cooks and the gardeners and people on his security detail through to people involved in politics with him... a lot of people involved with him over the years, anybody who had been there for any length of time often didn't survive to tell their story so our choice wasn't enormous.
It was surprising how many people had known Saddam and had seen the writing on the wall, who had defected and who had fled the country but also how many people were still held accountable for him, who still thought that he had a great vision for the country and who thought that the terrible suffering of Iraq was largely due to the way the world resented the power that Saddam offered. That was interesting, as well.
But really it was a chance to talk to people who had known him so you that could get under the skin of the man, which is always the challenge to the extent that that is possible. I think that's always the challenge. Ultimately, it always has to be a creative step in this process whereby you take an imaginative step to actually reimagine this character to make him as fully rounded traumatized human being.
JH: Hussein has been described as being a leader with "political charisma" and his charm could be very intoxicating to people. Is that conducive with what you found in your research?
AH: That's right and I think that [Hussein] understood the power of that and used it to its maximum impact. There were stories about how he would orchestrate the geography of the room and his position in the room in order to maximize his impact on someone who was meeting him for the first time. I think he really understood the theater of politics on that personal level.
JH: What kind of choices did you make in how to present Saddam since to some he is seen as a villain while others see him as a hero. How did you make the choice whether to have him appear sympathetic or not?
AH: Our point of view was... this was my Saddam. I'm sure other people will tell his story from different perspectives and with different agendas and insights. So I was aware that this dramatic creation was a facet of something based and inspired on all the research we had done and feeding off all the things that we'd been told about him but ultimately it was a portrait of him. Portrait creators have to choose how they're going to represent their subject and I went for the things that I found most compelling about him and in a way that was on the one hand was his charisma and his vision but balanced equally, as it were, by what I thought was his complete inability to trust anyone around him. In a way, his inability to trust was both a great strength because it made him very wary and very suspicious and it made him always thinking two steps ahead but ultimately I think it was the thing that brought him down because he hollowed out the world around him. Anybody who got close to him, anybody who was a powerful, brilliant mind [Hussein] would have first drawn into his inner circle but then ultimately he would become suspicious of them because they represented a threat to him. And that inability to trust them, meant that, ultimately, there was only one end for that person which was that they were going to have to be destroyed. I think that, in a way, the story that we tell is of him progressively calling the very people whom he ended up being relying on for his political survival so that, ultimately, he was isolated and alone. It's no coincidence that our series ends with [Hussein] absolutely alone in a self made grave in the ground completely isolated from all his supporters.
JH: How important was his family to him? That was one of the jarring things to see in the film because all I had ever seen was news footage and seeing him with a dog or his wife and kids made me realize that at the end of the day he's still just a man.
AH: Dictators have family lives, too. I was particular interested [in this] because I think I also hadn't appreciated when I started reading about him just how closely the family and the politics mapped on to one another. And, in a way, that was the thing that drew me into his story...it made me think of the world of the mafia because that's another world where family and politics and loyalty all kind of mingle with each other so they're almost indiscernible. I think that was true of Saddam's case. He relied on his family because... he felt he was better able to trust them. Their loyalty to him went beyond political allegiance and it was a blood connection. But, ultimately, of course, because those were the people who he had closest to him, they also were the people inevitably, because of his inability to trust anybody... I think that's a tragic and powerful story.
JH: When I watched the film, I thought about "The Godfather" and how you have family celebrations in one room and, in another, you have big political decisions being made.
AH: I really think there is an overlap in the way the criminal organizations did their business and the way Saddam's inner circle operated. I think there is definitely a parallel there.
JH: What about getting the actors in the role possibly shying away from this controversial project? Did you have any issues with any of the actors taking on the roles?
AH: I was keen to cast as many actors as I could that had some sort of connection to the Middle East because they had the opportunity to bring something to the role [and] an understanding of Middle Eastern culture and attitudes. Actually, casting was an absolute joy because having made that decision gave us the opportunity to go out there and discover these brilliant actors who are all over the Middle East [who] all embraced the challenge of this role. I think for them they were interested in it as a character study. They were more interested in the characters than they were of the politics of it and they responded very well to having material that they could use as an inspiration to build their characterization. Actors approach their roles in many different ways often but a lot of them chose to go and watch footage of the character they were portraying to see if they could get inside their mindset, to listen to their voices, to understand the way they spoke and what their rhythm of speech were. They really embraced the entire project with such enthusiasm.
JH: And how did HBO get involved?
AH: Originally, it was an idea I originally developed in its early stages at the BBC but as soon as we had something on paper, the BBC took it to HBO, who just immediately jumped on it. They were very keen on it from the start, which was fantastic because it was a difficult project. It was a challenge logistically and creatively and it was great to have their enthusiasm and input right from the start. Having put the effort into making a project like this you want to put it in front of as many people as possible and obviously HBO is a very good platform to reach the world.
JH: Do you have a prediction in how audiences will respond to seeing this project?
AH: I really didn't know. Obviously, I've had some sort of inkling because it's already been broadcast by the BBC in the UK so that gives me some sort of an indication. One of the most interesting things is something I have to say I was a little nervous... I didn't know how Iraqis would respond. In a way, this was made by the BBC, a British Broadcaster, and HBO, an American broadcaster, [and] there was a danger that it might have been perceived even before it reached the air as a sort of coalition film. I'm pleased to say that the reaction from Iraqis who've seen it in the UK has been almost universally positive. They're fascinated by it and I think that it really gets to the nerve of the central theme of politics and the cruelty of Saddam's regime. I was very, very pleased about that. I think they also appreciated the fact that it was a complex, ambivalent portrayal of a man rather than just a one-side caricature.
HBO airs the first two-hour part of "House of Saddam" this Sunday beginning at 9:00/8:00c while the conclusion is set to air Sunday, December 14th at 9:00/8:00c.