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December 2004
Hotel Rwanda: An Interview with Director Terry George and Paul Rusesabagina

Hotel Rwanda: An Interview with Director Terry George and Paul Rusesabagina

By Wilson Morales

Terry George is no stranger when it comes to writing about real life. Most of his stories are about atrocities that had happened to individual such as the men who were wrongly convicted in "In The Name of The Father" and the men who starved themselves to death in "Some Mother's Son". When he heard met Paul Rusesabagina and heard his story, he wrote the story that is generating lots of buzz as the best picture. Much in the same vein as "Schindler's List", "HOTEL RWANDA" is Paul's story and how he is alive to the tell this story about genocide in his country. In speaking with blackfilm.com, both Terry George and Paul Rusesabagina talk about the story came about.

Since you two are in the same room, now we can't really ask Paul if you really got it right!

Paul Rusesabagina: Terry got it right. Because we had enough time to sit down in Long Island, around 2001?

Terry George: 2002

PR: January or February in 2002 we sat down for days. He and Keir wrote my story. I just told them my story, and they wrote it down and made a script. After making the script, we met again and talked; a few things we changed here and there. He did it the way it was supposed to be.

Terry, you had been interested for a long time in making a film about Africa. What was the original motivation?

TG: I had seen coverage of the Liberian Civil War, and the Sierra Leone civil war, and Somalia, and I generally have this opinion that our media in particular, and Hollywood, had actively ignored Africa. Given the sort of ferocity and anarchy of those conflicts, they seemed to be the perfect places to look for political stories to tell. So I started off to try and write the story of ordinary Africans living though that conflict. And then I came upon a first draft of a script that Keir had written. He'd gone to Rwanda after hearing from a journalist friend about Paul's story and stayed at the Mille Collines and went to Brussels. When I read his version of the story, I immediately wanted to do it. I met up with him, and after meeting him I flew to Brussels and met with Paul, and then brought him back to Long Island, which is what he talked about when we sat down, and put the story together, or put the basis of the treatment for it.

Terry, was it harder for you to ask him questions about it, or was it harder for you, Paul, to tell him about it? I just can't imagine reliving that story, because I'm sure that what's in the film is relatively sanitized.

PR: Well, we have been trying since we met to be open, one to another. Our communication was always perfect, since we started up until now.

TG: I did the same sort of thing with Gerry Conlon for In the Name of the Father. You sit with people for an intense period. And as you talk, I think the soul of the story "the detail that you need" comes out. And that, I feel, is very worthwhile. Because you start to think about it, and you can come back the next day; it's almost a retreat about the story. In Gerry Conlon case, I put him in a car drove to Key West and back, and taped along the way and back, to get there, to get to the heart of it. In Paul's case, Paul has a phenomenal memory for it, that Long Island meeting was essential to get the details.

Terry, did you read that book about the Rwanda massacres?

TG: Yeah, I read it. I read everything pretty much after I met Paul. Fergal Keane, the British journalist, who wrote a very good book. Phillip Gourevitch has a great book which we read as well. So I tried to keep up with the library and the coverage as much as possible. General Prunier' book is excellent.

Terry, can you talk about the casting a little bit?

TG: When I was writing the script with Keir, I always had Don in mind. You visualize characters to play roles. And it was always him. I'd watched his work: Devil in a Blue Dress, The Rat Pack, when he played Sammy Davis Junior, and Traffic. And he has this chameleon ability. He's very similar to Daniel Day Lewis and Helen Mirren, who I've both worked with and that ability to take onboard the personality of a character and then add to it their own acting skills. So, Don was the first one I talked to about it. I went along the whole Hollywood studio route of getting it financed. And then Alex Ho, our producer, he raised the money independently, so I was able to come back to Don. I basically had a free hand at casting. With Sophie (Okenedo), I'd seen her in Dirty Pretty Things. And her performance really impressed me. So I got some more plays from Britain, and she's a rather trained actor. And she did a lot of television in Britain. I met her in London. We did a little bit of a read-through, but when I met her I knew I she was the one to play this role. Nick Nolte had heard of the project and asked to see the script. When he read it he wanted to be involved. Joaquin (Phoenix) was someone I had worked with. I did a rewrite of Ladder 49, sort of on location, on the set with him in Baltimore and we became good friends. And so I asked him, would he take a look at this role and consider it. And he agreed to do it, and flew down to South Africa; which was a big thing because he doesn't like to fly. So that was a real commitment from him.

Paul, how do you feel about the casting of Don as you?

PR: Let's say that when Don and Terry agreed for Don to play my role, Don sent me many e-mails to ask me who I was, how I was, what I liked, cinemas, movies, and everything. And then I was answering him. And when he came for the first time to South Africa, we met, we sat down, we talked, we shared meals, we shared drinks, we spent days and nights. We stayed together for a week, I think, almost a week. And then when they started shooting, I was also there. Don was always watching me, learning, trying to learn my accent, my French accent. I think that Don did it perfectly

Can you describe your reaction to seeing the film for the first time?

PR: Well, seeing the film, really it was not a surprise to me. Because I saw the movie in its evolution. From the day I sat down with Terry in Long Island, and then when I told the story, they wrote a draft, we met again. They changed a few things, here and there. Then, when they started shooting the movie, I was there. Even towards the end I was there. For the production time, I went to London. I saw a bit of it on the small screen. I also went to Rome in June, I kept on seeing it. But whenever I see that movie, it just seems as if what took place in 1994 happened yesterday, or even this morning.

Paul, how do you feel when you step back and think about what happened, in terms of understanding what would lead people overnight to kill their neighbors? Have you finally been able to come up with some answers for yourself? And Terry, what were your thoughts on that?

PR: Well, I've never found an answer. But that has taught me a lesson. A human being is more wild than a lion. Because a lion kills to eat. And a human being kills only for killing. Why it happened in Rwanda? There is a lot of the governments, the people who are leading the country, they have a big part of it. The media, they were using, exploiting the media. That was a big part of it. And also the people in that place who were poor; it is also another problem. You see the media: a radio can touch each and everyone. Each and everyone has their own transistor or small radio. And here's the news. And what was going on in Rwanda in 1994 during that genocide was dehumanizing "officially" the Tutsis as traitors. And the moderate Hutu who did not say yes, let us eliminate those "cockroaches," as they were calling them.

TG: The historical background to the genocide was that the Germans, and then the Belgiums, basically took the tribal division, the ethnic division in Rwanda, and used it for the old divide-and-conquer mechanism. They elevated the Tutsis to be the ruling elite during the colonization. They issued identity cards. And when the Tutsis they felt weren't a broad enough section of society, they then recruited all the people who fitted their sort of genetic definition of what Tutsis was the color of their skin, they're taller, more elegant; they went around measuring people's noses and their heights to reinforce this. And then, of course, immediately after independence, they basically abandoned to society to these divisions that they had instituted. From that, from the period of Ś59 toŚ94 was a period of deep-seeded resentment against Tutsi minority. And then, as Paul says, that hate radio that we show in the movie, RTML, was I think the single biggest catalyst of genocide. It turned what would have been outbreaks of revenge-killing into a systematic genocide.

Paul, when did you first decide that you wanted to tell this story?

PR: Immediately after the genocide, the Milles Collines was the only place in the whole country where many people were hiding. 1,268 people were in the Milles Collines. None of them were killed. None of them were beaten, or even taken out. It was just a miracle. All the journalists who came to Rwanda immediately after the genocide, they wanted to see that place where nobody was killed. Seeing that place, they were always referred to me, and coming to see me. To ask me what went on, how did I manage. I was always in contact with journalists, book-writers, until I also came across filmmakers, who first of all wanted to make documentaries. And later on, some cable movies. At long last, I met Mr. George. And we agreed on making a movie, a theater movie, as he has done. And that's it.

Terry, there seems to be a trend lately where studios are doing a film based on situations that are happening in other countries. We've seen Black Hawk Down, Tears of the Sun. Although the films are unrelated, there's an underlying sense of similarity there.

TG: Black Hawk Down is not an African movie. That's a US Marines thriller, or recruiting film. I talked to Antoine Fuqua, and he, I think, wasn't particularly happy with the outcome of that, how it evolved. The studio that backed us, MGM/UA, were very brave to do so, but it was a distribution deal. I went around all the studios before I went to MGM and pitched the story and showed them the script. And they all loved the script, but none of them were backing us because it's a three strike movie. It's got African American and African actors. That's the principal cast. The white cast are B roles. It's about Africa. And it's about genocide. So those three strikes mean you're out in Hollywood. So I don't think we fit any trend.

That's the plus of it, that it's the opposite.

TG: Yeah. It is the opposite. For us, the liberating thing for me, is that I partnered with Alex Ho, and he is capable, had the talent as a producer to put together this complex financial package that, first of all, tapped into South African grant money, which they were very gracious and also willing to give. And then, the tax relief money funds in England, along with some Italian help. Being able to put together the actual budget, on our own, liberated me to be able to hire Don, Sophie, and basically South African cast.

Terry, given all these obstacles, what made you want to do this film?

TG: I did the Irish hunger strike, which was second only to this in the obstacle course field. When I read Paul's story, I had a deep passion for it, which I hope I communicated to him. Then when I returned with Paul to Rwanda, when he went back there to the first time, the impact of that visit was overwhelming to me. Particularly a journey we made to a genocide memorial site called Murambi in Southern Rwanda. And Murambi is a technical college on a hill, overlooking other hills. In April of 1994, the local Hutu mayor politician encouraged the Tutsi to flee to the Murambi technical college for protection. And then, when he had massed together over 40,000 of them, the Interahamwe moved in, and over the course of four days, they slaughtered every one of them. Except for four. Only four of them survived. They pushed the bodies into pits, mass graves, and sprinkled them with limes. And for some scientific, or chemical reason, instead of deteriorating the bodies, the lime seems to have mummified them. Those mummified bodies, some of them, are displayed in the rooms that they were killed. Basically in the last throes of their life. You have people holding up two hands, and one hand has been sliced off. The most remarkable and saddest thing to me, was the lime turned their skin white. So the very color of skin that would have saved their lives they had become in death. Then, when we were leaving, they took me to a condolence book. I was standing there, and what do you write in a condolence book after that? So I wrote in that book, "I promise to tell this story." And from that moment on, I was going to make the film whether I was shooting it on DV with Rwanda actors or no matter what we did. I was making it, you know? But I had promised Paul I was going to make a big feature film, so it was like, I didn't want to go back and show him the camera I had.

Terry, did you talk to anybody in the UN or the Red Cross in regards of how their portrayal of the film was going to be?

TG: No. I mean, I obviously did a lot of research about it. Those two characters, Nick Nolte's character and Cara Seymour's character, are actually compilations of stuff I read; as is Joaquin's and Gregoire, the Hutu informer. There were several Hutu workers in the hotel, who took over the big suites and were providing information. The role of the press and their evacuation was pretty well documented.

What about that colonel who did the documentary?

TG: That's General Dallaire. Because he was running everything, his personal relationship with the Milles Collines was not close enough to allow me to present him as a character. He had a deputy commander and several other Canadian officers who interacted. And I also needed to display between them the role of those UN soldiers who stayed behind. So that was the reason for the compilation of that. And I think it represents a few brave UN soldiers.

But you didn't speak to the General himself. You saw his film, obviously?

TG: No, I didn't see his film. His documentary wasn't out when we made the film, nor was his book. At one point, people had offered me to write that film, or to write it and direct it. The noble white failure in Africa did not attract me over Paul's story. I also wanted not to impinge on that though. He's a national hero in Canada. He has people trying to make his book into a film and a miniseries. And I didn't want to encroach upon that at all.

What made you decide to make a dramatization of Paul's story and not a documentary?

TG: I'm a deep believer that at a documentary is a different field. I don't think it allows you to do what a feature film does. Which is distill a reality into; I always make the analogy that a documentary is wine, and a feature film is brandy. The moments are distilled, the drama is distilled, through characters; it allows an audience for two hours to move through an event. And I know some people say, well, you mess with the facts. And I have experience with that accusation. Here I was very careful to document the story in the few places that I had to do that.

Do you ever feel the need to state that a person is a composite?

TG: No, I say it through you. I don't think it matters in what's in the film that it takes away from it. And I hope that afterwards I'm very straight with what the scenes are. The remarkable thing with Paul's story, is that the craziest events, Tatiana and those group of people hiding in the bath. The convoy ambush when they went out; even the Hutu solider being accidentally shot. That's all what happened. Roger going next door and being traumatized. The Hutu captain trying to force Paul to shoot his family. And for me, that was like gold dust to have all those to string together.

And there was specifically one person that actually informed on them?

TG: No, there were several.

I know you said that, but that one incident with the convoy.

TG: Oh yeah, the radio was informed. And the names of the people who left were given.

PR: It was played on the radio many times. Read many times. They were reading the list of the people who were being evacuated for hours.

TG: And they actually named Paul's son Roger as being one of the "traitors".

PR: And even my youngest child, who was one and a half years old. They were saying there's another "cockroach" who's joining his brothers and sisters in Belgium, and that very soon he's going to "come back and attack us." And that boy was one and a half years old. So you can imagine how the media can be a good or a very bad weapon.

Why do you feel the division between the two people became so extreme? And also why do you feel it took so long for anyone else to jump in and try to help out?

TG: The creation of the genocide was done by that radio station. What turned acts of revenge and a conflict between two armies into a systematic genocide was the radio station. That radio station was able to mobilize, not even mobilize, order the Hutu population to kill their neighbors. And they did that with a deliberate attempt to wipe out the whole population. Along with the Holocaust, this was the clearest, most defined genocide in history. And that is the reason why the UN and the western governments are so culpable. After the Holocaust, they instituted laws and decrees at the UN, that once genocide was perpetrated, there was a legal obligation to act. If you saw the film, we had that State department woman doing verbal somersaults to avoid saying the word genocide. So the radio station you can lay at the door of what turned sectarian hatred into genocide.

PR: I just wanted to add something to what Terry had said. Genocide was something which was planned. RTML was always talking about the "cockroaches" and everything. But genocide broke out because the Hutu president's plane was shot down. From that hour onwards, for those 100 days, genocide went on. So the death of the president was one of the main factors that helped genocide break out.

Since this is such a political film, when you were writing the film, was there any fear anytime that there would be repercussions after it came out in your country?

PR: Sometimes I think about it, as you are putting it. Sometimes I feel like not going there for a few months, or even years. [Laughs.] And see what is going on, what will follow. But later on, I'll have to face it. Because I'm Rwandees. It's in everyone to be informed. If people got the wrong information, in 1994, which led to a genocide, why can't they, this time, face the facts of what they have done, and learn to not repeat it anymore? This movie is a good lesson.

TG: Just one more thing I'd like to say, because it's important to me. When I was making this film, I was determined that this would not be a horror show. The elements of genocide that I was incapable of recreating, and I think are incapable of being recreated, the savagery of it, it was really important that I create the psychological atmosphere of genocide rather than the visual. So that an audience can come and not feel that they're going to experience revulsion. And also, it's rated PG-13. And I fought hard to get that rating. There's nothing in there that justifies an R rating visually. And also, my first desire was that it be a piece of entertainment. It plays as a romance and a thriller. If people are not interested in the political backdrop, they can go in there and sit through a good film, and leave feeling their ten dollars was well-spent. So I just want to emphasize that as well. If you concentrate on the political thing, people don't get the understanding of how that stands up on its own.

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