A few hours after I get off the phone with him, Stuart Townsend is getting on a plane heading for Washington, DC. With a movie like Battle in Seattle, his directorial debut, it’s difficult to know whether what he’s doing today is promotion, supplemental material, or continued research from a fascinated party. Whatever the case, Townsend has meetings with union officials and other experts who can provide even more insight into the WTO protests that took place in Seattle in 1999.
Battle in Seattle tells a story of the protesters, riot police, and governmental officials that clashed in the streets of the city during the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization. Protesters came for myriad reasons, but once violence broke out, they had the world’s attention – and the meeting stalled, having to be reconvened two years later. It may have seemed like triumph, but the mainstream media mostly blamed protesters for the violence that erupted.
I haven’t seen the movie, yet, so I can’t comment on whether it’s good or not, but the topic is certainly controversial.
“It took me a year just to research,” Townsend said describing his preparation for writing the script. Six months to write the draft and several rewrites later – the third finished during “ten days locked up in some apartment” while he finished photography on Chaos Theory and it turned into a “four year process before [they] even got started.”
But research was crucial in creating a fictional account based on the factual evidence of such a broad-based, dynamic event in modern history. Especially one that was covered so irresponsibly by the mainstream media.
“Sadly, it’s to be expected,” he said elucidating on how “the mainstream media had misrepresented the event. “They often focus on spectacle instead of content, so when they saw anarchists smashing downtown…and riots,” that become the story.
Battle in Seattle features an ensemble cast including Townsend’s longtime girlfriend Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, Ray Liotta, Joshua Jackson and Channing Tatum. Another structural element of his directorial vision – having an ensemble cast – lent itself to giving balance to an otherwise convoluted event, one wrought by conflicting points of view.
“There were just so many stories begging to be told,” Townsend said. “The goal was to make it as factually accurate as possible, and to make it as entertaining as possible.”
Those multiple stories also created a framework that helped the actors. Townsend described a set where the actors were rotated in and out depending on their scenes. With no single actor taking the spotlight, the entire cast shared equal stage time and down time. The situation “really frees [the actors] up…they could come on set and enjoy the work,” said the director. It also demanded a tight schedule, incredible planning and focus, especially with an $8 million budget.
Despite enjoying the leap into the director’s chair, don’t expect too many solo writing projects from him from now on.
“I don’t think of myself as a writer. I didn’t like writing. I’d like to collaborate, but it wasn’t an easy process alone,” he said. When I asked whether he’d be sticking with true-to-life stories or branching out when he continues to direct, he said he was open to several ideas, but noted aptly that, “the world we live in is pretty fascinating without having to make stuff up.”
Of course, we had to ask him about film school, and his response to our FSR Standard was about as cool as it gets:
“It I tried I would have gotten rejected.”
The actor-turned-director went on to talk at length about growing up and seeing every video in his rental place – having to wait for new video shipments to come in before he could soak up more. In fact, the reason he got into acting in the first place was out of a sheer love of film, simply because he’d been, “moved by movies.”
He got his practical experience by being on sets for years while acting. He’s never been to a formal school, but he took that set experience and supplemented it with cinematography books. We’ll have to wait until November to see whether it all culminated in a strong directorial debut, but for now it’s clear that he has an intense passion for the subject matter and hopes to continue chasing new passions in future films.
By now, he’s most likely either laid up in a hotel resting from the flight or knee deep in policy wonks, interviewing experts for the material he’s putting up on his website for the film – further reading if you get interested in the protests. Townsend’s target audience? “The college kids who are voting for Obama…who have been suddenly politicized for the first time in their lives.” He said they were ideal because they had a lot of direction but might have little or no knowledge of what happened back in 1999 when they were in middle school.
Maybe in the same way he was attracted to the event, he considers those young people, “the best audience to inspire.”