Director Brad Silberling on How to Ace Production Design and Character Accents
In the director's latest feature, 'An Ordinary Man,' who do you trust when the world stands against you?
At first glance, it would appear that Ben Kingsley and Hera Hilmar, the leads of Brad Silberling's An Ordinary Man, have fairly simple jobs. How hard could it be to portray a General in hiding, or the General's maid, for that matter, both on the run from authorities?
As it turns out, thanks to the complexities of Silberling's script and the depth of the actors' performances, the story the characters tell is profound, and the characters themselves fascinating. Kingsley's fugitive General, considered a war criminal in an unnamed Eastern European country, finds himself in his own apartment, complete with a maid arriving for work one day to find the General has replaced her former boss (the apartment's previous occupant).
The film is both intimate and sweeping in its tour of these two characters' psyches and vulnerabilities. As it moves forward, our impressions of both characters shift and twist, until the end, when the larger world, blunt and ugly as it can be, is revealed.
NFS talked to Silberling, the director of, among other films, Moonlight Mile, and CW's Jane the Virgin, about the process of making An Ordinary Man, currently in theaters.
No Film School: Much of Ben Kingsley’s performance seems to grow out of his physicality and body language. Can you say a little bit about how that developed in the film?
Brad Silberling: He and I spoke about that from the beginning, when I was writing the character. He’s like a veteran stage actor without an audience and always in need of one. You can picture what that man would have been like in front of troops: he’ s an entertainer, a social animal, and all of that. He’s all alone initially, a big big man in a little box.
It’s chilling, and yet his physicality and his backbone—the way he cleans his shoes at night and presents his uniform before making his barracks bed—remains intact as the one thing he has left to hang on to besides his crappy little therapeutic pillow. He made it his own. He gave the character an upright soldier’s posture: there is a man whose chin is high because he thinks he is still deserving of his country’s fealty. In his mind, he is still royalty.
"What would this old woman’s apartment be like? He smiled and said that there are many apartments in Belgrade that could convey this."
NFS: Who would you say were the chief models for Kingsley’s character?
Silberling: I had screened a film at the Sarajevo Film Festival, and that sparked my interest in the region and its wars. Honestly, there’s a troika of characters there, specifically the Bosnian general Ratko Mladic, who’s a political counterpart to Karadzic (they both were hiding in plain sight in Belgrade for a while). And then there’s Milosevic, to a certain extent, but he’s somewhat more obvious because he truly was president.
It was Mladic the General who I was most struck by because the guy just lived for the cameras. He lived to try to entertain. He was deceptively good at it, and it was chilling because he could seduce journalists who were there to tear him apart. He'd make his enemies play chess with him; this was who he was.
That all revealed a sort of social need, a need for contact that I thought I could starve the character of and put him in hell because of that quality. Mladic’s own daughter took her life in her early twenties—that was where that very real 'Achilles’ heel' came from. She took her life with his military pistol, and yet to this day, he denies that it could have possibly been suicide. He can’t even entertain that idea.
NFS: I noticed that the interiors, in particular the general’s apartment, had a very genuine quality. What kind of research did you do to achieve that?
Silberling: Thank you for pointing that out! I’m really proud of the craftsmanship in the film on all sides. When I went to Belgrade for the first time, I just went to see if I could make the film there. While I was still writing it, I was introduced to their star production designer, who frankly wasn’t in the country much anymore because he was working for all kinds of people over in Western Europe. His name is Miljen Kreka Kljakovic, and he was the art director on Delicatessen and was Kusturica's main production designer.
" I have a pet peeve, in movies in particular: Eastern European characters speaking English in Eastern European accents when they are talking to other Eastern European characters."
We kept in touch, and when it came time to make the movie, I reached out to him straight away. We talked about the character, and about the authenticity of his apartment. In the story, they’ve found some older woman who lived in the apartment for 50 years; she has obviously been removed to make space for the General. So that’s what I took to Kreka: let’s summon her feelings and history.
What would this old woman’s apartment be like? He smiled and said that there are many apartments in Belgrade that could convey this, between ones that have been converted and others, and so we worked up a set of sketches and photos.
I knew I wanted to have control over the set, given how much material was going to be there, so down to their version of a radiator which looked like a water heater, all of the details, even down to the tiling, came from his having grown up there. And the only other set we had, the hallway leading up to his apartment, was all part of the greatest hits of all the designs I had seen in Belgrade.
"We didn’t want it simply to be a 'father figure' story, nor for it to just turn into The Night Porter."
NFS: I also noticed that the main characters all speak with British accents, and yet the film is set in Eastern Europe. How did that come about?
Silberling: In the first meeting. I have a pet peeve, in movies in particular: Eastern European characters speaking English in Eastern European accents when they are talking to other Eastern European characters. I always think they would have more likely have been speaking in their own native tongue. It’s a certain level of artifice that always freaks me out—I’d rather watch a movie with subtitles!
"I thought to myself, 'Okay, in this case, I am probably going to make a film that is in English.' So I said to Ben, 'I just want you to speak with your English accent.'"
I thought to myself, 'Okay, in this case, I am probably going to make a film that is in English.' So I said to Ben, 'I just want you to speak with your English accent.'
I had a suspicion that was proven right, that had to do with another picture, Death and the Maiden, in which he was also playing an expert criminal, and he, Stuart Wilson, and Sigourney Weaver were all using American accents. I said to him, 'You can just nod your head, or shake your head, you won’t be on the record—my suspicion is that you were all speaking with American accents because Sigourney Weaver couldn’t rock the British accent.' He smiled and nodded.
Silberling: It could have just as easily gone the other way! I just wanted the clarity and the simplicity of that. And then the only adjustments we made, and these are the things that we think about because no one else really cares about them, were these: with Hera’s character, we learn she’s a city girl who was born in the city, lives in the city, went on to eventually work in military intelligence, but the general’s character is a regional guy, and that’s why they go out to his home village in the movie.
Rather than an English RP accent, like Hera’s, Kingsley drew more from his own roots, which are more regional, and so his character is a little more Yorkshire than London.
"I think he’s trying to have a relationship vicariously through this girl that he never got to have with his own daughter due to his actions."
NFS: One thing I found fascinating about the film was the relationship between the General and the maid. In another film, they might have had a tryst, but here the relationship is more like a friendship. How did that relationship evolve?
Silberling: Our goal from the beginning was to blur those lines, but the storytelling behind the film is driving what I believe to be true about the General’s character: I think he’s trying to have a relationship vicariously through this girl that he never got to have with his own daughter due to his actions.
What seems initially to be something that could go very much the other way, turning darkly sexual, has a real paternal quality to it, and yet there’s always a tension beneath it. That was always our goal. We didn’t want it simply to be a 'father figure' story, nor for it to just turn into The Night Porter. It’s in the space in-between, and I think they pulled it out beautifully.