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Tom Cruise Stars in Valkyrie, And Illustrates That Slide Down the Slippery Slope to Fascism

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by Brad Balfour [Photos by Mark Feldman/Loud & Clear]
Though he totally missed the Oscar loop, you have to give some credit to media magnet Tom Cruise for releasing his World War II drama, Valkyrie at the end of 2008 despite the surge of Nazi-inspired holiday fare. Anytime a star of his stature dons a Nazi uniform and parades around Berlin in jackboots while enjoying facetime with a cinematic Adolf Hitler, it invites ridicule. Yet by playing the stone-faced Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg--who made the final coup attempt against The Fuhrer--Cruise provided audiences with a bete noir to his Jerry Maguire-esque stereotype.

Certainly this wasn't a follow-up to his comedic cameo in Tropic Thunder where he does an astounding parody of the ultimate Hollywood exec--the kind that Cruise, as an executive among the team running United Artists, clearly knows intimately.

For a long time, the 46 year-old actor had been Mr. Moneybags, the most bankable star who could sell a movie even if it had a thin premise. But as he has gotten older, and taken on the responsibilities of a producer, maintaining that star power and financial dominance isn't as much of a challenge to him or that easy anymore.

So in light of seeing the media character, or even parody that Cruise has become, he turned to making Valkyrie, a film that's not a standard heroic starrer. Cruise turns to this devastating period and to a character who ambiguously seems valiant in his goals and means, except that he was an arch-conservative whose goals sometimes intersected with Hitler's. Maybe in regaling us with the lavish, subtle eroticism of boots and black leather, Cruise does his Nazi with a cinematic flair, but the complex implications of this character and era require serious contemplation not just flair--something Cruise and director Bryan Singer addressed in this interview drawn from a recent press conference.

Q: Valkyrie has come out at a time when other Nazi-era films have been released -- but this film has a different angle from the others and it's an important too to educate the public about the Germany of that time.

TC: It's something that Bryan and I have spoken about -- that it's important to know that not everybody felt that way and fell into the Nazi ideology. To me, that was surprising. To take this story -- and it's such a massive, comprehensive story; we could've made this a five hour, 10 hour, miniseries -- it could've been very different kind of movie. [But] Bryan was always specific: this is a suspense thriller about killing Hitler. It's not a bio-pic. That [the story is true] was a bonus, really, for the film.

BS: It's not a "Holocaust" movie. There are movies that happen to take place [about] this subject matter that are coming out around this time, but it's a coincidence. This is far from a Holocaust movie. It's a conspiracy thriller about assassinating Hitler. As Tom was just saying, the bonus is that it happens to be true, it happens to be gripping. And even things that you might think are film conventions -- some of the twists and turns -- actually really did happen.

TC: We spent eight months working [together], and Bryan spent more time before that. Bryan wanted me to come on board, and I started working with him, writers Chris [McQuarrie] and Nathan [Alexander]. Every time we started talking about the Holocaust and the different characters, and trying to put as much into that story as possible, Bryan always went back to, "This is a piece of entertainment. This is a suspense thriller about killing Hitler."

The more you know about the history of it, [you find] there are so many moments we were able to put in there. Von Stauffenberg despised the Nazis, [yet] as a parent [he had to] look at his daughter saluting him. On that day, July 20th, 1944, his son was indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth. These are the moments Bryan wanted to seed in there, but [he] never var[ied] from the picture that he wanted to make. We wanted to [make] this movie [accessible] to a broader audience.

Q: What was it about Claus von Stauffenberg that made this role so irresistible to you?

TC: When I first read the script, I thought how incredibly suspenseful it was. Right from the beginning, I thought it was a great story, this is a suspense thriller. I went, "Whoa. It's cool."

Stauffenberg went to Hitler the day after D-Day; you find out it really happened. It is definitely an important story. I'd never heard [of] it before. I grew up playing with the neighborhood kids in the yard, wanting to kill Nazis, wanting to kill Hitler. As a child, I [wondered], "Why didn't someone just shoot him?"

And, [after] sitting down with Bryan and finding out it was a true story, and I wanted to work with him, off we went. Bryan is someone I've always wanted to work with. [I was first introduced to Bryan] when I saw his film The Usual Suspects but we actually met at the premiere of the first Mission Impossible. And I said, "Man, I want to work with you."

He was totally accurate to the behavior and what was happening during that time period. I really respect Bryan's staging, his composition, and his storytelling. When I look at his movies, it's very cinematic, classic storytelling. So you don't see the hand necessarily until you see that it's missing. They build to that so you see it in the bed.

I've always felt that you want to get it right. And within the limited amount of time, and economics, you want to do the best that you can for the audience, for the subject matter, whatever it is. The most important thing is the film, because I want to entertain an audience, and when I'm making a film, that's so important.

Q: You two seem to have a partnership as much as an actor-director relationship. What's the difference in working together as producers and then working together as an actor and director?

TC: I have great respect for him as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. Out of a scale of one to 10, I think this film is a 20. It was a challenge to make.

BS: We spent a lot of time, we had Tom's interest in the project as well as position at the studios. We has the freedom to spend a lot of time working together, working with Chris and Nathan, and talking about the project.

We have a lot of fun talking. We had meetings at Tom's house 12 hours long. We camped out in the desert when we were shooting the desert sequence, and everyone's families were there. When we moved to Germany, we learned more information. We had some good experiences.

And then once we get on the set, he becomes an actor. And I become a director and for my experience, there was never any difference. I knew that no matter how many takes I asked him to do, it would never be as many as Stanley Kubrick did [laughs]. And we tried, we experimented, and it was phenomenal, because anything you'd [saying to Cruise] ask -- anything, you'd be like, "Let's do it." There was never a lack of wanting to try and never a lack of trust.

And then afterwards, [there was] the full support of an actor -- it's a rare opportunity with Tom. As a director, you always feel like nobody cares about the movie as much as you do. What you probably see here is a relationship with someone who cares about this movie as much as I do.

TC: I want to be directed. I enjoy that. I do like to be directed. I don't stand outside myself and direct myself. And I have a lot of fun doing it.

BS: He doesn't come to the monitor and look at it and say, "Oh, there's none of that," which some actors do.

TC: As an actor, getting direction from Bryan, he gave great notes on behavior and we were just tracking. I like that in a movie where as an actor I'm tracking with the director.

BS: It's been a really great journey, but one that comes from caring about the project.

TC: There's certain things that Bryan knew from a story sense how you want to build to those moments, because there [are] little pieces that build to a moment. There are moments where there's tension, you've got to take the audience along and build that tension. Every scene has to move the story along, but every scene you're revealing more about the characters. There [are] rhythms and structure to a movie that I love as an audience.

When I read a script, when I'm seeing a movie, I see it like an audience and not necessarily as a filmmaker, particularly when I get caught up in the picture.

Q: Does Tom Cruise, the actor, compete with Tom Cruise, the businessman?

TC: I've produced a lot of films. Mission Impossible was the first film that I produced and then I produced all the Mission films, and The Last Samurai. So there's always the balance of art and commerce, and the challenges of that.

And it's not just having talent in making a film, it's also important to know to surround yourself with great people. I've got very good people that I work with. I've always tried to surround myself with people that I respect, that I enjoy working with, and that's what we have. I'm very happy to have these guys on board with MGM. At the studio it's actually a very exciting time, with Mary Parent, who's come on at MGM.

But I am an actor first and foremost. That is my love.

Q: You both have had so much control over the project. Why wasn't it just put into a December release originally; at one time it was scheduled for October and then, February 2009?

BS: Originally, the schedule of completion had to do with that. It was going to come out a lot earlier, but then the Tunisia sequence took time. I ended up scouting Jordan for a location, and then Spain, but those two locations didn't work out, both aesthetically and economically.

We figured we would just see what movie we had when we got home. [We'd] cut it all together, and then go back and go to California where the location we found looks far more like Tunisia. Cougar Buttes, that's where we shot. We would have the equipment and resources, and we would sort of drop and pick up.

And then that moved our release day. It was a crowded Christmas, but we didn't know where we were at finishing the movie. Is that pretty much as you remember it?

TC: You know, we were making a film not for a release date, to be honest with you.

BS: Yeah, exactly. Thank you.

TC: February was never a firm date. We also never wanted to say, "Hey, we want to put it in awards season." That's not even why we moved to Christmas. Christmas is a great time for audiences. It's the biggest time of the year for people to go [to movies]. You want to put your film where it can [be] available to as broad an audience as possible.

Q: So what were the challenges and rewards playing this character?

TC: The rewards are that I thought it was a very exciting film. It's a story I'd never heard of before. And I wanted to work with Bryan Singer [as I said]. I loved Chris's script [and] to be able to work with these actors. That's the reward every day, going in and having that challenge... and, as I said, to entertain an audience. I thought it'd be a very compelling story and a fascinating film. That's what I like. That's what I'm looking for in a film.

When I'm making movies, it's about "us," it's not about "me." It's about the journey that we all take together. We got to shoot in locations where these people [lived and where] they died, which was very powerful to be there and to see that world.

I grew up wanting to travel the world and I wanted an adventurous life. Sometimes [there was] a little more adventure than I had ever bargained for [laughter]. But this was something I didn't want to pass on.

BS: Chris and I used to make war films in my backyard.

TC: And I saw the World of War. The way that this film was directed, [it's] not like anything that I've seen -- these films that I greatly admire: Schindler's List and Paths of Glory. But this is very different.

Q: From the military formations to the assassinations,the [orchestration] was pretty amazing and quite ominous. What was it like for you, Bryan, in the directing and you, Tom, in performing this... that it was so precise?

BS: Well, [we] stud[ied] a lot of war photography. There was a huge amount. Hitler filmed everything, so we had the benefit of a lot of both color and black & white motion picture film of that era. Also, we were in Germany so we shot with Arriflex cameras and the Zeiss lenses. And also, with color, I wanted to give a sense of vibrance so it would look like it did to people who lived back then, as opposed to trying to approximate black & white or muddy the film or desaturate it.

The pageantry and the military aspects of it we have, thanks to all that recorded film material. And then we worked with the military advisors who knew the history, and who could help us with the movements and the salutes. So we could have authenticity regarding the difference between the way a colonel would salute a major, or a field marshal, or the Fuhrer.

TC: And specifically at that time period. There is actual dialogue in the film that I discovered were from letters [and] journals that Chris and Nathan had studied.

BS: Yeah, which changed after the assassination attempt. Certain things were more mandatory. And that's what made the scene where he throws up his hand. If you were missing your hand, you wouldn't put it up and give the Heil Hitler salute. And that's why it's interesting that he does. He shows his stump.

TC: This is a film that, right in the beginning, needed that kind of dynamic orchestration, and you had to be very specific in editing these pieces together. That was all very thought out. From top to bottom of the production, we really had a lot of help and support from the Germans -- their production, the stuff that they gave us. When you talk about colors, the reds, the whole point is to try to give that audience that visceral feeling of being on the edge of their seat, even down to the wardrobe.

[In] wardrobe with Joanna Johnston, a lot of time and attention went into this -- the kind of fabrics, and also studying the fact that certain people would make their own uniforms.

And so [too] with Tom Sigel [cinematographer]: the kind of film that he used, the lighting that he used. The level of detail in the film -- even down to Hitler's signature, [which] was, to the best of our knowledge, exactly the signature that he signed at that time period. Same with Stauffenberg. This is the kind of stuff that we film geeked and history geeked out on.

BS: People were taken blindfolded to the homes of people who collected Hitler's furniture so we could see it and know the furniture at the Berghof, his summer house. There are people who collect this stuff secretly in Germany.

Q: Are they neo-Nazis?

BS: I don't know, they just like the furniture; [they're collectors].

TC: There's certain things you go, "Look, I don't care. I don't wanna know. [laughs]." But we're very happy to have the desk in his office...

BS: I had lunch with Hitler's bodyguard, [Cruise] wouldn't go.

TC: It was good for the director to have it. He needed that. I didn't need it. I'll read about it.

Q: I understand the eye patch initially gave you unexpected balance problems.

TC: Yeah, it did. I was surprised -- for a few hours and a few days, when we started working on it, especially when it was dark, I lost depth perception and balance.

From visual storytelling, I think it was a challenge for Bryan. He also understood it's a different story depending on where that camera is on my face -- different profiles, shooting with the patch and the hand. It was a challenge always going into a room, or which angle we shot.

Q: What about the creative decision of not going with German accents for everyone, but letting the actors speaking their own natural way?

BS: Well, we didn't want that to be what the movie was about. It should be exciting and the audience should be taken on a ride through the film. The actors speak wonderfully the way they do in their current dialects.

We have an international cast: American, Dutch, German, British actors. To have everyone try and approximate German accents, when in reality they're supposed to be speaking German -- which, I promise you, after the first 20 minutes, you'd be sick of it -- would ultimately sound silly. And it would distract from the drive of the plot. Though they can do it -- that's Tom speaking German at the beginning of the movie. But it would ultimately be not as fun for the audience.

Q: Did your research find anything new about Hitler and his followers?

BS: That meeting between Von Stauffenberg and Hitler actually took place -- it was his first time meeting Hitler and the Big Six. It was the day after D-Day, and the thing that Stauffenberg noticed, and went home and told his wife -- it's not in the film, but we keyed off this testimony -- is that Göring had on makeup. There was distrust [among] them, clearly the Allies were at their door, and Hitler was detached from what was going on. The only one that seemed to have a clue was [Albert] Speer, but he was just the architect along for the ride.

TC: The scene where Stauffenberg goes to Hitler after Berghof, it's challenging. I've grown up with the footage of Hitler at the rallies. I was interested in the focus on Hitler, and to see him particularly during that time period where he wasn't [yet] so obviously, utterly insane.

That sequence has this eerie, terrifying feeling -- all of the detail where Goebbels is looking at Göring, all these little looks.

BS: Hitler walked over and held Stauffenberg's hand, and acknowledged his injuries and his heroism as a way of mocking his own people. He would do that. He was always playing one against the other. It was how Hitler rose in politics-through flattery, promises, and backstabbing. He did it with Stalin and he did it with the German people, and eventually that's how the war ended.

So it was nice to put hints of that kind of detached, laconic Hitler in the Berghof scene that the people didn't get to see, in a scene that genuinely happened, and all the specifics of that leading up to [it].

The reason that we have such detail in the third act of the film is because the Gestapo did a very stunning investigation into this assassination attempt, and trials were held and filmed.

So we have the benefit of all of those facts and information to inform our story, as well as the research we've done, and actually talking to a lot of people who were with Hitler.

TC: I was surprised [at] Stauffenberg upbraiding the General [in the desert]. He did that. He had those conversations with generals exactly in that way.

Q: Which is why he ended up in Africa?

TC: Which is why he ended up in Africa. He had actually court-martialed friends of his for war crimes. His uncle was concerned for him, arranged for him to go to Africa. And he was that outspoken with generals. He was a supply officer [at the rear]. He was saying, "What's happening? How can this happen? Why is this happening? This guy's a liar. This is not the country that we want, that I've wanted."

The amount of desperation and pain for him -- because he loved his country, [because] he wanted a moral country, but one that participated in the world, not annihilating [it], not [creating] the Holocaust, not [committed to] world domination. He was a man that was able to really think for himself within all of that propaganda, and recognized very early on that insanity.

At first he's thinking, "Well, someone's got to stop him. Let's overthrow him." "Someone's got to shoot that bastard," is a quote of his. And it's ironic that those injuries actually put him in the position of high command where he got on the inside, and realized that the only way to stop this is from the inside.

And really recognizing that it wasn't just enough to kill Hitler. You had to have something that's going to put people in a position where they're going to follow you, because you have that oath. That oath is so creepy, to get people to not be able to think for themselves. As an American, to open the film [with it], that struck me.

BS: Because the army was compelled to give an oath. An army of 10 million people in Germany was compelled to give an oath to Hitler himself, personally.

Q: Did you think of Fred Zinneman's film,The Day of the Jackal, in the sense that people knew going in what the end would be?

BS: Not so much; I hadn't seen it in awhile. But movies like that were discussed.

TC: Yeah, definitely. You look at Apollo 13, Titanic -- any film that's made out of a book [where] people know how it's going to end. I had an idea when I read -- of course I heard of the briefcase under the table. When I read it, it was so surprising to me, the story, the details. And I was surprised in reading it that I was that caught up and I was whipping through the pages.

BS: You might [know] if you know history. But I don't think audiences know the full degree of how this particular story ends, and that's an important thing.