Stuart Townsend on ‘Battle in Seattle’ and Battling Hollywood

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Aura Rosenberg's Bird of Paradise (2002) Photo: Getty Images

Half a decade ago, Stuart Townsend — of Irish-indie and Charlize Theron–beloved fame — wasn’t getting roles he liked, so he decided to strike out on his own, crafting an ambitious, multi-narrative drama based on the protests that took over Seattle (and the World Trade Organization’s big conference there) in 1999. The brutally riveting film Battle in Seattle — starring Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, Ray Liotta, and yes, Theron — hits theaters tonight. Townsend chatted with Vulture about his inspirations for the movie, the struggles of making it in Hollywood, and the pleasures of working with a certain A-list blonde.

I really liked the movie, but this seems like kind of a nightmarish, huge-scale project to pick for your first time directing…
I was definitely trying to make things as difficult as possible for myself. No, it certainly wasn’t easy. Oftentimes I’d find myself thinking, God, I wish this was about two guys in a room. Like Dinner With Andre. That would have been easy. But this was a story I really wanted to tell. I was really passionate about it so I just had to go and do it. For six years. [Laughs.]

And how did you find working with Charlize?
Honestly, she makes my job really easy because she’s really fucking good. I actually think the hardest part is when you’ve written this scene and there she goes and she just does the scene perfectly, exactly how I wanted, and that’s take one! And then she’s like, "Okay, so, now what else do you want?" And I’m like, "God, I don’t know." Because that’s exactly what I imagined. You know, most of the time you spend coaxing stuff out of actors. With her it’s right there and then you gotta go, "Oh shit, what else can I come up with? I’m supposed to be directing here." That’s a real gift.

You mentioned it took six years to make. Why so long?
It took me a year and a half to research it, six months to write it, and then I spent half a year with a producer who then walked off the film. So I went back and rewrote, which took me a year and a half, and the day after I rewrote it I got financers, and after that it moved pretty quickly. And then we sold it to Thinkfilm, and they imploded. So the film spent quite a bit of time on the shelf before Redwood Films decided to release it.

It’s kind of the standard indie tale.
Exactly. Struggle, struggle, struggle, and then … more struggle. [Laughs.]

In the film there really emerges the sense that the cops and the protesters in Seattle were waging this war on each other while the real culprits were hiding away in their rooms somewhere.
Right. The bureaucrats and the lobbyists. The faceless untouchables. The more I studied the event and the more I read pro-free-trade books like Friedman and Bhagwati, and also the books criticizing free trade — Lori Wallach’s book on the WTO — the more I came to that conclusion. When I was writing the script, people kept asking me, Well, who’s the bad guy? And I couldn’t work it out. I said, "Well, the mayor should be the bad guy, but he’s not. And the WTO director general, he could be the bad guy, but he’s not. The police should be, but they’re not. And the anarchists," and so on. I ended up coming to the conclusion that it was no one specific person. It’s sort of a legion of people who are pretty nameless and faceless. It’s the CEOs of corporations that are irresponsible, that don’t pay their workers properly. It’s the CEOs of corporations that are destroying the environment. It’s those guys.

You’re obviously passionate about having directed this film. Does that mean no more acting for you?
If someone would give me a decent job, I’d go and do it! But if they won’t? Then I’m going to go and make my own shit. I mean, I love storytelling and I love acting, but honestly it’s been eight years since I’ve had a role that really was about the craft. It’s hard. There’s maybe three scripts that you go, "Oh, this is great," and then everyone else thinks it’s great and the whole town wants it too. I mean, nobody said it was going to be easy, but it’s been nice to be passionate about something for a change. We can’t expect it all the time, but we can strive for it, you know?