In San Francisco last month promoting "MadCity," a stark condemnation of the currentera of exploitive journalism, he seemed a little leery of spending a daytrapped in a hotel room with reporters and answered questions about hismovie quite cautiously.
Of course, it might have just been me, since the firstthing I hit him with was "What happened to your first name?"
Until "Mad City," he had been known as Constant=inCosta-Gavras, and my question might have sounded a little accusative, likeI thought he was just trying to be cool.
"Why do we need to have a first name?" he frown=ed,and I began to think we were getting off on the wrong foot.
"Mad City" stars Dustin Hoffman as a televisionreporter who manipulates a hostage situation for the sake of a better storyto advance his career. John Travolta co-stars as a laid off museum guardwho, after begging for his job back, takes an elementary school field tripcaptive at gun point inside the museum.
Being in the media myself, I had some questions about theplausibility of parts of the story. I expressed doubt that in real lifea college intern would be taping and editing her own interviews for a majorbreaking story, as happens in the film.
"In a situation like this," Costa-Gavras said,"when events are going so fast, you don't have time to control themcompletely."
Not an entirely direct answer. But I imagine these weren'tthe kind of questions he was expecting.
A distinguished man in his early 60s with severe featuresbut the smiling child-like eyes, Costa-Gavras answered politely but furrowedhis brow as I nit-picked these little details.
The intern in the film is really a bit of creative licens=e.The character was not in the original script, the director said, but hewanted to map how someone with good intentions could become corrupted bythe scoop-hungry style of today's television news. "We created thecharacter to show how the innocent can be seduced by success."
With a r=E9sum=E9 that includes such topics as assassinat=ion("Z"), Nazism ("The Music Box") and Israeli-Palestinianrelations ("Hanna K."), the Greek-born, Paris-based directorhas always been a filmmaker who makes a broad political point with verypersonal stories. But "political" is not a word that sits wellwith Costa-Gavras.
"I think a social statement (would be more accurate).Or rather a social exploration. I try to understand what's going on aroundour lives," he said. "The idea of politics, of making politicalmovies, I don't know exactly what that means because all movies are politic=al.Politics is how you behave every day in your life."
"Mad City" tries to reflect every day lives tur=nedinside out. Travolta's unemployed guard is not a movie bad guy, but a sympa=theticEveryman whose frustration leads him to make one bad choice that changeshis life.
Hoffman's reporter befriends the gunman and manipulatesthe situation, passing up several chances to end it swiftly in favor ofcreating a national media event. His every day life isn't enough for him.
The moral of the story -- that journalism is gallopingout of control and somebody is going to get hurt -- is crystal clear fromthe opening shot of a TV camera man loading his film as if it were ammuniti=on.
"It was a way of introducing the character of DustinHoffman to say he was a hunter, a news hunter," Costa-Gavras explained."I tried to extend that."
The director opines that the media are very close to cros=singthe line between reporting and guiding the news, and that's what his filmis about. He points to the unchecked avalanche of news that hit the airwavesin the wake Princess Diana's death.
"From the moment the major press said she was a sain=t,it's accepted all over the world. No one said 'Stop. Let's talk about whata saint is first.'"
"Because of the electronic media, because of the factyou have news every 15 seconds on the radio, you need to have scoops. Youneed to be the first. Nobody has time to think."
In the film, Hoffman continues to milk the crisis whilegoing live on the air several times. But despite his ruthless depictionof the press in "Mad City," Costa-Gavras says he tried to addsome sympathy for the reporter in the shooting draft of the script.
"In the original script (he was) kind of a careerdriven journalist, ready for any kind of bad action to get the story. Thecharacter had no conscience."
In the finished film, Hoffman doesn't seem any more honor=ablethan he sounds in the first script, but he has a crisis of conscience atthe end that leaves him burdened with guilt about the cutthroat businessthat news has become.
I ask Costa-Gavras if he thinks the kind of story manipul=ationdepicted in the film is where the American press is headed.
"Yes," he says in his most direct answer of theday. "We are very close to reaching that point."