Devotees of Tom Clancys 1991 novel
The Sum of All Fears will wonder about the villains.
Did a quest for political correctness cause filmmaker Phil
Alden Robinson (and his screenwriter collaborators) to change
the books heavies Palestinian, Eurotrash and
Native-American terrorists out to use a long-lost nuke to
precipitate a Russian-American war to a like-minded
secret society of port-swilling Nazis?
The popular misconception was that it was done out of
political correctness or a desire not to offend anybody,
says Robinson, the writer-director behind such decidedly non-Clancy
fare as Field of Dreams and Sneakers.
I cant speak for anybody else, but I can tell
you that didnt enter into my calculations.
He then launches into his reasoned defense, designed to mollify
the most obsessive armchair geopolitician. Clancy had
the advantage of an 850-page book in which to describe who
these people are, how they became radicalized, why they came
together, he says. I had less than two hours of
. I needed a shorthand version of the villain,
and I couldnt use just Palestinian terrorists any more
than Clancy could
. Theres no way Palestinian
terrorists [working alone] could have gotten Russian fighters
to attack an American aircraft carrier.
Distilling Clancys fifth Jack Ryan adventure
the fourth to hit movie screens wasnt the only
challenge Robinson tackled. Two-time franchise star Harrison
Ford dropped out of the series, only to be replaced by the
much-younger Ben Affleck; as a result, Sum had
to be re-tooled around a greenhorn Ryan just starting out
as a CIA analyst. And the Sept. 11 terror attacks drew a laser
sight on the films subject matter.
We caught up with Robinson as he was laying in the final sound
mix for Sum. Heres what he had to say about
capturing the essence of Clancys tome, the impact of
real-life terror on the project, and the surprising restraint
one can show when depicting a nuclear blast.
did you even begin to wrap your head around adapting this
Well, several really good screenwriters got on this long before
I was hired to direct it. Paul Attanasio and Dan Pyne are
the writers of the script. You probably ought to talk to them,
too; theyre really smart guys. But heres the main
problem: Clancy writes this 800-odd page book that is filled
with wonderful detail but its also filled with
something hes very good at, which is that he interweaves
things. He doesnt just throw things into the mix; he
weaves them together. Which means that its very hard
to pull things out and still have the remaining pieces make
sense. Its what makes the book so readable, but its
what makes it so hard to adapt.
Our process was to say, Look, if we were to pull 700
pages of material out, the 100 pages that remain wouldnt
make any sense. Therefore, the approach was, Lets
go back to basics and define: Exactly what is this book? What
is the heart of the book? What does the book mean? And
then to make a movie about that. And try to be true to the
broad strokes while taking great liberties with the finer
So in this case, what is the book? Its a cautionary
tale about nuclear terrorism. Well, thats what the movies
about. Its a book that shows how the mechanics of government
and military decision-making can lead you towards war because
fear drives them. And thats what the movie does.
In the book, a bomb lost in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 falls
into the hands of terrorists who use it to fashion a new device
with which theyre going to blow up a major American
sporting event and do it in such a way as to make the
Americans think the Russians attacked, and so these two countries
will go to war. And thats what the story of the movie
is. In the book, Jack Ryan has to race against time to get
the information to convince these two superpowers not to fight
each other and thats what the movie does.
So were very, very faithful to the broad strokes
but weve had to invent thousands of new details in order
to be faithful to the broad strokes.
bring this up at an interesting time for film adaptation.
Its an issue everyones been debating a little
more than usual in the wake of Harry Potter and
Lord of the Rings. One film took a very literal
approach to adaptation, and the other did what you just did
on a very epic scale, sort of boiled the book down.
You know, I think you have to approach this on a case-by-case
basis. There are films and The Godfathers
a great example where the nature of book allows for
a much more faithful adaptation in terms of the details. Some
books, you just cant do that.
My most successful experience with adaptations was Field
of Dreams. We took pretty big liberties with the book
but I think they were so carefully chosen, and so correctly
chosen, that you can love the movie even if you love the book.
It was very faithful to the book in terms of what it delivered.
And thats our goal here.
Ill tell you an interesting thing: A lot of people were
very skeptical going in to see the movie, saying, Oh,
I hear you changed so much. Weve tested this film
extensively, and what weve discovered is that people
whove read the book score the movie even higher than
people who havent read the book.
And even though they recognize that weve changed things,
they appreciate the fact that this really feels like a Tom
Clancy book. Weve started over with many details, but
we interweave them we try to interweave them the way
of the fascinating things about the story is that, in most
of these kinds of movies, the heroes are trying to head off
an apocalypse. But this movie just kind of depicts the apocalypse
and the heroes have to deal with what happens afterward.
As far as I know, I cant recall any film like it
thats not to say it hasnt been done.
And you know, my first instinct when I first read it was,
Ooh, do we have to have the bomb go off? And then
I realized if we dont, then we have to have that horrible
scene of Jack, youve got 10 seconds! Pick one!
I dont know, which is it the red wire or
the green wire? Five seconds, Jack pick
one! And he picks one and he holds his breath and it
happens to be the right one.
That hasnt been a good scene since Dick Lester did it
20 years ago. Its cliché-ridden and its
boring and also it sends the audience out of the theater
foolishly secure in their belief that a hero will arrive at
the last moment to defuse a disaster. And as we know all too
well now, that doesnt always happen.
of the other things that struck me about this film was that,
thanks to advances in CGI, we can now stage our apocalypses
with greater fervor than ever before. But this movie shows
the very worst of it offscreen.
see shock waves
and that approach extends to the intro and ending of the film
where the opening mobilization and ending montage of
violence are sort of staged silently, with music dominating
Yep. I set a goal and everybody agreed that
we were not going to make the violence attractive; that we
didnt want this to be the kind of movie that gets its
rocks off through violence. And we didnt want people
going, Oh, man that was so cool! Because
you can spend a lot of time making an atomic explosion look
really cool, and we have the technology to do it, and I just
didnt want to do that.
I knew what I didnt want before I knew what I wanted.
I knew I didnt want to have a shot of the stadium and
this bright, white, blinding flash.
I noticed that wasnt there. That struck me as a conscious
Very, very consciously chosen, and for a lot of reasons, one
of which is: Its kind of a dishonest choice because
the only people who could see that would be dead before they
knew what they were seeing. The second is: Im more interested
in seeing characters that weve gotten to know, and how
theyre affected by it.
But the third reason is: We did a lot of research. We watched
a lot of footage of atomic tests. And the most striking thing
to me was never the blast itself it was the shock wave
hitting things miles away. And in these atomic tests, the
government would set up little houses or cars a mile or two
away, or a stand of trees and when you saw the effect
of the shock wave on distant objects, its enormous.
Then you really felt the power of the blast.
We looked at a lot of footage from Hiroshima, and ground zero
didnt move me as much as the shots taken a few miles
away of buildings that had burned from the heat. To me, the
most telling feature of how powerful this event is happens
farther away. Thats when you really sense, Oh,
my God. Thats incredibly powerful.
werent only stuck with the challenges of compressing
the story in terms of narrative you also had a casting
issue. This sort of became a de facto prequel to the Harrison
Well, um, the writers and I all felt that this is not actually
a prequel, and its not part four of an old series
its part one of a new series. We actually decided to
not even try to fit this into the previous films because to
do that would do damage to the movie. If youre going
to have a 28-year-old Jack Ryan, youre going to have
to set this movie in the 70s if its going to fit
the other films and who wants to do that? So we just
said, Well do what the Bond films did well
do what this series did after Alec Baldwin left and was replaced
by Harrison just start over and dont even refer
to the old ones.
And I think in that way we wind up being truer to the character.
The Jack Ryan that we all fell in love with in Hunt
for Red October was this anonymous analyst who was plucked
from the obscurity of his desk job and thrust into very dangerous
physical situations because of his expertise in one particular
area, and he has to rise to the occasion. Theres a moment
in Red October where Alec Baldwins dangling
from the helicopter banging up against the conning tower of
a submarine in a storm and he says, I should have written
a memo. Thats the character that I think is the
most interesting Jack Ryan, and thats the one that we
tried to get back to.
now we have the sort-of-interesting possibility of seeing
Ben Affleck play the president of the United States.
Im hoping not. Im hoping not. Im hoping
Jack Ryan continues to be an analyst for the CIA. My personal
view as a moviegoer is that the higher up the character rises
in the bureaucracy, the less interesting he becomes.
of course I have to ask you the question that everyones
going to be asking you in the coming weeks about the
impact of Sept. 11 on the movie.
did that happen while you were still shooting?
release delayed at all because of Sept. 11?
No. Actually, I had just finished my first cut and we were
mixing sound I was doing a temporary sound mix so I
could show the film to the studios.
No. I came on the movie in September 2000, and I was told then
that this would be a summer 2002 release. So it didnt
delay us at all.
was your reaction to Sept. 11, given the subject matter you
were working with?
You may not believe me, but I swear its true
I did not think about the movie at all, and we never had any
discussions about how this affects the movie. The only time
I had to talk about how this affects the movie was when journalists
called me. And they would say to me that first week, Well,
how will this affect your movie? And I said, Well,
who cares? This horrible event just happened to us, and Im
not really thinking right now about how this affects the movie.
The country is in great jeopardy, and its a great tragedy
thousands of people have been killed.
I remember Associated Press had an article I read online that
said, Weekend box office may suffer. And I remember
thinking, How dare they use the word suffer
as it relates to the box office! And this was less than
a week after the Twin Towers had been knocked down and all
these people killed and who cares about the impact
on a movie?
you asked to make any cuts to the movie as a result?
No. The one thing that we did we had not finished the
CGI, and theres a shot of Baltimore in the distance
. Theres a couple of shots of Baltimore in the
distance with smoke and flames and whatnot, and we all just
said, Lets make sure in these few shots that we
dont have any buildings there that look like the Twin
Towers. And there werent any in the drawings
but it was just sort of a cautionary thing: Lets
just make sure we dont err on that side.
of the changes in your Sum adaptation were smaller
details if Im not mistaken, the bomb was carried
in a TV communications van in the book, and its disguised
as a cigarette machine in the movie. What drives the changes
of smaller details like that? Are those just to pump up every
blessed moment of the drama?
A lot of it is just to simplify. In other words, if youre
going to have the TV van and I think there was a version
where we did that, but we found that it required a TV crew
. You know, we wanted something that one guy could
do, and we wanted something that was visually kind of cool.
And for anybody who ever accused the movies of glamorizing
smoking, we thought this might, um, end that debate.
Yeah, I guess this is the ultimate Just Say No
Yeah, exactly. I mean, between the cigarette machine and the
lighter in Dresslers car, I think that weve made
smoking pretty unglamorous.
Now, about some of the unconventional choices that were made
. Liev Schreiber.
who I would have pictured as [Clancys lethal covert
operative] Mr. Clark.
You know, hats off to Mindy Marin, our casting director. She
brought him in. I wouldnt have thought of him at the
time because I was familiar with some of his stage work and
some of his film work. But now
. I would consider him
for any role in any movie that I ever do. I think the guy
is one of the great actors of our time. He can play pretty
much anything. I think hes staggering in the role because
he brings an intense intelligence to it that makes him really
one of the things you have to be sure to get in there about
Clark. Hes mean, but hes also extremely cool.
Really, really cool. And Liev brought something else to the
role, and I dont think its necessarily in the
books which is a weariness of the life choice. The
first time we meet him, Cabot says to him, Are you still
loving your desk job? and he says, Yes.
This is a guy who doesnt want to do that any more because
he realized that he was dying inside that every person
he killed killed a part of him, and that he just didnt
want to do it any more. And the look on his face when he has
to do this again just says it all. This is a guy whos
great at it, and he knows that they need him, and he knows
its his duty. But damn he just wants to put that
behind him. And I think thats a really interesting character.
other unconventional element of the film is you.
[laughs] Well, duh.
surveying your career, I think I can see how Sneakers
kind of leads to Band of Brothers kind of leads
to this, in terms of escalating tension in your work. But
I think a lot of people are going to say, The guy who
directed Field of Dreams directed Sum of
that a conscious choice on your part, or ?
Well, I like never repeating myself. And theres a lot
of elements in this film that I think are not so anomalous.
I mean, as with all the films Ive done, its about
a guy who has to grow up. And theres an intelligence
to the screenplay and a sense of humor and a humanity about
it that really appealed to me. This is a very tense movie,
but its also very life-affirming, and its a very
positive film at the end. And that appealed to me.
this does well enough to merit another sequel, will you direct
I doubt it. I mean, as I say, I dont like to repeat
myself. Ive learned never to say never, but I feel like
Ive done this and Ive learned a lot from doing
it, and Im very proud of it. Im not sure doing
another one would feed my soul as much as doing something
you see yourself protecting the screenplay in this case, even
though it wasnt your screenplay?
Oh, sure. Sure. Heres what happens: Once you get into
pre-production and certainly more so in production
there are these enormous pressures on you the director
to make certain decisions that will affect the screenplay.
Every department on the movie wants you to make decisions
that will either make their job easier or flashier, or theyll
emphasize things that they want to get out of it. And every
decision you make affects the script, and directing is ultimately
the act of making decisions, and you make a thousand decisions
a day and many of them are made while youre fatigued,
or while youre rushed, or while theres pressure
on you We have to know this right now
and you just try to do the best you can.
And I think as long as you have a strong and clear sense of
what the screenplay is, and you base these decisions on what
the screenplay is trying to do, then youre OK. Its
when you start to shoot from the hip and think, Well,
Im an auteur, so I can just make this up as I go along
that the screenplay starts getting misshapen, and the movie
winds up being a mess.
If the screenplay works, its your best friend. Any time
a question comes up you dont know the answer to, you
just think, Well, how will this affect what the screenplays
already doing? Will it enhance it, or will it hurt it, or
will it change it somehow?
terms of protecting the screenplay, was the decision to not
show some of the worst parts of the nuclear attack a conscious
choice from the very beginning? Was that in the script you
It was not in the script I got but I worked with Dan
Pyne pretty extensively, and it was a decision that we both
agreed with. And then youre meeting with the cinematographer
and the art department and the visual-effects people
and if they didnt already agree with that, they had
to be brought into line and saying, This is the direction
bet you got some resistance from the effects guys who were
probably looking forward to blowing things up.
Yeah, well, it wasnt real resistance their first
instinct would have been, Yeah! We can show this, we
can show that! And I said, Lets try this
and ultimately, what we did was harder, and therefore
a greater challenge for them. And theyre very proud
of the three scenes with the shock wave. I mean, that took
months and months and months, and huge numbers of people working
you see yourself as an auteur or a journeyman? How do you
see yourself as a director?
Well, I dont believe in the word auteur
just because I think no one person is the author of
the movie. Its the most collaborative medium ever invented,
and I think that we directors should be very, very, very satisfied
and proud of the title director. I dont
think we need a film by or auteur
in addition to that. I really see myself as a storyteller
and with the exception of this film, Ive always
directed what Ive written, and Ive always directed,
really, to protect the writing. I just see directing as the
extension of writing.