Mark Bowden Interview
Mark Bowden is one of the foremost journalists in the United States today. Having written the stories behind Money for Nothing, Killing Pablo and Black Hawk Down, Bowden sat down with Chris Neumer to talk about the truth, creating narratives where there aren’t any and how money plays a part in writing.
MARK BOWDEN: Where you from in Chicago?
CHRIS NEUMER: Oak Park.
MARK BOWDEN: I’m from Glen Ellyn.
CHRIS NEUMER: I believe my high school did something with your high school.
MARK BOWDEN: I left before I went to high school. But if I would have stayed, I would have gone to Glenbard West.
CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah, that was in our division. Here’s a copy of the magazine. It’s a film magazine. I realize you’re on sort of the periphery of that world, but it allows me all sorts of interesting questions that we can get into. It’s something that I started awhile ago as well as something that I write for.
MARK BOWDEN: Really? Good for you. Great. I’m impressed. This is a very ambitious thing to do. I’m surprised you’re doing it on paper.
CHRIS NEUMER: You know, it’s amazing how much paper, and the actual physical having of a magazine works with people. If it was just online I don’t think doors would open. But for some reason people still put a premium on the paper and I think a large part of the success is due to the fact that it is on paper, which sounds strange now, but…
MARK BOWDEN: Believe me I don’t understand how the industry works. I just have my own little niche and pretty much stay in it.
CHRIS NEUMER: People will say, “Oh you’re going to D.C. Why the hell are you going to D.C. to write about film?” I was attempting to describe to people who I was interviewing in you. And I said, “He wrote the book Black Hawk Down and he did Killing Pablo, and I was going through some of the other stuff that you’ve done, and they’d be like, “Oh, he wrote the movie Black Hawk Down!” “No. No. He wrote the source material.” And it was this very confusing thing. To make things easier, I just started describing you as the closest thing we have to Indiana Jones today.
MARK BOWDEN: (laughs) That’s sort of a wild exaggeration.
CHRIS NEUMER: Well, you only see Indiana Jones when he’s out doing his thing. You don’t see him in front of the typewriter, so to speak.
MARK BOWDEN: There’s always the mandatory shot of him in a classroom.
CHRIS NEUMER: At the very end of class yelling at the kids to study hard or whatever…. And so I thought about this with you. There was this guy a couple years back, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, Joe Kane? He wrote the book Savages.
MARK BOWDEN: The book Savages.
CHRIS NEUMER: And I had mentioned to him, because he was wearing a fedora and a leather coat, I asked him where the bullwhip was, and he was like, “Ehhhh.” And I was like, “Come on. You’re running around in the Amazon. You’re writing books about. You’re finding lost tribes… digging through these elements of worldly uniquities, to create a new word. You doing very similar things, in principle, just telling stories.
MARK BOWDEN: Well, I’m just a journalist. I’m lucky enough to be able to work on the stories that I want to work on and I can go anywhere in the world to work on them. And often you start with a story with no particular goal of going someplace exotic or dangerous but you go where the story takes you. And as long as it’s something that I can do and do safely, then I’m willing to go do it for the story’s sake.
CHRIS NEUMER: By the way, is this actually your office, or is this just an empty place where you’re sitting?
MARK BOWDEN: This is just an empty place where I’m sitting. I work at home. I’m very rarely in Washington. I come back to Washington maybe once a month or something. I never work here. I just happened to have an interview myself interviewing somebody at lunch today. And Terrence, my researcher works here all the time, but this is where I come when I come to Washington. I just go for whatever empty office happens to be available. I’m in here and I’ve got the internet and one computer. But this is just a convenient place for talking to you.
CHRIS NEUMER: Well, I’m glad that we could connect. One of the beauties of publishing a magazine is that the stories that we do are things that can be of interest to me as opposed to getting assigned, “You have to talk to the director of Scooby Doo.”
MARK BOWDEN: Right
CHRIS NEUMER: I can pick actors I like and I can pick topics that I like. And I was curious, as someone who delves into things and with the copious amounts of research and interviews that you do, are there any red flags about particular stories and things that you steer away from?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, I pretty much go on the basis of my own curiosity. That’s the prime motivator. I try to avoid doing the same thing over and over again. There’s some things I just have no interest in at all.
CHRIS NEUMER: For example.
MARK BOWDEN: Well, for instance, I just talked to Graydon Carter, who’s the editor of Vanity Fair. I told him “I just don’t have any interest in talking to movie stars.” And he got kind of bent out of shape. And they do other things at Vanity Fair, but that is what they put out in the front and what they sell. I think that I’m 55 years old and I’ve been working as a journalist for almost 30 years and for me to work on something, I have to feel like either I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it or that it is really interesting to me. And by that I mean, this is something that helps to explain the world, in some way to me. I’ve been very interested in recent years in how the United States interacts with the rest of the world. Particularly with the military and foreign policy. To me, I think that’s one of the most interesting things going on in the world today and certainly one of the most challenging aspects of being an American citizen. I’m always interested in finding out how things really work and why certain things happened the way they did.
CHRIS NEUMER: Do you know of director Steve James, the documentarian? He’s from Oak Park as well. And I spoke to him on a number of occasions and he always pointed out that when he would get involved in a topic that it was a process of self discovery for him and it wasn’t just to tell a story. He said, “A lot of the time, for me, it’s something that I want to figure out myself.”
MARK BOWDEN: Everything that happens in your life shapes who you are and what you’re interested in. I was a suburban kid. I was raised in Glen Ellyn and Port Washington, Long Island. And it didn’t really make much difference, because everywhere I moved was pretty much the same place. The suburbs are the suburbs. Everything really interesting and everything really important happened somewhere else. And so I think that’s an underlying motivation in putting yourself out there. For me initially, it was just moving to the city and living in the city and working for a newspaper and feeling like, “Okay, now I’m finally engaged in real life.” Of course, real life is also happening in the suburbs too, but you don’t realize that when you’re a kid.
CHRIS NEUMER: Is it really? Okay, I’ll concede the point because it does make sense.
MARK BOWDEN: (laughs) No, that’s a big piece of it. One of the main things that really typifies the Midwestern mindset, to an extent, is the idea that they live in a really safe place. All the really dangerous stuff in our culture, and now with threats of terrorism, but even such things as hurricanes but the Midwest feels like a really safe place and things are really normal there. The real weirdos are out in New York or LA and places like that. I do feel that writers generally are engaged in trying to create a narrative out of their own experience, whether they’re writing about themselves or not. What are the distinguishing features of our time? I think one of the things that makes our experiences as human beings radically different than any people that ever lived before our present time is that we are all awash in information. I don’t think that was the case 50 years ago or even 30 years ago. I think that’s unique to this period in time and one of the consequences of that is that we all know a little bit about a lot of things. I think it’s very natural when knowing a little bit about something to want to know more. I think that ends up throwing me, in some cases, into very distant places and exotic situations. It’s all in an effort to try to understand the way things really happened as opposed to the way they’re explained to me through the various mediums, whether it’s a political medium, or a journalistic medium, or a film medium. This way I can find out for myself.
CHRIS NEUMER: I find it interesting how you deem that “normal”. I was taken back to a situation where a friend’s girlfriend was trying to figure out where in the continental United States the state of Nebraska was. She first guessed it was north of Idaho. Then she guessed it was between Minnesota and Iowa. Then I think she asked if it was touching Mexico. Her final thought on the matter was, “Well, I’m never going there, so why do I need to know it anyway?” And I thought, “There’s that apathy.” And you might not encounter it, I don’t really encounter it. But I think that’s also a product of the sort of people we hang around with as opposed to them. It’s interesting how the absence of information is sort of what gets people out of the suburbs; they are not content to live that life.
MARK BOWDEN: It could be. Some people do find it very comfortable. I have seven brothers and sisters and I think some of them have taken that approach to life; stay where things are comfortable. Stay where things are familiar and predictable and not take too many chances. I remember my younger sister saying, “Why would anyone read a newspaper?” But I’m not that way and I think most people are not.
CHRIS NEUMER: Let me ask you this: every once in a while I hear some song on the radio. Like something by some new metal-rap fusion band and I think, “God, that’s awful.” And then I think how great it would be if I could actually enjoy things that were bad and how much better my life would be and then I wonder about my friend’s girlfriend who didn’t know where Nebraska was and I just wonder if life… if ignorance is truly bliss in that respect.
MARK BOWDEN: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
CHRIS NEUMER: Yes. Exactly. Are there times where you’ll call someone up. Maybe you’ll be down in Peru or something like that and you’ll be back in the jungles and the rebel forces will have to lead you to different places and you’ll go, “Man. I should have stayed in Philadelphia. I should have been reading the comics today. Right now. As opposed to out here.”
MARK BOWDEN: Yeah, that happens. And you generally try to limit those moments. Most of the time when I’m traveling and reporting I’m not in a difficult situation. I’m having fun and I’m eating foods that I’ve never eaten before and seeing sights that I’ve never seen before. I’m a terrible tourist. I have no interest in traveling for its own sake. But if I’m going to Russia because I have a story to do, I’m looking forward to the trip. I arrive with a full agenda of things to do and I enjoy being in a different place. It’s just like you’re more alive almost. Everything is so stimulating and interesting.
CHRIS NEUMER: And there’s a reason.
MARK BOWDEN: And there’s a purpose for it. But in and of itself, I don’t have any desire to do it. So, yeah, I have experienced times when I’ve thought, “Gee, why am I doing this?” I’ve got kids, I’ve got a lovely home. I make a good living. I live in a safe, beautiful country. And I should probably just stay there. (laughs) But I do feel a call to try to understand these things that I write. I don’t feel that it’s worth my time to write something unless I bring something new and original to the table and to do that you have to put yourself out to find out things for yourself. Very few people are doing it.
CHRIS NEUMER: Hence the reason I was questioning you about the “normal” designation of the suburbs.
MARK BOWDEN: Growing up in the suburbs, I did have the sense that the real world was somewhere else. And I now feel that less so, but I did a lot when I was younger. I was just driven to escape that predictable, safe, suburban life and really put myself out there where things were real and things were really happening. I needed to try to understand things for myself. That led to this career. So, maybe that makes me abnormal, but…
CHRIS NEUMER: In a good way.
MARK BOWDEN: It’s the truth about me. And maybe because I’m a journalist and I’ve been surrounded by journalists for most of my adult life, it’s normal in my circle to be that way.
CHRIS NEUMER: I find the designation of journalist interesting. Because obviously there are different types. I mean, there are different types of baseball players. They all get paid differently. And they’re all different types. I know some people who work for the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune; you are in a different class of journalism. It’s not just in the scope of your material, even just the hundreds of interviews that you’re conducting; you’re sort of a macro-journalist.
MARK BOWDEN: It’s just the direction I’ve gone. I think I’ve always been motivated to write narratives and narratives require a tremendous amount of reporting. I’ve always been driven to do more and more ambitious things and I don’t think that’s always the case, so both my ambitions and my interests and, thankfully, opportunities have given me the opportunity to eventually evolve into someone who does work at a rarefied level. And I recognize that I have one of the better jobs in journalism. To be oriented the way I am. I would love to have had this job when I was in my 20s. Writing books, and working on films and writing for the magazine.
CHRIS NEUMER: I wonder if it would be a different experience then. I mean obviously everything would be different. I’m only 30 myself, so I can’t talk about The Young Turks. But I wonder if the experiences that you’ve had have brought you to where you are and allowed you to do it. Do you think you’d still be able to do the same high level of work with the same kind of perspective if you were doing this when you were 25.
MARK BOWDEN: No. When I was in my 20s I was doing the best work I could do in my 20s. I’ve been very fortunate in my career that I’ve never felt that any editor or any organization was holding me back. I was always doing the best work I could do. And what that meant for me was evolving into being a better writer, being a more ambitious reporter, going further into a field than most reporters are willing to go. I’m not someone who woke up at age 16 with the gift of writing books and everything else. It’s been an evolutionary process. I’m proud of the work I did in my 20s. I’m glad it’s led me to the kind of work I do today. And it’s a lot more ambitious—well, it’s not more ambitious. I got to the point where they were just happy to have me around and now I get along great with editors.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s the full quote right there.
MARK BOWDEN: (laughs)
CHRIS NEUMER: You mentioned about how you like to write a narrative. And it’s hard enough writing a fiction narrative, but when you have to have to do a non-fiction narrative it seems impossible. How do you flesh out the “truth”?
MARK BOWDEN: It would be what I understand to be true, or my best effort to tell you what’s true. I fully understand that another writer would see things different than I do. I still say that there’s a great book to be written by a Somali about the battle of Mogadishu and it would be completely different from what I wrote. Even if it was totally accurate it would complement what I’ve done, but it would be totally different from what I’ve done. So within the limitations of who I am and what I can do and my values and how I see the world, what I offer is my best understanding of what actually happened in this case. Reconstructing past events gets into craft. Long passages of Black Hawk Down for instance; where there’s dialogue going on it’s taken from actual radio transcripts. Listening to what people were actually saying: it’s recorded. So, that’s the perfect solution for a non-fiction writer: to have an accurate record of exactly what happened. It doesn’t solve all your problems, but it’s a huge help. And where you don’t have it, you have to rely upon memory and documentation. It’s a fun process. I think that because I was a newspaper reporter for most of my life and learned to be diligent about reporting and learned to love reporting that I get as much pleasure out of the research and going and collecting the information that I need to make the story as I get out of actually crafting the story. Although I still think I prefer the writing part better, but I like both aspects of it.
CHRIS NEUMER: Now in the two books that you’ve had, Black Hawk Down is already a movie, and Killing Pablo I know is currently undergoing this, do you have any input into what is created for the shooting script or is it something that you’ve washed your hands of it?
MARK BOWDEN: I’ve been very involved with Killing Pablo. Originally Killing Pablo was purchased by an outfit called Miracle Productions and…
CHRIS NEUMER: If it’s a good picture it’s a miracle. I know them well.
MARK BOWDEN: Gregory Novice was the director attached to it and I wrote an adaptation for Greg with their input, and then they sold the project with the script to Paramount which bought it for Joe [Carnahan], because Joe read the book and fell in love with the story and wanted to make it. Then Joe and I sat down and developed a detailed treatment of the movie.
CHRIS NEUMER: How detailed? How long?
MARK BOWDEN: Forty-seven pages long.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s detailed.
MARK BOWDEN: Very detailed. Scene-by-scene. But things take time and that ended up being delayed. I don’t remember why. Joe was off doing something else, or Paramount dragged its feet on it. When it came time to actually write the script, I was engaged in writing my next book and I told them I couldn’t take time to do it. So, Joe wrote the script based on our treatment and did a great job. I think he’s a really good screenwriter. I learned a lot about screenwriting. If you’re that engaged in the development of the project you can fully appreciate the steps that were taken from the treatment to the script. Joe was very artful the way he did it and I like that script. So, as it now stands, I guess that’s Joe’s. I’m thankfully successful enough and my reputation is out there that I don’t really need to get—I mean, I would get paid a little more and my agent would probably like it, but… It hasn’t been made. It’s still there. I’m hoping that Joe will get someone to finance it so he can make it.
It’s one of a number of projects in Hollywood I have going at the moment. I did originally work on Black Hawk Down. I did the original adaptation of Black Hawk Down and then they hired Ken Nolan to make it a real script. That was the first script I had ever written and it basically sucked. It did bridge the gap from the book to the movie and I think it made it easier for Ken to take that step. And then Ken did a great job.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s interesting that you say that because I’ve had this ongoing vendetta for probably the last couple of years, ever since Monster came out with Charlize Theron. I realized that I was just sick of the based-on-a-true-story thing because it’s like, “Let’s take a regular movie and then let’s put it on crack. We need drama? We have this? Let’s ramp it up a little bit. We need that? Make her a lesbian.” Whenever you run into a wall, you can just make up whatever you want. I’ve always said that Black Hawk Down is one of the few movies where it didn’t feel inflated at all. Even if the incident never happened, it would still be a very solid movie and I think a lot of these others movies make people think, “Why the hell are we watching this?”
MARK BOWDEN: I think Ridley [Scott] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] did a great job on it. And Jerry was committed from the very beginning, much to my surprise, given the kind of films that he makes. I like Jerry Bruckheimer’s films, for the most part, but they’re comic books. They’re very well-made, entertaining comic books and they take place in a sort of hyper-reality. People love that and I like it and it’s fun to go see, but you don’t take it seriously. So, when he bought Black Hawk Down, my thought was, “Whoa. What’s he doing?”
CHRIS NEUMER: Did you have a say in who bought it?
MARK BOWDEN: Yeah. I could have refused to sell it to him. But he was the only person offering at the moment. And it was a good offer. I thought, “What the heck?” If Jerry makes a movie that I don’t like, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t like it. But the truth is that it will be the best two-hour commercial ever made for a book, and the book is out there. That’s my product. And if he makes a movie called Black Hawk Down, it’s gonna sell a million more copies of my book, so to me it was like a win-win situation. And when Jerry flew me out to Hollywood for the first time and I met him, he told me that he wanted to make a different kind of movie than he’d ever made and he wanted to be very faithful to the story and he wanted the movie to have a documentary feel. And for that reason, he said, “I want you to be involved with the project from the very beginning until the end.” My first thought was, “Yeah right. That’s what they tell the journalist from the east coast when he flies out.” But that was exactly what he did. He was absolutely honest with me and he followed through on everything he told me he was going to do and I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out. Right up until promoting the movie and travelling all over the world in a private jet with Jerry and all the various actors. It was fun for me and it was uncomplicated because I really felt like it was a good movie. I didn’t feel compromised in any way and there were a couple instances where the studio felt they wanted to spin this thing or that thing and I just ignored them. I did whatever I wanted to and it didn’t seem to damage anything.
CHRIS NEUMER: That is certainly good. I was talking to the director of a new film coming out called Perfume, but it’s sort of a period story about a guy who lived in 18th Century France, he’s sort of a smelling superhero. The lead decides that what he wants to do is create the perfect smell, which he’s going to get by distilling the scents of 13 virgins. He goes about killing these girls to get the perfect scent. He’s an odd duck to say the least. We were talking about the interesting nature of the protagonist and how there were certain times when he had to frame the lead character in a manner to get the audience behind him, even though he is patently horrible. I’m not saying that Sgt. Eversman was horrible necessarily, but was there anything you did when writing the script or writing the book to create a standard lead character persona to that character?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, I chose Matt Eversman to be–if there was a main character in that movie, he was it. And I chose him to play that role for a number of reasons. One: I was intrigued by the idea that he had been put in charge for the first time and so he felt responsible for these other guys that he was with. The essence of the story was that you have a group of young men who are eager to experience combat and who get their wish. That’s what that story is about. So Eversman, because he was a little bit older than those other guys, and he was put in charge, carried a little more of a sense of responsibility for the people than the other guys and that made him just a little bit more interesting. He was also someone who was roped in, which is a very dramatic way of getting into the story and he was right there at the target house during the raid. What I did for the film was, the real Sgt. Eversman in the battle gets on the convoy and ends up driving through the city and getting shot to pieces and then they get back to base. In the movie Sgt. Eversman runs to the downed Black Hawk and gets pinned there overnight. And there is a character who did that named Tommy Tomaso and so I just merged Eversman and Tomaso and made them the same character in the movie so that you have a central character present throughout the film. So, if that answers your question, that’s why I chose him as a character and that’s how I manipulated the reality in order to make it work in the context of the movie.
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m not sure that’s what my question was, but that’s because I realize that there might not be answers to the things that I talk about. (laughs) Sometimes I just mention an idea and I stop talking. I know it’s not exactly what they teach you in journalism school, but…
MARK BOWDEN: No. I’m interested. I do try to answer the question. Sometimes I fail.
CHRIS NEUMER: I know there are a lot of people out there who want very specific answers to the very specific questions you have, but, and maybe you’ve found this, I find the interviews get more interesting when you stop answering the questions I had and we get somewhere else.
MARK BOWDEN: Yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s where I want to go and I don’t know how to get off topic. If I could get off topic at the start I would, but I have to get on topic so we can get off topic.
MARK BOWDEN: Well, I’ll tell you something that’s interesting to me. I never imagined that I would be working in film. It’s never a thing that occurred to me. My goal was always to write books and ultimately to get into a position where I could pretty much exclusively write magazine articles and books. And the fact that Hollywood got interested in the work that I do and that Jerry Bruckheimer bought Black Hawk Down and made it a success has essentially created a new avenue for writing for me that wasn’t there in the past. Part of me feels, and is convinced, that it’s a bad idea to chuck the career I’ve had for the past 30 years and everything I’ve learned about how to do it and start trying to learn a whole new dance and learn how to do that, But that opportunity is there, if I want it. I’m writing a script right now which is a completely original script.
CHRIS NEUMER: Based on a true story?
MARK BOWDEN: No, I’m making it up and I’m enjoying doing that. I’m trying to juggle in my life, journalism and creative fiction writing; that’s basically what script writing is.
CHRIS NEUMER: If you’re lucky. Otherwise it’s just bad script writing.
MARK BOWDEN: Everybody’s trying to do good work and you do the best you can. I think it’s fascinating. My approach initially towards film work was that there was no way it could hurt me. It was fun, it was lucrative, and it would help sell my book.
CHRIS NEUMER: Right on all three points.
MARK BOWDEN: So, where’s the down side to this? And my friends who are just screenwriters, not journalists, I see their suffering. I see them create an idea very carefully, craft an idea for a film, and then watch it get petered away.
CHRIS NEUMER: Lowest common denominatored.
MARK BOWDEN: Right. I think any realistic filmwriter realizes that making a film is a collaborative process.
CHRIS NEUMER: Compromise.
MARK BOWDEN: You do end up with some of that naturally. But a lot of that, when you’re dealing with big movies in particular and turning something good into something really awful, for whatever reason, you have a big star in it or it has a happy ending. It’s calculated to be a safe investment, which is really what a big movie is. I have always been able to be distant from that because I always feel like my creative product is my book or an article, magazine article. The movie is really the creative product of the director and the producer, and if they make a shitty movie I’d be the first to say, “I think that movie is crap.” There was a movie made based on a story that I wrote. The movie’s called Money For Nothing and it had a great cast: John Cusack, James Gandolfini, and Benicio del Toro. It’s a wonderful cast. It’s a crap movie. And I think most of the people involved in it would agree at this point that it’s a piece of crap. The story that I wrote that it’s based on is, I think, one of the most amazing stories that I’ve ever come across as a journalist. We published it as a small book called Finders Keepers. It’s like an urban folktale. So, I’ve seen how Hollywood can take a terrific story, a simple, classic story and make a complete botch out of it.
CHRIS NEUMER: Did that explain your six or seven years between Hollywood projects?
MARK BOWDEN: No, what happened was after that movie was made—before I sold Black Hawk Down—I wasn’t involved in any way in the making of the movie. I did see how much [the studios] were paying people to adapt my work for the screen and how pathetic the results were, so I remember telling my agent, “If we ever sell anything to Hollywood, make part of the deal that I do the original adaptation.” I figured the worst thing that would happen would be that they would pay me all that money that they’re paying this other screenwriter to adapt my work and then throw it away to hire a real screenwriter, in which case I get paid. And the best thing that could happen is that I would end up influencing the way the movie was made in some way.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s funny how the concept of “I can do better than you,” gets so many people into so many situations for what they’re doing.
MARK BOWDEN: Well, I do think that when you’re exposed to something and you see the way it’s done… I don’t believe that I could direct a movie, I don’t have the eye for it, I don’t have the background, I wouldn’t know how to do that. But writing… that’s a different matter. Taking something that I’ve written, a story that I’ve written and adapting it for the screen. Watching someone get paid $80,000 or $100,000 and then have them just throw [that script] away and hire someone else, I figured, “I can do that,” and maybe, if I’m given the opportunity I can make something they can use.
CHRIS NEUMER: You can do it, and you can probably do it better as well.
MARK BOWDEN: I have that opportunity now. It’s easy to tell yourself that you can, but then when you’re sitting down looking at a blank piece of paper, it’s a challenge. But I think I can do it and I’ve been doing it.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s got to be a good movie: some screenwriter getting paid a bunch of money to adapt a book and subletting it out, essentially you get your $80,000, I pay some guy $20,000 to do it and that guy comes out with a great script and they love it.
MARK BOWDEN: (Laughs) Ooh. That’s a plan.
CHRIS NEUMER: This is good. This is how the real ones come up.
MARK BOWDEN: Getting around to finishing my point, though: I had that attitude about it that it didn’t really matter to me how bad the movie was, I was going to get paid and it was going to promote, in some way, the book that I’d written. Now that I’m writing this project I’m writing for Imagine where I’m creating the movie–
CHRIS NEUMER: Is this the fictional one?
MARK BOWDEN: This is totally fiction. I know I’m going feel more possessive about this story than I’ve ever done about anything I’ve written, just because I’ve spent so much time creating it out of nothing. So, it exists for a reason and the reason is in my mind. As soon as somebody else starts altering it to fit whatever their vision is for the movie I can’t stop that from happening, but I know it’s not going to be as painless.
CHRIS NEUMER: And you probably can’t say, “Well, that didn’t happen,” and use that as an excuse.
MARK BOWDEN: Right.
CHRIS NEUMER: Well, you can, it’s just that people will look at you really strangely.
MARK BOWDEN: If your goal in sitting down and writing a script is to write it so well that it would be really difficult for somebody to come up with a better idea for how to make it, then…
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m laughing because I’m thinking of studio executives that I know and I’m not even sure that’s enough of a reason not to tinker with something. You know how it goes.
MARK BOWDEN: I had dinner the other night with Charles Randolph, whom I’ve become friendly with. He’s a very good writer, a really smart guy, and he was saying that he didn’t think that you could do good work as a screenwriter if you didn’t invest your emotions in what you’re writing, if you didn’t ultimately end up caring a great deal about what you’ve done, the story. Therefore it’s inevitable that you will feel pain through this process. My attitude has always been a little more glib than that. “I can do it.” I can write the best script that I can and know that ultimately the way that this movie gets made is how the director and the producer and everyone else in the studio wants to have it made and since I can’t control that process I probably shouldn’t lose a whole lot of sleep.
CHRIS NEUMER: Much easier said than done.
MARK BOWDEN: Yes. Yes.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s sort of like an intimate relationship. If at the beginning of the relationship you’re thinking, “This is going to end, and it’s going end badly,” it’s probably not going to take off the ground at the beginning, no matter how small your initial fear is. You have to be a little bit vulnerable and it’s at that point that you get raked over the coals.
MARK BOWDEN: Yeah. Everyone has their own reasons for doing things. For me, I’m 55, I figure in 10 years I’ll probably be finished with any desire to do global journalism. The idea of travelling off to weird places is eventually going to peter out. Maybe I’ll last until I’m 70. They say that 50 is the new 30 and all that, but I would love to be able to move my writing career from journalism to fiction and screenwriting so that as I get older, if I’m still capable of working, I can write at my desk in my office and build off my writing reputation that I’ve made in journalism to do novels and screenplays.
CHRIS NEUMER: So you could get to a point where somebody would say, “Oh yeah, Mark Bowden’s new film.” And I could say, “Remember when he used to be the world’s best macro-journalist?” They’d look at me confused and I’d say, “You know LL Cool J used to rap?” and people would go “Really?”
MARK BOWDEN: I think if you do look for ways to reinvent yourself in your life, and to me it’s just practical, thinking in terms of, “Am I going to be able to continue doing the work that I do when I’m an old person?” And I’m getting older, so ideally I can go probably longer than I’d want to but the ideal situation would be to not have to. And to build a career writing fiction and writing screenplays.
CHRIS NEUMER: Well, the last thing I have for you is this: there’s an actor, his name is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, he was the kid on the TV show Third Rock From the Sun and he’s one of the rising stars in Hollywood. This is impressive because he hasn’t done any big budget stuff. One of the reasons he hasn’t done this is because Third Rock is in syndication and he’s got cash. He doesn’t have to star as the third whistle in some teen romantic comedy. He can have his pick of the litter and he’s choosing only smaller movies with really good scripts and you don’t think about that often, but his money allows him to doing really interesting things. How does money influence your work?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, what happens to a lot of people is that their lifestyle enlarges. You make a certain amount of money and so you jump up to another level. Then you enlarge your lifestyle so now you need to keep making that money. And that’s why people are going out and making really bad things just for money, because they get to a point where they’re chasing dollars all the time.
CHRIS NEUMER: I know what you’re saying. Makes me wonder what Robert Deniro has to pay for.
MARK BOWDEN: (laughs) If that’s not your main interest in life: getting more and more and more money, the smarter way of doing things is to realize that what money gives you is an opportunity to do what that actor is doing…
CHRIS NEUMER: What I was curious about with you is as you’ve gotten bigger and your name has gotten more marketability, has it opened up doors for you? Has money impacted your journalism career thus far, in terms of the writing?
MARK BOWDEN: It hasn’t affected the writing at all. What it’s done is it’s enabled me to work for myself, basically. I have a relationship with The Atlantic because it suits me and it suits them. That said, if they wanted to end it tomorrow, no problem. It’s not going to financially [impact me]… I don’t need the job. It works for me right now. It maybe won’t in three or four years, so having that freedom is great. I do three year deals with The Atlantic. At the end of three years, I’ll sit down and I’ll say, “I’d like to do this again”, or maybe “I wouldn’t like to do this again.” Whatever. But they end up offering you more and more money to get you to keep doing things. It puts you in a really nice position in terms of negotiating.
In terms of the work itself, that hasn’t changed for me at all. I do the same work, I do exactly the same thing today that I’ve always done, which is get up in the morning, look at what interviews I’m doing, what am I writing, what story I’m trying to tell. The biggest thing that money’s allowed in my life is now that my children are grown, if I want them to come home for the holidays, I can bring them all home. I don’t have to worry about them having the money to fly home from California or anything like that. I want you home. If you can get off work, and if you want to come home, you’re coming home. And that’s the single best thing that’s happened to me as a result of having money. I don’t have to worry about that.
CHRIS NEUMER: But no extra doors have opened for you in terms of stories… I know that people have said in reference to Bob Woodward that once he got out the big story that other doors opened for him…
MARK BOWDEN: That’s true. But that’s not really a function of money, that’s a function of your reputation as a journalist. So, having written Black Hawk Down, even if Black Hawk Down had never been made into a movie, it was a hugely successful book within the military, the United States government, within the intelligence communities, they were just fascinated by that book. As a result of that I do have entry to places where I otherwise would not have been able to get at. Another thing that happens to me, because my medium’s better known and my stories have been successful, is that people seek me out with a story. And I’m sure they do with Woodward. Some guy who’s just been involved with some really amazing CIA op somewhere in the world thinks, “Boy I’d love for somebody to tell that story, or get that story made.” And then they sit back and my name occurs to them. It’s the same thing on a somewhat larger scale when any beat reporter at a newspaper has. Let’s say I’m a police reporter and I’ve got a good reputation for doing good work, well then a cop with a beef or a victim of a beating is looking for someone to tell their story, they’re going to come to me. For me, it’s just on a lot bigger scale.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s basically what I’ve got for you. Anything else you want to throw forth?
MARK BOWDEN: I’m very interested in film and writing and how it relates to what I do. I’ve gotten into the film work in a different avenue than most people.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s funny that you mentioned how your friends, how you’ve seen them go, “Oh great, here’s Mark, he’s got books, he’s doing this huge journalism thing, and now he’s also getting screenwriting. Great.” It’s funny how, and I don’t want you to think I’m blowing smoke up your ass when I say this, but it’s funny how being “good” really is it’s own door opener.
MARK BOWDEN: Well, that’s nice of you to say. The way I look at it is that I see Hollywood and the dealings that I’ve had with them as this giant machine that is fully-equipped to make the best movie, but they don’t know what to make a movie of. They have all the best cinematographers and sound people and makeup people and wardrobe people and every other aspect of filmmaking at their beck and call, but they’re desperate for somebody who has experience in the real world. That’s what I think. I’ll meet with friends who are working with one studio or another or some producer and they’ll want to know, “What are you working on next?” or “What’s the next story you’re writing?” and it’s because I’m bringing them messages from out there, from the real world. And the people who live there are probably aware of that to a fault: the idea that they live in this privileged little bubble…
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