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The UN takes Kidman and crew to heart
Paul Sullivan

          What is it like producing the first-ever film to be shot inside the United Nations? Like most films, it is "hours of boredom punctuated by moments of creativity", says Kevin Misher, producer of The Interpreter.
After spending part of a day in the UN General Assembly building -- filled with lights, cameras and scores of movie people -- it is hard to argue the point, even if Nicole Kidman was a few feet away.
The thriller, starring Kidman and Sean Penn and directed by Sydney Pollack, revolves around an interpreter, played by Kidman, who overhears several men on the floor of the General Assembly plotting to assassinate an African head of state when he visits to address the UN.
A secret service agent, played by Penn, is brought in to protect her and foil the plan. The twist is that the plotters were speaking in the interpreter's little-known native language, raising suspicion over whether she is involved.
While the UN is a familiar backdrop in news reels, postcards and opening skyline shots of countless films, it has never been the setting of a film. It famously turned down Alfred Hitchcock's request to shoot North by Northwest on location in the 1950s. So why, in a time of heightened security and international unease, did it agree to this film?
"We wouldn't have agreed if the UN was merely a backdrop," says Sashi Tharoor, the UN's under-secretary general for communications and public information. "We relished the opportunity to demystify the UN for the ordinary movie-going public, for people who want to see a thriller with Sydney Pollack's name on the marquee."
Tharoor, one of Koft Annan's top advisers, said the UN had initially been reluctant to allow the film crew inside, but after Pollack -- director of 20 films, including The Way We Were, Absence of Malice and Out of Aftica -- made his case directly to the secretary general in January, the view changed.
Misher, who was on the verge of constructing replicas of the UN interiors on sound stages in Canada, says: "I don't think any of this would have happened had Sydney not gone to see Kofi Annan."
The UN approved the final version of the script but it receives no compensation beyond expenses for the rights to film there. "I did not want to set a precedent that the UN is for hire," says Tharoor. "But they made it clear to us that there would be a donation to the [work of the] UN."
The UN is only allowing shooting at weekends, which has created challenges. "If a scene requires three days of shooting you don't get that," says Misher. Shooting in the Security Council and the General Assembly have also made getting the right shot difficult at times. "You can't just say, 'We want this shot', and move these tables and blow out these walls," he says. One way around this for the key scenes in the General Assembly was to recreate the press and interpreters' booths on a sound stage in Brooklyn.
Unlike many blockbuster films, The Interpreter (budgeted at $80m) is striving for authenticity. For one, the UN must be told of any major script revisions, says Tharoor.
The actors have spent time with UN and secret service staff, but the most elaborate arrangement has been commissioning Said el-Gheithy, an African linguist in London, to create a language for the fictional country of Matobo. He used Swahili and Shona as the models for the language, which will be called Matoboan or Ku, depending on whether it is a national or tribal language in the final version of the film. "It has its own internal dictionary, so you can speak it," Misher says. "The guy created a whole culture and history in his mind."
Having gone this far, it was a minor matter to rearrange the country name placards in the General Assembly so Matobo - an invented southern African country with English connections - was where it would be, if it existed. "We move all the placards each weekend and then move them back," he says.
The scene being shot the day I was on set was from the second day of the film. Kidman's character has already reported overhearing the assassination plot, and now the UN security force is trying to verify her story, which hinges on a flickering of the overhead light in her booth. When the two officers see the light is faulty, they call in the secret service.
The scene will probably occupy 10 seconds in the film, but Pollack shot it again and again from every possible angle - the floor, the booth, Kidman's point of view. "It's very tricky," says Misher. "You have to get it right. You don't want to come back and do additional photography."
The longer we are on the set the more comfortable Misher becomes. Respeatedly nudging my arm, he is still awed at being in the General Assembly and speaks reverentially about the opportunity.
"The challenge of a film like this is you're in a place that demands respect," he says. "We have the privilege of shooting in the General Assembly. You can't take advantage of the workings of the UN". Early on, there were complaints from UN security guards about how actors playing them were behaving off set, says Tharoor. Evidently, the actor-guards were roaming the building with their caps on crooked and otherwise looking dishevelled. "We told Sydney, and he rectified it," says Tharoor.
That was easy compared to the conditions Security Council had when Tharoor approached it about filming inside: then-president Heraldo Munioz of Chile wanted to meet Kidman, while the Spanish ambassador, Inocencio Arias, wondered about being an extra. Fortunately, a compromise was brokered.


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