Cannes | Abbasi on

Posted on 22 May, 2024

“I deeply wish I could be there with you right now, but I’m staging in New York, doing Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of The People. An ‘Enemy of The People’ is a phrase that’s been used by Stalin, Mao, Goebbels, and most recently by Donald Trump, when he denounced the free press and called [it] ‘the fake news media’ and ‘enemy of the people’.” With this statement, Jason Strong, who plays Donald Trump’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, in the movie about the former American president, The Apprentice, began the press conference at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, in the presence of Ali Abbasi, director, and the rest of the cast and part of the production.

The Apprentice is about the young Donald Trump on the road that will lead him to be everything everyone knows today, taught by Cohn himself. “With his movie – Jason Strong added – Ali Abbasi has made an attempt to understand, in the words of 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyàm, ‘how yesterday this day’s madness did prepare.'”

The Apprentice's press conference
The main table at The Apprentice’s press conference – Screengrab

Portraying Donald and Ivana Trump: the process

Sebastian Stan, who plays Trump in The Apprentice, spoke about his preparation, about how to play such a complicated character. “It was a 24/7 kind of immersion process. I guess living with him to some extent: in my headphones, on my phone, on YouTube, and wherever I was going and walking; whatever I was going, if I was in the bathroom, I was listening to him.”

And, about what he can relate to, he added:

“The hope we have is that people watch the film because I always feel there’s always something to learn and for me, as an actor, standing next to the brave artist (Ali Abbas, ed) that I respect and I will follow wherever he goes, with all these people that have had enough balls to do this project, that’s what we have to do. We have to take on things that are risky and perhaps uncomfortable to talk about. Still, we must do so because, like Ali said last night, ‘It’s in our face every day,’ and we need to have a perspective; we need to at least confront one another, hopefully in a peaceful way, about what is happening. I think there’s a lot to learn from the film.”

Maria Bakalova, who plays Ivana, the woman who would become Donald’s first wife, also spoke about what it was like to play her character, highlighting her positive traits:

“I feel grateful to have the chance to portray a character like Ivana because the more I get to know about her, the more I fall in love with her. She’s been a woman who has been way too much ahead of her time, it’s inspiring to see somebody pursuing their dreams, and ambitions, driven by the idea of just achieving it. I think she’s been a legend.

A movie with a humanist ideology

“There was this very famous press conference where a competitor of mine, Lars Von Trier, here, some years ago, ended up saying that he understands Adolf Hitler. And then it got worse and worse, and nobody could save him. But there is some truth: these are all human beings.” In this way, Ali Abbasi talks about Donald Trump, how he doesn’t like his morals but that, in the end, he is a human being too.

“The most despicable monster you can think of, the most reprehensible person in history, also likes dogs or fell for someone or was nice to somebody at some point. For me, if there is an ideology for the movie, it is a humanist ideology: it is about taking these people who are icons, who are hated and loved, down to earth and deconstructing that mythological image into earthly human beings. With that comes understanding, comes sympathy. That doesn’t necessarily mean you forgive everything they did. If a movie has a cathartic mission, that would be it.”

The Apprentice
Ali Abbasi at the conference for The Apprentice

A controversial movie

The Apprentice is certainly not a movie that will go unnoticed, given the topic and the way in which Trump’s figure is highlighted. News has already come out that The Trump Organisation is threatening a lawsuit against it.

Abbasi comments, “Everybody talks about him suing a lot of people, but they don’t talk about his success, right? I don’t think this is a movie that he would dislike; I don’t necessarily think he would like it; I think he would be surprised. I would be happy to meet him and talk about the movie.”

Naturally, there was pressure, even before filming began, to put the movie completely aside.

“When I first came up with the idea seven years ago,” says the screenwriter Gabriel Sherman. “I heard so many voices in Hollywood, from powerful people, saying: “This movie will never be made, who wants to watch a movie about Donald Trump.” It takes fearless and a little bit crazy people to do the things that everybody says you shouldn’t be doing. I had a very powerful executive saying: “If Trump loses, maybe we’ll talk about it.” People talk about Hollywood being this “liberal place,” but actually, Hollywood doesn’t wanna rock certain boats.” In fact, Hollywood didn’t make this move. It’s a co-production between Canada, Ireland and Denmark.

The Apprentice is Ali Abbasi’s first English-language movie

But why making this movie? Why does a Danish-Iranian director choose to talk about Donald Trump in his first movie in English? Abbasi doesn’t care about his geo-cultural origin, “I’m just Ali Abbasi”, “My optimism about the world has faded. We’re becoming in-world looking. […] There is a vacuum filled by Chinese-government-propaganda movies, Iranian-government-propaganda movies, or the Pentagon Entertainment Arm. It’s messy; it’s not necessarily Art with the big ‘A’ the way I want it, which is my playing field. Now, I’m playing on their playing field, and I think it’s important that someone does it. I hope that someone else does it, too.”

Will Abbasi also make a movie about the darker sides of Joe Biden (the current American president)?

“This is not a movie about Donald Trump. It’s a movie about the system. About how the system works, is built, and how the power runs through the system.” In any case, “We have a promotional event coming up called ‘US election.’ It’s going to help us with the movie.”

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