Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Director: Ridley Scott
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 117 minutes
Synopsis: Legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott and Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) have joined forces in the motion picture thriller The Counselor, starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz. McCarthy, making his screenwriting debut and Scott interweave the author's characteristic wit and dark humor with a nightmarish scenario, in which a respected lawyer's dalliance with an illegal business deal spirals out of control.
Release Date: November 7th, 2013
'I know why I'm in it. Do you?"
- Reiner (Javier Bardem) to The Counselor (Michael Fassbender)
It all began with a morning cup of coffee.
Cormac McCarthy was in the midst of writing two novels, when he arose one day and thought he needed to take a break. But he wasn't thinking about a vacation; in fact, far from it.
He decided to write a screenplay.
Upon completing the first draft script, he sent it to producers Nick Wechsler, Steve Schwartz and Paula Mae Schwartz – who had produced the film The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel. 'We were all fans of Cormac McCarthy's writing, and thought The Counselor was pure Cormac: mesmerising, powerful and unsettling," says Nick Wechsler.
Indeed, The Counselor brings the same kind of power and narrative drive that characterise Cormac McCarthy's novels. 'Some folks have called this film, No Country for Old Men on steroids," says producer Steve Schwartz. 'I think there is some truth to that. All the classic Cormac McCarthy themes are in The Counselor: a view that humanity is not intrinsically good…but people always have choices, and we often make the wrong choices. Choices have consequences, and you sometimes live and die with them. Thus, it's a cautionary tale."
After the producers learned that that legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott was interested in the material, they set up a meeting between Ridley Scott and the author/screenwriter. Cormac McCarthy remembers, 'We chatted about the screenplay and shook hands. One day you're at home drinking coffee, and a few months later you're in Spain [where much of The Counselor was shot] with over 200 crew and actors."
The meeting between the two artists seemed almost fated. Scott had long admired Cormac McCarthy's work – he had read Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road – and he calls the author 'the Great American Novelist." Ridley Scott had a similar reaction to Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counselor. 'It reads like an exceptional short story or novella; it's an emotional rollercoaster ride," says Ridley Scott. 'The script had situations and characters that were epic and an inevitability that something awful was going to happen to them – and that there was nothing they could do to stop it."
Intermingled with the titular character's inexorable path to disaster, is Cormac McCarthy-esque dark humor. 'I think there's humor in everything," says Ridley Scott. 'The characters are damaged goods; they're attractive but they've all ducked and dived in their professions," and that leads to unexpected moments of humor. Adds Steve Schwartz: 'These characters could only have come from Cormac McCarthy. And while they vary in the extent and color of their flaws, they are always fun to watch."
Producer Paula Mae Schwartz notes that, 'Cormac McCarthy's novels are known to have colorful dialogue. This talent is even more powerful on film, where we see and hear the characters driving the story forward through a wide range of emotions – from unspeakable violence to laugh-out-loud humor."
'Have you been bad?"
- Laura (Penélope Cruz) to The Counselor (Michael Fassbender)
With Ridley Scott directing Cormac McCarthy's original screenplay, The Counselor garnered significant industry attention, and the filmmakers began to assemble a dream cast. 'It's a great group of actors playing enticing characters you haven't seen before on screen," says Nick Wechsler.
Michael Fassbender's The Counselor – his given name is not revealed – is a lawyer who is tempted to enter a murky and dangerous world to make some quick cash. He soon learns that a single bad decision can have shocking and irreversible consequences. Although he receives many warnings about the potential dangers of getting involved in this deal, The Counselor's arrogance won't let him stop.
Cormac McCarthy describes The Counselor as a classical figure in tragedy. 'He's a decent man who gets up one morning and decides to do something wrong. And that's all it takes. Some people can live hideous lives, do everything wrong, and die peacefully in their beds at age 102. The Counselor is not one of them."
Michael Fassbender was Ridley Scott's sole choice for the role of The Counselor.Michael Fassbender has shown himself to be as diverse an actor as he is authentic, from his breakthrough role in Hunger to more recent roles in X-Men: First Class, Shame and Ridley Scott's 2012 blockbuster Prometheus. Fearless, cool, and charming, Fassbender can do it all – and he embraced the opportunity to reunite with Scott and bring to life Cormac McCarthy's protagonist.
'It was so well written, sophisticated and balanced, and while there's a lot of information there, Cormac McCarthy had left enough space for an actor to fill it in," says Michael Fassbender. 'It was just a masterful piece of work."
He adds: 'And I just love working with Ridley Scott. It's like a master class every day."
Perhaps The Counselor's greatest failing is his hubris. 'He thinks he's smarter than he is," says Michael Fassbender. 'He is given enough opportunity to get out of the deal, yet he repeatedly says he's all right, and he is obviously not all right. There's a blind arrogance that drives him forward."
The Counselor finds himself way out of his depth when an unplanned series of events lead to tragic consequences for both him and his fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz).
If there's an innocent in this story, then it is Laura, a beautiful woman with whom The Counselor, says Michael Fassbender, 'has fallen profoundly in love."
Penelope Cruz and Michael Fassbender's first scene together, which opens the film, conveys the depth of their feelings for one another, through an intimacy rarely depicted on screen. 'There is spectacular heat in the characters' relationship, and we experience that right away in that opening scene," says Ridley Scott. 'It's the kind of intimacy that goes from zero to sixty in no time at all."
Adds Cormac McCarthy: 'I don't know when was the last time I saw a film where two people I love, made love. It's apparently a thing of the past. So I thought I would try and bring that back. The opening scene is graphic, and the two characters speak like adults."
A less sexually-charged, though equally powerful scene between the two characters plays out in an emotional dinner, during which The Counselor proposes marriage to Laura. 'I wanted that to be touching and real, and depict how much they need each other," says Ridley Scott.
But their joyous engagement is marred by the dangerous world of which The Counselor has become a part. Laura is beautiful and naïve; she sees the best in everybody. Her intelligence and foresight – and her love for The Counselor – are no match for his descent into the rabbit hole, and they both face tragic consequences if the deal he has made with unseen, powerful forces, goes south.
'Laura is what he prizes most," says Cormac McCarthy. 'What happens to them is unspeakable."
'If you pursue this road that you've embarked upon, you'll eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. Ones you didn't see coming at all."
- Reiner (Javier Bardem) to The Counselor
Penelope Cruz's real-life husband, Javier Bardem plays Reiner, a larger-than-life nightclub owner who brings The Counselor into the shady deal. The Counselor marks Bardem's return to a world envisioned by Cormac McCarthy, whose celebrated novel No Country for Old Men became an equally hailed motion picture, in which Bardem turned in an Oscar winning performance as the assassin Anton Chigurh.
Reiner straddles two worlds: the extravagant and decadent realm of a nightclub owner, and the brutal, lawless and merciless criminal underworld that is rapidly closing in on The Counselor, and on Reiner. Reiner appears to possess special insight into The Counselor's increasingly dire circumstances, but he's just as much a potential victim of a life he little understands.
Javier Bardem found Cormac McCarthy's script for The Counselor both intriguing and powerful, and relished being back in Cormac McCarthy terrain again. Says the actor: 'It's rare to find material where lengthy scenes of dialogue can evoke such powerful images. I was immediately hooked. I knew that for an actor this dialogue was a gift."
'I used Cormac McCarthy's words to create my character, and the phrase that Reiner repeats constantly is -I don't know.' I wanted to have the look of somebody who's in the dark. I also explored the idea that Reiner chose to ignore information or knowledge that might get in the way of an easy life."
Strong female leads are a Ridley Scott hallmark and Cameron Diaz portrays one of the filmmaker's toughest and darkest characters ever. Cameron Diaz brings a rich history of comedic and dramatic work to her portrayal of Malkina, Reiner's malevolent girlfriend. She is a sociopath whose lack of empathy means she's capable of anything. Malkina's power stems from her relentless drive to take control and possess anything she believes she deserves. Whatever the consequences of her actions, she feels absolutely no remorse.
Cameron Diaz immediately responded to the script. 'Malkina is a sociopath, and extremely smart. She is capable of anything. There is no humanity in Malkina. The two questions she's always asking herself are: how can I get what I deserve? What do I have coming to me? Nothing else, no one else, is of any concern to her. Malkina is so powerful because she understands the consequences of her actions more than any other character.
'The only thing she wants is more [of everything]," adds Cameron Diaz. 'Malkina is compelled to take the power of every man, devour it, and then break down every woman."
'Malkina might remind you of Javier Bardem's role [as Chigurh] in No Country for Old Men," says Cormac McCarthy. 'Neither character has a sense of humor; maybe that's the hallmark of a psychopath. She smiles a few times, but it's not a smile that will cheer you."
Cameron Diaz, who shares most of her scenes with Javier Bardem, describes the characters' complicated relationship: 'Malkina has found her sweet spot in Reiner. He is a man who will do anything for her, and of course, she had created that scenario.
Inadvertently, he has allowed her to take control of his world, to insert herself amidst his business dealings and take what she believes she deserves. Worse still, she has a good time doing it. Ruining people's lives is a sport for her. It makes her feel alive. Reiner desperately wants to make her happy but she will never be happy. He will always keep trying, which means she can get whatever she wants, however she wants it and just give him enough to keep coming back."
'It's a unique relationship," Javier Bardem elaborates. 'Reiner has reached a point in his life where he believes he has control over everything, and everyone. And then he finds Malkina, who begins to take control over his life. And while that's exciting for Reiner, it also scares him."
'The point is, Counselor, you may think there are things that thse people would simply be incapable of. There are not."
- Westray (Brad Pitt)
Brad Pitt's character of Westray isn't malevolent like Malkina, though he certainly has a dark side. Westray is a philosophising and shady middleman whose warnings to The Counselor about the dangers of a world he seeks to enter go unheeded. Handsome, charming and witty, Westray is an unapologetic womaniser, which threatens to lead to his demise.
'We don't know quite what Westray does, apart from the fact he's connection to the cartel with which The Counselor has made his deal," says Ridley Scott. But whatever his motives and allegiances, Westray is nothing if not stylish. 'We dressed him like country music legend Hank Williams," with a cowboy jacket, padded shoulders, cowboy hat and boots, adds the director. 'Westray is a bit of a dandy."
'Westray is a cool character, and Brad plays him with enormous amounts of clever, dark wit," adds Nick Wechsler.
Reteaming with Ridley Scott, who launched his career in Thelma & Louise, Brad Pitt brings unbridled charisma to a quirky and unforgettable character. The chance to reunite with Scott and work with a script from a writer he's long admired was irresistible. 'I'm a Cormac McCarthy fan – I mean, I've read every word the guy's published and most of the books more than once. So The Counselor was a chance to do something of his and also to work with Ridley Scott again. Ridley Scott gave me my first break into the big leagues."
The Counselor's supporting cast is no less exceptional, and includes Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, and Rubén Blades.
Following two weeks of rehearsals at London's Shepperton Studios, The Counselor began an eight-week shoot on location in the United Kingdom and Spain.
Production designer Arthur Max appreciated the density of Cormac McCarthy's prose, which paralleled not only Ridley Scott's style of direction, but also the director's vision. He says: 'Cormac McCarthy's definition of the place, and the way he brings it to life is precise and definite. The landscape is incredibly beautiful and seductive. There's cowboy garb and pickup trucks intermingled with Bentleys and Art Deco furniture. It's another take on a world everybody thought they knew."
Arthur Max and his team were challenged by the fact that The Counselor shot in London during the same summer that saw the busy capital city host the 2012 Olympic Games, as well as the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
The production shot at more than 25 practical locations in East London and the Home Counties, which Arthur Max and his team turned into U.S. and Mexican locales.
A duplex apartment in Clerkenwell, a trendy, progressive neighborhood in East London served as The Counselor's El Paso, Texas condo. The décor reflects a sophisticated understanding of design, and of a person who indulges himself in collecting icons of culture with a great deal of care and consideration. The home is not especially typical of a Texan lawyer, but The Counselor is far from typical. Says Arthur Max: 'We know he's a breakaway personality. The Counselor wants to shower the woman he loves with riches beyond avarice, and he even travels around the world to find the best diamond for her engagement ring. This is not a clichéd world of greed and corruption. It's more idiosyncratic and credible."
Together with set decorator Sonja Klaus, Arthur Max worked off the premise that The Counselor was not just an ordinary lawyer who had accrued some serious debts. 'I think there's something more basic to his personality leading to a need to indulge in a lifestyle that's completely beyond anything around him," says Arthur Max. 'His environment needed to reflect a certain degree of sophistication and elegance and that his choices have been carefully made."
Skywood House, a piece of pure glass geometry complete with artificial lake and black swimming pool, tucked away in four acres of woodland about 40 minutes outside of London, served as Reiner' home. Reiner is a man of wealth and taste, who would not, says Arthur Max, see his home as a 'knotty pine paneled house with cows' heads and longhorns hanging on the way."
'Ridley Scott's vision of the Southwest avoided the clichés of Western towns of the old frontier and the familiar touchstones we've seen many times before," Arthur Max continues. 'Ridley Scott reimagined the Southwest the way he thought it ought to have been. Cormac was a great arbiter of how far we could go with that and when we'd gone too far."
As The Counselor's world implodes, his environment becomes more alienating. Says Arthur Max: 'When someone is surrounded by forces that are so great, so dark, and threatening, people disappear around you and the streets of most cities become like barren canyon landscapes. You don't see anybody and you're not aware of normal life round you. That's how we positioned The Counselor."
Filming began at Heathrow Airport, for a scene of Westray's arrival in London. Brad Pitt, magnificent in tailored suit and Stetson, drew a great deal of attention from the public, as did sightings of Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt at the Sheraton Hotel, Heathrow.
The actors were next seen together in the Hoxton Bar and Grill, in fashionable East London, which doubled as a Texan bar for the scene in which Westray warns The Counselor of the downside of the deal.
Other sites in London that Arthur Max and his team transformed into Texan spaces included Ministry of Sound, the legendary nightclub in the city's Elephant & Castle, and McQueen, a restaurant bar inspired by the late Steve McQueen – the -King of Cool' – in trendy Shoreditch. These locations doubled as Reiner's new nightclub, and Reiner's private club, where Reiner shares with The Counselor intimate details of his relationship with Malkina.
To capture the sun-ravaged borderland that straddles Texas and Mexico, the unit relocated to northern Spain, specifically to Bardenas, a Natural Park of wild beauty. The filmmakers were warned against shooting there, due to the frequent storms in the area. 'However," says Arthur Max 'Ridley Scott has a fortuitous track record with weather so I ignored the warnings! The light there was just so breathtaking."
They were also warned off the location because of its proximity to the military base situated there, and the regular firing practice, which would interfere with the sound. But the sun shone on The Counselor and the production worked amicably with the Air Force, using its barbed wire fencing, electric barrier gates, floodlights and watchtowers to create part of the film's biggest set piece, the US/Mexican border crossing. The build was so convincing that the military base has applied to keep it standing as an additional controlled area for their use.
Also facing formidable challenges was costume designer Janty Yates, who savored the process of building character through costume. 'It is wonderful to see an actor develop their character knowing how they will present themselves. Dressing our cast was like a gourmet meal for the costume department, and fortunately Ridley Scott did not want us to underplay their looks, but to really go for it."
Michael Fassbender, as The Counselor, wears Armani in a look that is sharp and crisp, in suits or in casual wear. Says Janty Yates: 'Michael Fassbender wears suits beautifully. He really knows how to work them." As The Counselor's world unravels, Janty Yates says -He wouldn't ever change his clothes he was too desperate to find his love to think about that so it was just a question of slowly destroying his look and crispness."
Dressing Javier Bardem, probably the most extreme of the characters in terms of garb, was great fun for the costume department. Wearing Versace for the majority of the scenes, including vintage Gianni Versace shirts from the designer's archives, Janty Yates dressed Javier Bardem in bold and bright flamboyant colors, matched with different sunglasses for each outfit. Janty Yates used the questionable taste of billionaires holidaying in Saint-Tropez as her reference for the character.
Working closely with Cameron Diaz on her look for Malkina, Janty Yates says: 'Cameron Diaz knows every design house, everything about costume, and helped immensely in defining Malkina's look." Cameron Diaz is dressed entirely by Paula Thomas, Thomas Wylde, a design house launched in 2006, and now housed in 183 boutiques and stores around the world. Cameron Diaz fell in love with the clothes, both sophisticated and empowering, so much she joked she needed more scenes in order to be able to wear it all. Janty Yates describes her look: 'It's out there! It's slightly Goth, very sexy, fabulous and the way Cameron Diaz wears it completely gives it the -wow factor."
Sharing a considerable amount of screen time with a pair of cheetahs, Cameron Diaz wore a cheetah tattoo on her back and explains the link: 'It's the purity of the hunter in the cheetah she responds to and indeed loves. The tattoo symbolises her adoration and admiration for the cheetah because she feels such a kinship she is literally assuming their skin – the skin of the hunter because that's who she is."
Less exotic but no less impressive, Penélope Cruz's Laura wears Armani. Penelope Cruz wanted a business look that would also look soft and vulnerable. 'Armani's cut is timeless, but superb," says Janty Yates. 'It gave Penélope Cruz a very elegant, yet efficient look, but was soft enough to work with her very beautiful and feminine look."
For Westray, Ridley Scott's inspiration was music legend Hank Williams' and western movie star Gene Autry's beautiful tailored cowboy suits of the 1950s and 60s with yokes, jetted pockets Stetsons, Navajo jewelry, and lizard and crocodile boots. 'It was a lot of fun, and Brad Pitt loved it too. We worked with Armani, Versace and Louboutin to create his looks," explains Janty Yates.
After production wrapped in October, the cast took time to reflect on the experience of making The Counselor, and specifically working with its esteemed director. Says Michael Fassbender: 'Ridley Scott gives very clear, simple yet imaginative notes. He's very mischievous and very playful, so you have the freedom to collaborate." Adds Cameron Diaz: 'Ridley Scott is a masterful director. The confidence he has as a filmmaker, because he has so much experience and because he is such a visual genius, imbues us with confidence. And he is such a great collaborator. He is always asking questions, rather than telling you. He is so respectful of what you want and your participation in creating that character and this world. He provides a very clear route to where he wants you to go."
Release Date: November 7th, 2013