EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival.
Screening in the Documentary Feature Competition, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein‘s “Bulletproof Salesman is having its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival. The doc follows Fidelis Cloer, a self-confessed “war profiteer” who found The Perfect War when the US invaded Iraq. As explained by South By Southwest: “It wasn’t about selling a dozen cars, or even a hundred, it was a thousand-car war where security would become the ultimate product.” indieWIRE talked to Tucker about his and Epperlein’s film and their goals for South By Southwest.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Both of us became filmmakers by accident. Petra was born in East Germany and is an architect by training. I started shooting in the early ’90s in developing countries. Our first work together–in Berlin–was experimental film that tried to make sense of disparate worlds. Later, we spent much time in remote locations shooting nature and wild life. With 9/11 came the realization that conflict would be the center of our work.
What was the inspiration for this film?
Immediately after the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, we were contacted by a German armored car salesman with an invitation to travel overland from Amman to Baghdad as he delivered cars to clients and scouted business opportunities. By the time we drove in – right when “mission accomplished” was declared–the war appeared to be over. For the Salesman, however, it was just the “end of the beginning of the war” and this was his “Perfect War”. He wasn’t there to sell a dozen cars, he was there to sell hundreds: all he had to was wait. By the fall of 2003, he had his war and clients were desperately calling looking for vehicles. We continued to travel with him through 2004 until it became too dangerous to drive in from Jordan. With that, we switched gears and produced “Gunner Palace” and “The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair” in Baghdad.
In our absence, his business thrived in Iraq, but by late 2006, it was almost too good and he was forced to reengineer his products to withstand the increased threat from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). In 2007 he invited us to film tests in Germany where his cars were subjected to ridiculously high levels of explosives and ballistics. The tests felt like a Volkswagen commercial gone horribly wrong where “Made in Germany” means shooting at a car nearly a thousand times and exposing it to enough explosives to destroy your average suburban house. In the summer of 2007, we followed him to Afghanistan where business was booming and were able to capture firsthand the effects of new terrorist technologies on his clients. After five years of shooting – and five years of war – the film evolved into a monologue about the business of war and an accidental black comedy about the nature of violence.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
All of our subjects fall into our laps. Usually because we simply get on well with a character(s) and we end up living in their world. What was unique about the salesman was his willingness to show us a world that few people have access to. Which is to say, for him, war is a business just like any other with the added dimension that his “product” is one of life and death. In his world security and safety are commodities. His business is dependent on violence and that violence became a character in the film. While it is a film about a man who profits from war, it’s more a film about the pathology of violence. When we started shooting in 2003, we had no idea of what to expect–we were afraid of bullets and bandits. The threat was abstract, an unknown. Throughout production, the threat–and his response to it–escalated. First we traveled with one submachinegun. By 2004, our cars were full of weapons and skilled operators. By 2007, the assumption was not “if” but “when” and then what? At the center of the film, is the idea that war–savagery–becomes disturbingly normal.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
We self-finance all of our films, so every project is a challenge. The last three have been in wars, which makes producing a film without outside support even more challenging. It’s been difficult, but neither of us would want to be doing anything else. One thing we try to remember is that while film is a business, the art of film lives beyond the thematic whims of festival programmers, opening weekend grosses and TV windows. This is history, these are our our times and ten years down the road there will be satisfaction in knowing that we were there.