Dennis Quaid admits that his new film, “Savior,” which opens today, is a “rough ride.” It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
Critics are already proclaiming that Quaid (“The Right Stuff,” “The Parent Trap,” “Breaking Away”) gives one of his best performances to date in this strong antiwar film set during the savage conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
In the drama directed by Serbian Peter “Gaga” Antonijevic, Quaid plays Guy, a professional soldier whose soul was destroyed when a terrorist bomb in Paris killed his wife and small son. Spiritually dead, he is working as a mercenary on the Serbian side, witnessing and participating in horrific atrocities.
During a search-and-destroy mission, he comes across a pregnant, raped woman and helps her deliver a healthy baby girl. Guy regains his humanity taking care of the infant’s simple needs after the baby is orphaned and thereby becomes the baby’s savior.
Quaid, 44, and Antonijevic, who has lived in the United States since 1991, passionately discussed making “Savior” in a recent meeting in a conference room at the Beverly Hills Hilton.
Question: Before you tackled this project, Dennis, how much did you know about the war in Bosnia?
Quaid: I was probably one of the few people [in this country] who did know what was going on, but I was still confused. Even the people over in the former Yugoslavia were confused with what had really happened after the fact. I was interested in it because I’m sort of a student of history. So I followed it in the news, but people in our country didn’t. You can’t blame them for that because no one really wanted to get involved in another Vietnam or another war.
One thing I found compelling about what was going on there was the madness of it all. It’s really the compelling issue.
Q: Peter, tell me about your background in Serbia.
Antonijevic: I’m from a small town in Serbia which is nearby the Bosnia-Montenegro border. Later, I lived in southern Belgrade before I moved to the United States.
Probably [the war] is the most devastating thing that happened in my life. I woke up one day and the world I knew and the country I knew and liked was gone and . . . things would be the same no more. I grew up in a family where we didn’t make any difference between who is Serb and who is Muslim. Then one day, all of a sudden, there was a big division throughout the country, throughout families even, of who belongs to which ethnic group. Probably the most confusing fact for Americans is that [this war] is not some enemy coming from somewhere attacking you. It is your neighbor next door walking to your doorstep and slitting your throat.
This was a total war which was waged all over the place--everyone against everyone. Even at one point you had Muslims fighting Muslims in Bosnia. This is the one and the same war which had been fought in that region, the Balkans, for centuries now.
Q: Dennis, this movie couldn’t be more different than your last film, “The Parent Trap.” Were you looking to do a movie out of the Hollywood mainstream?
Quaid: I am really attracted to strong stories. My tastes have never really been mainstream. That is sort of like my fault and my strength. This just hit me so strongly: the overwhelming truth of the story and the human condition and of people at war.
When I read the script, I was really drawn to it, but at the same time I wasn’t interested in making a propaganda film for any side. Not knowing Gaga at the time, but knowing he was a Serb, it required a conversation to get his point of view of the war. He won’t tell you, but he spent 60 days in solitary confinement, locked up by the [Slobodan] Milosevic government.
Antonijevic: Early on [in my career], I did a movie which was a strong critique of the regime at the time. It got me a lot of enemies. They had a lengthy trial of three years and 60 days in solitary confinement. But you know, let’s put that on the side. It taught me about myself and even more about life.
Quaid: He came through that experience without any prejudice even toward his captors.
Antonijevic: It’s something when you have to learn to be at peace with yourself. It was painful while it lasted, but you say maybe in a weird way they did me a favor because I learned more about myself and life in general. That is why from that point on, I am trying to be very open and open-hearted toward anything and anyone, and really try to fight against any prejudice.
Q: Is it true that Dennis’ character is based on a real person?
Quaid: Actually, all the events in the movie are true. They didn’t necessarily happen to one person. Robert Orr, who wrote the movie, saw the war from the Croat side. He was an assistant for a Reuters news photographer there. He met, along with the soldiers, several mercenaries. One mercenary basically told him the story that he found a baby and he took it to a Red Cross station.
Antonijevic: It is a composite truth. My cousin killed a 10-year-old boy with a gun. I asked him a stupid question: “What was your worst experience in the war?” And he told me over a bowl of soup: “I shot a 10-year-old boy. Give me the salt, please.” We sort of incorporated events which did happen to people we heard of and knew personally. That is how the experience of “Savior” is a pretty realistic one.
Q: Don’t you think, though, it will be hard for audiences to accept such an antihero?
Quaid: We made an antiwar film. War does terrible things to people and to people’s minds. What we are addressing really is people’s hatreds, their prejudices, which we are all guilty of on one level or another, and how we are conditioned by those prejudices without really even knowing it sometimes. This man that I play, he is someone who is dead spiritually and emotionally at the beginning of the film because of what happened to him. He has this great hatred toward Muslims in particular. And this gives him an arc to come back from--this little Muslim baby becomes his savior. You could say he is the baby’s savior, but the Muslim baby actually becomes his savior.
Antonijevic: We never say [in the film] there is a black and a white. We always look for good in people as well as a dark side.
Q: What type of preparation did you do for the role?
Quaid: I went to Paris. There was a bodyguard I knew in Paris. He was ex-French Foreign Legion. He had friends who were mercenaries whom I talked to who were over there in the war. I talked to them just to get what was inside their heads and to know how their minds worked. One guy in particular started to show me snapshots he made when he was there. He said, “Here is my friend. Here is another friend, and here is my friend dead.” He took the picture like a memento. It was his way of still feeling close to his friend. That gave me something to start from in a sense.
I went to Sarajevo too and I saw all the damage that the war had done. It was incredible. There is not one building that doesn’t have war damage on it. The ice skating rink in the center of the city--the parking lot around is a makeshift graveyard of Croats, Muslims and Serbs. They would bring the bodies at night because they couldn’t give them a proper burial because of fear of snipers.
Q: You shot this in Montenegro. Had it been affected by the war?
Antonijevic: It had been affected economically, but the war was 20 miles away.
Quaid: At one point, we were shooting a mile from the Albanian border, which is where everything is going on now. I don’t think we could be there now, in fact. We didn’t feel any danger. The war had been over a year and a half.
Q: But I’m sure the majority of the actors and the crew had experienced the war firsthand.
Quaid: The guy who was helping me as part of my military training had been wounded. He had been shot through the chest during the war, and everyone on the crew was affected or it was one degree of separation of being affected. It had a traumatic affect on everyone. By the way, we had Serbs and Muslims working on our film.
Q: Has “Savior” been shown in the former Yugoslavia?
Antonijevic: It was shown in Belgrade.
Quaid: And there is an amazing experience! When you have premieres here in the States, you get out of the car and say hello to everybody before the movie. There it is after. In fact, right after the movie is over, you go on stage and people will either applaud or they will boo. There were like 3,000 people in this auditorium [and] there was this huge standing ovation for it that went on and on and on.
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Bosnia on Film
Here’s a look at other films dealing with the Bosnian War. Those on video are so noted.
“Shot Through the Heart”: Acclaimed HBO drama based on a true story of two friends, a Serb and a Muslim, whose lives are torn apart by the conflict. Linus Roache and Vincent Perez star.
“Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”: Srdjan Dragojevic’s allegory about the disintegration of Yugoslavia as seen through the eyes of two friends--one a Serb, the other a Muslim--who find themselves enemies when the conflict erupts. (Fox Lorber)
“Welcome to Sarajevo”: Michael Winterbottom examines the brutal conflict through the eyes of a group of journalists and photographers covering the war. Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei and Stephen Dillane star. (Miramax)
“For Ever Mozart”: Jean-Luc Godard’s drama about a group of people--trying to stage a play in order to cheer up the citizens of Sarajevo--who get caught up in the war in Bosnia with tragic consequences.
“Vukovar”: Boro Draskovic’s story of the Bosnian conflict is set in the Serb/Croat border town along the Danube River and focuses on a young couple--she’s a Croat; he’s a Serb--who marry just before the war begins.
“Bosna!”: Bernard-Henry Levy’s documentary on the Bosnian people.
“Ulysses’ Gaze”: Director Theo Angelopoulos’ three-hour epic starring Harvey Keitel as a Greek American filmmaker whose search for reels of early film by three Balkan brothers leads him to war-torn Sarajevo. (Fox Lorber)
“Underground”: Emri Kusturica’s Cannes Award-winning allegory about the fall of Yugoslavia spans the years from 1941 until warfare began again in 1992.