Diplomacy Opens Doors for Film Director

Times Staff Writer

Coming soon to the Security Council: Nicole Kidman saving an African ambassador from an assassination attempt.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed in principle this week to allow director Sydney Pollack to film a movie inside the United Nations premises in New York, the first time in U.N. officials’ memory that the world body will allow a feature film to be made on site.

Annan had originally nixed the proposal, saying the filming would be too disruptive and he was unsure that it reflected U.N. values. But he changed his mind after receiving a visit from Pollack this month and a preview of the script, U.N. officials said. Pollack pledged to film only on weekends and to not interrupt U.N. business. Shooting on the Universal Studios film will begin March 1.

“It could be, in effect, a free commercial for the U.N. -- a thriller made by a top-notch filmmaker with a stellar cast,” said Shashi Tharoor, the U.N.'s communications chief.


“It will reach far more millions of people than any public relations initiative I could have come up with. And we are satisfied that the values in the story reflect our principles.”

“The Interpreter” is to star Kidman and Sean Penn. Kidman will play an African-born U.N. interpreter who overhears an assassination plot against her country’s leader. That makes her a target too, and with Penn, the leader’s bodyguard, she races to foil the attack before she is killed.

Both her country and the language she speaks are invented. But the leader, named Motobo in the film, is modeled on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the language is based on Swahili, Pollack said.

True to the ideals of the U.N., diplomacy conquers all, he said.


“It’s partly a movie about choices between violence and diplomacy,” said Pollack, whose New York pied-a-terre is a few blocks from U.N. headquarters.

For decades, U.N. officials have rebuffed proposals to film inside the building, including for the 2000 movie “The Art of War,” starring Wesley Snipes as a security agent framed for killing the Chinese ambassador, and “The Peacemaker” (1997), in which Kidman and George Clooney thwart a plot to blow up the U.N. with a nuclear weapon.

Most famously, the U.N. rejected Alfred Hitchcock’s overtures to shoot part of the 1959 film “North by Northwest” that depicted an assassination of a diplomat in a U.N. lounge.

Hitchcock’s crew used a camera hidden in a car parked across from the headquarters to film Cary Grant walking up the steps into the building. But the distinctive interior was re-created on a soundstage.

Hitchcock also had envisioned a scene in which a speaker addressing the General Assembly would declare, “I refuse to continue until the delegate from Peru wakes up,” according to screenwriter Ernest Lehman in the documentary “Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest.” The delegate, of course, is dead.

It is precisely to counter such images of the U.N. as a sleepy, bureaucratic body that Tharoor pushed for approval for Pollack’s film.

And in a classic piece of diplomacy, Pollack lobbied “everyone he could think of” to get a meeting with Annan, including New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who agreed it would be a shame to have to film in Toronto -- Pollack’s fallback. Ambassadors were delighted to have a bit of glamour in the building.

“I told the secretary-general it was fine, granted one condition,” said Chilean Ambassador Heraldo Munoz, who, as Security Council president, had to decide whether to approve the decision. “That I get a meeting with Nicole Kidman.”


Annan did not ask for a cameo. But Pollack did not rule it out.

“He’s a very handsome and dapper man,” Pollack said. “He could be a movie star.”