Howard Kaplan is the author of four novels, three published and one to be released around the time the
Damascus Cover film (starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Hurt) will be in cinemas in early 2016. Here Stephanie Cox interviews him on the film adaptation.
1. Tell us more about Damascus Cover. How did the book come about?
When I was 21 with a friend we flew to Beirut and took a shared taxi to Damascus. We stopped in Marjeh Sqaure, where the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, had been hung. I loved the city, the oldest inhabited city on earth, rung by apricot groves as underground rivers rise there from Lebanon. So I created my own spy story about a high placed Israeli spy, as Eli Cohen had been, in Damascus. Many of the professional and blog reviewers remark about the great detail of Damascus.
2. How was the novel picked up for a film adaptation?
Sometimes you just get lucky. The director was looking for a Middle East book to adapt and it turns out we have a mutual friend. She gave him The Damascus Cover, he read it and we met for coffee. No agents. The project began to take off when he brought on the producer of Gosford Park, so this is a British production so not a great coincidence that we have Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the lead and Sir John Hurt as the head of the Israeli Secret Service who is the puppet master of the novel and film. The novel is in its heart a book about reconciliation, in this case between Israel and the Arab countries, so the topicality seems perennial.
3. How much input do you have in the film adaptation?
I saw an early draft of the script and made some small suggestions all of which they liked and took. Unexpectedly, I’ve had greater input in post production. I’ve seen several edits and made a number of suggestions, mostly cuts to steam line the plot. A sesasoned novelist knows that no matter how good a scene is, if it doesn’t advance the story and character, it needs to go. They were extraordinarily grateful for my notes and actually used them all. I have a close friend who is the estate attorney for Michael Jackson and a large number of Hollywood people, including many writers. He tells me the novelist never gets such input but I was in Casablanca for a week during shooting in March of 2015, and I’ve kept close relations with the film team, though all the post production work is being done in London. I see the director every time he’s in Los Angeles and as I’m writing this he’ll be here later this week.
4. Do you find that the book is gaining traction due to its topicality?
The book and I, to my great pleasure and amusement, am suddenly getting a lot of attention. I think the topicality is two fold. One, that it is really about the need for the Middle East countries to get along which has never been more apparent than it is now. And secondly, the obvious, Damascus is now on everybody’s radar. It doesn’t happen often in life, but I seem to be in the right place at the right time.
5. What excites you most about the upcoming film?
The cast has been mind blowing. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is beyond a fabulous actor. He gives his all to every scene and I was on set for a week of 10 hour a day shoots. His cover is a German businessman, Hans Hoffman, and hair dyed blonde he does the entire film in a German accent. They brought in a language coach from Berlin and the two of them were zealous that none of his Irish brogue bled into his German. The German actor, Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot, the DaVinci Code) told me at breakfast in the hotel that the accent is flawless. Olivia Thirlby, best known as the sidekick in Juno, is a delight. She’s young and where Jonny, as he likes to be called, hits his lines perfectly each time she experimented with different takes until she found her spot. It was exhilarating. There are some great scenes too with her and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in Homeland). Navid was at my house for a barbecue last month and we talked about how great Olivia is. John Hurt was not on set in the week I was there so I missed meeting him.
6. What do you think of the current schemes going on right now, where authors / readers / libraries / publishers are providing books for Syrian refugees? How important is it that the book industry supports those in need due to war and terrorism?
I think this is fabulous and important but alas in the cold hard world, money talks. A British Young Adults writer, who happens to be on my twitter feed, Patrick Ness
, offered 10,000 pounds this past weekend for refugee help and tweeted to writers to help. By the end of the weekend he’d raised 400,000 pounds. It was vastly impressive and moving.
You can read the full interview on Stephanie’s blog.