By Aaron Hillis
Cult author Mark Leyner hit his stride in the ’90s with meta-fictional novels (“Et Tu, Babe,” “The Tetherballs of Bougainville”) and short story collections (“My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist,” “Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog”), all hilariously overstimulated, fantastical parodies of mass culture and ephemeral trends both highbrow and low. He created and voiced the audio series “Wiretap” (about a 19-year-old’s conversations with pal Kim Jong Il), had columns in magazines like Esquire and George, and co-wrote two books of answers to unusual medical questions with Dr. Billy Goldberg (“Why Do Men Have Nipples?”, “Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?”). It was only a matter of time before Leyner’s peculiar sensibilities wiggled their way into cinema.
Co-scripted by Leyner, John Cusack and “Bulworth” screenwriter Jeremy Pikser, “War, Inc” is an absurdist Iraq war satire set in the fake country of Turaqistan, where a privatized war has transformed the landscape into something sinister and cartoonishly capitalistic. Cusack stars as a Tabasco-addicted mercenary who, under the guise of a trade show producer, has been hired by Halliburton-esque clients to kill off the competition. Though it’s Leyner’s first foray into film, the project’s high profile marks his sudden resurgence of sorts, which is why our interview kept meandering back to his literary roots.
Years ago, I’d read that Cusack wanted to adapt and direct “Et Tu, Babe,” your take on celebrity culture and self-deification. What happened with that project, and why did it take so long for you two to finish a project together?
I wrote a couple of episodes for a show that Peter Berg was doing on ABC called “Wonderland.” During that period of time, I guess Johnny had read “Et Tu, Babe,” but he called me up and asked if I’d like to work with him on it. We started doing that and became good friends, and the screenplay ended up being… actually, I don’t think it’s accurate to call it simply a transposition of a novel into a screenplay. It’s so different. It’s almost one of these things where it’s “inspired by.” I wouldn’t want to just recapitulate something I’ve already done. It’s probably going to take a while to set up and make. It’s a huge undertaking, kind of Wagnerian and epic. [laughs] So knowing that, we went on to write a more manageable screenplay, almost like a chamber piece in comparison, called “Pipe Dream.” Then we wrote “War, Inc.” with Jeremy Pikser, and it was unclear for a while what we were going to do first, and “War, Inc.” sort of won out.
Unless it were animated, I can’t even imagine how “Et Tu, Babe” would visually translate with such improbable, stream-of-consciousness imagery as giant marble babies or the steroid-addled you.
That’s one of the things that made Johnny and I so completely, obsessively entranced with doing it. We’re constantly adding to it and making it more impossible all the time. It’s going to end up being a 50-hour movie. We actually thought about doing it in a series, like Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” But I’ve had work of mine animated, and when you think about how to do what I do, animation comes to mind almost first. One of the great tricks for me to teach myself over this past couple of years is how to actually translate my sensibility and aesthetic into a movie. It’s a tricky thing you can’t start dumping tons of rich prose into a movie. The way to do it is to densely layer the visual field of a movie with ideas, to keep a high-pitched kinetic expression of those juxtapositions I like, and the sense of being the most shocking thing and the most inevitable thing in the world at the same time.
Your last novel was 1997’s “The Tetherballs of Bougainville.” Why haven’t we seen another since?
I made a conscious decision to step back and try something else for a while, and got caught up in it. I was writing about a book a year, or every two years, and I felt like I was in a cyclical production process. I loved doing it, but it felt like I was producing work with this cadence like an automobile company, a new model every couple of years. I was so personally associated with the work as a character in the books, which was my doing. I’m now working on my first book of fiction since “Tetherballs.” It’s a book of new myths. It had occurred to me that there hadn’t been new myths for quite a while. It just seemed like the most ludicrously hubristic, arrogant project to take on, coming up with a new mythology. The gods and goddesses all live in this high-rise in Kuala Lumpur on the top couple of floors. That’s their Mount Olympus, all their opulent greed in one of the world’s tallest high-rises.
How does your idiosyncratic style work with two writing collaborators? Are there characters, scenes or details in the “War, Inc.” hodgepodge that are specifically yours?
Sometimes I think my purpose is as a saboteur when I’m working with other people, derailing what they’re trying to do or taking things to a ludicrous extremity. But Johnny and I have a great working relationship based on never saying no to each other, being yeasaying enablers. If one person writes something, and the other doesn’t get it, like it or understand it, we just encourage it more. When Jeremy joined us, it was more of the same. We work so closely and cross-pollinated each other’s work so much that sometimes it’s hard to remember who did what.
The name Yonica Babyyeah has you written all over it.
Some things are surprising, though. I’ve really tried to be scrupulous in not saying who did what because I think it’s best if there’s a collective creative entity. But since you brought that up, that’s a great name. That sounds like it could be a name from one of my books, but that’s actually Jeremy’s invention. He’s a wonderful machine for churning out odd and wondrous names for characters. Some of them are based on Pig Latin.
As a collective voice, your politics are obviously in sync when satirizing the military industrial complex or the privatization of war. But what do you want people to take away from the movie beyond some yuks? Are you concerned the film preaches to the choir?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. My feeling about the movie is that it’s more radical in its form, spirit and aggressively unhinged anarchy than in its small-“p” politics. At this point, for a movie to come out and satirize the debacle of the Iraq War isn’t particularly novel, courageous or interesting. I think the movie forces people to go on this ride that I hope will cause [them] to question how they look at things, to celebrate their own unorthodox ways of being in this world. To me, those are the ways that a movie or a book or a piece of art could radically affect someone. It’s more in that sense than about any specific issue or policy decision, you know what I mean?
Sure. I asked because it’s an atypically angry focus compared to your novels, where politics are usually one small facet of a wider cultural view. Speaking of which, how do you feel about this election year?
My work generally tends to be an all-out, 360-degree subversive take on everything, most of all my own notion of myself as a son, father, husband, human being and male in this culture. So it’s unusual to be associated with something that has pointed, more localized politics to it. As far as the election goes, this is sort of a corollary of what I’ve been saying. I’m very skeptical about electoral politics in this country altogether. To me, it’s so dependent on and supportive of the moneyed elite in this country that it’s very hard for me to get particularly excited about anything that happens in either the Republican or Democratic parties. Having said that, there are moments when [Barack] Obama seems to me to be a reasonable, intelligent and well-informed person, unusually so for an American politician. So now and then, I get that feeling, whatever that Obama feeling is. But on a whole, I’m skeptical about it all. I thought of myself as kind of an anarchist all my whole adult life, from the days when I was 15 or 16.
I’ve heard your books called “post-postmodernist” in the past, but where can you go past postmodernism? Doesn’t it eat itself and everything in its way by design?
It’s not a term I’ve ever applied to myself, and in some ways, it’s a fundamental misinterpretation of my books, to concentrate so energetically on the irony. I know this will sound peculiar or perverse to you, but I always thought of my books as being earnest and genuine. “Et Tu, Babe” was born out of my absolute certainty that a writer’s life was solitary and insular, and I was happy with that. I love reading and writing, it’s my whole life. “Et Tu, Babe” was a fantasy of what seemed to me not only impossible, but probably inimical to being a writer celebrity and power and things like that. It’s very important that what I do offers someone something useful in some way or another. And I think you’re completely right, you pose a very good question. If all you’re doing is pointing out in a clever or snide way the impossibility of creating something of value, then it consumes itself and ceases to be of any use to anyone.
[Photos: John Cusack as Brand Hauser; Hilary Duff as Yonica Babyyeah; Mark Leyner – “War, Inc.”, First Look International, 2008]
“War, Inc.” opens in limited release on May 23.