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Arts & Culture

New Film Follows Talent Agent From L.A. To Kabul

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Barry Levinson has made movies that change the cultural landscape, like "Rain Man" and "Good Morning, Vietnam." His newest film, as one character puts it, dances on the edge of a volcano. The movie is called "Rock The Kasbah." It's a comedy starring Bill Murray as a washed-up talent agent from Los Angeles who winds up in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCK THE KASBAH")

BILL MURRAY: (As Richie Lanz) Richie Lanz, talent manager. How y'all doing guys?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Character, foreign language spoken).

MURRAY: (As Richie Lanz) Back at you, Baby.

SHAPIRO: Director Barry Levinson joins us now. Welcome to the show.

BARRY LEVINSON: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Where did the idea for this film come from? It's loosely based on a true story of a woman who competed in the Afghan version of "American Idol."

LEVINSON: Well, that was one of them. Mitch Glazer wrote the piece. You know, it's taken seven years to actually get it made. But he had sort of collected these various stories that had taken place in Afghanistan and, ultimately, you know, wove that into this script. You know, there is actually a nightclub where all of these sorts of Americans, Europeans, expatriates would go that played all that kind of rock and was very upscale.

SHAPIRO: Check your guns at the door.

LEVINSON: Check your guns at the door, yes. And so there were a number of those things, as well as a prostitute that was there during that period of time to earn money to move on to other things in life. You know, so there are number of the stories that are based on stories he came upon.

SHAPIRO: You say it took seven years to get this film made. Some people have speculated that that's because this is a comedy featuring Muslim characters set in Afghanistan. Do you think that's the reason or a reason?

LEVINSON: Oh, absolutely. Well, I mean there are a number of elements to it. One is it's sold as a comedy, but it really is a comedy-drama. You know, distributors find it easier just to sell comedy. And because it is not a political piece, it's not a war piece, it is really kind of a humanistic piece, you know, of a character that you might say is sort of soulless, in a way, who ends up in Afghanistan and kind of finds himself in a far-off land through these other people.

SHAPIRO: That character, of course, is played by Bill Murray.

LEVINSON: Yeah. That, in itself, makes it a difficult sell.

SHAPIRO: I understand what you mean when you say this is not a war movie, but it is set during a war. And there's a moment early on where one character says to Bill Murray's character, oh, you'll spend a couple days in Kunduz. Of course, long after you filmed that, the city of Kunduz last month briefly fell to the Taliban. President Obama just said the American mission in Afghanistan is going to be extended. Were you ever afraid that current events might outpace the film?

LEVINSON: Well, I mean, I don't think it can outpace it because we're sort of set in the - as we say, in the recent past. But the same issues apply because you're dealing with, you know, human issues, not the extent of the war or the direction of the war or the political involvement in it. You know what I mean? You're dealing with these characters who are trying to survive in that kind of a climate.

SHAPIRO: I want to explore this idea of dancing on the edge of a volcano because with the materials that you're working with, it would be really easy to slide into tasteless parody or slide into sort of maudlin morality tale. How do you walk that tightrope in this movie?

LEVINSON: Well, I mean, I think that's our obligation. And look; I'm sure we'll get criticized because, you know, on - you could say - if you took the broad strokes and say, well, you know, it's an American over there, and he helps people, and it's all about the American - which it isn't. But you're trying to deal with characters and relationships in an honest fashion because the jokes are not on the Afghanistan people. You're not using that as your springboard for humor.

SHAPIRO: Were there jokes that you cut from the script or scenes that you decided didn't work because they relied too heavily on Muslim stereotypes or sort of the cliched jokes at the expense of the Afghans?

LEVINSON: No because I think that was one of our obligations initially. Look, Mitch always had in mind to use Cat Stevens throughout the piece because this young, you know, girl has heard his music. You know, he's a Muslim, and that's the songs that she sings. So in order to do that, you know, we had to give the script to Yusuf. And so we met with him. We talked. He had read the script. He discussed it. He was very excited about it, about what it had to say, the spirituality that's part of the piece in a way. So he signed off on it.

SHAPIRO: We should explain to listeners that the music of Cat Stevens, who today goes by the name Yusuf Islam, is crucial to this story. It's interesting to me that you showed him the script and you had to get his buy-in in order to make this movie that so prominently features his music.

LEVINSON: Yes. And so that was what we were working towards, you know? When we had some cuts of the movie, we actually showed it to some various Muslim groups just to see how they might react, which was - they were so positive about it and so excited about it. You know, you're taking a part of the world that we don't know much about. We only know it in a sense of what we see on the news. So we're only seeing one part of it.

And so this was to look inside of it. It shows those in Afghanistan not just simply as a war-torn nation of radicals, et cetera. But within it, you're seeing a father, daughter, the complexities of that, how religion plays a part in it, how tradition, you know, plays a part of it. So you see those elements weaving through the piece. There's this young girl who wants to do other things, that wants to sing, which is, you know, forbidden in that particular region.

SHAPIRO: There's a moment where the creator of the "Afghan Star" show says to Bill Murray's character, I have more death threats than singers.

LEVINSON: Yes, and he did.

SHAPIRO: You mean the real life character that he's based on did.

LEVINSON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCK THE KASBAH")

MURRAY: (As Richie Lanz) If you let the Afghan people see her courage.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Character) Stop.

MURRAY: (As Richie Lanz) And to see her...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Character) Stop. No. You do not lecture me about courage, about my country - never, never - not you, not an American. You people, you talk and talk, have been talking at us for far too long. Courage - there are more death threats on this show than singers.

LEVINSON: They were threatened quite frequently, you know, by extremists about the idea of having that show and then females on that show. You know, and the first female was, you know, really attacked for actually going on there. Now there's quite a few females that go on there. I mean, so change actually happens.

SHAPIRO: To me, that moment was powerful in part because the show "Afghan Star" is a reality singing competition. It's not what you think of as high art. It's not Shakespeare. It's not something in a museum. And yet, it is as dangerous and as powerful a force as anything else in the country.

LEVINSON: Yes, yes. Well, I mean, look. You have to think about Shakespeare. You know, he was just trying to turn out plays.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LEVINSON: And he wrote as fast as he could and as often as he could, and he put out a lot of work. And it ultimately endured. But he was trying to entertain that audience. However it comes about, whether it's singing a song or writing a poem or drawing something on a cave wall, we want to express ourselves, and to be denied that is the repression that we all fight against.

SHAPIRO: That's director Barry Levinson. His latest film is called "Rock The Kasbah." Thanks a lot for joining us. It was great talking with you.

LEVINSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.