The pair play two veterans of the Bosnian War - American Benjamin Ford (De Niro) and former Serbian soldier, Emil Kovac (Travolta) - who engage in a tense, action-packed cat and mouse game, against the backdrop of America’s most forbidding and remote landscape – the Appalachian mountain wilderness.
The two men settle an old score, fighting their own personal battles both physical and psychological, man-to-man. In our interview below, John Travolta reveals why this film means so much to him, why he did more research for this role than for any other, and what it felt like to be up against his acting hero...
Why was it important to make 'The Killing Season'?
“In the 70’s and 80’s, it was very easy to sell a studio on this kind of movie. Now it’s difficult. The landscape has changed where the big money is going towards movies that are guaranteeing a certain kind of box office and that middle range movie that has significant things to say is often ignored. So when you get a producer – The Expendables’ Avi Lerner in this case - who is willing to make a movie about something that matters, you have to not only embrace it and celebrate it, but you have to execute it the best you can so it inspires other filmmakers and producers to put their best foot forward to make the same kind of movie. But hey, we got it done, so that’s the good news.”
You travelled to Bosnia to research your role, didn’t you?
“I had more research to do on this than any other movie I’ve ever done because I needed more explanation about the war. So I decided on my own accord, at my own expense to fly to Bosnia and Croatia to interview Serbs, Croats and Bosnians to find out each of their perspectives. I realized then that everybody’s really blaming each other for a war that was perhaps prompted by outside forces and influences. I did get clarity finally and when I got back from Bosnia, I felt enlightened and I also felt the urge to be objective and not side with anybody. I just wanted to be non-political and say, ‘Look, these are the facts I’ve gathered.’”
Did the trip help to build your character?
“I have a dear Serbian friend and I have a dear Bosnian friend and they helped me a lot in trying to understand the religious, political and ethnic concepts behind these characters. So in having many, many in depth discussions with them and having them read the script several times and discuss points that were agreeable, points that were less agreeable - I really felt that I understood the possibility of this character. I think both Robert’s character and mine are victims of a certain kind of circumstance that lead to our behavior.”
Does the film have a strong message about war?
“The script, by its nature is an essay on war, so it’s a microcosm of war. One of my lines in the movie is about ‘war distilled’ and that’s what it is: two characters that represent the worst in war. This is the worst in war in terms of crimes to humanity and war crimes. Both these men are guilty of war crimes, so they’ve gone beyond this tradition of the so-called war which is already hard enough on mankind.”
Where you happy to be working with De Niro for the first time?
“I’ve had the good fortune of working with the best actors in the industry, but Robert… I have a soft spot for Robert De Niro because when I was starting out in movies, he was the challenge to live up to; meaning he was setting new criteria for acting. He was raising the bar for all of us young actors and that means if you were going to play a role, you had to really learn how to do the thing you were doing. If you wanted to box, you had to become a real boxer. If you were going to play a saxophone, you had to spend a year learning how to play a saxophone and so on and so forth.”
And so did you learn anything for a role?
“The first demonstration of it in my life was 'Saturday Night Fever' where I said to myself, ‘You know, if I’m going to keep up with the big boys…’ So I spent nine months training every single day to become the best dancer for that character… doing the type of dancing that character would do. Hanging out in the clubs to find out how these guys were thinking and what the Brooklyn mentality was. I mean, I did a ton of research because I was an actor growing up. I wasn’t really doing that stuff. I had to reach out and do it. Same thing for 'Urban Cowboy'. I had to go to Texas and become a cowboy: learned how to ride horses and ride bulls, spent time with the locals. Because you would say to yourself: ‘What would Robert De Niro do if he were doing this role?’”
What was it like working with him for the first time then?
“He set the criteria, so for years I daydreamed about not only working with Robert in a serious movie like this, but improvising with him. And we’ve had some wonderful scenes when we got what we wanted… I mean, the director and the script got what they wanted. He was a playmate that I wanted for years to improvise with, so it was a great, satisfying thing to create together with another wonderful and challenging… someone who changed the standard for all of us. To be able to do this with him was a dream come true. I’ve had that dream come to fruition several times during this movie, so I can’t say enough about it.”
What does he bring to a film set?
“There’s confidence and security because he, like any great artist, knows the rules. There are rules to acting even though they’re unspoken and it’s a mutual respect. As a matter of fact… you’ve upped your ante. You feel more comfortable and more ready to deliver a great performance. Same thing with a great director. If you’re working with Mike Nichols or John Woo or Robert Altman - the bar is raised, but you rise to that level. Because they allow it with security and safety and confidence. And so that’s what working with Bobby is like. You come to work knowing you’re going to do good work without any doubt. You can go where you need to go and nothing is wrong and you pick the rightnesses out. If something doesn’t work, you let them go, but you don’t hold onto those wrongnesses. You just hold onto the rightnesses, so it’s a playing field that anyone would want and feel much more comfortable with. I’ve always noticed that the upper echelon of the movie industry is easier to deal with and the work is much easier to accomplish because of this generosity of spirit and confidence that they instill in the group around them.”
This was an unusually darker role for you wasn’t it?
“Changing up is more exciting for me because, to be perfectly honest, I just don’t want to see me on screen playing me. In a movie, I have the opportunity to be somebody else and there’s nothing about the guy I’m playing that I even identify with or that I know by observation, but it’s a complete transformation into being somebody else. And there’s a fun in assuming the personality of another as completely as you can. That’s the challenge and that is also the fun, if you can pull that off. The more different it is and the more of a challenge it is for me, the more I’ll enjoy it and then perhaps the more the audience will enjoy it.”
'Killing Season' is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 18 August. Watch the trailer above...