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'Traffic's' Driving Force

Weekend Chat | MUSEUMS

Making of epic British miniseries that spawned current hit film triggered some harrowing moments, recalls 'Traffik' director Alastair Reid.

February 15, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steven Soderbergh's complex drug thriller, "Traffic," was nominated this week for five Oscars, including best picture and director. Its writer, Stephen Gaghan, is up for best screenplay adaptation for the box-office hit, which stars Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio Del Toro.

"Traffic" was adapted from an award-winning British miniseries, "Traffik," which aired in England in 1989 and on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" in 1990 and was written by Simon Moore.

Directed by Alastair Reid ("Tales of the City"), "Traffik" weaves the epic story of the international heroin trade through three major plot lines: A Pakistani ends up doing anything possible to support his family when the government bans the growing of poppy plants from which heroin is derived; a wealthy German businessman is in prison in Hamburg on drug trafficking charges while his wife tries to outmaneuver the police; and a British member of Parliament, head of the government's efforts to stop the heroin flow into England, discovers that his bright and beautiful Oxford University daughter is a heroin addict.

Bill Paterson, Lindsay Duncan and Julia Ormond, in her first role, head the international cast.

Today through April 29, the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills will screen the 5 1/2-hour "Traffik" in its entirety.

Director Reid recently talked about the making of "Traffik" and his impressions of the movie "Traffic" over the phone from his home in England.

Question: Have you seen "Traffic?"

Answer: I have seen it, absolutely. It's very engrossing. I enjoyed it. It was a bit like going to an art auction and seeing your own long-lost paintings coming up for sale. I traveled that whole journey about 10 years ago. So it was a strange feeling.

Q: Was there a lot of controversy swirling around "Traffik"?

A: Oh, yes. It was controversial in different aspects in different countries. It was controversial to a certain extent in this country because the initial deal was based on a young lady, an Oxford University student who had died. She was a Guinness [beer] heiress. She died of an overdose at Oxford. That was the initial idea that Simon Moore, the writer, sort of took off with. Her father was an MP and a very important MP.

The controversy in Pakistan would be that most of the Pakistanis refused to admit there was any opium or heroin in existence in Pakistan, which is laughable. There are all kinds of double standards going on, particularly at the time we were doing this. It was just toward the end of the Afghan war.

If you remember the German bit, I had a bunch of divers going over the side of the ship because they couldn't find any heroin on the boat. We invented this idea of the drugs having come [into port] clamped to the underside of the ship. We actually staged that. We did clamp things on the underside of the ship. Lo and behold, the real customs people discovered a ship that had all of that stuff clamped underneath it for real. It was a case of reality imitating art.

Q: Did you run into any problems with drug traffickers when you were filming in Pakistan?

A: It was an omnipresent kind of worry, in a way. Then in the scene where the Pakistani farmer sets off to learn how to turn opium into heroin, I spoke to the art department to try to get somebody who knew how this process went so we could sort of fake it up for the series. The DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] representative in northwest Pakistan said "I'll get you real chemists." They were Afghans who were brought up from an internment camp. They were actual drug chemists. The DEA man provided us with about 22 kilos of opium and so we set about turning that into heroin.

The extraordinary thing was they would only do this in front of me. They would show me the first stage and then I would reproduce the first stage for the actors and the camera. We went through about three or four different stages at the end of which we had made approximately a quarter of a million dollars' worth of pure heroin. Part of the deal with the DEA was that it would then be burned in front of these two Afghan chemists to teach them a lesson, so to speak. When we burned this little pile of heroin, the whole crew rushed downwind of it and would be seen taking deep breaths. It was extraordinary.

Q: Since you were shooting in England, Germany and Pakistan, was this logistically a nightmare to produce?

A: Basically, the way we did it was, we traveled very light. I had different teams working on different aspects in different countries. So the one who was doing most of the traveling around was me. I had an art department in Hamburg and a different art department in Pakistan. It started off in London and then went to Germany and finished off in Pakistan. When we went up in the mountains [in Pakistan], we were traveling very light.

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