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The joke's on 'The Informant!'

Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon go for laughs in the story of an international price-fixing conspiracy.

September 13, 2009|Michael Ordona

Mark Whitacre is, according to one biographer, the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower ever. The former Archer Daniels Midland divisional president helped expose his company's involvement in an international price-fixing conspiracy that, as actor Matt Damon puts it, "robbed everyone in America and around the world, jacking up the price of everything in their kitchen cupboard." So when Damon and director Steven Soderbergh finally got to make "The Informant!" -- based on Kurt Eichenwald's chronicle of the case -- they naturally went for, well, laughs.

"I read the book, 'It's going to be great.' Then Steven said it was going to be a comedy. I said, 'What the . . . ?' Tonally, it's a smaller bull's-eye but it's all on his shoulders," said Damon, nodding at frequent collaborator Soderbergh over salads at a Beverly Hills hotel.

"I really love 'The Insider,' and all of us felt it set the standard," Soderbergh said. "To try to duplicate it would be a mistake. And also, as I get older, I feel like almost everything should be a comedy. I'm coming around to this place where I think people should have a really good time when they go and see something," said the director of "Solaris" and "Che" with a sly chuckle.

Soderbergh was pointed in that direction by a stunningly absurd development: While building the FBI's case against ADM, Whitacre implicated himself in a highly successful embezzlement scheme against the company.

"It has the element that is the bedrock of all good comedy: the escalating lie. Kurt did such a great job in the book of laying the narrative out. Every 75 pages, another shoe drops and you have to rethink everything you thought you knew."

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns "brought the voice-over, which is what really distinguishes the movie from other films of its type. I was enamored of the idea that the voice-over doesn't help you understand anything," said the filmmaker, of Whitacre's rambling musings. "Even in his interior monologue, he's lying to himself."

Damon had been waiting for the chance to inhabit the role, with its soaring intelligence (Whitacre holds numerous advanced degrees, including three PhDs) and bizarre behavior (he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder), since he and Soderbergh first discussed the film in 2001. But when the time finally came. . . .

"I'd do a scene I'd been thinking about for seven years and get, 'No, no, no, totally wrong,' " Damon said with a laugh. In a scene using Whit- acre's actual words as he stands up in court and apologizes, "I did it completely earnestly, and Steven goes, 'No, no. Do it like an acceptance speech.' "

Soderbergh calls the film, which opens Friday, a "fever dream" of what happened. "I purposely didn't meet anyone involved, and I had just come off a project ['Che'] in which I met everyone who was still around. So, I decided to go totally in the opposite direction. I didn't want to shoot anything that didn't happen but 'real' didn't matter to me because so much of it was being in his head space."

Still, the production enjoyed a rare kind of authenticity: The filmmakers shot at the story's actual settings in Decatur and Moweaqua, Ill., even inside the house where Whitacre and his family had lived.

And they did it quickly. A project that took more than seven years to get the script just right and their schedules aligned was shot in about 30 days for $22 million.

"And being all together, living in the Best Western in Decatur, everyone's eating together every night, it's like summer camp," Damon said. "It's kind of the best budget to make a movie. You have the safety net of a studio but they're paying no attention to you. They're like, 'Those guys are adults; they'll be fine.' That's good, because if they'd given us twice the money, we wouldn't have made a better movie."

The actor transformed physically to fit the director's conception of the character "having no sharp angles."

"I e-mailed him and asked, 'Physically, what should I look like?' I got a one-word reply 30 seconds later: 'Doughy,' " said Damon, who wore a subtly rounded prosthetic nose and isn't sure how much weight he gained.

"I never saw you not eating," said Soderbergh with a laugh. "You had a bag of Doritos in your hand for a month."

Damon added, "There was a debate raging among the FBI agents, among people who worked with him, about whether Whit- acre's hair was real. The whole time you're going, 'Is it?' Because that's what people did. And then Scott wrote in the script when you see him bald, 'Even his hair was a lie.' "

Apart from that dispute, there is still well-founded disagreement over the whistleblower among biographers and law-enforcement officers. Some call him a hero and have pushed for a presidential pardon (Whitacre, sentenced in 1999, served eight years in prison); others cast a more jaundiced eye.

"Subjectively, everything he does makes complete sense to him," said Damon of the complex Whitacre, whose foibles have seemingly eclipsed the case against ADM and its co-conspirators, which yielded more than $100 million in fines. "The fact is, they were fixing prices. And what ends up being focused on is that he embezzled this money, which, yeah, is against the law, but what's the bigger crime?"

Still, said the actor, his character as scripted made for an intriguingly unreliable narrator. "The fact that his interior monologue is dishonest indicates it's not one lie he's told; it's a thousand."

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