A Conversation With CIA Agent-Turned-Filmmaker, Michael D. Sellers
The following is a Q&A with director Michael D. Sellers that was included in the press kit for the film, Vlad, a supernatural horror film that takes the Dracula legends back into the true legend of Vlad the Impaler. As the press release describes the story:
“Shot on location in Romania in the Carpathian mountains and in and around Bucharest, Vlad chronicles the supernatural adventures of four graduate students who embark on a quest to discover the original Dracula – Vlad Tepes Drakul. Their university mentor, Professor Adrian Craciun (Zane), finds himself navigating a slippery slope between hosting the students and somehow retrieving a mysterious artifact one of them is carrying – a 15th century medallion that brings on horrific visions to the wearer. For the professor and his colleague, Dean Hyman Radescu (Dourif), members of the Order Draconis, a secret society founded by Vlad II Drakul, the medallion is both potent link to the past and agent of destruction should it fall into the wrong hands.”
I stumbled across the site — www.vladthemovie.com — and found this information and thought it was too interesting to not include on the site. The interview below goes into Sellers’ experience with the CIA, as well as what drove him to be a filmmaker and create the movie, Vlad. We’re hoping to feature a review of the film, which will be screening in LA and NYC this September 10th, then be released on DVD on September 21st.
So, read the below interview and enjoy.
Q: As a former CIA Officer-turned-filmmaker, you’ve observed that there are commonalities between “the art of espionage and the theatrical arts”. Both involve in-depth exploration of places, people, ideas and one must successfully insinuate oneself into those worlds in order to be effective. Was that quality something that drew you into both fields?
A: I think what draws me to both areas is what Graham Greene called “the human factor”. Espionage is the practice of spying, or using spies, to gain intelligence. Getting people to do this is essentially a matter of the heart. To whom or what is a person loyal? Why? What motivates him to make choices that go against what is perceived as “normal”? What makes him take risks? So espionage is really about understanding human nature, and a practitioner of espionage tries to get “under the skin” of people—characters—in the same way that a film-maker does. What a film-maker might describe as a “dramatic need” or “conflict” for a character—say, lack of recognition from superiors where he works, lack of respect from his wife and daughter—is what an intelligence officer would call a “vulnerability” which might make this personal a valid “target” for a recruitment operation. Both film-making and espionage are an exploration of the deepest parts of human nature. It’s just the output that’s different – a film story on the one hand, a recruitment operation on the other.
Q: But the stakes are quite different, aren’t they?
A: Well, in espionage the stakes are potentially life and death, and film doesn’t usually get to that point, does it? But I wouldn’t use that to minimize the value or importance of film. A good film can touch, and even change, many lives. But in an immediate, physical sense, espionage is on another level.
Q: You speak about the human dimension of espionage, yet most of the time it’s thought of as being more about weapons, derring-do, all of that. Is that accurate?
A: It gets that way once in a while, but generally, no. At its heart, classical espionage is really about people and why they do what they do—it’s about psychology. Along the way, there are times when you may get in sticky situations—for example, there were seven coup attempts against the Aquino government when I was in the Philippines and there were Muslim and communist terrorists targeting US officials, and who in fact killed one of the military attaches whom I worked with. In situations like that, you carry a gun and you are trained to be watchful, vary your patterns, all that. But by and large, your day-to-day existence is not about guns and bullets and so on, at least during peace time. If a war comes along, you may well be asked to do more physical things.
Q: Although filmmaking and espionage may have common ground in the exploration of psychological dynamics, we hear a lot in both fields about the role of technology, and how that impacts the practice of each. Does it come into play as much as people think it does, for example, in espionage?
A: It plays a huge role at the national collection level – satellites and all that. The field case officer on the ground doesn’t have as much to do with it, but there are times when technology plays a key role. For example, Moscow under communism was what we called a “denied area”, meaning a country where we were constantly under surveillance as the Soviets tried to “deny” us any opportunity to meet clandestinely with Soviet citizens. So we didn’t try to recruit anyone there.
In that environment, it was all about communicating clandestinely with agents who had already been recruited, usually in some other country when they were traveling abroad, and who were now “agents in place” in Moscow, reporting to us. With surveillance on us 24/7, we had to mount very elaborate operations to create secure opportunities to do our job – to meet our contacts. A lot of it involved hi-tech disguise methods that use exactly the same technology that is used in movies—prosthetics, special masks and wardrobe, and communications gear, things like that. A lot of it is similar to things we use in movies.
One little insight that people might be surprised to hear—but then maybe not—is that two cultures that match up almost perfectly are Hollywood SFX practitioners and CIA disguise techs. You could put 10 of each in a room together and they’d bond so fast you wouldn’t know which was which. I have often been struck by how similar they are in the way they think, the way they look, dress, act – the whole culture. It’s a crossover point.
Q: Interestingly enough, you actually began your career as a young filmmaker and had attended NYU Film School, then – rather abruptly, it would seem – segued into working for the State Department. What precipitated the shift?
A: I was out here trying to make it as a screenwriter and director and was feeling a bit like I was lacking in the “life experience” department. No one was offering me a million dollars for my screenplays. Then I saw an ad in the L.A. Times saying the CIA was looking for people “willing to conduct vital public service overseas, at times under hardship conditions.” I thought what the hell, I’ll send in a resume, see what happens. What I didn’t realize was that once I sent in the resume, it would take on a life of its own and pretty soon I’d be faced with a choice to either do it or walk away. I chose to do it.
Q: Are you glad you did?
A: Generally, yes. I had amazing experiences on many levels – professional, human, cultural, linguistic ability. But I lost 10 years of growth as a film-maker and I kind of regret that. It was a trade-off – life experience for film experience. No regrets. Well, maybe just a little. Now I have to play catch-up.
Q: Do you suppose attending 13 schools in as many years early on in your life contributed to your ability to adapt to new situations and locales?
A: All I know is that the idea of growing up in one town for an entire childhood just seems amazingly boring to me. I would die. It just feels claustrophobic. Even today – I’ve been in L.A. for five years and it feels strange – thank God for runaway production! Just kidding.
Q: Many laypeople envision working in the Foreign Service as attending cocktail parties in Paris or Zurich. Yet you’ve worked in some quite far-flung, disparate locales: Ethiopia, Moscow, the Philippines. Did you have a particular regional specialization or interest going in?
A: Well, a couple of thoughts. In the true Foreign Service, meaning if you’re a true diplomat for the State Department (I wasn’t) as opposed to a CIA officer under cover as a Foreign Service Officer (I was), the career action can be in places like Paris and Geneva and Zurich. But in the CIA, the “action”, particularly for a young officer trying to make his mark, is more likely to be either in a hostile place such as Eastern Europe under communism, or way out at the ends of the earth in Africa and places like that, where there are insurgencies and coups and such things. Being an aggressive young CIA guy, I went the latter route and found myself in some pretty far-flung places. For me, it was much more interesting that way. Paris and Zurich would have been boring.
I didn’t have a specialty going in, but it was the height of the Cold War, early 80’s, and I chose to become a Soviet specialist. Aside from feeling like this was the most important area, it was also the one with the most moral clarity, and that mattered to me.
Q: Moral clarity?
A: Think about it. You recruit some guy, get him to risk his career, maybe his life—for what? If he’s from Turkey, or Greece, they’re supposed to be our allies. What’s the rationale for turning him? Where’s the honor in it? But a Russian under communism – that was another matter. The guys I worked with, the Russian agents who worked for the CIA and risked everything, those guys were real, honest-to-God heroes who risked everything because they believed it was worth it, that Russia was not inevitably communist. And they were right. Look what happened. There was moral clarity in that.
Q: What was your language ability going into the different postings?
A: I studied Ancient Greek and Latin in college. So when I started, I didn’t have any useful modern languages, but my aptitude was theoretically high. They taught me Amharic before I went to Ethiopia, and Russian before I went to Moscow. For the Philippines, they didn’t teach me Tagalog – but I learned it while I was there. Actually, I learned it when I first started making movies over there, when I made three Tagalog-language movies.
Q: While you were in the CIA—since you had already studied film at NYU — did you often find yourself thinking, “this would make a great screenplay” or “I’d like to base a film around this type of character”?
A: When I was taking my polygraph before they accepted me, they asked me a lot of questions about whether I was planning to write a book or something. They were very nervous about “kiss and tell”. But I couldn’t help but think many, many times – wow, this would make a great movie if I could ever get clearance to do it. Those Russian agents I was talking about – each of them would make a great character, a great story. And now enough time has passed, maybe I could do a movie about one of them. I’d have to get clearance, but I think they would give it.
Q: What sort of clearance?
A: You have to sign a secrecy agreement when you work for CIA. It prohibits you from using anything you learn at CIA in anything you write without first submitting it for censorship. You’ve seen the books, where they black out certain names and sentences. I wonder how that would work in a movie. Might be interesting.
Q: Have you submitted anything for clearance?
A: Not yet. But I’ve noticed a number of books coming out lately by some of the people I served with. “The Main Enemy” by Milt Bearden and James Risen is probably the best. It’s kind of a Michelin Guide to the Cold War. I’m featured in the book a bit – Risen interviewed me for about 20 hours, mostly about my Moscow experience.
Q: You mentioned that you were arrested by the KGB. Can you talk about that?
A: I had been there 21 months on what was supposed to be a 24-month tour. There was a KGB General named Sergei Vorontsev who had volunteered with us whom I’d met once before in a meeting where he gave us some extraordinary intelligence. Then he disappeared for six months. He surfaced again and made a signal calling for a meeting. There was a lot of concern that he might have been captured and turned against us, and in the end it took a Presidential authorization for me to go out and try to meet him again. We figured it was 50-50 as to whether or not he was still “good”, but I was near the end of my tour anyway, and the decision was that it was worth a try.
I spent five hours going through all kinds of machinations to make sure I wasn’t dragging any surveillance to the meeting. But it didn’t really matter because when I got to the meeting site, as soon as I saw Vorontsev and made contact with him, the KGB just swarmed us both. Hundreds of guys, klieg lights, cameras, the works. I spent a couple of days in Lubyanka prison and then was expelled. Vorontsev wasn’t so lucky. He was executed a month or so later.
Q: Was that the first such tragedy like that you experienced?
A: No. Ethiopia, which was communist at that time, was worse. At least Vorontsev had volunteered and knew what he was getting into. In Ethiopia, there were a couple of Ethiopians whom I recruited who later – following my departure, when someone else was handling them — were uncovered and executed. It still bothers me. One was my best friend over there, almost a brother. The other was an intelligence officer who had a child with hydrocephalous, water on the brain. We secretly flew in a doctor and operated on the kid—an operation that I’m pretty sure saved his life. Unfortunately, though, his father’s relationship with us cost him his life.
Q: Ethiopia is not a country most Americans know very well, other than the tragedy of the famines it has experienced. But you liked it there, it seems.
A: I loved it there. One of my major dreams is to go back to Ethiopia and make a movie there. What a wonderful country. The people are just extraordinary. It’s poor, and of course there are the famine problems. But the people are very proud. Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan African country that was really a country on its own before the Europeans arrived—it’s the oldest Christian country in the world. It’s a very mysterious, mountain kingdom kind of place. The deserts where the famine problems are so common are in the south, not the main part of the country. The majority of Ethiopia is mountainous, cool, green, fertile, very majestic.
Q: Could you discuss how your CIA/Foreign Service experiences have informed your sensibilities as a filmmaker? Do you tend toward stories that have a distinct cultural theme or context?
A: I love getting beneath the surface of another culture and revealing things about it that are fundamentally different than our culture in America. So far I’ve been able to do this only within the context of what I would call “intelligent genre films”, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with intelligent, well-made genre films – look at The Manchurian Candidate, or The Bourne Supremacy, films that are out there now. But I’m angling for an opportunity to get to make a kind of movie where I can put this kind of cross-cultural awareness to greater use. I think it’s possible, for example, to make an espionage film that is not a genre film, not so much about suspense as it would be about choices, and the effect of those choices on the people who make them.
Q: What are the best espionage films you’ve ever seen?
A: Unquestionably, The Russia House with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeieffer is the best and most realistic. It’s all about the human heart –who you love, what you love, what you believe in, what you will do for it once you figure those questions out. There’s a moment where Sean Connery, a Brit who is supposed to be recruiting Michelle Pfeiffer, a Russian, but who is more concerned about her than Britain, says: “You are my country.” It’s the moment when he realizes what really matters to him, where his true interest lies. It’s a wonderful, wonderful very adult movie. You never see a single weapon in the entire film. It doesn’t need that. “Spy Game” isn’t bad – a little over-pumped, kind of the real CIA, but on steroids.
Q: Please describe how you later came full circle post-CIA and transitioned back into filmmaking. What compelled you to do so at that point in your professional life?
A: When I joined the CIA I promised myself I would do 5 years whether I liked it or not, or 10 years if I liked it, but that I wouldn’t go beyond ten years unless I was prepared to make it my life’s work. I stuck to my promise – I got out more or less exactly 10 years after I got in. It was just a matter of sticking to the plan. I was very ready to get back to film-making when the ten years were up, even though I had enjoyed them a lot.
Q: It seems that of the various countries you were posted in, the Philippines was the place where you were most easily able to lead an (above-board) “double life”: that of Foreign Service officer and musician/producer? Indeed, you would later establish a production company there and make your first film. Is there a reason why your life in the Philippines was so multi-faceted?
A: The Philippines is absolutely the most colorful, chaotic, wonderful, place I’ve ever been to in the world and it’s really my second home. The top singer-songwriter over there, Jose Mari Chan, also happened to be one of President Aquino’s top economic advisors. Go figure. And if you go there and can’t sing karaoke it’s like being illiterate or something. How can you not be able to sing? It’s like not being able to walk, or talk, or something.
Anyway, when I was there I discovered I could get studio time in a state-of-the-art multi-track studio for $25 an hour, which meant you could do an entire album for around $5000. The way I looked at it, that was about the cost of a three-week vacation at a resort somewhere in the world – and so I went to work in my spare time, first recording an album of my own, and then producing a couple of Filipino artists. It kind of got the ball rolling on my re-entry into the world of entertainment – and in fact, when I formed my first production company, Pacwood Media, the masters for those two albums were part of my contribution to the financing. They were about the only thing I could point to that showed I actually knew how to produce something and wasn’t just a wannabe.
Q: How long did it take before you made your first movie, and what was it?
A: The idea was that Pacwood would offer low-cost production to American film companies who could be induced to film in the Philippines. But before we did that, I found some investors who wanted to make Filipino movies, so my first films were Tagalog-language films for the local market in the Philippines. The first was Umiyak Pati Langit, which means “Even the Heavens Cry”, a family drama which we made on 35 MM with big local stars for about $200,000. After the three Tagalog movies, I did my first international film, a co-production with Menahem Golan called Rage – a very B-Action thing. All in all, I produced about 10 films in the Philippines in the 90’s before coming back to L.A. in 2000.
A: Well, it was always my intention to direct but I kept deferring it because when I was getting the money for the movies. I always wanted to make sure that the investors were confident this was a serious business enterprise – not an ego-driven thing. But then after a dozen or so films, I realized it was time to “just do it”. And I felt that Vlad, even though it was in essence a horror movie, was something with a lot of very unique elements that could elevate it above the “pure genre” level. So I did it.
Q: What kind of unique elements?
A: The historical component, for one. It offered an opportunity to do some pretty elaborate scenes from the 15th century, and to use the history in a very different way than it’s been used in other horror/vampire films. Also, the culture of the Carpathians. I felt that there is a certain intrigue and mystery about the Carpathians, and yet I couldn’t find a single vampire movie that ever did anything real with it. In Vlad, all of the Romanian and Carpathian culture is very real, very specific, and very accurate.
Q: Had you spent much time in Romania prior to making Vlad?
A: No. I’m not sure I would have thought of doing a film there had it not been for Tony Shawkat, my producing partner, who has a brother living there. Tony said, basically, let’s go make something in Romania because it’s cheap over there and we have connections. He had an idea of four kids camping near a castle when a girl comes from the past pursued by a demon-warrior. I wasn’t real excited about it at first, but as I started researching, it occurred to me that we could tie this to the historical Vlad the Impaler, and from that to Dracula, and we could end up doing something special if we were smart about it.
Q: I imagine there would be some cultural overlap between your experiences in Moscow and Poland and your experiences in making a film in Romania, another country in that region? Did you find there is a common mindset of sorts?
A: Well, a lot of Bucharest looks like Moscow or Poland, but once you get past the architecture, the similarities stop. The Romanian language is closer to Latin or modern-day Italian than anything else, and the only people who speak Russian nowadays are older Romanians or, in some cases, those from Moldavia. We were working mostly with younger people who are old enough to remember communism, but who are mostly western-oriented. And since communism fell in a very dramatic way in Romania – remember that they killed Ceaucescu, so it got quite ugly—they all pretty much want to look forward and not backward.
Q: What did you find that was unique (a loaded term, I realize) about the Romanian culture? How did your CIA background help you in acclimating yourself into that setting?
A: Well, the CIA certainly taught me how to dive into a new culture and try to get beneath the surface and understand it, and that was what I did with Romania and Vlad. On our first trip out there, I found two of the actors who play major roles in the film – Monica Davidescu, and Emil Hostine, both of whom are major theater actors in Romania, and both of whom just took me under their wing and introduced me to people, everyone from scholars to, in Monica’s case, the inhabitants of the tiny Carpathian village where she grew up.
I think I was able to get more deeply into the culture in a short time than I might otherwise have been able to. Being able to pick up the language quickly helped – even though I didn’t know that much, you’d be surprised how far 1000 words can get you, at least in terms of creating some good will and breaking down barriers. People appreciate that you take the effort to learn their language, and they respond to the seriousness of the effort you put out.
Q: What, exactly, is the connection between Vlad the Impaler and Dracula?
A: Well, in those days – the 15th century—it was customary to just have one given name, and to a take a second name which in some way described you or expressed an idea you wanted to convey. Vlad’s father was Vlad II, ruler of Wallachia, one of the three states that make up modern day Romania. (The other two are Moldavia and Transylvania.) Vlad’s father took the epithet “Drakul”, which means “demon” or “devil”. “Dracula” means “son of Drakul”. Vlad didn’t use the term “impaler” himself — that was kind of a popular folk name for him — but rather used the name Vlad Dracula, meaning Vlad, son of Drakul. Still with me? Anyway, the short answer is that Vlad the Impaler and Vlad Dracula are the same person – and it was the mythology that sprung up around Vlad the Impaler that got the Dracula legend going.
Q: And who did he impale?
A: Turks who were invading his country. Saxon traders who tried to control the economy. Some of his own boyars, local nobility, who turned against his father and who were responsible, in Vlad’s view, for his father’s death at the hands of John Hunyadi, a Transylvanian prince.
Q: Are there some common misconceptions about Dracula and Romania that you consciously wanted to clarify in this film?
A: What we were doing was to try and go back through the Dracula mythology, find its historical roots, and then re-imagine it going forward. In doing that, we were able to “shed” a lot of the layers that were added over the years and became part of the legend, but which really had nothing to do with the original historical character or even the early Carpathian vampire mythology—things like fangs, silver bullets, stakes through the heart, destruction by sunlight. We ended up with a pretty pure Dracula, based on the historical character first, and Carpathian/Romanian legend second, and not so much influenced by our much later British/American pop vampire mythology.
Q: Are you currently working on any screenplays or films inspired by other experiences from your “past life” in the CIA?
A: I recently finished a screenplay called “The American” about a CIA officer who is inserted into southern Afghanistan in the weeks after 9/11, and who is sheltered there by an Afghan doctor and his family. And recently I got the rights to a wonderful book, “The Fall of Saigon”, by David Butler, who was a correspondent in Saigon during the final months of the war. I’m working on the screenplay for that. Neither directly reference my own personal experiences in the CIA, but both draw heavily on my knowledge and understanding of the culture of not only the CIA, but Embassies, foreign communities, and so on.