Syriana screens on SBS Australia, Friday 20 April. See below for details.
Every once in a while, a film boasts just as fascinating a behind-the-scenes story as the one depicted on-screen. Syriana is one such film.
Written and directed by one of Hollywood’s most coveted screenwriters, Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for Traffic, Syriana weaves an intricate web of thrilling parallel stories, bound together by the global effects of the oil industry. It’s an expansive and still-vital tale of corruption, espionage and terrorism, masterfully structured and brilliantly acted.
The story of the film's production is just as fascinating - particularly Gaghan's precarious research journey and the horrifying mid-production accident that befell George Clooney.
Gaghan’s astonishing prep
Syriana is loosely based on See No Evil, the memoir by former CIA case officer Robert Baer, who, in 2002, accompanied Gaghan as he globetrotted to Syria, Lebanon, Dubai and Geneva to meet with arms dealers and oil owners. In Beirut, Gaghan was blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed location where he met with Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor to Hezbollah. It’s no wonder, then, that Syriana feels authentic in a way not many Middle Eastern-set American films are.
Clooney’s terrible injury
During the film’s famous torture scene, a stunt gone wrong resulted in Clooney cracking open his skull. This injury was harrowing enough, however the subsequent debilitating full-body pain suggested something even more serious was afoot. After his friend Lisa Kudrow sent him to her neurologist brother for a consultation, his worries were confirmed. Turns out Clooney had a two-and-a-half-inch rip in the middle of his back, a half-inch tear in his neck and was leaking spinal fluid to the point where it was coming out of his nose.
For 15 days straight, the actor's internal wounds were injected with blood, which basically means his spinal cord was relentlessly stuck with a needle. He was pumped with painkillers, which didn’t agree with him — Vicodin obliterated his stomach, following which he spent a long stretch of time on morphine, resulting in uncontrollable anxiety. At one point, he even turned to alcohol.
It’s no surprise that during his recovery, Clooney went to a pretty dark place. He told Rolling Stone:
"I was at a point where I thought, ‘I can't exist like this. I can't actually live.' I was lying in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm, unable to move, having these headaches where it feels like you're having a stroke, and for a short three-week period, I started to think, 'I may have to do something drastic about this.' You start to think in terms of, you don't want to leave a mess, so go in the garage, go in the car, start the engine. It seems like the nicest way to do it…”
Of course, Clooney never acted on these thoughts and stuck with recovery, but sadly, the injury saw him forever changed.
Never the same
During recovery, Clooney’s pain management specialist offered the following hard truth: “You can't mourn for how you used to feel, because you're never going to feel that way again.” The man was right — in 2014, almost a decade after filming Syriana, Clooney was still searching for a way to fix his back, even travelling to Germany to have it looked at by one of the world’s leading specialists.
Not that it’s sufficient consolation, but Clooney’s powerhouse performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
SBS Australia, 8.30pm Friday 20 April
SBS On Demand anytime