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"Thon" is Having a Massive Decade.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the decade of the suffix "thon" as in walkathon, bowlathon. . .etc.


Other segments from the episode on November 4, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 4, 1999: Interview with Ziad Doueiri; Commentary on the suffix "-thon."


Date: NOVEMBER 04, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 110401np.217
Head: "West Beirut": And Interview With Ziad Doueiri
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After doing camera work on all of Quentin Tarantino's films, including "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," and "Jackie Brown," my guest, Ziad Doueiri, has written and directed a film of his own. It's called "West Beirut," and it's based on his experiences growing up in West Beirut during the civil war.

"New Yorker" film critic Anthony Lane describes the film as "honestly tremulous in the face of guns and girls, a rousing introduction to pulp fact."

The civil war began in 1975 when Christian and Muslim militias started fighting. It threw Lebanon into a state of anarchy and divided Beirut in half, with East Beirut controlled by Christians, West Beirut by Muslims.

The war dragged on until 1987. Doueiri was born in 1963 and lived in Lebanon until he was 20 and went to study film at the University of San Diego and UCLA.

What was the moment when you found out that your city was divided in half, the Christian east and the Muslim west, and that you wouldn't be allowed to cross over to the other half?

ZIAD DOUEIRI, WRITER/DIRECTOR: Terry, I think the first time I realized it was at least nine months to a year after the war had started, because that's where -- the time where we couldn't actually go to school, to my high school, which was in the east section of town.

When the war started, we kind of -- you know, it always takes a time to settle down and figure things out, I mean, starting to realize that there is a division going on. But to tell you the truth, the first year it all seemed as if it was just a little inconvenience.

GROSS: So did it take about a year for the city to be partitioned like that? Or did it just take a year for you to realize that it had been partitioned?

DOUEIRI: I think it's both. By one time I remember we showed up to high school, and my French high school, which was in East Beirut, and we couldn't go there. Actually the first day was very tense, and then the second day, they say, you know, the school is closed, actually.

And that's when my mom start reconsidering moving us to another school. So from then on, I start realizing, like, I guess over there is Beirut, and over here is West Beirut.

GROSS: Were you -- what was your...

DOUEIRI: Was I traumatized? Was I scared?


DOUEIRI: To tell you the truth, the only thing -- it's very funny, you know, I was 13 years old, and the only thing you start worrying about is not seeing your friends. You grew up with those people, you had a crush on Mai (ph), and you had a -- I had a lot of crushes back then, so I start wondering, How am I going to see them? Because I know that I will not be able to see them.

So you -- when you're teenaged, you always think about what's more vital to you, while my parents were thinking about the survival, I was thinking about, you know, the friendship and the love stories, what goes on with that.

GROSS: What else was in East Beirut that you were used to going to that you couldn't get to after the city was partitioned?

DOUEIRI: (laughs) That's a very good question, actually. There was a movie theater in East Beirut called the Embassy, pronounced Embassy and written Embassy, just like we spell it. And it used to play all the Tarzans film and the Charlie Chaplin film. I swear, that was the first rupture I had. And I used to tell my dad, Dad, when are we going to be able to see Tarzan? And he says, Look, I don't think we're going to -- you know, we're going to have to wait.

But that was the very first thing that I -- when I went back to Beirut in 1997 to shoot the film, I wanted to go and find out where that movie theater was, because that's where my dad used to take us when we were young.

And obviously it disappeared, it does not exist any more. But that was one of the first childhood nostalgia I missed.

GROSS: When Beirut was divided to East and West Beirut, you couldn't go to your school any more because it was in East Beirut, and you were in West Beirut. Was there another school that you went to, or did you just not have school in your life?

DOUEIRI: There is the same school that opened in East Beirut had another chapter in West, so we just transferred over there. It was actually a fairly easy transition, it was not a difficult thing. It was the same school, but two different location, basically. And we started competing with each other, actually.

But the thing is, I wrote it in the film as if we were really out of school, but in reality the school had continued, though sporadically.

You know, Terry, something important to understand, that when there was -- the civil war in Lebanon was not a continuous war. It was not like the Balkan war, where it was every day, every single day. We had a lot of -- even, you know, we had a lot of vacations in between.

The militias would fight each other and would go kick at each other and bomb each other, and then they needed a break. So at Christmas we'd stop, at Ramadan the militia -- with a kind of subtle agreement that we ought to stop at Ramadan, Don't bomb us at Ramadan today, we won't bomb you at Christmas tomorrow.

So the school would reopen, and life would take its own natural -- you know, the natural path again. And then two, three months down the line there's another bombing and another crisis, and it would close.

So on top of it, what made things harder for us is that we had a French school, and really French school, not just Lebanese teaching French. It was French imported from France, and the teachers running the school were so adamant about us going to school. So while there were other schools getting close, our Madame Vieillard (ph), who I describe in the film, she always insisted that we go to school no matter what.

GROSS: Well, you portray her in the film as having a very patronizing attitude toward the Lebanese students.

DOUEIRI: It's true.

GROSS: Let me quote her. She says -- she says to the students, "Let's not forget that France created your country and gave you your borders and taught you peace. French education is the only way out of your primitive customs."

DOUEIRI: That did get into a lot of trouble with -- once the film was released, actually. Not a lot of troubles. The French were cool about it. But in a way, that phrase what I wrote was humorous, in my opinion. It was not meant to descend upon the French culture at all. To the opposite. I do live in France from time to time and I have a great admiration for the culture over there.

But you have to understand the reason I criticized the French education in Lebanon, it's not out of arrogance, it's not out of vengefulness. It's a classic relationship between a country that colonized a country, another one, and the people who are colonized in it.

It's true, the French, unlike England, unlike Spain, the French colony were a lot more friendlier, in my opinion. They kept good relationship with us, with the Lebanese. They made sure we get education and art, and they help us write our constitution.

But I think from time to time they were a bit arrogant about it, and that's when I wrote this beginning part in the film where we're kind of mocking them a little.

GROSS: When you were growing up during the civil war in Lebanon, did you have any close calls with the men in the militias?

DOUEIRI: I never had any single close call with the militias. However, my parents were involved in an underground movement, which was a revolutionary movement, which was a movement, actually, calling for -- to be secular, to be antireligious, to be -- not antireligious, antifundamentalism, let me say.

They were progressists (ph) at that time, and they start running a secret radio -- they run it from '75 to '78 -- which called for the end of the occupation. And at that time it was the Syrian occupying Lebanon. They invaded and they occupied it.

So my parents, who were, you know, very politicized at that time, they decided to open a radio station, where some of the militias, I cannot deny that, some of the left-wing militias financed it. So we opened -- my parents opened the radio station, believe it or not, in a mosque, very close to our house.

And I remember for quite a long time we had to -- I mean, you know, I was 12, 13, 14 at that time -- we used to go in the back of the mosque and pretend that we were praying with a crowd. And one by one, we'd sneak out to the basement, which is, like, three story underneath the basement.

And it was a room that was about four square meters where the installation was. And that's where my parents used to write their articles and broadcast them.

And the funny thing is, the broadcast antenna was all the way on the top of the minaret. You know, the mosque has always this long tower, where traditionally the sheik goes out and call for prayer. So the antenna of broadcast is hidden all the way on top.

And when I came back again in 1997, I tried to climb to that mosque to see if the antenna was still there, because I know -- it went out of business, basically. Basically we lost the war, (inaudible) (laughs).

GROSS: (laughs)

DOUEIRI: And it's one of the funniest part -- one of the most intense part is, we had to live secretly for many years where nobody, not even our neighbors, knew that my parents were running the only revolutionary radio we were running. While we were -- while the city was occupied by the Syrian, my parents were broadcasting right under their nose.

Until the news leaked one day, and my mom came freaking out one time, and everything she wrote for years, we had to take them up to the roof of the building and set it on fire. In case we were caught, they cannot nail us down.

And right after that, we were thinking of escaping.

GROSS: So the family tried to escape but couldn't do it?

DOUEIRI: Yes, we tried, and in '78, it was getting really bad. We tried to get -- put everything in the car and cross the border, but we couldn't.

But I don't want to give the impression that Beirut was like Saudi Arabia is, for example, where the country are so difficult to leave, or China, or whatever. It's not. Beirut was always a very open country. The only reason we couldn't escape is because the airport was shut down because of the bombing. So we had to find different ways to leave.

But in '83, the airport was open, and I told my parents, you know, I finished high school, and it's time for me to study film. And I told my parents that I want to come to California. They said, Look, why don't we go to France? I said, Mom, California is where the film industry is. French like to talk about film, America likes to make film.

GROSS: (laughs)

DOUEIRI: And it was an endless debate. (laughs) But the irony about it is, after I made all my life, from '83 to '97, right here in Los Angeles, I could not find a financing here, I had to go back to the motherland. And it was the French who financed it. So...

GROSS: Well, I want to go back to this radio station. You knew your parents' secrets about this radio station, and I guess they must have felt that they could trust you. It's sometimes, I think, hard to trust a 12-year-old with such an important secret, a secret that the whole family's lives could depend on.

DOUEIRI: You know, it's true, but, you know, Terry, we were raised in a pretty close family. We were trained, me and -- I have a little bit younger of a brother -- we were trained from the beginning just to keep low key. And I guess you grew up with it. You know, when you're taught to be secretive, you grow up to be secretive, and you live with it.

And from time to time some people suspected, but you just have to completely ignore it and say, Oh, no, who told you that my mom -- you know, that's not true. And I knew that my mom, you know, would be there every day at that secret radio.

And actually the scriptness (ph) of things, the secretness of things, accompanied all my life, even up till recently. I still have hard time sometimes telling the basic things that I'm doing. I just feel like I got to keep it secret. It cause me some -- it caused me a lot of problems sometimes. (laughs)

Because when you are going out with somebody, and when you're in love with somebody...

GROSS: (laughs)

DOUEIRI: ... they want to know a little bit where you are. And sometime I says, you know -- and it could be for silly things.

GROSS: My guest is Ziad Doueiri. He wrote and directed the new film "West Beirut." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Ziad Doueiri, and he wrote and directed the new feature film "West Beirut," which is based on his own experiences growing up in West Beirut during the civil war there.

The impression you get from the main character in your movie, who's in high school, is that most of the time, the civil war wasn't as frightening as it was a kind of opportunity for a lot of independence, because he wasn't in school, strange adventures, strange opportunities to have a weird kind of fun.

DOUEIRI: You know, when the civil war started, slowly the government was losing control over laws, over law and order. And what happened was, particularly (ph), is, like my parents were also losing control over the family. Because suddenly they were -- my mom and my dad were preoccupied in finding bread for tomorrow. And school was closed a lot of time, not all the time but a lot of times.

So that gave us a lot of freedom to go on the street and do what every kid would like to do. Plus, I think the Lebanese society in itself, and I don't want to be nationalistic about it, I think the Lebanese society in itself is more of a humorous culture. We've always tolerated things. We've been very intolerant at a time, yes, but we've been also very tolerant, which makes things a little bit easygoing.

You know, it was during the peak of the war, where "Star Wars" came to play, where films of Charles Bronson's came to play, where Donna Summer's "I Love to Love You, Baby," was playing, and Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive." I mean, we were so bombarded by American pop culture as it was being released in the United States, a week later it was released in Beirut.

And the war allow us to explore this even more, because we had a lot of more freedom.

I don't want to say that it was fun all the time. When you would hear a massacre going on, we would get scared. When you would hear, like, the possibility of -- we used to think that the American intervention are going to come again, and we used to be scared of an American intervention. We used to say, Oh, you know, we don't want another Vietnam.

So that used to scare us a little bit. But to tell you overall, Terry, it was a lot more pleasant to me. I was criticized by the Lebanese community when the film was out. They says, How come you portrayed us with such a lightness? We did not have that much fun.

My answer to them was, a lot of time I was having a good time. For some reason, I did. It was very hard at a time. I had several members of my family massacred. I had two cousins killed.

But you know, somehow, you know, you get used to it, you go back, and then you're waiting for the -- you know, for your beautiful girl neighbor to come to the shelter and take some of her (ph) different story.

GROSS: In your movie, "West Beirut," there's a bordello that the militias use. Was that based on a real bordello?

DOUEIRI: There was a very famous bordello in West Beirut, and I'll tell you, it's -- it was the talk of the town at that time. It was -- her name was Umwalid (ph), and I used her name in the same -- in the film also. And she was involved into running the brothel. And then we found out later, actually, while we were teenaged -- because we used to go there, I mean, me and two or three friends, we used to think that that was a cool place to go and hang out.

So -- but we find out later that she was not only running a brothel, she was running a drug ring, and she was running a weapons ring, and she was into real estate. And the woman made a huge fortune.

But that was, to us, a fascinating place, because we used to go there, knock on the door, and there's the door guard. And then he used to, like, you know, almost like in the film, he used to open the door and he used to say, What are you guys up to? And we says, Look, we just want to go up, and he says, Do you have anybody else? Said no. He said, You know the price. We said, We know the prices.

Come in. So we'd go in. And there we would see militias, you know, people who were, like, you know, fighting and doing all the stuff, but they were sitting and drinking coffee with the ladies. So we always found that was very interesting place.

And the funny thing that -- the film was released last year in Lebanon. I did call my production manager. I says, Let's go find the real brothel madam. I want to invite her to the screening. The film is based on her, I mean, part of it on her, and her name was the same.

So they launch into this big trip, and they finally located her. And then the answer came back that she refuses to attend. And when asked why she refused to attend, she says, Because I went to Mecca and I cleaned myself. I don't want to deal with my past any more.

However, we find out that she's still -- she stopped dealing with prostitution, but she continues dealing with drugs and weapons.


GROSS: Oh, well!

How bombed-out was your neighborhood? Did your house survive the war?

DOUEIRI: We did get bombed -- our building was bombed a couple of times. And you know what, Terry? After I left in '83, toward '89 to '90, that was really when things got really bad. And I understand from pictures, what I've seen, that the city was a lot more destroyed than when I left. They say almost half of the city was destroyed.

And when I came back to film, I was looking for these destroyed scenes, destroyed locations, and I couldn't find any, because it was all rebuilt since the war ended in 1990. In nine years they rebuilt the city, faster than they built Dresden. And I'm sure of that.

I start -- it's, like, we went for six weeks, me and the production manager and location manager and the director of photography, looking for a destroyed street. I says, Guys, this is this war that ended -- that lasted 17 years. I need one destroyed street. We couldn't find in Beirut one destroyed street.

And then one day I said, How about, like, if, like, today somebody dropped a couple of bombs? I need the street. And then we couldn't find it. We had to rebuild it.

GROSS: It must have been amazing to you that the war actually ended. I mean, it -- 17 years is a really long time, especially for a young person, for whom 17 years is most of their life.

DOUEIRI: There were times where I didn't think -- I mean, the United States when I came here, I kept on -- stayed in touch with my parents as often as I could, and there were times where I would feel like I just wanted it to end, because my parents were there too. I mean, I hate to say it, but survival also boils down to your immediate parents, and I know my parents never left.

And the declaration came that the war ended, which is a very funny ending, it ended in 24 hours, literally 24 hours, not a bullet was pulled after that. And everything was demilitarized. It was pretty quick, which has actually raised some suspicions about it, but...

But Beirut is regaining what it used to be. It used to be called, you know, the Paris of the Middle East, Switzerland of the Middle East. It's taking that back again, the decadence. Beirut has always been a very decadent city, very permissive, a lot of -- you know, the night clubs and the bars and the fashion shows and everything. And it's picking up again.

GROSS: Ziad Doueiri wrote and directed the new film "West Beirut." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, casting for actors in a Beirut orphanage. We continue our conversation with Ziad Doueiri about his new film "West Beirut."

Also, walkathon, bowlathon, bikeathon. Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the decade of the suffix "-thon."



I'm Terry Gross, back with Ziad Doueiri. He wrote and directed the new film "West Beirut," which is set in 1975 at the beginning of the civil war in Lebanon. It's based on Doueiri's experiences growing up during the war.

Before making this movie, he did camera work on all of Quentin Tarantino's films.

Your new film is set in West Beirut, and your actors are from Beirut. The actors are -- you know, there's adults in it, but the -- you know, some of the main actors are teenagers, kids who are of high school age. How did you cast them? I mean, the lead actor is your younger brother.

DOUEIRI: You know, Terry, when I start writing the scenario here in Los Angeles, I -- it kind of helped -- it helps when you reincarnate someone's image, when you think of an actor or a personality or something. And I wrote it thinking about my little brother, who is 18 years younger than I am. And I liked his demeanor. I've got to know him little bit, because I -- he came to visit me in the United States two or three times only.

And I always observed, and I found out that he has certain nonchalance about it, frivolousness about it that I liked. When I sat down to write, I was -- it's true, I was writing my memoir, I was writing the people and the locations that I've known. But I was thinking about my brother's character for some reason. It kind of came in naturally.

And when I went to Beirut in '97 to start casting, I start looking outside. And for some reason, I kept on going back to him. I felt like, Why do I have the feeling that he is the role? And it was obvious, I mean, I wrote it for him. So when I did the casting with him, he did not play it, he was exactly the way he is in real life, the way he is on screen is exactly the way he is in real life.

And it was just such a natural connection I had with him.

However, the other kid, who played Omar, that was a pain in the neck, because he comes from -- he's an orphan, he's a street kid, and i found him in an orphanage. And he's actually -- I think he earns it -- he -- I don't think, he did earn his life stealing. He was a professional thief.

So I had to take him out and find out if he can deliver, if he can act. And he was shy at the beginning. And slowly I start discovering that he had some rough edge about him that I liked, and I ended up casting him.

But I wanted to -- it was better for me to cast somebody from the street, because I needed the edginess about it, instead of having somebody who comes from a polite family or an educated family. I wanted somebody who's from the lower middle class, if you want to say. And that was how I casted Omar.

GROSS: Did you go looking for your actors in orphanages?

DOUEIRI: I started looking in orphanages, yes.


DOUEIRI: I want -- It's an interesting question. I wanted to look for kids in orphanages because I wanted to bypass parents. The reason for that is the film had a lot of foul language, as you know. And it has not been done in Lebanon where a film has that much foul language. It's been censored by the government.

On top of that, the Lebanese family is still considered a proper family. They don't want -- people don't want to say, Oh, look, your kid -- and we saw your kid in the film spitting bad words. So I said to myself, You know what? I should bypass this whole thing, and let me bypass the parents. Why don't I look in orphanage? (laughs)

It's very funny, because when I think about it today, I think it's like -- there is not a single country in the world where you would go through that. I mean, in the United States, if -- in Hollywood, if a film is offered to a kid, the parents will get rid of the entire school so their kid show up in film, you know? They'll do anything for their kid get to become an actor.

In Lebanon, it's the opposite. If you are acting and you have foul mouth, I mean, that, we don't want to do that.

GROSS: I think the female teenage lead is also from an orphanage?

DOUEIRI: The female is -- well, she's not orphanage, she is living in an orphanage, but she is not an orphan. Her parents are just simply separated, and they put here there, yes.

GROSS: And...

DOUEIRI: Which is actually an interesting character, because when I was a teenager, I -- just before the war, literally few months before the war, I had a huge crush on a girl from East Beirut. Her name was Mai.

And I never forgotten her face, because I remember how much she was an idol to me. You know, I used to go home, while everybody was doing their homeworks or going out to parties, I just used to lay down and put my eight-track stereo of Tom Jones, "She's a Lady." Do you know the song, "She's a Lady"?


DOUEIRI: I -- actually, I tried my very best to use the song in the film, but I just couldn't fit it.

So Mai, my own Mai, was my lady, and do you know another singer called Paul Anka?

GROSS: Sure.

DOUEIRI: Do you remember his song, "Having My Baby"?

GROSS: Of course.

DOUEIRI: I used to listen to Paul Anka all the time. We were obsessed by Paul Anka. We even thought that Paul Anka was Lebanese himself. (laughs) So I was listening to this and thinking about Mai, and then the war started, and I haven't seen her since then.

And I still don't know where she is today. And I decided to take her character and put it in the film, as if she's somebody that our protagonist meet after the war. But in the reality, she was a prewar character, not an after-war character.

GROSS: Huh. Do you feel like your brother almost grew up in a different country than you did because he was born during the war?

DOUEIRI: My brother doesn't remember the war at all.


DOUEIRI: At all. Because my brother was, like, 5, 6 years old when the war was over, and by the time I gave him the scenario, he was just a child. It was just things that they heard about, his generation, the 16, 18 years old generation, does not know at all. They hear about it, plus people don't talk about it.

So it's something in the past. Today, you know, when you go talk -- when I talk to my brother, he really have different -- he has completely different worries as a teenager than I did back then.

And I was worried. I said, How am I going to give a scenario, 125 page, for somebody, and it's a film that deals in certain ways about the war. You know, Terry, the film is not totally about the war. I mean, you feel it from time to time.

But I still felt there are certain details that he might not understand. And he completely understood it, because I start realizing myself that I'm talking more about my teenage years than about the war. The war is just in the background in the film.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ziad Doueiri, and he's the screenwriter and director of the new movie "West Beirut," which is based on his own experiences growing up in West Beirut during the civil war.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ziad Doueiri, and he wrote and directed the new film "West Beirut," which is based on his own experiences growing up in West Beirut during the civil war.

You left West Beirut in 1983 to go to film school in Los Angeles. What was it like to get to Los Angeles -- you know, the capital of the movie industry, no militias?

DOUEIRI: You know, I -- it's -- I called my friend Cal, who was my childhood friend in Beirut, who moved here one year before I did. And I said, Can you come and pick me up from the airport? And he says, Sure. I'm going to stay with him anyway.

And once I arrived here, to LAX, the first thing that I kept on feeling I'm going to run into is a red Indian with the feathers, because that's what you think about. And that was one of these -- you know, the American pop culture overseas is always overinflated, I think.

And that was, to me -- it took me a couple of months to get over the culture shock. Because what I was seeing in front of my eyes had nothing to do with what was being seen, you know, in Lebanon. We saw "Eight Is Enough," we saw "CHIPS," we saw -- one of my favorite shows, I had a huge crush on Kristy McNichol playing in a film called "Family," do you remember that? (laughs)

I loved her. I was the only Lebanese in the world who liked "Family," because everybody preferred "Eight Is Enough." It was more fun. To me, "Family" was serious, was about this girl who was always rebelling.

So I come to the United States, and I find out -- you know, I was 20 when I came. So it was completely different, not what we think it is. It's a lot bigger than I thought. And I start making my way through -- you know, you start to get integrated in the American culture so easily. I remember that for the first few years in my life, I kind of forgot where I was from, because you were just discovering.

And then after a while, I start doing a retrospective search again to where I came from, keeping in mind the American part of me.

America is -- I lived more in the United States than I lived in Lebanon, so it became second home to me. And I wanted to make sure during the writing of the film that I write it for an American audience. And I wrote "West Beirut" only for an American audience. I did not write it for a Lebanese audience, to tell you the truth. I did not write it for any audience except the United States.

Because I felt like, you know, this is a country that I've lived my life, this is a country where I have friends, and I understand the culture, and it's important that I do a film that is not considered a typical Middle Eastern or foreign film. I wanted to do it with American structure, with an American camera, with -- I tried to use all my experience working in Hollywood and put it into the film.

GROSS: But not with American actors. I mean, you have subtitles.

DOUEIRI: Not with American actors, except -- actually that was one of my biggest headaches when I start pitching the scenario to American producers. Some of them are my friends, some -- they always said, Look, we love the story, it's a good scenario, but we don't know how to market it.

I says, What do you mean, you don't know how to market it? Foreign films get sold in the States. They said, Yes, but this is a film from the Middle East. It's even more alienating to us.

I said, So what do you suggest? And I remember one producer, she told me, she says, Look, what if you take the character of the mother and you make her an American woman who is married to a Lebanese family? That way, we can involve the American audience more in the film.

And I said, But that's not the purpose. And then she says, You know, I don't know what to tell you. This is the only way. If you want to have American financing for it, you got to bring in an American character in it.

And then I go to France, they say the same thing. I go to Norway looking for the money. Everybody had an agenda. The Norwegian were telling me, Why don't you put, like, a story where there's a United Nations involved, because the Norwegian has the United Nations army in Lebanon.

And everybody had starting put his own agenda. And to tell you the truth, Terry, after three years of really desperately looking for money, I start contemplating this. I start telling myself, You know what? Maybe I do should -- maybe I should have Patricia Arquette play the mother, or whoever it is.

GROSS: (laughs)

DOUEIRI: And then when I went to France, I said, Maybe I should have Jean-Luc Onglade (ph), or I don't know, whoever it would play the role. And then I was thinking, Why don't I have the madam, who plays the -- the woman who run the brothel, have her played by, like, an old French actress?

And then I said, You know what? But that's not the film that I want. I said, Let me stick it through a little bit more. I'll give it six more months of a trial. And if I can't find the money, then I'll write an American character.

And it was within these next six months, while I was working on a film called "Jackie Brown," summer of '97, I get a call on the set, and they say, Look, somebody wants to talk to you. So I take the phone, and it was the French producers who says, Look, we have good news for you. We managed to find the money. Let's go shoot the film.

So with 25 percent of the budget, actually, we only managed to shoot this film on 25 percent of what we envisioned, I went to Beirut, and we did it on that.

GROSS: Before you directed your film "West Beirut," you were an assistant cameraman on several Quentin Tarantino films. You worked on "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown." How did you get to work on Quentin Tarantino's films?

DOUEIRI: You know, Terry, it was actually a very simple coincidence. I had a friend of mine -- her name is Jamie (ph), she was one of the first women who gave me my very first job after I graduated from college. In 1991, I was going through a big breakup with somebody, and I just bought myself a ticket, and I was going to Argentina. I said, You know what? I want to go to a country that has nothing to do with where I come from or where I'm going to. Said, Let me go to Buenos Aires.

Packed my stuff. I said, That's where I'll be able to forget my pain. And as I'm leaving, literally, she calls me and she says, Look, there is a film I want you to work on. I says, You picked the wrong time, I'm leaving.

She says, Look, please, it's true it's not a big budget, it's very low budget, and we believe it's good, but I know you for a long time, I think you could do the good job, et cetera. I said, Look, Jamie, I got to go. She says, Look, I'll do whatever you want, I'll pay you for the ticket if you want. But please, can you stay?

And she's a good friend of mine, so I canceled the flight, got refunded, and I took the job. And that was "Reservoir Dogs." And the rest is history. I mean, you know, we were all working on "Reservoir Dogs," not knowing where it is going to lead to. And frankly, to tell you the truth today, when I think about it, we thought that it was the film that's only going to be released in video, if there was luck.

And the rest, you know, he put it together so well, and then he continued calling the rest of the crew again and again and again. And that's how I became part of his crew.

GROSS: Working with Quentin Tarantino on his films, which have so much stylized violence in them, I'm wondering how you related to shooting this kind of stylized violence after having grown up in an area where there was a lot of real violence, militias, massacres.

DOUEIRI: You know, Terry, it's funny, because I cannot make the distinction. You know why? I don't want to underdramatize it, to answer your question. I don't want to desensationalize something. But the truth is, when you work on film, you completely understand the film process. You don't get caught by the glamour, by the glitz, by the Hollywood reporter, et cetera.

And when you work on a film and you see a scene, the audience, when they go see "Pulp Fiction," the guy's brain getting blown off, they think it's sensational or very violent. But when you're doing the shot, actually, you bring the camera, you plug in the battery, you do your focus, you adjust the lighting, you do the makeup, and then you say, Roll camera, camera, action, pop, and you pop this thing that pops the brain.

And you go back to do the shot again. So a lot of the things that we think are very great on screen, they are really not that sensational when you're actually doing the film.

GROSS: Were you involved in the scene in "Reservoir Dogs" where Michael Madsen (ph) cuts off the ear of one of the characters?

DOUEIRI: Yes, I was about three feet from the ear where it's being cut. And actually we did -- there was a shot where we actually see the ear being cut, but it was so violent that they chose a little bit more of a discrete angle. But in reality we shot a lot more violent.

GROSS: Quentin Tarantino's kind of Mr. Popular Culture. You get the impression he's seen, like, zillions of, you know, B-movies and listened to, you know, a gazillion records and everything. And I'm wondering what it was like to make a film of him, given that you were obsessed with a lot of American pop culture growing up in Beirut, but on the other hand, you probably had only limited access to it because of the civil war.

DOUEIRI: We had -- I can't say that I had as much access as anybody from here, but you'd be surprised, Terry, how much access we had. We really had a lot. I mean, like I said, some of these TV show, "Simon and Simon"...

GROSS: (laughs)

DOUEIRI: ... even to us, "Dallas" was old-fashioned, you know, I mean, "Dynasty" was considered more hip. Plus there was other things that came to Lebanon. You remember Bubblicious?

GROSS: Yes, oh, sure. (laughs)

DOUEIRI: The Big Gum? It's like you couldn't get a date in Lebanon unless you had a Bubblicious in your pocket. It's, like -- it was amazingly popular, these...

I always said that Americans can rule the world a lot more with pop culture than with weapons or with anything else. That's what I always believed. And it was just so popular over there, on -- just on multi-level, on every level. The clothes, the Levi's jeans, the...

Listen to this. I was such a big fan of 8 track. Now, who listened to 8 track? (laughs) I had so much 8 track.

GROSS: Well, it's funny to think of you growing up during the civil war in Lebanon and, you know, worrying about whether you had Bubblicious or not.

DOUEIRI: Isn't it ironic? It's very ironic. I guess -- you know what, Terry? I think it's the best -- to me, when I look at it retrospect today, these little gadgets that we had, the consumer's gadgets, is what really helped us go through the war in a lot of ways. That made war bearable, that made life more exciting and more dreaming, is because we had that little market economy that Bush talked about in 1991. (laughs)

We had it back in '75, and even prior to that. I mean, it's funny, because when the Lebanese film, or the Egyptian film would go up, and they were very popular in Lebanon, and the Indian film were very popular, me and my friends, we would go see, you know, "Mr. Majestyk," you know, Charles Bronson, and we'd see "Airport '75" or we'd see "The Cassandra Crossing." And the typical from that (ph) when we were here. We were so Westernized at that time, it's amazing.

In fact, I'm becoming less and less Westernized today than I was back then, and I've been living in the United States until today since then. It's very, very strange. But it's interesting. I mean, today I find I have one foot here, one foot in Paris, and one foot in Beirut, and I'm really juggling between those three cities all the time, because I feel there's so much material to extract. We're becoming almost one world.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

DOUEIRI: Well, thank you. My pleasure.

GROSS: Ziad Doueiri wrote and directed the new film "West Beirut."


GROSS: That's Tom Jones, one of Ziad Doueiri's favorite old records.

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the suffixes of the century.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Ziad Doueiri
High: Writer and director Ziad Doueiri is making his feature film debut with "West Beirut." It's set in 1975 during the Lebanese civil war and is largely autobiographical. The film received accolades from the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Spec: Entertainment; "West Beirut"; Movie Industry

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "West Beirut": And Interview With Ziad Doueiri

Date: NOVEMBER 04, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 110402NP.217
Head: The Decade of the Thon
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: As the year ends, experts of all sorts are trying to sum up the changes of the century.

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been thinking, of course, about changes in our language.

GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: I wonder how much of the history of the century you could tell just through the suffixes that have been in vogue from one decade to the next.

Think what you'd have to cover to trace the development of "-in," for example, the drive-ins of the early days of the automobile, the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the be-ins and love-ins of the hippies, the teach-ins of the anti-war movement.

There's the "-ville" of the '40s in words like "endsville" and "splitsville" and "Palookaville," which were succeeded in the late '50s by the "-nik" of "beatnik," "neatnik," and the rest.

There's the "-gate" of Travelgate and Monicagate and the "-cize" of Dancercize, Jazzercize, and all the other fitness crazes.

There's "dot-com."

And then there's "-thon." I was thinking about this one the other day when they held the walkathon at my daughter's school. Sophie did 17 laps, and all her sponsors duly received a notice of how much they owed toward the purchase of new playground equipment.

It's a common ritual these days. The suffix "-thon" is having a monster decade. We have walkathons, bowlathons, swimathons, bikeathons, and danceathons. Christian radio stations have praiseathons. And the library of the University of North Texas recently held a bar-codeathon to convert its books to an automated system.

I would have figured that walkathon and the others were pretty recent inventions. But in fact, this "-thon" business goes back quite a ways. It all started with "marathon," of course, which entered English in 1896, when the first modern Olympics were held. "Marathon" was originally the name of a place 26 miles from Athens where a famous battle was fought. But nobody thought of stripping the "-thon" off the end of the word until the 1920s.

That was an era obsessed with watching people do things for abnormal lengths of time. The public flocked to six-day bicycle races and made a heroes of Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly, who set a record in 1929 by sitting on top of a flagpole in Atlantic City for 49 days.

And then there were the dance marathons, which people started to call danceathons for short. Most of us remember these now from the 1969 movie "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Couples would dance for days or weeks on end for small cash prizes, which dancers occasionally collapsing or dropping dead on the dance floor.

Some states tried to discourage these ordeals by passing laws that prohibited dancing for more than eight hours on end. To get around these restrictions, the promoters started holding competitions where dancers were allowed to walk around for brief rest periods. They billed these as walkathons, since walking contests had no time limit.

Those early danceathons and walkathons were simply spectacles or publicity stunts. The connection between the suffix "-thon" and charity had to await the introduction of television. Broadcast TV was still looking for its voice back in 1949 when NBC had the idea of holding the first telethon on behalf of the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund.

The host was Milton Berle, TV's first big star. He remained on stage for 16 hours straight, apart from brief visits to his dressing room to shave and change his shirt. A stage full of models and showgirls handled the phones with plainer operators taking calls backstage.

One of Uncle Miltie's guests on that occasion was a young comedian named Jerry Lewis. Seventeen years later, he would bring the telethon to its highest form of expression. It was his great insight that the host of the telethon must not shave or change his shirt.

Over the course of the Labor Day weekend, the entire country could watch Jerry grow increasingly rumpled and haggard as he draped himself around a series of affecting little kids on crutches, a tableau that ultimately enriched the English language with the phrase "poster child."

The whole production was a clear improvement over the danceathons of the 1920s. It gratified the same morbid voyeurism, but now you came away from it feeling edified.

The telethon gave rise to a host of charitable events like pledgeathons and callathons, though nothing has ever surpassed the Jerry Lewis telethons for sheer bathetic spectacle.

But starting in the '80s, "-thon" took another turn, which united both its earlier senses of sustained physical activity and charitable giving. Where young people used to raise money for a good cause by holding bake sales or car washes, now they get friends and relatives to pledge money in return for their performing some strenuous exercise to the point of near collapse.

It's true that people from the '20s or '50s might have had trouble understanding what one has to do with the other, but it's a natural fit for an age that thinks of running five kilometers as a form of spiritual exercise. And all the more so if it's dedicated to a worthy cause.

That's why even well-established road races and competitions have come on board, each of them consecrating itself to a popular disease.

There's something about all these modern walkathons and bikeathons that recalls the early Middle Ages, when you could acquire indulgences by paying other people to say masses or make pilgrimages on your behalf. That practice was finally discontinued when the church decided it rested on dubious theological grounds.

But why not? It seems a perfect system for everybody, or at least that's how it felt when the walkathon at the San Francisco school was over. The school had raised a little money, the kids were glowing with self-satisfied exhaustion. And we sponsors had the moral gratification of knowing that our donations were purely selfless and disinterested. After all, our cars were still dirty.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Naomi Person, Phyllis Meyers (ph), and Amy Sallett (ph), with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing (ph). Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Geoff Nunberg
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the decade of the suffix "thon" as in walkathon and bowlathon.
Spec: Lifestyles; Linguistics; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Decade of the Thon
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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