Imperium: Turning Fact into Fiction
Daniel Ragussis on how to research an extreme subject, parallels in history, and his three top tips for screenwriters.
When writer and director Daniel Ragussis first started to write Imperium, the subject matter was timely. Now as the finished product is released some years later, it seems even more so.
A story that delves into the world of the white supremacist movement, Imperium stars Daniel Radcliffe as Nate Foster, an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate one of their local groups and shut down any potential domestic terrorism threats. Based on the experiences of real-life agent Michael German, Ragussis wrote the screenplay with German’s collaboration. An avid lover of history, the project marks the feature film debut for Ragussis and required an extensive amount of research on his part.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to him about the film and the sociological fascination that sparked it.
How did you first learn of Michael German’s story?
I had done a short film called Haber, about the German chemist who invented chemical weapons during World War I. I’d spent a lot of time researching WWI for that movie and that led me to an interest in World War II and the Nazis. So I started doing a lot of research about that, which led to an interest in the neo-Nazi movement today. It was just stunning to me, once I started to realize the extent and scope of the white supremacist movement in the United States.
While I was doing research on the movement in general, I became aware of Mike German’s story. Sometimes it happens that you identify a world that you’re interested in – like the white supremacy movement – but then as a writer, you need a way in.
Mike’s story was the perfect vehicle because he becomes our proxy. We see this world through his eyes. We’re able to go in through an outsider and actually explore the world and see what’s in it.
Tell me about working with him on the screenplay. Were there a lot of elements you had to change for security reasons or even general interest?
Totally. From the beginning we had to make the decision that it was going to be a modernized and fictionalized story. We couldn’t actually do his real cases, for a variety of reasons including all the things that you just named.
We wanted to take inspiration from what had happened to him and build a story that reflected the authenticity and realism of his experiences.
We drew both from his direct experiences and the ton of research that I did on the movement in general. That was everything from various memoirs written by people who had been inside the movement, to other undercover stories, both in the white supremacist movement and other areas.
It’s a very – ironically – diverse and broad movement that involves a myriad of factions, and hopefully some of that is reflected in the film. The movement’s origins are all over the place and it also has a number of really interesting and different figures. Those people ended up becoming the inspiration for many of the characters that were created for the film.
I was struck by the approach you took to the story, presenting Nate as someone who could actually relate to the members of the group he was infiltrating.
There were two initial founding points for me. One was an opportunity to explore this movement and look at it in a way that hadn’t been done before.
The other was exploring FBI undercover work in a way that hadn’t been done before. When I first met Mike, I was kind of surprised. He’s this very intelligent, sophisticated, soft-spoken man. Not at all what I would imagine a cliché of an FBI agent, breaking down doors and cracking skulls and all the rest of it! He was a Philosophy major and an incredibly literate, cultural person.
As I talked more to him, he made the point that this is really a job about social skills. That’s the biggest thing that you have to have as an undercover agent – you have to know how to work with people, how to deal with them, how to manipulate them, how to make them like you. All of those things. It’s much more about that than it is about beating anybody up or anything like that.
To me that seemed fresh and something that hadn’t been done before.
Going back to your research, did you have to be careful in how you approached it, given the subject matter? Were there resources you would have liked to tap into but couldn’t?
It’s interesting. There are a lot of social scientists that study these groups. What they do is they enter the group, being completely open about who they are and what they’re doing. And they try to represent the members in their own words. They let them speak for themselves – they don’t editorialize, they don’t judge. And usually they gain a certain level of trust.
Just like anyone else out there, the members of these groups want to be heard. They have strong viewpoints about what’s going on in the world and feel that those viewpoints aren’t given any sort of coverage in mainstream media. So any opportunity that they have to say “here’s my story – here’s what I believe and why I believe it”, they’ll do that. Through that research, I was able to hear a lot of what people said in their own words.
Also, there’s a voluminous amount of information on the internet. Articles and things like that, but a lot of the communication for these groups is online, through chat rooms and portals and forums and message boards. You can get a very direct and unvarnished view of who these people are and what they think.
So that and also a ton of documentaries. I didn’t actually interview anyone directly or go to any events myself. Honestly, I was a little nervous about that! And because there was so much of this other good information available, it didn’t seem like I needed to.
Tell us about the film’s title.
It comes from a sort of neo-fascist tract of the 1950s. It’s a word for power – in Roman times there were different words for different types of power. This word meant power over men, military power…that sort of thing. It’s also a term that’s used by some people today in the movement to describe the future fascist state that they would like to create.
It was interesting in that it had a lot of layers. One of the common themes in the white supremacist movement is that they try to chart back an unbroken line of “achievement by white people”, for lack of a better way of putting it! They would say that western civilization is the history of white people. The Greeks, the Romans…they would say “those are all the achievements of white people”. So in much of their literature and much of their conversation, they’re hearkening back to all of those sorts of references. For me, that was another way in which that title made sense – it brought those layers to bear.
How did you prepare your cast for these roles?
I used a variety of ways. With Dan, I sent him a care package filled with white supremacist literature! After I sent it I thought “Oh great, what if he opens this up and decides he doesn’t want any part of it!”
I provided books, I had a ton of links that I’d collected on the internet and I had a sort of primer that I’d give to everybody. Videos on YouTube…not just documentary videos, but a wealth of videos that people have made to advocate their cause. In some cases, they’re remarkably polished and professional.
So I’d give them as much material as they wanted – or could tolerate! But then it was really about trying to get them into the mentality of these people. One shorthand that I would say all the time because it was simple, quick and effective was: “Imagine that you’re a Polish resistance fighter in Warsaw in 1944 and you’re looking at a café filled with Nazi SS officers”. Because that’s really the analogue of what these folks believe that they’re living in. They believe that they’re living in a totalitarian system that’s trying to exterminate them. Basically you take everything you know about history and reverse it! If you do that, then you can access quite easily what the mentality is.
Given the timeliness of the subject matter, what was the process of pitching this story like?
As we all know, this is a business and everything has to be pitched for its commercial potential. There are obviously a lot of things that I’m interested in – a lot of themes, a lot of ideas, a lot of character stuff, all of which is incredibly important. But the film has to succeed – and be pitched – as first and foremost an entertaining thriller that people are going to want to watch.
So the pitching part was mostly from that perspective. And then of course, as with any project, it becomes all about cast. Once we had Dan involved, that’s when all of the financing side came together.
Between this film and Haber, what do you enjoy about writing political history-charged dramas?
I’d say a few things. I think one thing that ties together a lot of what I’m interested in is trying to penetrate a psychology that’s radically different than my own. In the case of Haber, it was “What would make this great humanitarian scientist decide to invent chemical weapons? What sort of patriotism and loyalty and ambition?”
In the case of Imperium, as I became acquainted with the movement, it was a matter of “How could someone think like that?” It’s hard enough to understand why somebody would have signed up with this the first time around! But now, after seeing everything that has happened, how could anyone believe this?
But there’s always a mechanism and no man is the villain of his own story. So to me, to try and penetrate that psychology and understand it was really important.
It’s the same with historical periods. Seeing the relevance of what’s happened in the past and how it impacts what’s happening today.
I conceived Haber right at the time of the invasion of Iraq because I felt like there was a connection between the ideas of what people are willing to do for their country. What are the pros and cons of patriotism? What mistakes do we make when we’re tied up in a national cause? Hopefully everything is at least speaking to something that’s relevant and important today…something we’re wrestling with.
What did you learn from this experience, it being your first feature film?
I could write an encyclopedia! More than I could ever say.
On the one side, you learn about your artistic and creative vision and what happens when the rubber hits the road with it. How do you preserve the most important parts of that and how do you identify those parts of the initial conception that can and have to be left behind? We all talk about how a screenplay is just a blueprint, and over the course of the transition from that blueprint into a movie, a lot changes.
You’re also under a tremendous amount of pressure and you’re dealing with a tremendous amount of forces outside of your control, all of which feel like they’re trying to destroy your movie. How do you preserve what’s important in that blueprint and how do you stay adaptable to take both the happy and unhappy accidents, still remaining true to the original vision of the film?
And then there was just the mechanics and the leadership of working with a large group of people, trying to make sure that everybody was on the same page. Trying to make sure that everyone was inspired and happy and passionate about the work they were doing. The ironic thing about being a director is that most of the individual craftsmen on the film know a lot more about their job than you do! So you really want to empower them to be able to do their best work.
What advice would you offer our readers?
Obviously, always keep writing. Always be creating material. Always be trying to come up with new projects.
I don’t think you have to chase the marketplace…but I do believe it’s probably best to always have some sort of a plan in the back of your mind for how you’re going to make something compelling commercially. You don’t have to generate something purely from the perspective of “I want to give the market what it wants”, but for everything that you create, there should be a check in balance that says “When it’s time for me to try to sell this or attach a producer or actor to it, there’s going to be a commercial viability that I can argue.” I can say “Here – this is why this film will make money, these are other films like it that have made money”, etc. Because unfortunately, those are the questions that you’re going to be confronted with when you have the final product and are taking it out.
Another thing to do is get notes, early and often. Always. Develop a set of peers that you trust. Over the years I’ve assembled a group of people who are incredibly valuable to me. They give me great feedback and now I don’t know what I would do without them. Everybody needs that group – it’s very easy to spin your wheels and get lost and go down the rabbit hole. So if you have people you can rely on, who can read your work and sit down with you and brainstorm, do a story session, get you unstuck, whatever it might be…I think that’s really valuable. And you can meet them in a lot of different ways. Film school, writing events, classes, coffee shops even, if you happen to be in LA!
It’s also not just about getting notes, but giving them too. The process of giving notes teaches you and makes you a better writer. Just reading other people’s material and pushing yourself to give them really good, smart feedback and seeing how that feedback affects their work. I think that ultimately makes you a better writer as well.
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