Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
Now I’m going to tell you a story…
This will make up for the drab and dull posts I’ve been boring you with of late. How to’s on structure, format, dialogue, character development…
This is about The Tunnel—how the screenplay came into being. What the heck is The Tunnel?
From director Muhammad Bayazid: “The world still can’t understand why Syrians marched the streets on March 19, 2011, sacrificing their lives. For anyone who didn’t have a firsthand experience of what it is like to live under Assad’s regime, The Tunnel is inspired by true events; the imprisonment and escape of a Syrian-American pianist who spent twenty years in Tadmor—one of the most notorious prisons in the world.”
The project is closing in on financing, so the time is right to tell the tale. I’m involved as a writer and producer. Today will be the story behind the screenplay. Next time you’re whining about how tough writing is, think about Muhammad B, and what he had to undergo to make this project happen.
We’ll do this chronologically, same way Muhammad told it to me yesterday when he curled my already curly Southern Italian hair. We’ve worked together two years on this story and he never once spoke about this… D a m n!
1970-2000: Syria’s chain of power in 25 words or less: Hafez Al-Assad came to power in the 1970 Corrective Revolution. His son, Bassel, expected to become the new leader, died in a car accident in 1994. Bashar, the younger son, was groomed to become leader and took control in 2000.
November 2011: Muhammad Bayazid, a well-known Syrian filmmaker mostly known for a series of anti-Assad short films, was meeting with survivors of the notorious Tadmor prison. Mostly unknown in the Western press, Tadmor was a concentration camp. From Wikipedia:
“During the 1980s, Tadmor prison housed thousands of Syrian prisoners, both political and criminal. It was the scene of the June 27, 1980 Tadmor Prison massacre of an estimated thousand prisoners by Rifaat al-Assad. Tadmor was closed in 2001 and all remaining detainees were transferred to other prisons in Syria. Tadmor was reopened on June 15, 2011 and 350 individuals arrested for participation in anti-government demonstrations were transferred there for interrogation and detainment.”
Muhammad was planning a project called The Tunnel. It would be based on true accounts of wholesale murder happening at Tadmor, the “ultimate horror movie, a Syrian Schindler’s List” not reported by traditional Western journalism.
The Tadmor survivors who were interviewed were physically disabled from years of torture. They were on a government watch list, forbidden to leave the country. They put their lives on the line to tell Bayazid stories they hadn’t told their own wives and family, many breaking down in tears. Muhammad’s idea was to fuse the stories together, have the movie be one single man surviving the hell of Tadmor.
Driving home one night, Muhammad saw six armed men sexual harassing three crying girls. These were thugs from Assad’s army, in full uniform. He asked his friend to stop the car, got out, and confronted them. The men turned on Muhammad and tasered him. At the heart. With a high-voltage, military-grade taser. Tasering him again. And again. He was then beaten with metal sticks, put in a military intelligence vehicle, and driven off.
Muhammad’s kidnapping lasted 24 hours. They locked him into a tire and beat the undersides of his feet. Then came the electric shocks. Then the beating with clubs. At the point where Muhammad was so delirious he stopped feeling the pain, when his screams finally diminished, they gave him 30 minutes to recover. He observed prisoners hanging from ceilings, hooded, hands tied with electrical wire behind their backs. Then they came for him again, and commenced the beating.
After the street riots and killings of 2011, the government was feeling world pressure for human rights violations. After 24 hours they released him into the streets of Damascus—bloodied and beaten, stripped of everything but the shreds on his back.
Muhammad phoned friends, borrowed what he could and attempted to flee Syria for Jordan. He found a leather jacket that barely covered the blood which caked his body. At the Syrian border as he waited to have his passport stamped, he looked up at a television to see a picture of himself! The text read: SYRIAN FILMMAKER KIDNAPPED. In a scene out of Argo, he diverted the attention of the soldier stamping passports so he wouldn’t see the TV.
They had arrested him and—incredibly–released him, not knowing he was a prominent anti-Assad voice. Had they checked his identity, he wouldn’t never have made it across the border alive.
Amman, Jordan, 2012: Muhammad worked the script for The Tunnel. Finishing up the second draft, he received a call from a well-known Pro-Assad Syrian businessman. “I hear you’re writing an anti-Assad screenplay. I’m interested in producing this.”
Muhammad was skeptical. “I don’t believe you.”
They arranged a Skype call where the businessman continued his pitch. He promised to fund the entire film and suggested locations to shoot… in Syria! Kinda like Putty Tat inviting Tweety out of the cage for tea and crumpets.
Muhammad knew if went back to Syria, he was a dead man. “Ahhh, don’t think so.”
The business guy countered: “How about Lebanon?” Those who live in the region know, Syria and Lebanon have a very close relationship. Traveling from one country to the other is a breeze.
A second encounter came with a well-known Syrian journalist interested in meeting in Jordan, close to where Muhammad was living. Like all spy movies, it would happen at a crowded, fully public restaurant.
An hour before the meeting Muhammad received a call—the journalist needed to change the location. The new location was closer to where Muhammad lived, so he agreed. However, as he approached, Muhammad found a mysteriously depopulated street. There was a single man, 6-2, looking like a Vin Diesel stand-in, more hitman than journalist. Muhammad drove toward him with caution, locking his car doors. Stopping the car, the man tried to enter, but the doors were locked. When Vin Diesel’s attempts to get into the car became more violent, Muhammad hit the gas pedal. In the rear-view mirror, he saw the man pull a gun, but the car sped away out of range.
Not long after this there was an assault on his wife, two thugs tried to break into her car as she was driving. His wife, Samah, was a co-director on the film, and she too was now in danger. The expression “the straw that broke the camel” came when Muhammad came out one morning to find a note on his car: “WE WILL KILL YOU”.
Muhammad continued his short anti-Assad films, the series called “Save The Rest.” The premise was: Tell the stories of Syrians who are voiceless in Western journalism. “Hello, I am —, I was shot during the May 2011 riots three years ago. My spine was fractured at the L4 vertebrae. I will never walk again. You can’t save me but you can save others in Syria right now. Please help.”
New York City, 2017: Muhammad filmed a teaser trailer for The Tunnel. Even this was extraordinary. It took three months of preparation, in particular with costumes/props. He found a retired Syrian-American tailor with 60-years’ experience to recreate the military uniforms and ranks. The tailor, with relatives in Syria, requested anonymity in the credits. There was no end to Assad’s reach, even here.
The art director couldn’t understand why she was bringing a car tire to the set. Muhammad demonstrated how Syrian military intelligence squeeze a man inside. Actors were laughing at first, until filming of the torture scene started. Then the laughter stilled.
Muhammad realized if he was going to find financing in America, the story had to be “Americanized.” Which, I suppose, is where I came in. I’ll talk about the screenplay itself later.
For now, I just want to say thanks to Muhammad for his leadership and vision. And for showing me the meaning of passion piece—how far a filmmaker has to go to make something of worth.
A few last words from his director’s statement:
“This is an unfiltered journey through hell. Within the walls of Tadmor we find violence and brutality, a volcano of emotions, and through unbreakable friendships and sheer force of will, a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Consulting on this movie will be actual survivors of Tadmor. Men who were jailed during the 80’s massacres in cities like Hama. They watched then as the world stood silent. They, and the filmmakers, understand that is why it is happening all over again in 2016. A massacre ignored is another massacre waiting to happen.”
Inspiring, my brother.