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Interview with Alex Holmes

HBO

What attracted you to this project?

Alex Holmes

Well, my background is in anthropology. And I was trying to understand what was going on in Iraq after Saddam was removed. Of course you can't understand a situation like that without delving into the history to see what gave rise to it; not just what gave rise to it in terms of the invasion by the U.S.-led coalition, but also how the country had managed to descend so quickly into chaos. And what I discovered when I started looking into the history was that Saddam had created this hold over the country that was astonishing. He did it by mapping his family relations over the political system that was in place. And as an anthropologist I found that fascinating, the mixture between family and politics. It was reminiscent of a gangster set-up, where the bonds of loyalty were both political and familial.

Dramatizing Saddam gave us the opportunity to get underneath the skin of the man and inside his head, a place very difficult to get to unless you actually had an interview with the man himself. Now obviously this is my re- imagining of Saddam. But I was interested in trying to understand the psychology of the man, what made him so powerful, so charismatic and so terrorizing.

I was interested in trying to understand the psychology of the man, what made him so powerful, so charismatic and so terrorizing.

HBO

You did a great deal of research into Saddam and his life. What did that reveal?

Alex Holmes

The first thing I realized when I started reading accounts of Saddam was that everybody had some kind of a personal, if not political agenda. My agenda was to look the character of the man and understand how he had propelled the world into this terrible situation it found itself in. I realized very quickly that the way Saddam had been written about over the years had changed. And it's fascinating because in a way the books themselves are a record of the changing attitude of the world towards Saddam.

If you go back to biographies of Saddam that were written in the '80s, they're much more respectful; they're trying to understand what this man's vision is. Whereas if you look at the more recent biographies, they revise the very same events and the very same history in order to uncover a man who is corrupt, who is dangerous, who is fundamentally bad. So I realized that everybody had a point of view, and it was our job to take all of those views and to find the truth within them.

That's the story we wanted to tell - of this colossal fall, a fall brought about by historical forces, but also by Saddam's own flaws.

HBO

How did you balance historical accuracy with creating a compelling, fictionalized drama?

Alex Holmes

The challenge was to make a film that was engaging and would draw people in so that they would stay for the entire journey. If we showed an appalling monster from the first frame then people wouldn't understand what it was that we felt we could add to people's comprehension of Saddam. We had to get that balance right and our aim was to try and be honest about its being a version of events, but a reliable version. We didn't put anything in it we knew not to be true. Rather we looked at what the actual events could tell us, and how we could use them to elucidate his character.

HBO

There have been many ruthless dictators throughout history. What is it that distinguishes Saddam from the others?

Alex Holmes

Saddam was similar to other dictators. He was, in fact, a student of them. He was obsessed by Stalin and the way he had managed to wrestle the Soviet Union under his control, and drag it from the 19th century into the 20th century. I think in a way that was one of the inspirations for Saddam's vision; he admired Stalin's ruthlessness. And one of the things I wanted to achieve was to actually draw those parallels, to make this not just about Saddam but about the nature of dictatorship, about the nature of fear, and the use of terror as a political weapon.

We meet him at the height of his powers, and then four television hours later there he's being pulled out of a hole in the ground, a man left completely alone in the world. That's the story we wanted to tell - of this colossal fall, a fall brought about by historical forces, but also by Saddam's own flaws. And we wanted to tell the story over time in order to get that sense of tragedy.

House of Saddam

HBO Films

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