From director Greg Barker, who also directed a documentary about the same subject in 2009, the Netflix original film Sergio tells the real-life story of Sergio Vieira de Mello (played by Narcos alum Wagner Moura), a complex man who spent the majority of his career as a top United Nations diplomat navigating deals with everyone from presidents to war criminals, in order to protect the lives of the people. But after he takes one last assignment in Baghdad following the U.S. invasion, a bomb blast brings the UN headquarters crashing down on him, forcing him to confront his own choices while the woman he loves, Carolina (Ana de Armas), is unable to help him.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Barker talked about what made him so passionate about this subject, why Moura was such a great collaborator, balancing the politics with the love story, how his experience in documentaries helped him with editing the film, and why he felt the story in his latest documentary The Longest War was an important one to tell.
Collider: This clearly is a subject that you must be passionate about because you’ve spent quite some time telling this man’s story. Sergio is inspired by a true story, there’s a book, and there’s also a documentary you directed. What is it about Sergio that made you feel like his was a story worth telling, especially in two different types of films?
GREG BARKER: Yeah, when I look back at it, it’s been a long time. I certainly never anticipated it taking up so much of my life, at the outset. I knew the Sergio was. I’d spent a lot of time, as a journalist and documentary filmmaker overseas, and I knew people who knew him. It really was in 2005, when Samantha Power was writing [Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World] about Sergio. She had known him pretty well, in Bosnia during the war there, and after he was killed, she started off trying to write an article about him for The Atlantic, which turned into a book. I sat down with her and read some of her early chapters, and I just saw, in his story, this scope of a life lived large. He was somebody who really tried to make a difference, but really inhabited the shades of gray, between right and wrong, and good and evil, to get stuff done, In my journalism work, I had come to believe that that’s what actually matters – not really worrying about ideologies, but looking at the situation on the ground. So, I was drawn to that. I was also drawn to his internal struggle. He saw the world very clearly, but did not see himself clearly at all, so his personal life was messy. At the time, I identified with that and felt like I was drawn to that story. I really saw it, honestly, as a narrative feature, from the outset.
In 2005, I was making documentary films for Frontline at PBS. What I could do was make a feature documentary, which I took to HBO, and that was my first big non-PBS feature documentary. There was a personal side of his story that I felt drawn to and that I couldn’t really get out, in the documentary. Years passed and the narrative rights to Samantha’s book had been tied up with another filmmaker, and that didn’t go anywhere. I said to Samantha, “I think I know how to make this as a movie, and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.” So, we started that journey. That was 2011, when I got those rights. Then, the stars finally aligned with Wagner [Moura] becoming available and wanting to play Sergio. We met up and realized that we don’t have to tell the same story, for the same reasons. After a lot of years, it suddenly happened, but it’s been in my head for a long time.
It seems like there’s some fate involved, when you make a documentary about this subject and then it circles back around to be the subject of your first narrative feature.
BARKER: Yes. It’s strange how it works. I’ve been drawn to narrative for some time and had other projects that, as these things go, sometimes they happen, sometimes they don’t. I have projects that came close, but then didn’t happen for various reasons. So, it felt right that this was the one that happened. There is something about this story that inspires people. I saw it, firsthand, making the documentary, with the people that I interviewed and also the whole crew and team. It was a special experience. I had the same experience, on a larger scale, doing the narrative. Maybe it’s fate, but it just felt right. It was easy to cast. Wagner found the material, and then we found each other. Ana de Armas read the script and was drawn to it, immediately. She was at my house, 48 hours after reading the script, saying, “I have to play Carolina.” Bradley Whitford read it and was like, “I need to play Paul Bremer.” It was the kind of project where people were drawn to the material and this was a story that they wanted to tell. That probably helped get it made.
What was it like to work with a lead actor, who was also a producer? What do you feel Wagner Moura contributed to this?
BARKER: As an actor, and also as a producer, he wants to tell stories from Latin America that don’t reinforce stereotypes. Particularly coming off of Pablo Escobar (in Narcos), he felt like he wanted to play a good guy. He was also perfect for Sergio. We became very close. We have an initial Skype call. He was in Rio and I was in L.A. We realized that we saw the world in similar ways, and were drawn to Sergio’s story and his personal dilemmas for the same reasons. We spent days together, going through the script, line by line and page by page, workshopping the project, and I really could see him finding the character.
Wagner is incredibly generous as an actor. He was generous with the rest of the cast. He never tried to tell me how to make the movie, at all. He was remarkable, in terms of how he approached the character. It was interesting to witness that up close, and to see him do really detailed research into Sergio and watch every bit of footage that we could find, and distill all of that into a version that felt right to him. It’s not an imitation. It’s a version of Sergio and Wagner, and somewhere in between becomes this character, which feels authentic to both the real Sergio and the actor playing him […] It’s a process, and it was amazing to witness. We became very close friends and close collaborators. He’s an actor’s actor, so everybody else wanted to work with him. It was very easy to cast because he’s very generous. He’s not trying to hog the screen all the time. He gives actors, and everybody, space to do their thing, which really comes across.
This film has a balance between the political side of the story and this personal love story. How tricky was that to get right, and why do you think that personal relationship was important to add to the telling of the story?
BARKER: It was a balance. For me, what always spoke to me about Sergio was this internal struggle. He’s a man who saw the world clearly, but not himself, and that was always the way that I saw the story. I’m drawn to those kinds of movies that are these big, epic, emotional love stories, set against a canvas of political turmoil and change. The movies that I loved and was inspired by, growing up, were the movies like The English Patient and The Year of Living Dangerously, and I felt that was the right way of approaching this. I’d done a more political take on it in the documentary, so I didn’t feel like I wanted to make a political movie. There’s a universality of this experience and struggle that we all feel, between how to be true in the way we approach the world, outside of our closest circle, and how we’re authentic to those closest to us, and how we love. It’s just what always spoke to me.
But getting the balance right was a challenge. You try lots of things. The first draft of the script was different from what we ended up filming, and the way we filmed it is different from how it ends up in the edit room. It actually became more of an introspective film, the more we worked with it. You can look at it as all taking place inside Sergio’s head, but what you’d be wondering, in those moments, is about the choices that he made. He wouldn’t be thinking about the treaty negotiation. He’d be thinking about whether he was a good father to his kids, and about the person that he loved.
Because that is such an important relationship, what did you like about what Ana de Armas brought to this?
BARKER: First of all, she’s a really nice person. She’s very grounded, and I think that comes across in her performances. She knows where she came from, and she a very humble background in Cuba. Her parents were not part of the elite. They were school teachers and they struggled. She came from really nowhere, and she has very, very deep roots back in Cuba. That’s where her closest friends are. It was very interesting to talk to her about her own journey. That grounded-ness and that connectedness with ordinary people meant that she was able to understand Carolina Larriera. She sees the world from the ground up and helped re-calibrate Sergio’s professional approach. Ana just felt that intuitively; her technical skill is astounding. What she was able to do and the emotional range that she was asked to bring to bear in her performance would be a very high challenge, for any actor. It would have been incredibly challenging for any actor to stay in that moment with that heightened emotion, and Ana was the consummate professional, who came to set completely prepared and knew exactly what she needed to do. Because she’s so connected and so grounded, she was able to bring all of this truly authentic emotion to the performance, and that’s what an audience connects with because they see themselves in her. I think that’s why she’s doing so well.
I remember our first rehearsals, where it was just the three of us together in a hotel suite for three days. We were workshopping their relationship and we did it chronologically, from when they first meet, all the way through. We just did the scenes in the order of how they would have played, in real life, and you could just see the chemistry between those characters explode. When we first did our first screen test, it was clear to everybody that it was gonna be a very powerful combination. They both connected with these characters very deeply, and they both saw maybe a version of themselves in the characters and were able to bring that plus their technical skill to the performance. That was nice to watch.
With a film like this, as a filmmaker, it seems like you could fairly easily get lost under all of the material. Did your background with this and knowing what this story was, help you in shaping the story that you wanted to tell, as you were editing the film?
BARKER: I think my experience in documentaries helped with that because storytelling is really all about leaving stuff out. There’s a tendency, in documentary, to get trapped in trying to tell the whole story. That’s why, in my view, most documentaries are too long. I’ve gotten good, over the years, at knowing what we really need. When you then make a movie that’s inspired by real story, it’s a challenge not to try to tell the whole story, which you can’t, so you have to just know what the core emotional drive of the story has to be. That’s gotta be the core of the film and what’s pushing it along, and then you need to make sure the audience knows where they are. You don’t want them to get lost. You want them to be grounded in the story, but you can’t have too much exposition in the story. You have to figure out what you really need to know and that’s a challenge. But it’s about telling the story in the most economical way, leaving stuff out, so that the emotion is at the forefront.
You also have the documentary, The Longest War, out at Showtime. What made you want to tell that story and make that film?
BARKER: That’s a very different film. We’re still making sense of what the post-9/11 world has meant. It’s possible now, with the pandemic, that we’re living in a post-post-different era. Long wars that began for other reasons have taken on a life of their own and it’s worth stepping back and saying, “What does this all mean?” War and crises shape us in ways that we don’t fully understand. The Longest War tries to unpack that, particularly with regard to Afghanistan and the CIA’s experience in Afghanistan, which had moments of clarity followed by years and years of a muddled approach, for lots of reasons.
It’s interesting, Sergio is set at a similar moment in time. There’s a universal quality to that, where it’s like, “How do we view the world and view the other? And how do we then maintain hope, amidst the darkness? At the time, but now even more so, looking at how Sergio, who probably saw more war and human suffering than any person of his generation, and yet still remained an optimist and retained a belief in the power of the human spirit to endure and solve complex problems, is inspiring to me. Those are the kinds of stories that I’m drawn to. It’s a coincidence both are coming out within a couple days of each other. I hope that people take away, not the sense that the world is hopefully, but in the case of Sergio, in particular, but that you can find a way through difficult times, which is mostly through being empathetic towards those closest to us and to the wider world.
Sergio is available to stream at Netflix.