"The Response" was produced with unprecedented support from the University of Maryland School of Law, the stars and other production members, the firm of Venable LLP, and the larger community of professionals involved with the detainee issue.
A Director for "The Response"
After conceiving the project at the University of Maryland School of Law and finishing the script, SigLibowitz enlisted director Adam Rodgers, another Baltimore native and friend who jokingly calls Libowitz, “the Jewish Orson Welles,” because of his multiple roles as producer, screenwriter and cast member on The Response. Rodgers met Libowitz during their days at New York University when he cast Sig in an awardwinning student film and the two realized they had grown up just a few miles apart in Baltimore. Adam and Sig became close friends and together co-wrote a number of projects.
"Adam combines the qualities that I felt were essential to turning this screenplay into a movie," recalls Libowitz. "He has a great sense of character and visual storytelling, a strong grasp of world affairs, and a wonderfully genuine way of connecting with others which draws a crew and a cast to raise their game – which we needed for our very tight, complicated shoot."
Rodgers, the son of two career print journalists, had a strong reaction when he read the screenplay. “I, too, thought I was pretty knowledgeable about Guantanamo,” he said. “But when I read the script I realized I had no real idea of what was happening. The screenplay's great strength was its ability to humanize a situation that had become somewhat abstract. You know, Guantanamo Bay had been reduced to nightly news stock footage of guys in jumpsuits and shackles shuffling behind chain-link fences and barbed wire. But the script had transformed the abstraction into drama and I felt like I had to do it.”
Rodgers and Libowitz turned to Emmy award-winning cinematographer Richard Chisolm, yet another Baltimore native, and also a friend of Rodgers.
“When I was working as a cinematographer and Adam was fresh out of film school, our mothers – who were both reporters at The Baltimore Sun - connected us. Adam ended up being a production assistant on a project I was working on,” Chisolm recalls. Adam adds that Richard was always great to his staff, often telling others, "Be nice to your PAs – someday they'll be directing, and hopefully they'll hire you."
Chisolm’s experience working in documentary film proved valuable for The Response. “Having instincts about realistic camerawork, like handheld video and observational documentary camerawork was appealing to Adam and Sig as a way of helping the audience feel like ‘Yes, it’s a fiction, and yes, these are actors, but there’s a feeling that I’m really there.’”
"Richard and I were inspired visually by a lot of different movies," Rodgers says. "We searched to somehow find the balance between the controlled style of classic “man-ontrial” pictures like Twelve Angry Men and the feeling of spontaneity and reality that comes across in movies like Traffic. We even talked about the French New Wave— which may sound a bit nuts in the context of a movie about Guantanamo Bay—but we were trying to zero in on how we were going to give the camerawork the energy we knew was critical.”
"Do you have an agenda?"
Casting director Ellen Novack was another instrumental piece of the puzzle. "Ellen was so passionate about the film, and she had such spot-on ideas," said Libowitz. Novack was able to reach out to a group of top-notch actors. Peter Riegert and Kate Mulgrew portray Colonels Jefferson and Simms, two of the military tribunal officers, with Aasif Mandvi as the detainee. The cast was rounded out by Libowitz who portrays Captain Joshua Miller.
After reading the material, Riegert called Libowitz to discuss. “I asked Sig if he had an agenda. ‘Are you trying to prove something with your screenplay?’” Riegert recalls. “He said no, that he was looking at this as an idea to debate. And I thought it was interesting as a dramatic piece. The battle of the ideas represented by Kate, myself and Sig is really what made it challenging. And worth taking a chance on.”
Kate Mulgrew: " . . . the instant I read it . . . "
According to Kate Mulgrew, “My manager sent me the screenplay and the instant I read it I wanted to do it.” "I get sent so much mediocrity, but this just stood out." With a nod to her past role on Star Trek she added, “I’m always in uniform you know.”
Read more about Kate Mulgrew's reaction to making "The Response."
Libowitz plays the younger Captain Miller, a kind of Everyman who must navigate between the opposing viewpoints of Simms and Jefferson.
“Miller has sort of been thrown into this tribunal process with these two Colonels who he very much admires and from whom he wants respect,” Libowitz says. “And he's got to figure out which way he wants to go with this process. So he's really caught in a spider's web.”
Aasif Mandvi: "like going down the rabbit hole . . . "
Aasif Mandvi felt that The Response was “like going down the rabbit hole. It’s set in some weird courtroom in some bizarre totalitarian other-world, yet it’s an American courtroom. And just knowing it was taken from transcripts is pretty powerful.” As the detainee Al Aqar, Mandvi had to enter the courtroom in shackles and then be chained to the floor —standard operating procedure for the tribunals.
Read more about Aasif Mandvi's reaction to making "The Response."
"The Response": Roll film!
After a brief rehearsal period in New York, The Response was shot over three days at the University of Maryland School of Law, using only two locations: a moot courtroom for the Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) sequence and a conference room for the judges' deliberation sequence. Several law students were heavily involved in the filmmaking process. A number served as production assistants, researchers and drivers. A few even got to work with the stars, reading with the actors to help them memorize their lines. One student, Sandra Goldberg – who had twice traveled to Guantanamo as a paralegal to a team of attorneys – became a key researcher for the film.
“To shoot this movie about law and legal conflict within the confines of the University of Maryland Law School was just a gift,” Mulgrew enthused. “The feeling of the school is all about these young people passionate about the law and to have them involved in the project was terrific. To be able to do it within the confines of reality — you just felt the authenticity of it.”
Meanwhile, Rodgers and Chisolm found it enormously challenging to design a shooting strategy that would allow them to capture close to ten pages of script per day while steering clear of the visual clichés of television courtroom dramas.
“The biggest hurdle was finding the connection between the words, which were obviously compelling, and the basic physicality of the situation, which was essentially static—the detainee chained to the floor, for example,” says Rodgers. “But the situation forced all of us to be inventive, and I found myself increasingly interested in this notion that everyone in the movie is figuratively or literally stuck. The judges are mired in legal issues they’re wrestling with, and certainly the detainee is physically restrained. Even the government is stuck trying to make decisions about the larger policy. So Richard and I came to see this inertia as a potentially strong visual metaphor.”