'The Apprentice' team fires back after Trump campaign threatens lawsuit

Maria Bakalova, from left, director Ali Abbasi, and Sebastian Stan pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'The Apprentice' at the 77th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Monday, May 20, 2024. (Photo by Scott A Garfitt/Invision/AP)
Actors Maria Bakalova, left, and Sebastian Stan flank director Ali Abbasi at the premiere of their film "The Apprentice" at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday. (Scott A Garfitt / Invision / Associated Press)

“It's time to make movies political again,” director Ali Abbasi said after unveiling his Donald Trump biopic "The Apprentice" at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday — and he swiftly got his wish.

"We will be filing a lawsuit to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers. This garbage is pure fiction which sensationalizes lies that have been long debunked," Steven Cheung, Trump's campaign communications director, said in a statement to The Times. "This 'film' is pure malicious defamation, should not see the light of day, and doesn’t even deserve a place in the straight-to-DVD section of a bargain bin at a soon-to-be-closed discount movie store[.] [I]t belongs in a dumpster fire."

Abbasi, whose film depicts attorney and Trump mentor Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong) teaching the young real estate scion (Sebastian Stan) that the first rule of engagement is "attack, attack, attack," isn't fazed.

"Everybody talks about him suing a lot of people," he said Tuesday at the film's Cannes news conference, to laughter and applause from many in the room. "They don’t talk about his success rate, though."

“We encourage them to actually see the film," added producer Daniel Bekerman. "Clearly they haven’t yet.”

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Abbasi went on to offer Trump a private screening and conversation about the film, should he be interested, even venturing that the 45th president would not dislike the film if he gave it a chance. That seems unlikely, given "The Apprentice's" depiction of Trump as a venal, cruel social climber who turns out his alcoholic brother shortly before his death and rapes his first wife, Ivana (Maria Bakalova), on the floor of their New York penthouse. (The character also undergoes liposuction, receives surgery for hair loss and suffers from erectile dysfunction, details practically designed to enrage the notoriously vainglorious Trump.)

But the Iranian Danish filmmaker also was adamant that Trump is simply the lens through which to view a broader issue.

"This is really not a movie about Donald Trump," said Abbasi, calling the notion of a partisan divide between conservative and liberal elites in the U.S. "a fantasy." "This is a movie about a system and the way the system works, and the way the system is built and the way the power runs through the system.”

Strong, currently performing in Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" in New York, prepared a lengthy, pointed statement about the film's politics that Abbasi read from the dais to open the news conference.

"'An enemy of the people' is a phrase that has been used by Stalin, by Mao, by Goebbels and most recently by Donald Trump, when he denounced the free press and called CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS [and the] New York Times 'fake news media.' We're living in a world where truth is under assault and in America, that assault on truth in many ways began [during] Donald Trump's apprenticeship under Roy Cohn. Cohn was called 'an assault specialist' by the National Law Journal and at this perilous moment in history, we are experiencing Roy Cohn's long, dark shadow. His legacy of lies, of outright denialism, of manipulation, of flagrant disregard for truth has reached a terrible [culmination]."

Written by former journalist Gabe Sherman, "The Apprentice" tracks Trump's rise to prominence in 1970s and ’80s New York, where, under Cohn's wing, he develops the ruthlessness that will make him a power broker and media darling. But despite its unflinching view of the lead pair, and the entertainment industry's reputation for progressive politics, Sherman said he struck out in his attempts to have the film made in Hollywood. (A Canadian, Danish and Irish co-production, "The Apprentice" has not yet sold for U.S. distribution.)

"'This movie will never be made. Who wants to watch a movie about Donald Trump?'" Sherman recalled hearing from executives he met with, including one who expressed interest in boarding the project only if Trump lost the election. "Making a film like this is very challenging because Hollywood in many ways doesn’t want to rock certain boats."

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To prepare to play the young Trump, Stan said he immersed himself in the extraordinary number of interviews the impresario has given over the years, though he tried to "distance himself" from material generated during Trump's time in politics. Instead, he focused on Trump's appearance with Rona Barrett in 1980, which is re-created in the film, along with other audio and video clips. "If I was in the bathroom, I was listening to him," Stan said.

Although he addressed questions about the film's influence on the 2024 campaign with humor, calling the election a "promotional event" for the film and suggesting a release date timed to one of the presidential debates, Abbasi clearly approached the project with a similar sense of commitment — in his case, to engaging directly in politics in his work as a filmmaker.

"I've been increasingly frustrated by my colleagues, by myself, because I feel like we're becoming too navel-gazing, becoming too inward-looking. It feels better to push out those distractions and say, 'Those wars and political debates, they come and go and corrupt politicians come and go and they don't concern me.' But they do concern us. And when we [don't participate], there is a vacuum there, which is filled by Chinese government propaganda movies, Iranian government movies, the Pentagon's entertainment arm. And it's messy. It's not Art with a big A the way I want it, which is my playing field. So now I'm playing in their playing field.

"But I do think it's important that someone does it. And I hope that someone else does it too."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.