By TERESA WILTZ
WASHINGTON -- After the holocaust, they came calling, the journalists and the documentary filmmakers and the made-for-cable movie people. He had a story to tell, and everyone, it seemed, wanted to be the one to tell it.
Never mind that he'd been trying to tell the story of the genocide of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis by their fellow countrymen, the Hutus, while it was happening. No one seemed interested then. No one listened. And now, after the fact, they were knocking at his door.
He talked to the journalists. Everyone else, he told no.
"I was bitter; I was angry," says Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotelier who single-handedly saved more than 1,200 Tutsis and Hutu moderates during the 100-day slaughter in 1994. "Because I was trying to say [what was happening] and no one was listening to me."
Now that they were listening, the soft-spoken Rusesabagina wanted to make sure that he got to tell the story his way.
"I'm not interested in something that would be screened once or twice and then be forgotten completely," Rusesabagina says during a visit to Washington. "After the genocide, I wanted to tell the message to as many people as possible.
"It was just my conviction."
Then Terry George came calling. The Irish-born filmmaker had been looking to make a movie about Africa. Originally, he'd tried to write a fictional account of the war in Liberia. But then he heard about Rusesabagina.
"This whole continent needed its stories told," George says. Rusesabagina's story "encompassed everything that I was trying to say. It had romance and a family story at its core. ... And it had all the elements of a thriller."
Rusesabagina was intrigued. He watched the man's movies, soaking up the political overtones in his work. George wrote and directed "Some Mother's Son," starring Helen Mirren and based on a 1981 hunger strike in a British prison, and "A Bright Shining Lie," based on the book about a Vietnam vet. He also wrote the screenplay for "In the Name of the Father," about the Belfast youth who was falsely imprisoned for the IRA bombing of a pub, which won George an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
Rusesabagina liked what he saw. Better still, he trusted George. Many an hour was spent in George's Long Island, N.Y., home, Rusesabagina talking, George listening.
"I was telling him my story," says Rusesabagina, who now lives with his wife and children in Belgium, where he runs a taxi company.
Now, they sit together in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, just one stop of many, telling the story of how they came to make "Hotel Rwanda," a film starring Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, which is generating Oscar buzz. They had a goal: To tell the truth. To share the reality ("Ninety percent of it" really happened, according to Rusesabagina) -- the slaughter in the streets, Rusesabagina's bribing of warlords to save his family and others in his care, the Western world's indifference -- without overwhelming the audience and sending it running for the aisles.
Which meant they had to go for a PG-13 rating.
"I was determined that it would not be a gorefest," George recalls. "The genocide is perceived rather than physically experienced."
But first, they had to find funding.
"I always knew that this was going to be a difficult sell," says George. "It's got three strikes: Black leads ... that automatically is a negative in Hollywood. It's about Africa. And it's about genocide. Those three virtually rule it out for big-studio consideration."
He'd written the script with Cheadle in mind to play Rusesabagina. Cheadle, he knew, would capture "the dignity and humility" of Rusesabagina. But Cheadle, well known for supporting roles, wasn't a box office name, and George told the actor that if he had to, he'd go with the A-list clout of Denzel Washington or Will Smith to get the movie made. Heavyweight producer A. Kitman Ho ("Platoon," "JFK," "Ali") signed on, and the funding came that allowed George to use Cheadle.
There was just one problem: Cheadle had only two months free before he was due on the set to shoot "Ocean's Twelve." And despite a financial arrangement involving investors from South Africa, Britain and Italy, the money wasn't there yet. (The film cost a modest $15 million to make.) Then they caught a break when "Ocean's Twelve" star Brad Pitt tore his Achilles tendon and delayed the movie's shooting schedule.
"Bless Brad Pitt," George says. "Otherwise I would've had to cut my script."
They shot the movie in South Africa -- Rwanda didn't have the infrastructure or the political stability -- with hundreds of extras, many of whom didn't speak the same language. (Six languages were navigated on a daily basis.) Organized chaos ruled, with George keeping a close eye on both the clock and the bottom line. Many times they had only one take to make things happen.
"We felt very duty-bound to the story," says Okonedo. "We were constantly changing things, always pushing the script. ... We were not just showing up and doing lines."
Throughout it all, Rusesabagina was a constant presence on the set.
"There is a pressure in trying to tell his story while he's standing there watching you," Cheadle says. But he found Rusesabagina to be a modest man: "When you throw that hero word around Paul, he always deflates it.
"To him it was a very humanistic thing that he did," Cheadle says. "He thought every day was his last day, 'so why not help until they come and put a bullet in my head?'"