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Having penned screenplays for the likes of JESUS’ SON (1999), I’M NOT THERE (2007) and MARRIED LIFE (2007), Oren Moverman is making his directorial debut with THE MESSENGER. He also co-wrote this tale of an American casualty notification officer who falls for the widow of a fallen comrade and, as he explains, story remains at the heart of his craft.
The Messenger has an interesting backstory. Can you tell us about that?
Alessandro Camon and I wrote the script, and I got it to Sydney Pollack, who wanted to develop it as a love story. But we worked on it for a while and came to an agreement that it wasn’t going to work as a love story, so Sydney dropped out in a very nice way. Roger Michell came on board and we worked with him. We developed the script for him: more about the relationship, the friendship, between the two men. And then Roger had to go off and do another movie and there was a writers’ strike. Then Ben Affleck directed his first film [Gone Baby Gone], and was looking at this as a possibility to direct, and ultimately decided not to, and I was offered the job. I was the last man standing!
Do you think there has been an attempt to hide this side of the story, because until 2009 the Pentagon banned the publication of photographs of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base?
Absolutely; it wasn’t part of the dialogue. You also have to remember in the States it’s a volunteer army, so in a way it wasn’t like the public was crying out for these images. What’s happening now, thankfully, is that this is becoming part of the conversation.
Was your decision to tell this story political, given that it was a political choice by the Bush Snr administration to impose the ban?
Every movie is political by definition—the fact that a movie is a product of a financial structure makes it political immediately—but this movie is not about politics, because that would have been the easy way in, and probably the thing that would finish it off. Once you go into politics, and you go into arguments, you go into emotions, and emotions take you outside of rational conversation when it comes to facts, and then you can dismiss the other side. We wanted a movie that could actually be very gentle and pull people into a dialogue.
You served in the Israeli Defence Force for four years. How much of your own experience is reflected in Ben Foster’s burnt-out character, Montgomery?
I’m sure certain details are there, not so much in the narrative but in the emotional landscape of the character. Ben and I talked about my experiences in the army. But I think that what I felt is I could understand. I understand soldiers because I think I understand certain emotions they go through, just from my experience.
I was in Lebanon and in the first Intifada. So, you know, I’m sure there are things that informed emotionally, and that’s where we started. We built on it by talking to American soldiers, by finding our own things and Ben’s brilliant ability to develop things on his own and bring suggestions, even new dialogue. It was a very fluid, organic process. So it’s not like I can point to a certain thing and say that’s me. But there are very few directors working in American cinema with military experience, and I felt it gave me some tools I could use.
Did that at any point scare you about putting this movie out at this particular time?
I wouldn’t say scared. I think we tried to approach it from a positive place which is to say, “We would like people to see this movie. We would like people to be a part of this dialogue. Or if we’re very, very lucky, to spark a dialogue’. So what we’re thinking about now is what’s the best way to get people to see this movie? It’s not just a tough time for Iraq war-themed movies. It’s a tough time, period. You know? The challenge is not just how do we overcome what they call in the States the ‘Iraq curse’. Ultimately, I want everyone who invested in this movie to get their money back. But the important thing for me is to get people to see this movie.
Because The Messenger is your directorial debut, do you feel more invested in this film than, say, I’m Not There or Jesus’ Son?
No. I was very involved in the other films, but I feel more invested in this film because I’m allowed to be. As a screenwriter you’re only allowed to participate up to a certain point. I’ve only worked on a few films that got made so far—most films that I write don’t get made—but I was very lucky that in many of these situations I worked with friends. So I was involved in editing and in the whole process, which gave me a degree of comfort in directing.
As a scriptwriter, do you feel happy when you can direct your script personally?
Well first of all it’s not my script. I wrote it with a great writer. You know it’s good. It’s not unhappy. I’m very personally invested in something that I write, emotionally and passionately in it. And once a director takes it away I forget about it. Life’s too short to start breaking your heart over words that were changed in a movie. So it’s not like I’m devastated when somebody does a movie I worked on and it’s not what I thought it should be.
You said you wanted to make a film that gets people talking with The Messenger. Is that your primary focus as a filmmaker?
I can’t see myself getting out of bed in the morning to make something that doesn’t feel meaningful to me. There are so many kinds of films that are great fun and challenging for the director to make, great fun and challenging for the actor to get into that role, and have absolutely nothing to give to an audience. I totally understand the impulse to make a living and work and create for yourself, and it’s totally legitimate and creates some great entertainment sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. But for me if it’s not going to have another aspect to it, it’s going to be very challenging. •
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 22 (May/June 2011)