There were three great films about the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts in 2009: Brothers, The Hurt Locker and Israeli screenwriter and journalist Oren Moveman’s The Messenger.
Of the three, The Hurt Locker is getting the most attention but The Messenger which follows two soldiers charged with giving families the bad news of the death of a loved one in combat, ranked higher on my end of the year top-10 list and hits home the hardest.
It opens in Tri-Cities at the Carmike 12 on Friday, Jan. 8. Catch it if you possibly can.
I had the opportunity to interview Moverman last week. He also wrote the controversial but highly acclaimed He’s Not There and an art house favorite but lesser-known and the much better Married Life with Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams.
Gary Wolcott: How do you write a film like The Messenger?
Oren Moverman: It came out of a casual conversation we [cowriter Alessandro Camon] were having. He came up with the idea of casualty notification and the many stories of the families of the soldiers and bringing those issues to the forefront.
Gary Wolcott: It was powerful. There are scenes that make it hard to breathe and that nearly move you to tears. At least they did me. I'm pretty jaded. How did you get me there?
Oren Moverman: We talked to some people but this subject is a lot closer to all of us than it would seem. Though it is set in the military world and is about combat notification, the truth of the matter is we are all familiar with the feeling of getting bad news about someone we love and is no longer with us. We were immersed in the emotion. That's what writers do. You write the emotion and hope to God when you do it on set [film the scene] that emotion will be found and expressed in a way that will make it really powerful.
Gary Wolcott: This is your first time as a director. Did you know you were going to direct when you wrote The Messenger?
Oren Moverman: No, I didn't. There were three directors involved in the project along the way. Each of them dropped out for various reasons. So the job was offered to me. It was a surprise at the time. I never imagined myself directing this movie. But I knew the script very well and knew the process and I knew every character and the possibility of the narrative for the story. So being at the helm of this was quite natural.
Gary Wolcott: Normally as a screenwriter you collaborate with a director. Sometimes writers and directors have different visions as to where the story should go. As both director and a writer did you get along with yourself?
Oren Moverman: Yes. I was very confident about the script. It is my job as to translate it onto the screen. Sometimes as a writer you get really, really strict about the words. You want the words on the page to be the exact words that come out of the mouth of the actors. You want that to be the bible. No variations. Because this was a work in progress and because it had changed so many times, I knew that the actors could bring changes that could be just as good, if not better. So I gave them a lot of freedom to find new things and to express themselves. There was a lot of trust between us and it became obvious in the process of creating new things.
Gary Wolcott: Did you have specific actors in mind when you wrote this?
Oren Moverman: I never think about actors when I write. It's all about getting a script to work on the page.
Gary Wolcott: Woody Harrelson is getting all the attention. He got the Golden Globe nomination for supporting actor. But it is Ben Foster who is most impressive in this story. The guy is a phenomenal actor. I have seen nearly all of the supposedly better performances of 2009 and have just one more film, The Lovely Bones to see, but no one to date has impressed me more than Foster.
Oren Moverman: I have to agree with you. He put a lot of heart and soul into this performance. He is a tremendously talent actor.
Gary Wolcott: That's an understatement. Foster steals every movie I've seen him in. He and Harrelson had great chemistry.
Oren Moverman: They were in love with each other from the moment they met and became the best of friends very quickly. They created a little universe of their own which you see in the film.
Gary Wolcott: It is just a very well done movie. From ground zero to the credits rolling, The Messenger moved me. It's a very important story to tell. What a hard job those soldiers have. Harrelson's character insists over and over that you can't get emotionally involved with the job. You can't hug people or cry with them.
Oren Moverman: That's the way the job is done. It has been done thousands and thousands of times over the last eight years. This gives you a different perspective when you read in the paper that someone was killed. Now you can add the component of the next step.
Gary Wolcott: There were three great movies about the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts in 2009: Brothers, The Hurt Locker and yours. Have you seen the others?
Oren Moverman: I saw The Hurt Locker and the original Brothers.
Gary Wolcott: It appears that Hollywood is now looking a little deeper into these two conflicts. What are you trying to say?
Oren Moverman: It is about calling attention to the people that have to live with the consequences of the decision to go to war. And not live with them politically, but live with them in their personal lives. The lives of people going to war are affected every day. The family is stretched thin. It is our responsibility to talk about it and to do something about it, to make sure these issues are not forgotten. That is our goal, to bring into mainstream conversation the issues of these families and these returning soldiers.
On a universal level, our approach to this material is that life is tough. There's a lot of pain, there's a lot of grief. We all experience this one way or another. People we love die. We get told about it or we have to tell other people about it. How do we live life feeling these feelings and going through these hardships? Ultimately it comes down to tried-and-true ingredients that make life better such as friendship and love, and humor and connections. The stuff that's basic, that we yearn to get back to. All of that is represented in the movie one way or another.
Gary Wolcott: We all see the statistics but unless someone we know is killed in action, they are tragic but somehow not real.
Oren Moverman: We all know these people. They're not that far away from us. This is about the emotional battlefield happening right now in our country.
Gary Wolcott: You wrote I'm not There and Married Life. Both were very well written. Are you going to go back to just writing or do you want to stick with writing and directing? And is there anybody you want to work with?
Oren Moverman: I'm definitely planning on getting back to directing. I would like to preserve the group of actors that I've worked with and then expand it for different projects, almost like a company working together from project to project. Woody and Ben and the actors I've worked with that are so talented and so interesting.
Gary Wolcott: It's not uncommon for certain actors and certain directors to work together all the time. Woody Harrelson is a tremendous actor. He's really versatile and can make you laugh or play someone dangerously nasty and be very believable. Ben Foster is one of the best dramatic actors to come along in a long, long time. They guy is flat powerful. The emotion he gets out of a character is mind-boggling and he was so good in your movie. I saw The Messenger in October, I think. Today I still can't get it out of my mind. I've been nagging the film booker at Carmike - who books more art films than the other two chains - to get it here. And now it is here.
One last question. There is the movie you have in your mind. There is the movie you write. There is the movie you shoot. Then there is the movie you edit into the final product. How close is The Messenger to the movie you had in your mind?
Oren Moverman: They were not that far apart but they're not that close. I could be a politician with an answer like that. It's not the movie that I had in mind. It's better than the movie I had in mind.