Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Message of "The Messenger"

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The Message of "The Messenger"

(from brinkzine.com 11/1/2009)

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Last Sunday's New York Times had a 3-page article by Deborah Sontag about director-screenwriter Oren Moverman's The Messenger. Sontag's title was "A New Attack on the Iraq War Film," and she seemed to describe it as a combination of a "coming home-from-war/buddy movie" and a European art film; and she said Moverman (a left-leaning Israeli who spent four years in his country's Defense Forces) portrayed it as "the little war movie that could." It's a war movie without fighting, set far away from the action in Iraq and Afghanistan but with death and trauma constant presences. Our "hero" is a soldier named Will (rising star Ben Foster), who is trying to cope with mental and physical problems after returning to the U.S. from the war zone. For his final few months in uniform, he is teamed with the older but also flipped-out Tony (Woody Harrelson, in a different role for him), a veteran of the first Gulf War. Their unenviable job is to perform, in a number of shocking sequences that were done without rehearsal, casualty notifications to dead soldiers' next of kin. As Will bonds with Tony, he also finds himself drawn toward a kind young widow, Olivia (Samantha Morton, super once again). As he engages in two totally different "romances," and experiences enormous pain and grief, Will, oddly, shows signs of healing. In anticipation of The Messenger's  release, I took part in the following roundtable with Moverman (a cowriter of the bizarre Dylan biopic I'm Not There) and Foster (3:10 to Yuma). I note my questions.
Q: Oren, how did your own military experience in the Israeli army inform this film?
Oren Moverman: It informs the script not so much in the narrative--there's no time when I can say that happened to me or that's my story--but what I felt I knew and understood was the emotional landscape of a combat soldier. Because I was in combat zones. I don't want to make it sound like I was a warrior or fighter. I was part of two occupations: the occupation of Palestine and the occupation of Lebanon. They aren't dissimilar from the occupations that are going on right now, though it seems they are now bloodier and more chaotic; and Americans aren't in their own neighborhood, while we were in our own neighborhood, for good or bad. What we talk about in the movie is the "coming back from another planet." It's a feeling I understood well from being in those places. That's what I tried to convey to the actors, especially for Ben's role.
Q: As an Israeli, did you feel any connection to or influence from Waltz with Bashir?
OM: I had a curious reaction to it. It was very emotional for me and I actually found myself crying uncontrollably. I was in Lebanon two years after Ari Folman so I wasn't involved in that particular massacre. But politically I found it to be more right-wing than I wanted it to be. I don't think it implicated the Israelis enough for what they did. I don't think that's a popular thing to say so let's hope I won't hear from the Israeli lobby. Ari Folman is a peace activist and a leftist, an interesting guy, and he thought he was making a leftist movie but it was actually embraced by the right-wing government because it really showed the phenomenon that they call in Israel "shooting and crying." Basically we do all these things and then cry about them and feel terrible because we're not fighters but "out for peace."
Q: Did your own experience in Lebanon influence the general sensibility in this film?
OM: It just covers the ground of being a soldier in a combat zone. You're always afraid, you're thinking about who your girlfriend is sleeping with, you're always horny, you want to kill someone, you don't want to get killed. Very basic things that a combat soldier carries with him in whatever military he's in.
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Q: What about the influence of soldiers being killed?
OM: I didn't corner that market. We all have had that experience. We all know about death. We've all experienced notifications. You don't have to be in the military to be told that someone you love is gone. Those are such basic connections into this movie. The fact that it takes place in the military gives the movie a backdrop and a particular layer but in essence it's a movie about how you get back to life having experienced pain and loss. The answers are so simple that we tend to forget them. Love, friendship, humor, connections and relationships with people. How else can you survive?
Q: Ben, did he share any of this with you?
Ben Foster: Yeah, we spent a lot of time together sharing experiences. The emotional landscape was very important for me to relate to from the beginning.
Q: How did you work out in your head where you played a character who has post-traumatic stress disorder yet has to seem together while informing people of their loved one's deaths? There's an outer person and an inner person.
BF: It's such a beautiful script so the voices were clear. But he's like any of us who deals with trauma and has to get through the day. You deal with loss and then have to show up at work. How do you get through that day and the stupid, menial, clumsy, human-being tasks like doing your laundry, taking out the garbage and picking up your socks when someone you love is gone? Approaching it in a simple way, it's difficult being out there being any person because while the circumstances are extreme they are universal.
Q: How did you prepare to play this already troubled soldier who is given the assignment of reporting casualties to loved ones?
BF: Oren set up a field trip for us to go to Walter Reade Hospital to spend time with the soldiers there, particularly in the amputee ward. We had the full support of the army, which is still shocking. We were advised by Lt. Col. Paul Sinor, who was the head of the casualty-notification office for the entire U.S. for two years. The guys in the background at Fort Dix are guys who just returned from deployment overseas, so we were surrounded by those who had served and that made the experience a lot easier to absorb. You can't walk though an amputee ward without being confronted by so many stories. It's a life-changing experience to see the effects of war outside the cold, chilly statistics we hear about. Once I touched the scars of a young boy where his leg used to be and when walking away trying to get my head right, and from touching it, my face starts to burn from the antiseptic. And I touched my tongue and taste the burn. It gets in your bones to see the results of war up close, as a civilian. It alters your perception.
Q: Did you get the chance to go with notification officers when they did their jobs?
BF: If I was getting notification that a loved one was gone and there was an actor at my door, I'd shoot him on the spot.
OM: We didn't dare ask. We thought it would have been inappropriate and I'm sure they would have said no anyway.
BF: But we wanted to show what it was like. We wanted to be honest. As Woody's character says, "There are no happy customers."
Danny Peary: Oren, as Ben said, you got a lot of help from the army in making this movie. One of the reasons is that it isn't an anti-Iraq War movie. Is it an anti-war movie?
OM: That's a good question. We never framed it in those terms. I think we were trying to be very respectful of the audience in making it clear that we had no political agenda. We just wanted to show you what the people who have to live with the consequences of war look like, in our own little make-believe world. A Vietnam vet said something to me that I felt was really appropriate. "There are only three positions on war. There is pro war, anti war, and in war." And we took the "in war" route. People have to live with soldiers coming back, soldiers not coming back; and families that are torn apart, obviously on a small, intimate scale--it reverberates from there. Unfortunately, we're now talking about hundreds of thousands of people who rotated through the combat zones returning. Coming back a lot of them feel alienated. There are a lot of physical and psychological problems. Some things aren't even being talked about, like burn pits and things like that. These are going to be problems society deals with or doesn't, but we've taken it upon ourselves to shine a light on it for a little bit and hopefully we'll be part of a dialogue or spark a dialogue that we didn't feel was really going on.
DP: Should Obama see this movie before making his decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan?
OM: Yeah. Well, everyone in the world should see this movie! We were talking about stuff like that. We shot this movie during the dark ages of the end of the Bush administration. We were naive to think we should show it to Bush, thinking there was some capacity for compassion somewhere, though we were wrong. Two weeks ago we had lunch at the White House. We met Biden briefly and we spent a lot of time with his son Hunter Biden. We said what we had to say. Hey, why isn't this guy saluting coffins and why isn't he visiting Walter Reade? And in the last two weeks he's done both. We're not taking any credit for it, but it did happen.
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Q: Ben, your character has emotional relationships with Woody's character Tony and Samantha's Olivia. Did you view them as being very different from one another? Because in a way they are both romances.
BF: Absolutely. And hopefully everybody addresses life like that. Everything should be a romance or it's cold. He recognizes or feels qualities in himself in someone else. The relationship between Will and Tony is difficult because they have big hearts and don't know where to put them. Eventually they connect. With Olivia, there's the frequency of saying, "You have felt the way I feel," and there's an attraction there that we don't always understand. They're thinking the other understands how they feel and think, "I don't know how to deal with it, but I've got to get closer."
Q: There's a great awkwardness, too. I love when she says, "Look, people are going to look at us from the outside and think you're moving in."
OM: The two of them are actually addressing the audience then. The audience is looking at them so it was really important for us to have her say those words to make that thought go away quickly. It was important for us to develop a relationship we can't really explain. The two characters can't really explain it to each other. It was like, "Why are we here together? Why are we attracted to each other? Why are we trying to share pain?" Their feelings involve a lot of awkwardness.
Q: I liked the discussion between Will who just got back from a firefight in war and Tony who didn't get the chance to actually fight while a soldier in the first Gulf War, and both are very affected by what or what didn't happen. Did you get a chance to talk to soldiers from Desert Storm and Desert Shield who didn't get to engage in combat?
OM: We have a very good friend who is our inspiration for soldiers who didn't fight in Desert Storm or Desert Shield. Tony Swofford, who wrote Jarheads. He's the reason we called Woody Harrelson's character Tony. We talked a lot about that experience and I met some of his buddies. We talked to people who have been in both wars, but we mostly spoke to those who were in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there's definitely that tension when you don't fight. Soldiers are trained to fight. Before they go, they crave it. After they go through it, it's a whole other world. There's a lot of bravado. Tony Stone is kind of a fuck-up in whatever he does. He's frustrated. I've met people who express that frustration from not fighting and I think, thank God they didn't fight in the war because that wouldn't have been good for them.
DP: Tony says he wishes he was shot at, rather than shooting at enemy soldiers. There's a distinction.
OM: Right. He wants to be shot at. That's what we call a baptism. He wants to be baptized.
Q: Ben, I assume you're one of those actors who says, "Don't fake it. Actually hit me." Is that something you demand as an actor?
BF: Everybody approaches their day differently--whatever gets you there. There is so much complication in regard to performance. There are people around you at the same time you're trying to create this internal space where you can feel and connect to a character. So if there is a way to open these little windows of connection, be it through violencewhich can be intimateyou do what you have to do to get out of your own way so you don't have to think so hard. "How would I?" becomes "Here we are." Obviously there are going to be lines that you address during the day. I'm not going to knock on doors and tell people their kids are dead in preparation, but I will walk around at night and allow those images to rise up and I'll sit with them. That's what we need to do as actors but it changes with every character.
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Q: This is a different kind of war film. Were you fans of war films?
OM: I used to be addicted to Apocalypse, Now
as a soldier and watch it over and over again. Something about the way that movie moved from realism to surrealism seemed very appropriate in regard to my experience in war, though it was nothing like that.
BF: I'm not particularly a fan of war films as specific genre. But I do like The Last Detail; Apocalypse, Now; Full-Metal Jacket. But how do you relate to Kubrick's stylized approach? I feel like I'm watching a movie.
DP: Oren, did you think of The Last Detail when making your movie?
OM: Yeah, though it's not something we actually talked about. In terms of filmmaking, we thought of a lot of films. The Last Detail and Coming Home, definitely. Hal Ashby was a big influence, as was Robert Altman and the Maysles brothers. Salesman was the first film I watched with the director of photography because it was about a man coming to the door. It was really instructive because that's when we started talking about how to use zooms and how to make something out of a scene in which two people stand around-- nothing happens but the camera is telling you things. We watched a lot of movies.
Q: What was the reaction of soldiers when you told them you were making this film?
OM: The one thing that this soldier Will Cook at Walter Reade said to us that really got to us was, "If you get this thing wrong, I'm not going to see this movie." He mentioned a couple of war movies and said, "If you're going to make that piece of shit, I won't see it and my friends won't see. So don't get it wrong." He was a beautiful guy, nineteen-years-old, who had lost his leg, still shell-shocked but telling us to do a good job. So that was inspiring and we tried to do that.
DP: How could you have gone wrong so that young soldier would have been disappointed? Did he mean that if Will and Olivia slept together it wouldn't have been realistic?
OM: No, he didn't mean that. That guy would have loved the characters to sleep together.
DP: I know that your consultant, Lt. Col. Paul Sinor, said that no soldier would have moved in on a recent widow.
OM: It's funny that the higher up you go in the military, the more sanitized they want to make it. It was lucky we didn't want to go there either because it would have created problems with the script in that it would have gone downhill if they slept together. But Will said of those movies he didn't like that soldiers don't talk like that, soldiers don't behave like that, soldier's don't run away from a fight. He was very particular about such things. He was just out of a firefight and was in the hospital trying to learn how to walk after losing his leg. He basically didn't want soldiers to be demeaned or portrayed as cowards. He didn't want Hollywood coming in--and ironically, he thought of us as Hollywood--and presenting a half-ass version of what a soldier is.
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DP: Talk about the "Humpty-Dumpty" reference in the movie. Broken people who can be fixed and shattered people who can't. I'd think that is a major theme of the movie.
OM: That's absolutely the theme. That's as sophisticated as it gets with this movie, in terms of metaphors. Yes, that's what this movie is: a lot of broken people, a lot of people trying to put the pieces together without any help and without anyone really noticing them and being so marginalized. When you talk to people in the military, they talk to you with suspicion at first because you're a civilian and an outsider. How are you going to understand them if you're not paying attention to them? It's all about piecing a life back together again, not the life that was but finding a new direction. What happens in this movie is that every character finds a direction, good or bad, somewhere to go. The whole movie as we approached it is like a waiting room, and everybody there is between hell and life and they're trying to get back to life. And that's why the movie kind of hangs there sometimes and we just want to watch and listen to the characters. This is going off a bit, but you got me there. The scene in the kitchen with Will and Olivia is a nine-minute take where we're you're supposed to just listen to the widow of a dead soldier. That's all we're asking. Please just sit there and listen.
Q: How have people reacted to the movie?
OM: Reactions have run the gamut. People have been reacting emotionally to the movie and that's a really great gift. If people find the patience to interact with the movie, because it is respectful of the audience, and then get something out of it--whether it's political or human or just information--we feel great about it.
Q: Can you talk about the process of selling a movie that, while it's not a typical war movie, still deals with the Iraq War?
OM: If somebody said to us, "Iraq War movies don't work," then we'd say, "It isn't an Iraq War movie." If they said movies with soldiers haven't worked in the last few years, we said some movie with soldiers has to work, so why not this one? It took a lot of convincing and obviously people told us not to make the movie. I think it's interesting that financing came from all over the world. The majority is not from the United States. It came from people who believed in the script. If you look at the financial structuring of the movie, you'd see there is American money in it, money from the Middle East, and money from Australia. It so happened that it's a mix of Christian money, Muslim money, and Jewish money from a financier who is in the States. And we were supported by the army. We felt we were making world peace just in how we financed the movie!

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