Messenger, The: Interview with Director Oren Moverman
In "The Messenger," Oren Moverman's directorial debut, Ben Foster stars as Will Montgomery, a U.S. Army officer who has just returned home from a tour in Iraq and is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service.
How did the idea for this film come to you?
Co-writer Alessandro Camon came up with the idea a few years ago. He’s a producer and a screenwriter and a friend, which is all you need in a brilliant partner. He suggested writing a script about Casualty Notification Officers because no one was looking at the war from that angle at the time, no one was shining a light on the home front from the perspective of the messengers who bring the consequences of war to the families, to the people who pay a direct, intimate and everlasting price for the decision to go to war. It's an impossible, horrible job, and yet it's as real as it gets. I was also excited by the idea as an indirect way to deal with my own military service demons.
Alessandro and I developed a pitch and took it around town. Lawrence Inglee responded immediately to it and took it to Mark Gordon. Lawrence brought in Reason Pictures and we suddenly had a real solid team and we were off to write a screenplay.
How did the film get off the ground?
Alessandro and I wrote the script and I got it to Sydney Pollack who was intrigued by it. We met with him and took his notes and wrote a couple of drafts for him, which was like a dream come true. He was one of a kind, a real teacher. But he was more interested in a taboo love story. There was no true taboo love story to develop here; the film was about the relationship between the two officers. So Sydney bowed out like the gentleman that he was rather than keep us in a development loop. Roger Michel came on board and he was amazing. We wrote a few drafts for him and it was a great process. He understood the relationship between Will and Tony and he kept pushing us to go deeper. We arrived at a very good place, but then he had to go off and make another film first and the producers wanted to move ahead and get The Messenger done.
So Ben Affleck came on board as a director. We did some small changes for him, he was just done with GONE BABY GONE, and for one reason or another he had to move on and I guess I was the last man standing with obvious directing ambitions, so Mark Gordon pointed to me and said, “you do it!” It took awhile for some of us, including me, to agree that I should be directing it. Once I said yes, we were off and running, casting and looking for financing at the same time. That period is like a blur. All I remember is Lawrence working his ass off to get the film financed under Mark Gordon’s banner and before I knew what happened, we were good to go.
Ben Foster blew me away in 3:10 TO YUMA. He’s incredibly charismatic and deep and very warm, even when he plays villains. More than anything, he is one of the few actors of his generation who is not striving to remain a boy in a man’s body. To me, he is a real man, interested in exploring dark corners, there’s a maturity and a longing to his acting that is so layered, it’s just endlessly sympathetic while also challenging. You can see the drive in him to be whole, which is exactly what the character of Will was trying to do.
We offered the role of the Colonel, which was bigger in the script, to Woody Harrelson and he liked the script. We met and he told me I made a mistake. That he should play the second lead, Tony. Then he looked up at me with a sort of “you know I’m right” gaze. And he was. It was immediate. Woody is known for his comedy work and for a few truly intense pictures like NATURAL BORN KILLERS. But here he had an arc that took him from an Army lifer who has his shit together and can be manically cold, to a broken, emotional man who needs to find a friend in Will. Woody knew instinctively that he could walk that path, and I just needed to follow him.
Samantha Morton I knew from the JESUS’ SON days. She’s someone I always wanted to work with and when she responded well to the script it was like a reunion. There’s no one like her. She’s a supremely talented actress that can do no wrong in my eyes. She’s an actor’s actor and she’s fearless. She and Ben were meant to work with each other a few times, and we got lucky to be able to bring them together. Their chemistry as Will and Olivia was built in. We just had to point the camera at them. She also knew the military from her own personal background and so it felt meant to be.
Major things Will has lost due to his time in the war?
Aside from the physical losses, the injuries, and the loss of friends in combat, I think he lost a sense of purpose. He was a motivated soldier and I think being home, looking at his service in the military quickly expiring, having all this time on his hands, he’s faced with the question of where to go from here. He’s not the kind of character who became cynical or bitter because of war, he’s looking for a reason to live after surviving war.
What does the Casualty Notification process represent to Will?
Will is in a waiting room. He’s suspended between normal, everyday life and the hell he survived. Casualty Notification is a constant reminder for him that he has to choose to keep living or be done with, and it ironically makes him stronger and ultimately able to get back to life. His commanding officer, Tony, and the widow he notifies, Olivia, are the people who help push him out of the waiting room.
How does Will change from the beginning of the film to the end?
I’m not sure he does. What changes is his ability to understand his power to touch people’s lives around him and thereby gain purpose for his own life, to move on, to let love in. Even if he stays in the military, he's moving on, he's making a decision and that shows a will to live, which is not always a given for a guy in his situation.
Which of the film’s insights did you gain from your own time in the military?
Everything and nothing. I was in a different military but I think all combat soldiers share certain basic emotions. Tony Swofford defined it best for me in JARHEAD – we are all scared all the time, we want to kill, we are horny and we are thinking about who our girlfriend is having sex with back home. I’m not sure you can call that insight, but that’s what I was working with. I think I knew how Will felt because I wanted him to feel the way I did as a soldier, but we also wanted him to have a life of his own. Alessandro and I made sure of that in the writing, and Ben Foster did an immense research job and a hell of a lot of preparation to shape Will on his own terms.
What did you want this film to say about the casualties of war?
The film is not about casualties of war really. It's about the people left behind to deal with life after casualties of war have gone. THE MESSENGER may say a thing or two about war, but I think it ultimately deals with grief and the desire to live, to let life into the darkness, even to laugh. It definitely makes the point that there are people who have to deal with war in a way that is not strategic or political, but personal. I guess they are a different type of casualties of war, and there are a lot of them out there, veterans and military families.
Was directing/co-writing a film different from your previous experience writing scripts?
It was different, but it was also similar. Writing for me is making the film on paper, directing is on film. It has the same concerns, the same issues, the same problems, just a different set of limitations and more people around checking their watches.
How do you feel about having directed your first project?
Very, very lucky and blessed.
What are your hopes for yourself and your film?
We obviously want people to see it, and listen to it, and be moved by it. That’s really it. This is not a film I made, a team of people poured their hearts into it and we all feel the film has something to say and a lot of love to offer. Sundance is where we hopefully start a long road. We go to the Berlin film Festival next.
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