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The Contender Q&A: Oren Moverman

January 14, 2010 | 12:59 pm


After a successful career as a screenwriter ("Jesus' Son," "I'm Not There"), former journalist Oren Moverman made his directorial debut in 2009 with "The Messenger."

The drama stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as soldiers assigned to the Casualty Notification service, which has the unenviable task of informing the families of servicemen of their deaths in the line of fire. Harrelson's older, more experienced Capt. Tony Stone warns Foster's Will Montgomery to avoid emotional connection with the individuals they encounter, but Montgomery finds himself drawn to a widow (Samantha Morton) as the job begins to take its emotional toll. Though in limited release, the film has netted a slew of awards, from the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Spotlight Award for Moverman from the National Board of Review. 

The Circuit spoke to Moverman on the eve of the Golden Globes, which has nominated Harrelson for best supporting actor; the pic is also up for four Independent Spirit Awards, including best first feature and best screenplay for Moverman and Alessandro Carnon.

How did your own experiences in the military affect the making of this film?

To tell you the truth, I think it had an impact on directing the film, much more than in writing it. There's nothing in the movie that I can say is my own experience. But what I think my experience allowed me to do was to understand the emotional landscape of a combat soldier. I could then communicate to the actors what the characters they're portraying are going through and what kind of experiences they're having and how they're feeling about it. The problem was projecting my own personal biases of how I felt about being in a combat zone, or what we call in the movie "the other planet," and then coming back from that. 

Since a big part of the movie took place on the home front, it was all about what kind of emotions the combat vet was experiencing, and I think I was able to communicate that by telling stories and by talking with them about my feelings.

Was it easy to share those stories with your cast?

You know, it was Ben Foster that really got me talking. I had no plans of sharing my stories, and to tell you the truth, I've never had an idea about making a movie about the military -- my experiences or anyone else's experiences. But in sitting down with Ben and preparing for the movie, which we did for a good eight weeks before shooting, he was just drawing these stories out of me, and it was really easy to communicate them [to him] once I saw that he was drawing inspiration from them, because it demanded that I go back almost 20 years. It was a different time and a different place, but I think the experiences were pretty universal with soldiers. 

Recent films about the Iraq War have received positive reviews but haven't fared well at the box office. Did you experience any outside resistance in making this movie?

We experienced nothing but resistance. Lawrence Inglee, who put together the financing for this movie, really had a tough time because everywhere we went, people were patting us on the back and saying, "Good job, nice try, it's very compelling, but forget it. It's just not going to connect with audiences, because they don't want to see these movies." In regard to the other movies, people were leaping to the same conclusions: They said it was too early [to talk about the war], they'd had enough, so it was nothing but resistance. We believed we had something special on our hands and wanted to communicate that to audiences, so we just kept going and ultimately found people who said, "You know what? We hear what everyone else is saying, but we feel that there is something special about this, and we'd like to support this movie." So that's how we got our financing.

With the release of "The Hurt Locker" and now your film, there seems to be a shift in that public resistance. To what do you attribute that shift?

I think that's a very complicated question with a very complicated answer. I do think that our tendency as filmmakers or as journalists is to create narrative around these things. We like to look at the trend and say, "Well, this is what's happening with this kind of movie." But the truth of the matter is that every movie is a case study in itself. And I really think it takes real analysis of how a movie is made and marketed, because not all the films in this arena that have failed are bad films. Quite a few of them that I've seen have been good films. Ultimately, their success or failure at the box office is a product of the machine that was behind them and the timing. I think that they've created an openness that wasn't there before, and I think that the dialogue about this war has shifted somewhat -- not enough, in my opinion -- to a more sober [tone], whereas before it was more impassioned and not particularly productive.

And I think that you have to look at the fact that, for whatever reason, "The Hurt Locker" connected with audiences in a way that others have not been able to by doing some very smart things in the marketing of the film but also in the making. For us, our exposure has been very great, but it's also been limited. It's only now that we're starting to get a bit of mainstream attention. It's a work in progress. 

In our case, it's because it's a small film with not a lot of money behind it and something that really has to work through word of mouth. We can't put a big marketing campaign behind it, so we're fortunate that the word of mouth has been good.

I know that the military gave its approval to the script -- what has been the reaction from veterans who have seen the film?

We've had a lot of feedback from veterans as well as active duty members, and I have to say that the reactions have been similar but different. The Vietnam vets have really treated this film as their own. Even though it takes place during the Iraq War, the reaction from Vietnam vets has been overwhelming. They've shown up at screenings to say a few words, and they've written us letters; some novelists of the Vietnam era, like Tim O'Brien ("The Things They Carried") have reacted very strongly to the film. With the Iraq and Afghanistan guys, it's a lot harder for them. It's a lot closer to home. They've just come back, and it's very, very emotional, but the overwhelming response from them has been gratitude. Of course, I'm only talking about the guys we spoke to -- I'm sure there are a bunch of guys who hate the movie and never want to see it again, but they didn't speak up. But the guys who liked it have thanked us for shooting a portrait of how they're feeling right now, without any politics or agenda. 

MessengerPhoto1  I think it's also a big deal for them that Woody Harrelson is in this movie, because he's so outspoken as an anti-war activist. And he's playing a soldier with a lot of empathy and respect for soldiers, and I think they're as surprised and pleased by it as he is. 

"The Messenger" marks your directorial debut, but you've been involved in filmmaking as a screenwriter for many years. Can you talk about the challenges of switching roles?

I think the biggest challenge lies in communication. When you're writing a script, you have a very specific way of communicating your movie to people -- it's on the page. You express yourself in that way, and if taken to the next level and made into a film, then your role, depending on the director, is either done or just ceremonial from that point on. When you're directing, you have to communicate with every single person working on the film and find a way of talking about the movie in a practical sense but also in a creative way.

"The Messenger" has received a number of awards and nominations. What has the impact of this recognition had on the film?

I would like to think that the effect an award has on a film is that more people become aware of the film and then check it out. I can't hide my secret agenda when I'm talking to you -- it's more of a dream, really. We started early in November, but we got squeezed out of a lot of theaters. So my dream is that if we do get more nominations, then we can relaunch the film in cities that we're not in right now and get more people to see it. The motivation is very simple -- this movie, partially because of what we did on it, but mostly because of what it is, sparks a dialogue and gets people to be aware of something that's going on in this country right now. It's been a real gift to get involved in that dialogue and get people engaged.

-- Paul Gaita

Top photo: Oren Moverman. Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Bottom photo: Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in "The Messenger." Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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