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By Ira Sachs

Leading up to the Oscars on March 7, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Ira Sachs interviewed The Messenger co-writer-director Oren Moverman for our Fall 2009 issue. The Messenger is nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson) and Best Original Screenplay (Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman).

The two Iraq war soldiers played by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson in Oren Moverman’s astonishing directorial debut, The Messenger, serve in a different kind of military theater. It’s not in the Middle East but at home, here in America, as they are dispatched by the Casualty Notification Office to tell family members that their sons, daughters, brothers or sisters have been killed in combat. As he undertakes this mission, Foster’s character is just out of a military hospital and still traumatized by battle. He’s paired with Harrelson’s character, a senior officer whose precisely delivered speeches and irreverent personal credo are his own form of armor. As the two men become friends, exposing to each other their vulnerabilities, fears and failings, Moverman depicts an America in which the violence of the war has been refracted through language, belief systems and the ways we interact with not only each other but also ourselves. But as much as this film is about words and speech, it’s also fiercely visual, with compelling compositions underscored by occasional blasts of speed metal and coiled editing rhythms. With The Messenger, Moverman has made an ambitious, compelling debut that announces his arrival as one of our major directors.

Moverman is well known to Filmmaker readers for his screenplay work. He’s carved out a unique career writing or co-writing scripts for some of today’s top auteurs, including Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son), Todd Haynes (I’m Not There) and Ira Sachs (Married Life). He’s also got scripts in the works for Scott Free, Joel Silver and Jean-Luc Godard. (Moverman is scripting an adaptation of Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million for the legendary Swiss director.) And then there’s Interrupted, a bio-pic about the last years of Nicholas Ray’s life co-written with Susan Ray for director Philip Kaufman. To interview Moverman, we asked Sachs, a collaborator and also a friend, and they discussed the transition from writing to directing, learning from Nicholas Ray, and eyes following eyes.

Oscilloscope Laboratories will release the film October 30.


Moverman: Okay. Let me ask first: How was directing? [both laugh]

Filmmaker: How was directing?

Moverman: It was really a joyous experience. It was a 28-day shoot, and I enjoyed every day and felt very comfortable in that position. We put together a great cast and a great crew, and it became very collaborative. There was a lot of improvisation. It just felt alive.

Filmmaker: Did it feel very different than writing a screenplay?

Moverman: Yeah, well, it’s a lot less lonely. There’s a whole other set of pressures that are different from the pressures that you have as a screenwriter. But, you know, I’ve always approached the screenplay as “the movie” — maybe because I never thought I’d get to direct.

Filmmaker: Is that what you do when you work as a screenwriter for other directors — help them think about “the movie?”

Moverman: I hope so. I try to think like the director — or like a director — in order to help them with what they’re trying to do, and to tap into their vision so that I cancel myself out. I’m there in service of the project. We kind of made The Messenger that way. We were all in service of this film. We were just getting out of the way of the film, just letting it happen, letting it grow organically from what I felt was a very good script that gave us a lot of good directions.

Filmmaker: Knowing your history a bit, and that you started off studying film, and were always interested in making your own films, it almost seems like you became a screenwriter by accident.

Moverman: [Screenwriting] definitely wasn’t the plan. I came to the States in 1988 with the idea of being a film director.

Filmmaker: Did you know any other film directors?

Moverman: I’d never met anyone. Not only did I not know any film directors, I’d never met anyone who did anything creative. It was a whole new world to explore. I started writing first in Hebrew and then I moved to English when I got a little bit more confident. I wrote a script [for me to direct] that I was very happy with. It was called A Hiding Place, and I think I even talked about it in this magazine. It didn’t work out and I was sort of left with a writing sample that I started sending around and getting hired as a screenwriter. So in a way, yeah, I sort of fell into screenwriting. I never studied it.

Filmmaker: I’ve been thinking about your body of work as a screenwriter and also as a director, and it seems to me, if there can be an auteur theory of screenwriters, one could make one about your work.

Moverman: Really? I don’t see it. [laughs]

Filmmaker: Well, I was considering the fact if you look at Jesus’ Son, if you look at I’m Not There, even if you look at our work on Married Life, there is a consistent theme of an outsider, a person — usually a man — trying to figure out how to bridge who he is internally to who he will be in the world.

Moverman: Basically you’re calling me Nicholas Ray. [laughs]

Filmmaker: Well, it’s interesting you say that, because Nicholas Ray is someone you are writing a film about.

Moverman: Yeah, and someone I’ve studied really closely and who in a strange way I felt was helping me while I was directing — especially [through] his book of writing, I Was Interrupted [edited by his wife, Susan Ray].

Filmmaker: What specifically did you learn from Nicholas Ray for this film?

Moverman: Nicholas Ray, he was definitely an auteur, somebody who could work with other people’s screenplays and still make them his own films. And you could say that those films are about outsiders, men who are trying to figure out how to deal with their emotions, who are always feeling chased by a posse or crowd. And I remembered the careful attention of his writing about actors. I’ve worked on screenplays — some produced, some not — and there was always a concept to them, there was always a visual, conceptual approach on top of what the film was. Coming into The Messenger I actually felt that it was just going to be about the actors. I mean, obviously there’s a whole strategy of how to make the film, what the visual language is, but I kept thinking of the line of Charles Laughton’s that Nick quoted, which is, “The melody is in the eyes. Eyes find eyes.” Just look for the eyes, because there’s so much that’s going to be conveyed in the eyes. I felt that this is that kind of a movie where looking people in the eye is going to tell you a lot of the story. Of course the flip side of that, which we did a lot in the movie, is to shoot from the back, so that the eyes become even more meaningful when you finally find them. You almost search for them, are aware of them, even when you’re looking at someone’s back and just listening to them [speak].

Filmmaker: Significantly, that concept doesn’t translate into having lots of close-ups in your film.

Moverman: No.

Filmmaker: Or in Nick Ray’s films.

Moverman: When I wrote the Nicholas Ray script, I worked with Philip Kaufman. There was a draft that he looked at and he basically said, “Let’s just do it like Nicholas Ray. You know, we’ll just sit down, every scene, and ask, ‘What’s my action?’ Because that’s what Nick would do, right? So when we’re making a movie about Nick, we should have to do that.” It forced me to analyze [the script], kind of shape it in a way that makes it move, not necessarily in a classic “How does this feed the plot?” way, but to feed the characters’ desires and needs and ambitions. “What is the thing that I need to do in order to get what I want,” which basically was Ray’s entire approach to directing actors. So [this type of thinking] was happening automatically with me [when I was directing The Messenger].

Filmmaker: You get amazing performances from all your actors, but particularly Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. Were they very different, what they needed from you?

Moverman: Very different. Ben came to New York City nine weeks ahead of the shoot. We hung out a lot. We went through the entire script word by word. We discussed things. We rewrote things. We kind of improvised on-the-spot things and fed them into the script. He did a lot of research. We had special shoes made for him because there’s the idea that one of his legs is shorter than the other. We made these army boots for him that kind of threw him off balance. He was walking for hours at night in Manhattan, getting used to his walk, and watching documentaries and reading. There was a lot of preparation and a lot of exchange. And he would also be very fair, in a shocking way for me in the beginning, before I knew him. He would read something and say, “Oh, that’s really a great line. I think you should give it to Woody.” He really understood the silence of his character, and so he was not precious about any of it. He was just very open. With Woody, Woody was shooting another movie. He was in Romania when we started shooting. So he got a little break from his Romanian shoot, came over here for three weeks. He arrived the day before the shoot started. We had conversations in the past, and I knew he was doing preparations, mostly physical preparations, to get into the head of the soldier, because he’s never played one quite like this. But a lot of the work with him was on set, whereas with Ben a lot of the work was already done by the time we got to set. And they’re also very different roles. One, Woody’s role is so wordy. He just had to hit a lot of lines. We improvised also, but he had to get out a lot [of dialogue], whereas Ben was much limited word-wise. He had to find his way through scenes by reacting a lot.

Filmmaker: Which movies were most influential on the very specific shooting style that you used?

Moverman: Definitely Salesman, by the Maysles brothers. The Maysles were kind of like my first job in New York, so I saw all their movies when I was working there as an office PA. Salesman came to mind because it felt like The Messenger is a movie about people who come to the door. It needs a certain kind of urgency of, “This is happening right now,” which is what Salesman does so beautifully. The subject matter is very different, but, you know, Salesman is a very grim movie in many ways. There’s a certain desperation in the vibe of the movie that I felt was interestingly connected to The Messenger.

Filmmaker: You can feel the overlap of those two movies.

Moverman: I was watching the zooms in Salesman and I thought, “Oh, they’re kind of interesting because it’s early usage of zoom.” It felt more like news, less like, you know, a Robert Altman movie. But it also felt alive. It felt improvisational. Albert Maysles just had these instincts of, “I’m going to go there. Now I’m going to pull closer. I’m going to milk the moment when it’s so quiet and create a moment out of nothingness in which people are standing around.” That really appealed to me. So I started looking at Altman and Hal Ashby, people were not shy about their use of zooms. I talked to [d.p.] Bobby [Bukowski] about something that I pretentiously called a “humanistic zoom.” [laughs]

Filmmaker: As opposed to…?

Moverman: As opposed to a functional zoom. Just humanistic in the sense that I gave Bobby license to zoom at certain points he felt drawn into. Bobby’s a very loving person, and I thought the movie should be sort of loving. To me it is a movie about love, or the potential for love, and how it gets you through the hard stuff in life. There’d be certain scenes where we would shoot a long take and I would say to him, “Just find Ben.” Or certain scenes where I would say to him, “Feel your way through it. See what attracts you.” And then if we did it again I would point to more specific places. I really wanted that sense of moving forward, getting closer to people, trying to really see what’s in their eyes, what’s in their souls. And then sometimes pulling back when you feel like, “Oh, this is a little uncomfortable. Kind of getting too close here.”

Filmmaker: That type of working process requires a lot of trust between you and the cinematographer.

Moverman: Bobby and I clicked from the very beginning. And that’s something that I had to learn about myself — what kind of a director I would be, or how I would play the role of the director. And I found that I was craving collaboration, craving the interaction with the various departments and the creative process of just coming up with stuff. But as with any type of job, once you have that trust and you give people room, they really start coming up with so many great things.

Filmmaker: It’s like parenthood.

Like parenthood, exactly. And I felt like for the most part, most of the people I was working with really were so good that I didn’t have to control it in kind of an obsessive way. There was almost no one who had to be watched over his shoulder and [asked], “What are you doing?”

Filmmaker: I want to go back to the Oren Moverman auteur theory. You brought up that this is a film in some ways about love. I also think this film, as in your other work, is about the nature of belonging, finding a place where one fits in.

Moverman: Right.

Filmmaker: And, for me, it seems directly connected to you — to the immigrant story.

Moverman: I think that’s true, but, you know, I’m from Israel and I felt like an immigrant in Israel [laughs] growing up. I felt like I never belonged there. Partly that’s because it is a nation of immigrants. I was born into a country that was 18 years old when I was born. Most of the population was not native — which created a lot of problems — but I always felt like an outsider. I never felt like I belonged. Living in the Middle East was so weird for me, because, you know, look at me, I’m not from the Middle East. My family is from Eastern Europe. I couldn’t stand the heat. [laughs] You know, it was just a weird existence. Not to say that I don’t feel like an Israeli, or that I don’t feel any kind of connection to Israel, because I do. It’s a very strong one. But, yeah, I’ve always felt like an immigrant. And maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable here, because here I can be officially an immigrant.

Filmmaker: Was there one character in The Messenger that you felt particular identification with?

Moverman: Yeah. Woody asked me that question, and when I told him he wanted to hit me. It’s Ben’s character. I served in Israel, but it really wasn’t until I started working with Ben that I started, with his encouragement, to put things in the movie that were from my experience. Ben forced me to tell him stories about my experiences, and more than a couple times he insisted on me putting them in the script, and they’re in the movie. I never wanted to share these experiences with anyone. I think he kind of brought me into this realization of like, “Okay, I can sort of start dealing with some things in my life through this character,” which was very rewarding. It’s interesting when I talk to American soldiers and they say they totally get the Ben character. They totally know who Woody is, too, but they totally get the Ben character because it’s much more of a kind of modern soldier version of the tough guy battling all these emotions. I think that was kind of me. I was in a male world that had particular rules of behavior and certain modes of carrying yourself in the role. You’re a soldier; you’re a tough guy; you’re in a tough military in a tough part of the world. There was room for emotion, but those things started getting very, very confusing. I was a guy who came home from the army for a two-day leave and locked himself in a room and watched Apocalypse Now over and over again — in the dark. I was that guy.

Filmmaker: I’m sorry, what kind of guy is that? [both laugh]

Moverman: That’s the soldier who gets confused by seeing and doing things in the combat zone that are not normal in everyday life.

Filmmaker: It seems to me, knowing your military background, as well as your artistic collaborations, that you are particularly comfortable in a world of men. That there is an intimacy you create in your male relationships that’s specific and that’s in this movie as well.

Moverman: Yeah, yeah. And that’s why I have said it’s a movie about love, because it’s not just about a love story, a potential love story with the Samantha Morton character, but it really, truly is in my mind a love story between two men. A heterosexual love story, probably not the best thing to put on a poster, but — and that’s how I talked about it. And it really helped that Woody and Ben fell completely in love with each other, and you can see it. You can see in the development of the relationship that these guys really like each other, and they do.

Filmmaker: Talking about the movie now, it seems like an autobiography much more than I realized. And not only because of the military element, but also because of the position of Ben’s character as someone who is both active in the world he lives in but also distant from it.

Moverman: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Which is in a certain way the role of both the writer and the director.

Moverman: Luckily for me, I wrote the script with Alessandro Camon, who brought a whole other world into it that I couldn’t conjure up if I tried. It really balanced those more personal things that I felt that were mostly [expressed] through the Ben character with a lot of great things that he did through the Woody character. We joked at one point that I’m Ben and he’s Woody. And I think it’s that balance that actually makes the film work.

Filmmaker: That dynamic, which I think is overturned towards the end of the movie, when each character, in a way, becomes his own inverse, is also very powerful.

Moverman: Also, when the movie starts, Ben’s character, Will — and you don’t know this until the end of the movie, and you probably won’t even register it unless you read this article — has already made a decision to live. He’s going to grow stronger no matter what he’s going to go through. With his kind of strange determination and strange discipline, he’ll get there. Woody’s character starts the movie as his world has been set. Everything’s figured out. He’s smarter than everyone. He’s thought out a lot of issues. He’s got comeback lines for a lot of things, and he’s funny. But there’s so much that’s unresolved, and there’s so much that’s hurting. I guess at the end of the day, you know, one of my favorite elements, maybe in my life but also in what I think about, is the world of men and the world of feelings, and how they combine. How can you exist as men within a military, male-dominated world and be somebody who is aware of how he’s feeling and how he relates to other people and what’s broken?

Filmmaker: Don’t you think that’s the challenge of being —

Moverman: Human? [laughs]

Filmmaker: — human, yes, but also part of the film community?

Moverman: Yeah.

Filmmaker: The part of a filmmaker in an industry. An artist in an industry.

Moverman: That’s always been the challenge with film. It’s a business and it’s an art.

Filmmaker: It’s a business about emotions. [pause]

Moverman: Well put. [both laugh]

Filmmaker: [pause] What’s the first movie you remember seeing?

Moverman: Wizard of Oz. I was 7 years old, in Israel, in a gym, in a school, which also was a bomb shelter. [laughs] And it terrified me. I came home, I was sick for two weeks. I was in shock, really. So much so that I didn’t watch it again for over 30 years, until my kids forced me finally to sit down and see it. I was literally afraid of the movie, because I remember the sensation of lights going down and this thing that started happening on the screen. It was just really, really frightening. For years I had that feeling in a movie theater when the lights came down.

Filmmaker: Are you worried about the end of cinema, like every other independent filmmaker?

Moverman: No, not really. I mean, I’m worried about the end of the world…. Somebody told me that line, you know, “If you worry you die, if you don’t worry you die, so why die?” [laughs] I can’t say that [the end of cinema] is something that is preoccupying my obsessions at the moment. I think it’s going somewhere, I just don’t know what the direction is anymore. But I think that once it settles, we will realize where cinema and the visual arts visual language are going, and there will be something exciting within them to explore. It will be up to the people who are invested in it to kind of find that and create those new things. Sounds very abstract, just because, who knows?

Filmmaker: Well, you made a beautiful film. I’m proud of you.

Moverman: Thank you. Thank you, sir.

Filmmaker: The kid done good.

Moverman: That’s it? I thought there’d be hard questions.

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