Hollywood is stuck between Iraq and a hard place.
Even though three different big-name directors flirted with making The Messenger, a script authored by
Oren Moverman and Alessandro Cammon, differences over the screenplay and scheduling pushed them away from the project.
Then there was that Iraq problem. Hollywood has attempted to deal with war in the Middle East. Films like In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone and the recent The Hurt Locker received critical kudos but little response at the box-office. Other well-meaning efforts like Home of the Brave and Stop/Loss came and went so fast they seemed like direct-to-DVD offerings.
Yet there was still intense interest in The Messenger, a powerful saga of two solders assigned to deliver the awful news to families that their loved ones—boyfriends, spouses, fathers—have been killed in combat in Iraq.
The three big-name directors’ loss, however, turned out to be Oren Moverman’s gain. The screenwriter whose credits include the 1999 druggie odyssey Jesus’ Son, the period adultery drama Married Life and the weirdo Bob Dylan bio I’m Not There eventually got the assignment to make his directing debut with the film.
The Messenger, shot cheaply and quickly, stars Ben Foster as Will Montgomery, a young staff sergeant just back from Iraq where he was decorated for heroism. The last three months of his duty will find him teamed with veteran Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to serve as a Casualty Notification Officer, and Stone teaches him how to handle the sad and sometimes volatile assignment.
One would imagine that the intense and solemn film, which has received great response at film festivals and is now opening across the country, presented an emotionally draining experience, particularly for a first-time director.
“You shoot these scenes and they drain you emotionally,” says the Israeli Moverman. “It’s important to mix it up on the set with a little bit of levity and a little bit of humor and find some relief in the making of it. A lot of serious-minded, sensitive people worked on this movie and gave it their all. And in between scenes, we joked and got through it. It was a short shoot, but the intensity level was high.
“They (the cast and crew) were dedicated to what the movie was about. There were no ego problems because of this—I’m not making this up. There was a mood on set, that we really believed in the story and we wanted people to know about it and we wanted people to talk about it. There was real dedication and that made it easier.”
One of the reasons The Messenger clicks on a dramatic level is the chemistry between Foster, the 29-year-old actor best known for his supporting turns in 3:10 to Yuma, Alpha Dog and as Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand, and Harrelson, the 47-year-old, Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actor adept at comedy and drama.
“The first time we all met,” Moverman recalls, “we took a trip to Washington, D.C. and went to Walter Reed Hospital, where we visited the amputee ward and the Casualty Notification Center. And it was so unique, it was so immediate, the friendship between Ben and Woody. They shook hands, we got on the train and they sat across from each other and they looked each other in the eye and they knew each other. Not coming from an acting perspective, they connected as human beings.
“You can see it onscreen, the magic. You know, it was a bromance. They just fell for each other and it hasn’t stopped since. They just connected on the most profound level and to work with them was joyous. A lot of times, I separated them from the other actors because I wanted then to have their own space. That brought them closer and let them speak their own language, and they became a unit.”
The interplay between Foster and Harrelson is the centerpiece of The Messenger. But the film scores emotionally in other areas as well. For example, Will, Foster’s character, considers getting romantically involved with Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), one of the women he’s responsible to notify. And then there are the notifications themselves, in which Will and Tony encounter the loved ones to share the bad news. Among the performers playing the family members are such top character actors as Steve Buscemi and Peter Friedman (The Savages).
Moverman took extra measures to make sure the notification sequences were as forceful as possible.
“The notifications were all done in one take, hand-held,” says Moverman. “Nobody was allowed on the set. We never introduced the two sides. You never knew who was going to open the door. They (Foster and Harrelson) may have known who the actor was but they didn’t know what they were going to do.
“I encouraged everyone to go off-script, so they could surprise each other with the behavior that was appropriate for that character in that moment. We didn’t cut until the scene as over. We didn’t leave room for manipulation beyond the acting. We created respect for the moments. It’s not a documentary. It’s not real– we’re all actors, filmmakers, pretenders. We try to be true and respectful to people who have to live like this.”
While The Messenger’s setting is not specific, it was shot throughout New Jersey, in such locales as Elizabeth and Fort Dix. Moverman, a veteran of the Israeli army who has no less than nine screenplays in different stages of development at the time, says the entire process from script to screen took three years.
“That’s actually pretty quick when it comes to these things,” says Moverman.
“Sydney Pollack got the first draft. He wanted sort of a taboo love story. Then we worked on a buddy story with Roger Michell (Changing Lanes), who eventually went on to make another film. Ben Affleck also flirted with it.”
Even though such bankable names were attached at different times to The Messenger, it still would be a tough sell because of the track record of other Iraq War-themed films. In fact, the film eventually landed at the relatively new Oscilloscope Pictures, the company started by Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch and the distributor behind the recent documentary No Impact Man and last year’s Michelle Williams starrer Wendy and Lucy.
Moverman is certainly happy that The Messenger, a sensitive and challenging effort, found a home, especially since the state of independent distribution is so iffy these days.
“Things are changing and who knows what the studios are thinking these days,” relates Moverman. “We know they are not touching indie-type films, which they were doing a few years ago. They’re not doing the lower-budgeted movies. They’re doing less movies, so we are in this strange moment that could be strange or horrible or both. We are very lucky to be able to tell the story for people who trusted us.
“I believe it’s important to make a good movie regardless of the subject matter. And if it’s good, people will go see it. We had lots of reasons not to make this movie—the Iraq curse, what happens to these movies and they don’t make money, but along the way there were people who believed what this movie could be.
“The movie has a military setting, but we don’t look at it that way. We all have to get along at life, we all have losses, we wonder ‘How do we get back to living and loving the people around us?’ So these are general themes that work everywhere, and hopefully people will connect with these. It’s the quality of work that kept the project going.”