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Interview: The Messenger’s Oren Moverman

Producer Mark Gordon wanted me to direct the film and, quite frankly, I didn’t jump at it. Not because I didn’t want to direct, quite the opposite, I was on my way to directing another film, but because I didn’t think I was experienced enough to take it on.

[Editor’s Note: This was originally published during the 25th edition of the Sundance Film Festival.]

Eric Lavallee: Originally, there were a couple of directors attach to direct this film – what finally propelled you to step out of the shadows and make a run at it yourself?
OM: I was brought out of the shadows. Producer Mark Gordon wanted me to direct the film and, quite frankly, I didn’t jump at it. Not because I didn’t want to direct, quite the opposite, I was on my way to directing another film, but because I didn’t think I was experienced enough to take it on. We had Sydney PollackRoger Michel, and then Ben Affleck attached as directors along the way, and I thought, as the co-screenwriter, ‘who is this Oren guy to come in and make our brilliant script into a movie with no proven directing skills?’ I was thinking like a screenwriter should. But it didn’t take that long to convince me. And here we are.

The Messenger Oren Moverman Sundance Interview

EL: In the past, had you had a chance to visit the sets of Ira Sachs, Todd Haynes, Alison Maclean, – were you a keen observer knowing that one day you might make that move behind the camera?
OM: I’ve actually been on many film sets. I was a PA when I first came to New York and through the years I’ve visited many more sets than just those of the films I’ve worked on. I’ve had a chance to see a bunch of very special directors at work, from Louis Malle to John Boorman, and I tried to be a keen observer because I was thrilled just to be there and I was always eager to learn, always eager to be close to the camera. The plan was always to direct. And, of course, I almost gave up on that plan. And that’s when everything started happening.

EL: I once flipped the channels and found this docu special on the 10 worst jobs in the world – I always think they left out the “position” that is featured in The Messenger. Did you research this and speak to military people?
OM: We spoke with military people, we researched Casualty Notification in the U.S. Army and we also visited, with the support of the Army, Walter Reed Medical Center and a bunch of casualty centers and bases. We had a Military adviser, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Sinor, who was not only helpful as a liaison and a technical consultant but is also a writer in his own right and a great contributor to our film.

EL: I was wondering how Alessandro Camon participated in the screenplay?
OM: Alessandro is the originator of this movie, its screenwriter and its father. It was his idea to write a film about casualty notification officers and we were full partners in writing the treatment and the script, although more often than not I felt like I was following his lead. He is such a clear thinker and such a strong writer; he made us look good at every turn, with every draft.

The Messenger Oren Moverman Sundance Interview

EL: When the script was being passed around, it came during a time where Iraq war-themed films were being extremely unpopular. How difficult was it during the financing stage of this – and getting people to see past “the uniform” sorta speak and get into the mindset of the story?
OM: It was difficult in the way it is always difficult to get any film financed. It’s never easy. But we had a very capable team of producers and they were on it relentlessly. We always knew that the Iraq background is only one part of the film. People reacted strongly to the screenplay because it’s about grief and life, about needing to move on back into the realm of the living once faced with death. And so it’s a much more universal theme than just a particular war. Although it is also about the face of war back home, absolutely. And let’s face it, the so called unpopularity of these films only created anticipation for the one that’ll break that mold. We didn’t per se try to do that consciously, but we definitely had the financial support of people who believed this film stands on its own, is its own creation and will be judged on its own terms.

EL:I imagine you might be based in a major U.S. City – did you take a road-trip into suburban territory to research the communities that strongly display their support for the troupes?
OM: I live in New York, but you really don’t have to go that far to find the “support the troops” world, in fact you can even find it in Manhattan if you’re looking for it, and you can find it in yourself if you’re interested, it’s hard not to support the troops in post Vietnam America, and rightly so. It doesn’t mean though that there’s a consensus on what these troops should be doing.

EL: After 9/11 there was this phenomenon where surviving firemen would comfort widows and then abandon their own families – where compassion turns into passion. I was wondering what was Ben Foster’s reaction to an emotionally complex character that he plays?
OM: Ben works in deep and mysterious ways; he is such a brilliant actor and a smart man, he seems very comfortable exploring human interaction, contradiction and complexity. We talked a lot about his attraction to the Samantha Morton‘s Olivia character, and we found that it’s recognition of pain that brings them together in a strange and hopeful way. I think Ben was drawn to that. We talked also about the role of sex in this relationship and when you see the film, you see that both he and Sam took the sexuality of their shared grief to a surprising and powerful place. I think Woody Harrelson’s character, who actually has a much more sexualized life, is the one who draws clearly defined lines between passion and compassion.

The Messenger Oren Moverman Sundance Interview

EL: What aesthetic decisions did you make prior to the shooting of the film? What kind of look were you aiming for?
OM: Simple. Very simple. Boxed in a wide screen –we shot on super 35–to give the frame more possibilities in capturing emotional reactions. I was working with Bobby Bukowski, who’s a super talented DP with great experience, and we talked about taking a very human approach to the aesthetics. We wanted to make the film as naturalistic as possible while adding stylized choices that are subtle and still artificial. We used only zoom lenses to allow a slow, subtle and loving approach to and from the characters. We didn’t want to show anything but human situations, there’s only one insert in the movie, one object on its own, a TV, but otherwise every frame has some human interaction going on before it is abandoned or we move on in the story. There are no establishing shots, except the very last shot of the movie, no dissolves, nothing fancy, just a camera longing to lock in the essence of the emotions portrayed on screen. We took a look at many movies, Altman, Ashby, Nick Ray, Dardenne Brothers, the Maysles, particularly Salesman, Coppola, and many more. We talked and talked. Referenced Todd Hido photographs and Eggleston. I must say it was great fun and it created a language for us that made the shoot pleasurable.

EL: If you could name just one – what stands out as your most favorite experience you had during filming? (Either technically or emotionally).
I can tell from the way you’re asking the question that you know I won’t be able to answer it. I can’t think of one, there are too many and therefore none stands out. My favorite experience of making this movie was making it, working with great professionals to make something we’re all proud of.

EL: Anatomy of a scene: What was the most difficult sequence to film during production?
OM: The mall scene. It was hard to write, hard to find the right location, hard to block and light, and hard to shoot in that live environment. Ultimately only a piece of the scene was left in the movie, but the lessons learned in shooting the whole sequence were plentiful.

EL: I’d like for you to comment on two more works of yours that we’ll be seeing in the near future….I’ve heard from the pipeline that Unthinkable is one hell of a script. Can you discuss the genesis of that story – how did you come up with the storyline?
OM: Unthinkable was a rewrite that came to me through producers Cotty Chubb and Bill Horberg. Peter Woodward wrote the original screenplay and took it to unbelievable places. I’m not even sure which version of the movie they shot.

EL: What “mistake” will you not make on your second time out as a director? Where are you at with “This Side of the Looking Glass”?
OM: I will not make the mistake of stopping to drink alcohol during the shoot. I cut alcohol and caffeine out of my life for the shoot just to keep myself disciplined and focused. I didn’t miss the caffeine.
As for “Looking Glass” — that’s a great question. I’m not sure. It’s a version of the first script I wrote and it may or may not come back to life.

Oren Moverman‘s The Messenger received its world premiere at the Sundance film festival on Monday, January 19th at 9:30 pm in the Eccles theater in Park City. It receives it theatrical release this Friday.

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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