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Interview with Oren Moverman, director/co-writer of The Messenger

Oren Moverman directed and co-wrote with Alessandro Camon The Messenger, a captivating, poignant and powerful drama about Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), an American soldier who returns from the Iraq War and gets immediately assigned to the U.S. Army's Casualty Notification service. He struggles to deal with his emotions as he and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) go door-to-door notifying families of the death of their loved ones who risked their life to serve in the Army. Will begins a tender romance with Olivia, the widowed wife of one of the soldiers killed overseas. This marks Oren Moverman's official directorial debut after co-writing Jesus' Son, Face, I'm Not There and Married Life. It was a real privilege to interview him.

Oscilloscope Laboratories releases The Messenger at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on November 13th, 2009.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally?

OM: You find it by looking for it [and] by knowing that you have to have it because if you make this movie in a heavy, opaque way then you’re in trouble. You need to breathe. We were very aware of it when writing the script that in the military settings and these kinds of societies, you need an outlet. Humor is really the best shield sometimes, but also a great relief and a great way to get you through dark things. The ingredients that we were working with were humor, love and friendship. Those were the things that were going to save the day for these kinds of characters and all of us, really. So, you just keep hammering at it and, ultimately, when you get to the editing room, you make choices of taking out certain scenes and not using them, even if they’re good, [in order] to create that balance.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you avoid veering into preachiness?

OM: By really being respectful to the characters and respectful to the audience. The notification scenes [especially] are so raw. You have to be very careful not to milk them. On the flip side of that, in the more wordy scenes, you really have to avoid imposing any kind of point of view on it. You have to, kind of, let the characters deliver these lines from inside. The thing that we kept on doing when making the film is really finding, every day, is finding thought and letting go of it because a lot of it has to do with cynicism which is something that we really wanted the movie to move away from. The movie is really about recapturing a certain kind of naïveté almost. You do that by [asking], “How does this moment serve the emotional arch of the movie?” There were a bunch of smart guys working on this movie and it was a very big challenge for them not to over-intellectualize anything.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How would you define patriotism at its core and how has your definition evolved throughout your life?

OM: The simple and straight definition of patriotism is the love of one’s country. If you look at it at its purest form, that’s all it is. Obviously, it gets politicized [and] people play with patriotism to affect other people and to impose their point of views and things like that. I grew up in Israel. I chose not to live in Israel, so that says something, but I do love that country and my family lives there. It defined me and defined my life. To me, [“patriotism”] just means more blindly accepting of things. I grew out of that and developed my own political perspective on things. Words have to be in a constant state of evolution and, for me, patriotism is a very difficult one. In America, it’s used in such a cynical, manipulative way so many times and, ultimately, when you meet the U.S. soldiers, I could say absolutely 100% that they’re incredibly patriotic, but that is very nuanced. It’s something that mainstream America doesn’t really accept or is not aware of [regarding] how nuanced the military is. It’s not the military that you think of from years ago. It’s a very professional military and people are very proud of their professionalism, but that doesn’t mean that they’re just blind, patriotic followers. There’s a lot of sophistication involved in the people serving in the military. I think that’s an eye-opening thing for some people.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How would you define a “good” soldier?

OM: Growing up in Israel, a good soldier was a complicated term. A good soldier is a thinking soldier, a questioning soldier. In Israel, we were actually encouraged to question [although] we weren’t encouraged to defy orders. To me, a good soldier is someone who could serve the mission and could do some good. Sometimes they’re not the same thing, so it depends on the perspective. A good soldier from a military point of view is someone who does his job, does it well and does it with care and goes the extra mile. A good soldier from a Peacenik’s point of view is someone who says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong. I can’t be a part of it anymore if it is that way,” and he walks away or speaks out or gets punished for it. And everything in between [is also a good soldier].

NYC MOVIE GURU: If the Casualty Notification Officers in the film were women, would they most likely find it easier or more difficult to show their emotions?

OM: In a way, it’s more difficult because women in the military fight stereotype all the time and sometimes they have to overcompensate. Some may have to shield themselves even more from the emotions. We don’t [show] it in our film, but women do work as Casualty Notification [Officers]. What you’re hitting on, and you’re absolutely right, is the issue of masculinity and how it’s interpreted in the world of feelings, especially soldiers who are not trained for feelings; they’re trained for war, combat and conflict. They’re not trained to feel or [to show] compassion, so it gets into the whole [concept] of the modern, masculine soldier, what it means, how it has evolved as an archetype through the years and what it means to be a modern soldier in the professional army [during] the era of Dr. Phil and Oprah.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think is the best way for someone to deal with grief?

OM: Grief is grief. Life is the way to deal with it. The movie takes place in the military, but we all have to deal with that kind of grief. We all get notified, we all notify somebody and we’ll be notified about one day. It’s terrifying to talk about, but, shockingly, we never do. People deal with grief in different ways. It’s generational and cultural and there are different things that people can do, but the movie itself has simple suggestions about how you get back to life after experience of pain, loss and grief. It really is [about] getting back to basics and that’s why the movie is so emotional in a way. It actually allows you to feel, I hope, for many people, in a genuine way as opposed to a “film” way which is always manipulated, but it still craves the human interactions and feelings that are natural and not restricted by cynicism and our desire not to be exposed.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between entertaining teen audiences and adult audiences?

OM: We didn’t give it that much thought, which, ultimately, didn’t hurt us. We thought we were going to make a grown-up movie that’s rated-R and that it wasn’t going to be for children. We had the premiere last night and there were a bunch of 15-year-olds there who were friends with my daughter [who’s] almost 15. I found it quite remarkable that they had very strong reactions to the movie. I had younger people come to me to tell me how much they enjoyed the movie. I think there is that balance there and there are things that can appeal to younger audiences. I know for a fact that a lot of Vietnam-generation people look at this movie and feel like it’s theirs. They feel like this is a movie about Vietnam. We didn’t do this with any conscious thought, but this may be a movie that you can just find your own corner in it [and] find your associations, and it may not have anything to do with age.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a drama that takes place during a time of war into a classic?

OM: Time will be the judge of that. We tried to make a classy movie in the sense that we tried to be respectful of characters and audiences. This is not a movie that hits you over the head, but it has some straight-[forward], in-your-face things. It doesn’t shy away from feelings, but it doesn’t want to milk them too much. So, we tried to be classy in the sense that we tried to be respectful and gentle. A classic is something for other people to determine.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What process did you use to capture the emotionally raw performances onscreen?

OM: The process involved a lot of talking and getting to know one another with all of the actors. There were no rehearsals. The first take would only be the rehearsal. We really kept everything fresh, raw and new. Actors have different processes. Woody [Harrelson] loves to rehearse; Ben [Foster] doesn’t. Samantha [Morton] can go either way. I personally thought that when we rehearse it, we waste it because everything’s so raw in the script, so it might was well be raw on film and then we can do it again. There were very few scenes that we did in more than 3 of 4 times.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How would you respond to someone who’s afraid to see The Messenger because it hits too close to home or the premise sounds too depressing?

OM: It depends why they’re afraid. If they’re afraid because their husband is in Iraq, [then] I would say, yes, stay away. Don’t go [see it] if it’s too hard [for you]. On the other hand, there’s always this conversation in America when they [ask], “Is it too early? Are we ready?” and all of those kinds of things. I really say, “Come on. Let’s grow up a little bit. This country is more than just 12 days old. These are things that are happening right now. People have to deal with them all the time. We can give them a little bit of respect and honor by going to see them. Maybe, by sort of reaching out and saying, “I’m interested in seeing what’s going on in your little subculture called the military, which is so pushed outside of the mainstream in America.” Maybe then you can discover things about yourself and about your relationship with life, death and grief. It’s not a movie that ultimately there to depress you; it’s actually an uplifting movie about how you get back to life having endured certain lows.

NYC MOVIE GURU: If a parent and child or grandparent and grandchild were to see The Messenger together, what conversations would you like them to have afterwards?

OM: I would love for them to have a conversation about how they feel about each other. I tried to make a multilayered film. Ultimately, I think that if we can be really frank with ourselves and realize that we are all going to die and that there is a relationship to life that we better develop and enjoy, and tell other people we love that we do and let them hear it and know it, then [that]’s a great gift. If you can give that gift to a person who you saw the movie with, that makes me feel fantastic.

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