Oren Moverman On The Messenger

Oren Moverman established himself as one of America's most exciting and individual screenwriters by working on films such as Todd Haynes' convention-breaking Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, and Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son. But it wasn't supposed to be that way.

After serving in the Israeli Defence Force in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories, Moverman moved to New York in 1988 planning to become a director. He studied cinema at Brooklyn College, and with help from an American documentarian he'd met in 1985, while patrolling in Hebron, secured a job with cinema legend Al Maysles (Gimme Shelter).

He was all set to make his directorial debut in 2000 with the self-penned thriller, This Side of the Looking Glass. But just three days before the start of filming, the funding fell apart and the project collapsed. Moverman sent his unfilmed script out as a work sample, and suddenly found himself in demand as a screenwriter. When he did eventually get to direct his first feature, The Messenger, it was less out of choice than because he'd exhausted most other options.

Written by Moverman and a fellow immigrant, the Italian Alessandro Camon, the script about two US Army Casualty Notification Officers (Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson) grappling with their personal demons as they perform the duty of informing families that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq, was circled by Sydney Pollack, Roger Michell and Ben Affleck, who at the time was looking for a follow-up to his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. For an assortment of creative and scheduling reasons, things never worked out. “So I was the last man standing,” says Moverman wryly.

Given that a raft of Iraq war dramas from Nick Broomfield, Paul Haggis and Brian De Palma were released in 2007, with Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss and Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker appearing the following year, Moverman's film, like Ken Loach's recent Route Irish, looks at first sight to have arrived in the UK somewhat late in the day.

Even so, the Iraq war is far from old news and clearly there are still fresh angles from which to view it. Loach, for example, looked at the privatisation of the war - something he believes would not have been possible if he had made his film earlier - as well as the emotional and psychological effects experienced by many returning soldiers (part of the so-called PTSD time bomb).

Moverman, meanwhile, shows the damage done not only to men engaged directly in the conflict, but also to the people at home whose nightmare begins with a knock at the door. A quiet, reflective film, The Messenger mines a side of war that most Americans (or people in the UK, for that matter) don't really see.

In Israel the entire population has a connection with the consequences of war because the IDF is a “people's army”, says Moverman. Indeed, he remembers watching his father leave to fight in the Yom Kippur War when he was growing up, and knew from a young age about the teams that would arrive at a family's home when someone had died.

In America, on the other hand, the voluntary nature of military service means only a small percentage of the population have their lives touched directly by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For most people, death is kept at a distance. In fact, until 2009 the media were banned from photographing coffins draped in the Stars and Stripes arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. While in 2004, Ted Koppel found himself accused of being unpatriotic when he respectfully read out the names of the fallen on an edition of ABC's Nightline. The Messenger was released in America just as the mood was starting to change. Nevertheless, Moverman insists that he didn't want to make a political film.

"That would have been the easy way in,” he says, “and probably the thing that would finish it off. Once you go into politics and argument, you go into emotions, and emotions take you outside of rational conversation when it comes to facts, and then you can dismiss the other side. We wanted a movie that could actually be very gentle and pull people into a dialogue.”
Moverman  didn't replicate his own experiences in the film, although the soldiers' "emotional landscape" is similar, he says. He feels close to Foster's character, who is filled with guilt and anger and desperate to reconnect with ordinary folk, but working in a context where people pride themselves on their ability not to show emotion. “You're a soldier. You're a tough guy," Moverman told his friend and fellow filmmaker, Ira Sachs. "There was no room for emotion, but those things start getting 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.”

The former IDF soldier Ari Folman achieved some catharsis by dealing with his personal experiences during the first Lebanon war in the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, while Samuel Maoz drew from his time as part of a tank crew in the unnerving and claustrophobic Lebanon. Moverman isn't about to do anything similar, though. “I don't have the kind of military experience I feel needs to be explored on screen," he says matter of factly. "I actually don't think I'm that interesting.” Asked if he saw any action like the other two filmmakers, he pauses for a moment. “I was in Lebanon [after the war] and the first Intifada. I don't know if you'd call it action but it's definitely politically tense situations, both having to do with occupation, just like in Iraq – but very different. It almost seems romantic now, compared to what's going on in the world today.”

He still has family in Israel. “I worry about that place every day. It's beyond tragic and I don't see the [Israeli-Palestinean conflict] getting resolved any time soon. It's sad. We know what the future's going to be: it's either going to be horrifying and terrible, or it's going to be two states living side by side and sharing Jerusalem and making it an international city. The question is: how many people are going to die on the way?”

As for Moverman's own future, his filmmaking career in the States is going from strength to strength. On the back of The Messenger and its two Oscar nominations – for Harrelson and the film's screenplay – he has written (in collaboration with James Ellroy) and directed a second feature, Rampart, based on a real-life case of corruption in the LAPD, again starring Harrelson and Foster, while Steve Buscemi is lined up to direct his adaptation of William Burroughs' semi-autobiographical novella, Queer.

“It's one of my favourite scripts,” Moverman says excitedly. “It's about Burroughs in Mexico City and also it's a story about becoming a writer, and becoming a writer out of a need to tell stories. He can't really express his emotions so he creates these stories that express the emotions for him.”

Sounds like another one from the heart.

The Messenger is released today

* An edited version of this story appeared in The Scotsman, 16/06/11

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