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Bad Jokes and Raw Emotions With ‘The Messenger’

A freewheeling chat with Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and the filmmakers behind a dark-horse awards candidate

“The Messenger” is one of the small movies hoping to squeeze into the Oscar race, with a stack of rave reviews and a cadre of quietly passionate fans that have made it something of a dark-horse best-picture candidate in recent weeks. A quiet, somber and moving look at a pair of damaged-goods soldiers assigned to deliver the bad news to the families of servicemen killed in combat, screenwriter Oren Moverman’s directorial debut boasts extraordinary performances from a cast that includes Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton; the film is in some ways a home-front companion piece to “The Hurt Locker,” another tense film movie that takes the measure of war’s human toll in an entirely different setting.

The cast and crew responsible for “The Messenger” clearly bonded during their one-month shoot, which included six searing scenes in which Foster and Harrelson deliver grim tidings to parents and spouses. Six of them joined theWrap for a lengthy, freewheeling recent lunch: Moverman, Harrelson, Foster, producer Lawrence Inglee, co-writer Alessandro Camon and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. As we sat down, Moverman was talking about an unused scene in which Harrelson reeled off a couple dozen jokes, all in character. So Harrelson wasted no time in recreating that moment – with, I should warn, relatively tasteless results.

Woody Harrelson and Ben FosterWoody Harrelson: What do you get when you cross a rooster with a telephone pole? (pause) A 30-foot cock that wants to reach out and touch someone. That’s a Willie Nelson joke. I’ll blame that on him.

That’s probably a safe route to take with a lot of things: when in doubt, blame it on Willie.
Harrelson: That’s what I always do. What do they say in Muslim strip joints? “Show us your nose!”

Oren Moverman: That’s what it was like for a while on the set. Helped us to get through it.

Did you have to keep things light on the set to counterbalance the tough material?
Moverman: It wasn’t light, but it was very quiet and respectful. When we were shooting a scene there was definitely a kind of focus and energy, and then afterwards there was a calm. And relief, really. Especially when we weren’t shooting the notifications.

Were those notification scenes especially tough on the actors?
Harrelson: Yeah. My character’s meant to be quite stoic, but as soon as Oren would say “cut” I’d start crying. And Ben would hold me, or Oren. It really affected me a lot.

Ben Foster: It was easy to get lost in that space. Oren created an environment for these notification scenes, which were single shots, unrehearsed. The crew was sent away so that Bobby could shoot in 360 degrees, and he was encouraged to go for what he saw, what he heard, what he felt. We all were tuned into each other, and it became a matter of keeping your heart open and trying to keep the tears in.

I know that when Ben and Woody knocked on the doors for those notification scenes, they didn’t know who’d be on the other side or how they’d react. Oren, did you have a clear idea of how those scenes would play out?
Moverman: We talked to the other actors, so we basically knew. But part of the miracle of those scenes was what Bobby did in capturing them. It wasn’t just shooting the scene and getting it in focus. It was really making instinctual decisions, and deciding what drawing his attention in the scene.

Bobby Bukowski: For me, it was about lighting a space where the actors had no marks at all and had never seen the rooms or met the other actors. I didn’t know what was going to happen, because they didn’t know what was going to happen. So there were never any marks. And when I had discussions with Oren beforehand, it was never “Where is the shot?” It was always “What is this scene about?”

Was it hard to stay out of the actors’ way but get the shots?
Bukowski: It seemed like we never got in each other’s way. It’s odd, but I just had an inherent sense of where they were going to move. I always watch actors’ eyes. It’s like birds: they always look before they fly. So that was my way of having a cue how the actors would move.
Which I needed, because it was a big camera. Oren wanted a zoom on the camera, which you usually have when the camera is on a dolly or a tripod. But it’s another story to put a zoom lens on a hand-held 35 mm camera. It becomes a very big camera when you do that. But it was important to be able to step back and zoom in, as opposed to having to get close to them.

Foster: One of the notification scenes, the Vasquez notification, was one of the finest things I’ve ever seen. It’s a singular shot, up four flights of stairs, hand-held camera with a zoom lens, following Woody and I and the translator up the stairs. And Bobby had the physical intuition, and the emotional sensitivity, to follow us through all these moving parts – kids running down the hallway, people peeking out of doors, ending up with the translated notification. It was one of the most exquisite moments I’ve had on a set.

Moverman: Also, that was impossible for a DP. You’re asking him to walk behind three people up stairways and down narrow hallways, and find a way to make it interesting.

Foster: And not fall the f— down the stairs!

Bukowsi: But emotionally, if you’re in it, you lose all the periphery. You become extremely focused, and sometimes I would be in a notification, and at the end of the shot I’d take the camera off and have no memory how I got to where I was. I’d think, how the hell did I get here? And how did everybody else get out of my way?

Foster: That’s the same thing for an actor. Sometimes you don’t know what just happened. It’s like getting punched really hard, getting the wind knocked out of you – and before the pain kicks in, there’s that hum of where are we? When that feeling occurs, I know that it went well.

Did you get that a lot on this film?
Foster: Regularly. I got punched or hit by a lot of invisible vehicles.

What was the genesis of the film?
Camon: It was really just a conversation that Oren and I had. I was in the car driving, on the phone with Oren. We were talking about the war, and everything we see in this war, which is a lot. And then what we don’t see, which is also a lot. And from that conversation, we zeroed in on the idea of casualty notifications as the most unseen part of the war. We thought, this is as real as it gets, and maybe there’s a good movie in there. So we went to Lawrence.

What appealed to you about it, Lawrence?
Inglee: The premise is so compelling and haunting, and also a small story that could say a lot. It takes place in the military, but it deals with loss on every level. We always talked about it as a movie about coming back to life. And from a movie standpoint, it’s just a darn good idea. It’s almost high concept, as funny as that sounds.

Oren MovermanMoverman (right): High emotional concept.

Oren, what you were looking for in your lead actors?
Moverman: Handsome men who didn’t have a problem playing soldiers. (laughs) It was very specific. For Will Montgomery, we needed an actor in his 20s who had the intensity to portray somebody who went though these experiences and came back. And when I met with Ben, it was immediate. He sat across the table and looked me in the eye, and I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life. There was such enormous clarity washing over me.

Did you feel that clarity, Ben?
Foster: Well, first it was the only script that I had read, among many, that was approaching war that I felt I could connect to. Others, although they felt well-intentioned and they had great actors’ scenes and would be good for the career, nothing felt true.

But when I read this, beneath the war was something that is universal. For me to connect to material, it can’t be about the hat. It’s what’s beneath it. And the questions that Allesandro and Oren were presenting were very simple: how do we get back to life after we’ve lost a loved one? That’s a universal experience, and one I thought I could connect to emotionally rather than intellectually. And when I sat across from Oren and looked him in the eye … You go to thousands and thousands of meetings over the years, and you shake a lot of hands. And there are rare occasions when you meet someone and you say, “Oh yeah: you.” It was like that.

What were you looking for in to play Woody’s character?
Moverman: Well, with Woody, it started out as a mistake. We offered him another role. It was a bigger role at the time, of the colonel. And when I met with him, he basically said, “I love the script, but that’s not the guy I should be playing. What about Tony Stone?” And the more I talked about it, the more clear it was that he was right.

Why did you want the Stone role, Woody?
Harrelson: Well, first of all, it was one of the most beautiful, powerful scripts I’d read. Maybe the most beautiful and powerful. I wasn’t that intrigued by the other part, but I loved the Tony Stone part. I thought whoa, that’s a great role.

Moverman: We offered you a higher-ranking position, as colonel. And you rejected that. You said “No, I’d rather be a captain.” And it didn’t take much to be convinced, because just sitting in Woody’s presence was convincing.

Inglee: And once we met him, we realized that he could never make the rank of colonel.

I understand that most of you visited Washington before the shoot began, and went to the Walter Reed hospital and other sites.
Moverman: Walter Reed, the Arlington Cemetery, a bunch of army bases, a notification center … It was an intense few days.

What was it like for the actors?
Foster: It was extraordinary for all of us, in the way we got to see the mechanics on the outside of the results of war, and then the flesh and blood of it up close. And for those of us that have not served, Woody and Lawrence and myself, it changes everything. It adds pictures and a relationship to the senses that you can’t get away from.

We went in as researchers. My idea was, I really want to be a good actor and study things, do the best damn job I can. I’m doing my homework! You walk in there, and that falls away fast. You can’t pose, you can’t pretend, you can’t ask questions that are self-serving. It’s just people with people. Whatever your opinion about the war, these people gave their flesh and blood and they deserve your respect. And they’re kids. Being invited to touch the scars on legs that are no more on 19 year old children, you’re branded by the experience.

It wasn’t research, it was a life shift.

Ben FosterAfter something like that, do you wonder if you’re up to the task of representing those people onscreen?
Foster: I’m an actor. And you’re looking a soldier in the eye, and you’re trying not to stare too hard at what he’s missing, or sewn up, or attached to a tube. But the sense of duty comes in, and that connectivity to the soldier is the fuel that gets you through the rough days on a set.

We’re not running from bombs. The bombs are emotional ones, and they’re quiet and they’re intimate and we’re sharing it together. And Oren created an environment where Woody and I could feel, together with the other actors, and where Bobby could listen with his eyes. And we danced. It was very basic, but it was duty. It felt like service, rather than being up to the task.

Had you and Woody met before this?
Harrelson: The first time that I met Ben, I think, was in New York, at a hotel.  (to Foster:) You were with Sean Penn and some other people. 

Foster: And Emile.

Harrelson: Emile Hirsch, right. So that was at the end of his promoting “Into the Wild.”

Foster: Right. And Heath [Ledger] was there.

Harrelson: That’s what I was thinking. The last day I saw Heath was the first day I met you. Two of the finest actors I’ve ever known.

Oren, did you have a clear sense from the start of how you wanted to shoot the film?
Moverman: There were certain things I had very strong instincts about how to do. We always talked about shooting the notifications in one take. We were very clear that our perspective is that of the soldiers, and no matter how sympathetic we were to the families, our main job was to convey how the soldiers were feeling. And Bobby was at liberty to make a lot of choices, but always find what Ben and Woody are going through in each scene.

Bukowski: I must say, it takes a lot of courage on Oren’s part. Often, voices come in: should we shoot something that’s safer? Should we shoot coverage? That word coverage is an awful word for me. It sounds like you’re putting a blanket over everything, like you’re suffocating the movie instead of letting it breathe. I can’t stand when a director uses that word, and Oren never used that word. He was very brave in a lot of situations.

Moverman: More than anything, I did not want the filmmaking to create the scene. I wanted the actors to create the scene. And we didn’t want to dictate the emotional buildup of a scene. So the idea was long takes and fluidity.

Bukowski: And no conventional cutaways, which is interesting.

Moverman: We were not going to cut to objects if they didn’t have any human factor to them. And there are no establishing shots in the movie. No dissolves: everything is a hard cut. No montages. There’s no sense of moving through time. In fact, the time line is not very clear. You cant really tell how much time has passed from one section of the movie to another. All of these things just kept the movie very tight and focused and clear about what it was trying to do.

Camon: The notification is such a defining moment. It’s the moment that bisects a life into before and after. You cannot really set them in time, because they actually make the time. So you have to order the movie around the notifications.

In the filming, were those scenes spread out?
Moverman: Well, we shot the film in 28 days. So one way or another we knew this was going to be … The first week we shot, I believe we shot three notifications.

Inglee: The first scene on the first day of shooting was a notification.

Moverman: I remember, you and I talked a lot about it. We thought a lot about what’s going on in this notification, and do we have time to recover from it? And we kept changing which notification was going to be the first day.

Foster: Are you saying that there was an emotional approach to organizing the schedule?

Moverman: Yeah. We didn’t know what those scenes were going to do to us, so we talked about it from every different perspective.

Foster: No producers do that. None that I know. It’s always “When does the location work? When can we get that actor?” Not “How will it affect the actors emotionally?”

Inglee: Every aspect of the thing was run from an emotional place, top to bottom. I don’t think I ever went through an experience where I got rid of my head as much as I did on this movie.

But you still couldn’t spread out the notifications much, if you had three of them in the first week.
Moverman: No. We did the first one on the first day. And then we had a day of car scenes, and then the third day was another notification. And on the fifth day we shot the Spanish notification. And then at the end of the week we shot the next-to-last scene in the film, where Ben tells his story.

Foster: And punches the wall.

Moverman: And punches the wall. So by Saturday night at one in the morning, we had a week that demanded going into Woody’s trailer and drinking Palinka.

Woody HarrelsonHarrelson: A big bottle of Palinka.

Moverman: Which is Romanian for “white slave trade.”

So what shape were you in at the end of that first week, Ben?
Foster: Well, it was nice to have that ceremony in Woody’s half of our double banger. I think I threw up. I couldn’t drink it at first. It was the worst thing I’d ever tasted … until, you know, the third shot.

Moverman: Then it’s the best thing you ever tasted.

Foster: We all went out to a really pretentious bar, and it was terrifying to be out there with people. It felt better to be together, alone. We just needed to insulate, and stay insulated.

And apparently we’re still insulated, two years later. Since the shoot, I’ve moved to New York, and we’ve started a company, and this group, all of us here at this table, want to keep working together. We formed a very close circle.

Harrelson: You know, on that score, you could set a contract in front of me right now, and say, “You can work with these guys in this room for the rest of your life, and make a fraction of what you would have made, but you’d always work with this group,” and I would sign it happily.

Inglee: Really? I have that contract right here! You said a fraction, right?

Harrelson: It’s a metaphor.