Interview: Woody Harrelson and director Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER)

Chase Whale

by: Chase Whale
November 18th, 2009


Never in my life did I think I would be writing on a movie website telling people that I have interviewed Woody Harrelson - and on a fancy terrace in Austin, TX at that. But, my friends, that did happen, and I'm about to share it all with you.

Woody and director Oren Moverman came through Austin during the Austin Film Festival to promote their new film, THE MESSENGER. If you didn't catch this film at a festival, make sure to see it in theaters when it opens this Friday (November 20). After I watched this film, I started it over and watched it again. It touched me, it moved me, and it made me tear up.

Check out our interview after the jump, during which Oren talks about the struggles and pressures he had after choosing this to be his film debut, and Woody tells us that he wants to do romantic parts again.

GATW: The first question is for Oren Moverman, this is your debut film. It's a pretty heavy film for your first one. Can you talk about why you chose [THE MESSENGER] to be your first [feature length film]?

Director, Oren Moverman: I wasn't originally the director of the movie, I was a co-writer with Alessandro Camon, we wrote the script and we developed it actually with three directors one after the other, each one of them great in his own way, but it didn't really work out. The first one was Sydney Pollack, who loved the script and wanted to do it. But he had a different idea of where it should go and then we decided it really shouldn't go that way, which was to make it more of a love story. Then we had Roger Michell, who is a British director, a great guy, and we worked with him a lot on the relationship between the two men. And then he couldn't do it because he had to go do another movie. And then Ben Affleck was kind of thinking about it as a directing vehicle as a second movie, but that kind of didn't work out. So we were left without a director and I was about to go direct another movie as my first movie and they offered it to me, and after thinking about it, I mean, at first I said no, because I wanted to get someone really good and not a first timer, even though it was me, and then I sort of was convinced, rather easily, that this should be a movie to make. I knew it so intimately. I knew it from the inside. I knew every particular permutation of what the story could be. So it seemed a natural fit.

GATW: My follow-up question, you always see in other movies, you see [a soldier] comes up and says "so and so is dead" and it's just the emotions of the deceased family's side. Can you talk about the research and how it came about to write [on the soldier's perspective]?

OM: It came out of a very casual discussion over drinks with Alessandro [Camon] and we were talking about the war and America in general. We're both outsiders, I'm from Israel, he's from Italy. We talked about how we never really get to see the stories about the people who have to live with all the consequences of war, and the people who have to have personal relationships with [those involved in war]. It's not just about politics, it's just not about opinions, it's really about your loved ones or you. So we thought of the Casualty Notification Officer as an amazing dramatic vehicle to go into these small stories of the families who are dealing with these situations right now and then get out and feel the effect of war and military life on these two guys. So that was really the inspiration and we just kept developing it, working it, shaping it. You know, it's funny you're saying it's heavy, it's obviously a serious subject matter but for us it was never about the seriousness of it or the heaviness of it. For us, it's a very hopeful movie with a lot of humor in it that addresses in general how you go through a lot of shit in life, and how do you deal with it? Well, you deal it with through friendship, through love, through humor, through camaraderie, all the good things that make you feel lucky to be alive.

GATW: [To Woody Harrelson] I talked to Ben [Foster] at [San Diego Comic-Con] and he was telling us all to see THE MESSENGER, and how incredible your performance was. You and Ben, your chemistry in the movie was great. When I watched it, I had to watch it right after it again. It seemed like you two have known each other your whole lives.

Woody Harrelson: I have to say it feels that way, he feels like my brother and I love him like my brother. I think he’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met in my life and definitely one of the greatest actors. That’s so funny that he was so flattering, because I think his performance is just staggering. To watch it up close, what I saw, and there’s a lot of scenes that I’m not in with him in the movie, but I told friends “this is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen up close.” Then to watch the whole thing and see how, because you don’t shoot these things chronologically, of course Oren is giving him guidance but he has to be able to keep in his head where he shows you what, because he’s got that wall, and he’s got to show the little fissures in the wall, the little bracks, and slowly start to let you in. Charles Lotton said [that “Eyes find eyes, the melody is in the eyes”}. When that camera is on him, it’s something in his eyes, it’s incredible. Anyway, I’m a big fan of his and I love him.

GATW: What kind of research did you do for this character?

WH: Prior to coming here, I really was ill-prepared, in the sense that I was working on this other film and in Romania that couldn’t be more different. So, the closer I was getting to shooting [THE MESSENGER] I was getting more and more nervous. Fortunately, [Oren] sent me "The Things They Carried" by Tim O’Brien, and it got [me] into the head space of soldiering. He also sent me two different uniforms, fatigues and class a’s, combat boots, hat, everything. And I actually was wearing that around in Bucharest, and you know, I’d go to these places and people would think “this guy wishes he was in the military” which, at the time I was. Then also, when I finally got here, I was feeling it. You know, I’m a hippie from Hawaii, so, I feel so completely diametrically different than [his character] Captain Tony Stone, so I was needing a lot of reassurance from Oren that everything was going to be all right. So we went to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], met with soldiers and heard their stories. It was a really powerful experience. Then we went to the Casualty Notification National Office in Arlington and slowly, in less than a week before we started shooting, I started slowly feeling closer and closer to ready. I never did feel actually ready. I think maybe, the last two days of shooting I did.

OM: You’re also selling yourself short. Woody came in with a lot of ideas and a lot of thoughts behind the character. He didn’t have a lot of time to physically prepare for it, although he did do some mental exercises that had to do with his physicality, running and getting into the head space of how a soldier would do things. But, he came into it with little time. His passion for the movie is what made him do it because he was shooting another a movie that really didn’t have the time to spare to give him away. But we really negotiated with them and to their credit they really respected Woody’s passion for the movie. He doesn’t remember it that way because I think he felt like “I wish I had more time to prepare” but he came with a lot of solid ideas and he got me to know the character a lot faster, the character that he was bringing with him, a lot faster than I got him to feel comfortable. So, stop selling yourself short.

GATW: Woody’s the man!

WH: I actually I’m giving you [Moverman] credit because I really did feel with the few days before shooting, arriving here from Bucharest in a total different head space, it really was an added job for him on top of the million other things you gotta do as a director, especially with something so intense that shoots in 28 days. I added a burden to him and he really helped me. But I was doing things [to prepare for the role], I was working out quite a bit and I would go jogging, I would be jogging along and then I would really think of myself as Tony Stone, drawing a strength and a confidence, a determination, I really felt like a different person when I would shift just that one thing.

GATW: Back to this being your first feature, did you feel a lot of stress because it was such a powerful cast. Did you have any doubts?

OM: Every time you shoot a movie it’s a pressure cooker from any perspective: acting, directing, shooting - there’s a lot of pressure - you never have enough time, we had 28 days to shoot the whole movie. So you know, there was a whole set of pressures. But I have to say, that this was a group that was in sync really quickly. That trip we took to Walter Reed just solidified everything from the moment we sat down together that we were in this together and we were going to do it in a really special way that’s meaningful to us and hopefully then be meaningful to an audience because they will see our commitment to it. So, we had to make a lot of tough decisions on this movie and take a lot of chances, and the reason we could do it was because we were really supporting each other. So I would say that there were a lot of pressures but there could have been a lot more and we really diffused a lot of them.

GATW: My last question is for you, Woody. As an actor, is it difficult going from comedic acting, to dramatic acting, to romantic acting?

WH: Hey, that’s a good point, by the way! Romantic acting, I’m not getting asked to do that much, I just want to put that out there. I don’t remember the last romantic comedy that came down the pipe. But yeah, this I did well before doing ZOMBIELAND, for example, this [movie] I put it in its own class, because it was a project that was demanding in the sense that it demands your heart. You have to throw your heart into it, you have to completely immerse yourself mentally, physically, emotionally in the process. It was a 28 day shoot for [Oren], but for me it was a three week shoot, and in that three weeks I didn’t want to feel in the end of it to look at this thing and feel like “fuck! I wish I could have got that right!” because it deserves it. To me, my allegiance was to the script. The script is the most powerful script I’ve ever read, so I owed it to Oren as the co-creator of the script as well as the director, I didn’t want to phone it in. So, I wouldn’t say hard, it just needed to be more of a total commitment.


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