I blame Alessandro Camon. It’s all his fault.
A few years back, Alessandro was an L.A.-based producer of movies such as American Psycho and Thank You for Smoking. He’s Italian, doing a lifelong tour of duty as an American father and husband. I’m pretty much the same, only from Israel and in New York—different accents, same “otherness.”
I was working for him and producer Ed Pressman on a script called Daddy Cool, a Donald Goines novel turned 1980s Greek tragedy, set in a multi-racial world infused with Black Panthers nostalgia and bitterness. Everybody died at the end. I thought we should work on something lighter next.
Alessandro suggested I write a screenplay about the laughs and tears of casualty notification officers, those soldiers whose job it is to inform fallen soldiers’ next-of-kin of their loved ones’ passing. No one was talking about that side of the war in 2005.
Alessandro knew that I knew war from my military service in the Israeli infantry; he knew that I knew about casualties and notifications; he knew that it was instant drama, heartbreaking in its essence.
I knew he had something.
Maybe I was afraid of it; maybe I was lazy; maybe I remembered that Alessandro was also a writer, the son of writers and a hell of a creative thinker; maybe I wanted to pay my respects to the originality of his idea. I asked him to write it with me. He agreed.
We developed a pitch that went from three pages to ten. It was so organic and easy, it felt like it was meant to be. We worked well together and discussed every aspect of the story. We were moved by it and by each other’s ideas.
We pitched it around town, as they say, which means we got on the phone with a few production companies. They were all wary of the idea. All except Lawrence Inglee; he wasn’t afraid.
Lawrence was working for Mark Gordon at the time, producer of Saving Private Ryan. Lawrence said The Messenger was a film he wanted to make and wanted to see; he said he wanted to get his hands dirty. He talked Mark into it and we brought Reason Pictures (now known as Good Worldwide) to the table. They paid for development and were equal partners in the endeavor. Zach Miller came on as producer with Lawrence and Mark.
We all had the same goal: To shine a light on the people who live with the consequences of war. We wanted to tell a few stories out of thousands. We were working on a non-political movie about the politics of getting back to life after visiting death. We wanted a universal story; it wasn’t going to be about grief, it was going to be a story of love and friendship. It was going to have a sense of humor. It was the first time in my career that I cried while writing. It was a truly happy process.
Sydney Pollack came on to direct. Then Roger Michell. Then Ben Affleck. Then there was no one. So Mark said I should direct the movie.
I don’t know where he got the idea (though I’ve always suspected Lawrence). Whoever the culprit, I said, ‘No.’ I wanted a great director—a great humanist—to make this film. It was too important to give to a first-timer. Lawrence told me to shut up and just do it.
I discussed it with Alessandro and he had trepidations—and rightly so. Writers are not appreciated when they work with writer-directors; they are the other person, the what’s-his-name, the ones given least credit for the film. The idea for the film came from him, he put his heart and soul into the project and now I was about to take custody of our baby. He didn’t think it seemed fair, and I agreed. We talked and talked and finally decided I should do it. “Remember me!” he urged as he sent me off to direct this movie.
To our producers’ credit, they gave me all the freedom in the world. It was going to be either my failure or our success. I like that kind of pressure.
Casting was a blast. After seeing his performance in 3:10 to Yuma, I met with Ben Foster at the Lucky Strike restaurant on Grand Street in Manhattan. I knew he was my guy from the moment he sat down. It was noon on a cold December day. He was underdressed, just a thin leather jacket over a white T-shirt and jeans. He ordered Irish coffee and looked me in the eye with such seriousness and humor that I knew this man could not only play the lead, he could make him anew. We spent six hours drinking and shook on it later that week.
We offered Woody Harrelson the role of Dorsett, the colonel in charge. It was a bigger role in the script at that time. I met Woody at vegan restaurant Zen Palate and he told me we had gotten it all wrong: He was Tony, the partner to Foster’s Will Montgomery, not Dorsett. I couldn’t argue with that. He was funny and tragic. He ate off my plate and looked me in the eye three times over a two-hour dinner. He was figuring me out. Then he pounced, and I was game: He was going to cry for real on film for the first time in his career in The Messenger. He was worried and thrilled; I was grateful.
I knew Samantha Morton from Jesus’ Son, which I co-wrote with producers Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia. Morton is an actor’s actor; she goes in deeper than anyone and comes out smiling. Her brother was in Iraq. She came on board over a phone call.
Lawrence kept the financing together. It came from all over the world and he didn’t sleep for a few weeks just to stay in everyone’s time zone. The money fell apart a few times, but Lawrence always brought it back to life. He was to be our on-set producer with Zach Miller.
The U.S. Army (Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and more to come) read the script and came on board to support it. I was shocked; they, too, saw it as an honorable film. They like that this movie is the first of the Iraq crop to be directed by someone who has actually had military experience. (Lebanon, the first intifada; don’t ask!)
We shot for 28 days in the great state of New Jersey, home of Bruce Springsteen, Jon Stewart and the New York Giants.
Before that, Ben, Woody and I went to Washington D.C. with Paul Sinor, our gift of a military adviser, and Lawrence. We met soldiers. We met veterans. We were moved at an inhuman pace.
We went to the Walter Reed Medical Center and talked to doctors. We almost started a hotel fire. We talked to soldiers with PTSD and no limbs. We met a kid named Will, who had left one leg in the Middle East; the other was barely hanging on. Ben kneeled down and spoke softly with him. He touched Will; they spoke and bonded immediately. Will told us that he won’t go see our movie if the characters are not believable as soldiers.
Ben thought we should change our lead character’s name from Derek to Will. We did.
We finished filming in December 2008. We were done. The great Bobby Bukowski had shot it on Super 35. All real locations, no built sets. Only zoom lenses.
Before we started production, I decided that every person working on the film—from the PAs to the Teamsters—should dedicate the movie to a loved one they had lost. They wrote names in a black “In Memoriam” book that we passed around. The dedications—more than 200 names—are in the credits. This movie belongs to them.
At festivals, we tell audiences we made this movie by staying out of its way, by honoring the world we created. It’s not a lie; we are not falsely modest. When you make a film, it finds a life of its own at some point. For us, it started with the script, and we were humbled by the spirit everyone brought to the process. It continued through the hard work of many talented people and it ended with a whole lot of extremely fortunate moments and happy accidents that can’t be totally explained.
Lawrence left the Mark Gordon Company. Zach left Reason Pictures. Crew people went on to work on other films. Alex Hall cut the film. We received a peace award from German “lefties” and lots of pats on the back from American military men and women. We’re making grown men cry.
We started a dialogue with audiences we hope adds some meaning to our lives—and theirs. It feels good to entice contrasting worldviews into a movie theater and see that the contrasts are not so well-defined.
It started with Alessandro and ends with you now.
We’re looking forward to showing the film to Will. If you’re reading this, Will, it must mean you’re alive. MM