Life During Wartime: Matthew Heineman on A Private War

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“A Private War” is the story of Marie Colvin, a war correspondent for the British newspaper The Sunday Times who placed herself deep into world’s worst conflicts, including strife in Chechnya, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Syria. In search of the story and the glimmers of humanity within such tragic events, she made a reputation out of her bravery, as when she lost sight in her left eye after a rocket blast and soon after returned to her work. Colvin was committed to honoring the suffering of those who normally wouldn’t have their stories told on a global scale, and honored that until her death in Syria in 2012. 

As scripted by Arash Amel, and based on the Marie Brenner Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” the film is an unflinching study of those who sacrifice their own mental state to actively empathize with the world’s pains, as Colvin struggled to balance her work and subsequent PTSD with fleeting attempts at a peaceful life back home. Colvin is played by Rosamund Pike in one of her very best roles yet, as joined by Jamie Dornan, who portrays her photographer collaborator Paul Conroy. 

The film also marks the narrative feature debut of documentarian Matthew Heineman, who quickly proves that few are more equipped to tell this story than the “Cartel Land” Oscar-nominee. In his own movies, Heineman shares the values of Colvin’s journalism by making people see the humanity, or lack thereof, in places that have been torn apart by chaos. Heineman’s films, “Cartel Land” and his 2017 Syria doc “City of Ghosts,” are comprised of some of the most disturbing images of violence and war fare one might ever see, and yet they bring a viewer closer to a sense of the universe’s capacity for good and evil.  

RogerEbert.com sat down with Heineman to discuss making the film, casting Rosamund Pike, how the movie mixed his documentary sensibilities with narrative storytelling and more.

How personal is this movie for you, even though it’s about someone else’s life? It felt like the person who made “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts”? 

It’s probably the most personal film I’ve made, in a weird way. I’m not in any of my documentaries … not that I’m in this movie. 

But the way you see the world is, including your allegiance to suffering. Like there’s the scene where she is first awarded after the incident. I was thinking about something you must experience. 

You mean the bizarre juxtaposition? Absolutely. I think I connected with [Colvin] on so many different levels, I think on what she stood for … her desire to put a human face to conflicts that are really hard to understand, and not focus on the context or the geopolitical context. We really focus on the human beings that are caught in it all. And that’s something I’ve really tried to do with my docs. So in that sense I felt a huge connection to her, but also that addiction to covering those things, and all of the weird threads of that, your ego, that thrill, that adrenaline rush. But the desire to do something that you think matters. 

And then conversely, obviously, coming home and the bizarreness of, for me, going from a shootout in Mexico to coming to a party in New York City. 

That’s something I really admire about your content, any reporter who can find that balance. How does that person juggle their life, and stay sane? Do you get enough sleep? 

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of echoes in my life, to try and find that balance. There’s multiple threads of tension that play throughout the film, and one of them is this desire for a normal life, albeit sort of preposterously unattainable. Even though she tried to have kids, she had two miscarriages, and I think that’s something that I can relate to as well. 

Was it strange for you to tell someone else’s life story? 

My mom is a journalist, so I grew up sort of looking up to her. She’s not a war correspondent, she writes about science and global warming, but I feel like I understand that world. And then I spent a lot of time with Marie Brenner who wrote the Vanity Fair article, getting to know real Marie’s friends and colleagues, and spent a lot of time in London and read as much as I could of her own writings, and wrote about her. I did everything I could to try to … 

What was the biggest concern in sculpting her story? 

When I came on, I made “Cartel Land” and got sent a bunch of scripts, none of which I wanted to do. And then with a lot of documentary filmmakers, it’s a gateway drug to features. I had no dream or aspiration to make narratives, I love docs, I’m making a doc right now. I’ll continue with docs. But when I got the early draft of this script about Colvin, I just felt like I had to tell this story. I read the Brenner article, I read a bunch of stuff and said that I want to come on, and I definitely want to research. So the first year, I spent all that time researching, and trying to bring a level of authenticity to the story, and to her. Working with Arash the screenwriter doing another draft of the film. So that authenticity to her, and to the war zones, and to that world, was extraordinarily important to me. 

What did you miss the most about documentary filmmaking, when you were orchestrating on the set of “A Private War” instead of capturing? 

Well, I tried to bring everything that I love about documentaries into this process. I worked with a lot of non-actors, like most of the extras in the war zones, we shot all the war zones in Jordan. And most of the extras were non-actors, refugees from those countries. The women wailing in Iraq were real Iraqi women. They were crying about real traumas that they experienced.

And you cast them. 

I spent months finding them, casting them, interviewing them, getting their stories, and obviously making sure that they could perform on the day. But also getting to know them and where they came from. But most especially with Syria and Homs, all of those extras were from Syria, most of them from Homs, so when Rosamund walks into the widows’ basement, those women were women who really were in the widows’ basement in Homs, telling their real stories, shedding real tears. So that second woman, when she says, ‘I really want the world to listen, and pay attention,’ that’s not written in the script. She really wants the world to listen. So it was a sort of a bizarre experience for me, because I’m directing this scene, but capturing it as if it was a documentary verite. 

It was fun, and incredibly emotionally intense, especially for Rosamund and Jamie, who weren’t used to dealing with that. And the scene in the hospital, that father who brings in the baby who dies, he was from Homs, he had his two-year-old nephew on his shoulder at a protest, and he was shot by a sniper and died in his arms. So when he’s carrying in that baby, that’s what he’s thinking about. Those tears and those screams, those wails of ‘Why god, why, why why?’ are real, exasperated cries for what the fuck is going on. And so that scene in particular in the hospital, Rosamund had a crisis of conscience, of ‘Is it OK what we’re doing? What are we doing?’ It was so overwhelming for her. And we basically stopped for a bit and went outside and talked, and I told her, ‘Look, they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to be here. They want this story to be told. These are all the moral guidelines that I follow in a daily basis with my docs. It’s OK, this is the story that they want to be told.’ 

I’m always curious about that moral compass of being a documentarian when thinking, I’m going to capture this as information. Was there any point when you were more conflicted about it? Or were you assured from your experience, because of your past? 

In a documentary, you capture real pain, too. I’ve tried to make my docs feel like narratives, and I guess I’m trying to make this narrative feel like a doc as possible. I think the line between these worlds are being blurred a lot these days, and I’m not the only person in the world doing that. 

You condense time in a really interesting way, where she goes through one door and then it jumps to a different location and time. Where did that come from? 

I think those cuts, in those moments, those juxtapositions, are very purposely abrupt, and confusing and confounding. Because leaving that world of London and going to a war zone is confusing, confounding and abrupt. Coming back to London is confusing, confounding and abrupt. I just wanted to mimic that psychology of bizarreness of bridging these worlds, and in also, for me the film is also an examination of PTSD, and getting to that interior space inside of her head, with these images that haunted her. We used time and a lot of these transitions to explore that interior space. 

It’s like a whole other kind of a match cut. It creates a displacement, it’s nightmarish. 

In a cliched way, life is about choices, and she had many doors that she could have gone through, and so back to that conversation, that desire for a normal life and that pull and addiction to these war zones. 

Was Rosamund always your top pick for the role? 

It’s a great role for an actor obviously. She came to a screening on “City of Ghosts,” alone, it was amazing. We talked for a while afterwards. It was nice, but also I really wanted somebody who was going to get their hands dirty. I wanted two characters out of this person, someone who is really going to dig in and get their hands dirty, and someone who is going to treat me like an equal, not some first-time filmmaker. And she, from the first minute we spent, it was so clear that, her passion for this role and this story, she had done so much research already. She was so eloquent in understanding Marie and what she stood for and the complexity. She loved the complexity, and that’s what I love in making films, is exploring that gray world that we live in, and not painting people with simple brush strokes. We had a sort of mind meld. And we wrote each other three-page essays about who is Marie Colvin, and it was really interesting how similar our two essays were. 

I’ve never heard of that happening, actors writing an essay. 

We had both talked. I think she had already written it, and I had written it, and we sort of were like, let’s share, I’m sure we spent a lot of time on it. She’s just so smart and intuitive. 

In a more basic sense, was it weird working with actors for the first time? Was that strange? 

It was for sure intimidating at times, I’m not going to lie. But she … to me, the basis of documentaries is … trust with your subjects, and that sort of allows, beautiful, human, unexpected moments to happen. And that trust develops over months and months and months, and from my experience of making documentaries, and I feel that trust is very similar to working with actors, developing that rapport so you both feel comfortable to making mistakes, and explore and fuck up and improvise. That was very critical. I think the harder thing was, I feel like this bizarre intersection of art and commerce, which obviously in a doc you have a budget and there’s money that’s being exchanged between hands. 

But you’re not usually making a star-driven movie with Jamie Dornan. 

Right, I’m out in the middle of Mexico not worrying about anything other than staying alive and making sure I press the Record button. 

That seems like the ultimate encapsulation. 

Not that it’s a pure endeavor, per se, but you’re not thinking about the grander, money. I’m not thinking about where we are in the budget or what time it is. Where with any narrative you have a call sheet, you have to shoot a certain amount of scenes. So the idea of, well we may not be able to shoot that scene later, that whole side of things is very strange to me. But, that’s just a reality. 

Did you learn on set? 

I learned a ton for sure. When I walked onto the film set, it was the first film set I’ve ever been on. Looking at the call sheet, I didn’t know what half of the jobs were. 

What were your guiding principles? What kept you focused? 

I knew the story I was telling, and I had an amazing, amazing team. I spent months working with those teams on all the different departments. We worked for months with all the various departments, so I felt that was where I learned a lot, so that by the time we started shooting, everything was so dialed. Obviously, shit gets fucked up and stuff happens and it doesn’t go your way and you have to adapt, but I felt pretty confident getting it started. Probably some weird combination of hubris and naivete. 

And we had Bob Richardson shooting the film. A legend, and such an amazing partner, having shot “Salvador” and “Platoon.” 

How did you get him to shoot the movie? 

I was literally in the production office, looking at a list of potential DPs. And there were a few on the top of the list, and then I got a call from his agent saying that ‘Would you be interested in Robert Richardson shooting ‘A Private War’?” I was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ He was in Fiji shooting “Adrift,” and we Skyped a couple days later. And like with Ros, it was a mind meld. And he spent months watching every war movie we could, we’d send each other links. We’d study what was done and wasn’t done, in an effort to make something that felt unique and different and real. 

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