"The Messenger" has been on the tip of Americans' tongues for months, thanks to prerelease screenings at film festivals from Sundance to Sedona. Co-written by director Oren Moverman ("I'm Not There," "Jesus' Son"), the story follows Army Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) in his final tour of duty on the Army's Casualty Notification service, living out the film's title by delivering bad news to next of kin.
"The Messenger," Moverman's directorial debut, touches upon a limbo of sorts. "We treated it as a kind of a waiting room," he said of the story. "It happens in between life and death, in between past and future, in between serving and being a civilian. It's a space where everybody has to take stock and decide how to go on with their lives."
You began working on this film in 2005, when President Bush was newly re-elected and our political climate was much different. Did you have a timeline in mind for the release?
Moverman: You never know how long it's going to take to put a movie together, but we were hoping to do it as fast as possible.
It would have been great to release it under (the) Bush (administration), or this Obama era. It works for every era, unfortunately, and every war ahead of us. It's that kind of a story.
Oren, you were in combat at one point in your life.
Moverman: I was in the Israeli military, and I served from '84 to '88 in Israel and Lebanon and the occupied territories, so I've had that experience. ...
Just to clarify the language, I wouldn't say I was in combat. ... I was in the paratroopers, but I'm just uncomfortable with that term.
Combat, that term, is probably not applicable any more to the kinds of wars that we fight in. I was part of the occupation of Lebanon; I was part of the occupation of Palestine.
But "combat" almost sounds heroic to me.
How old were you at the time?
Moverman: Too young. I was 18 to 22.
Is this topic something you'd wanted to write about for a while?
Moverman: I think it was actually Ben (Foster) that brought me into the process from a more personal perspective by encouraging me to tell him about my experiences and what I went through, and even incorporating some things into the screenplay that were a little more personal.
Ben, what specifically were you interested in about Oren's experience?
Foster: I was already very familiar with Oren's work, so I was really excited to read this script. I loved "I'm Not There" and "Jesus' Son" - those were two films that really affected me, so his name was already rattling around in my head. I read the script and was so taken with it, it was immediate. It just made sense. ...
We talked a lot. In terms of talking about what ended up in the movie, it's more of a feeling that came through with everybody.
And we were all trying to serve that. You can have a military experience, and Oren certainly served his time, and I believe that certainly that quality is communicated throughout.
It's coming from a rooted place.
And then we just surrounded ourselves with people who live in this world currently, and just asked them a lot of questions.
What was the U.S. military's reaction to your proposal?
Moverman: We sent them a script, they read the script, they called us up and said, "We would like to support you guys." It was that simple. They had some notes, mostly technical stuff.
Was it at all difficult to make a film about a war for which we don't yet know the outcome?
Moverman: Not for us. The war is - I wouldn't say a device, but we did use the Iraq war, and the Afghanistan war is very applicable.
But unfortunately this movie works for any war. ... It was really a much more universal approach to the idea of dealing with the fact that people die, and then you get notified.
How much did either of you know about this job - being the messenger - prior to making the film?
Moverman: We researched it, obviously; we got some stuff online. You can actually download the manual, if you Google it.
The thing is this, this phase of the American war has been going on for eight years now.
They've had a lot of experience with notification, so things are evolving and changing all the time.
... You figure eight years into it, almost 5,200 dead in both wars, that's 5,200 notifications.
Plus, if you figure the divorced families, there are next-of-kins who are split into whatever family structure the American family is these days, so you're talking about 10,000 notifications in the last eight years.
That's a lot of experience.
I'm almost surprised that they were open about it.
Moverman: Look: We're a nation of 300 million; we have 2 million people in uniform. That's nothing. So suffice it to say, people know very little about the military.
...We did talk to a few notifiers, and we did get the same story over and over again, which only indicated that we were on the right track, which was that it was the toughest job in the military as far as they were concerned. Every single one of them said, "I'd rather be in combat than go tell somebody that their son or daughter died in combat."
And we took all those tips from them and the emotional truth that they were trying to communicate to us, whether they could say it or not in words, and tried to convert that into the movie.