Angelina Jolie Talks 'In The Land of Blood and Honey'

Tuesday, 20 December 2011 10:32 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Angelina Jolie Talks 'In The Land of Blood and Honey'

As an actress, Angelina Jolie certainly doesn't need much introduction.  One of the most famous and bankable stars in contemporary film, Jolie won an Academy Award for her incendiary supporting turn in 1999's Girl, Interrupted and was nominated almost a decade later based on her work in Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood.  Her credits include performances in films as varied as A Mighty Heart, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Wanted, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt, and The Good ShepherdAs a fixture on the covers of magazines adorning supermarket checkout aisles, she arguably needs even less introduction, thanks to being one-half of one of the most famous couples on the planet.

Already a multi-hyphenate, Jolie is adding writer and director to her her resume, as her first produced screenplay is also her feature directorial debut.  In the Land of Blood and Honey, which opens in limited release on December 23rd, is reflective of Jolie's well-documented global humanitarian efforts, particularly her status as a Goodwill Ambassador United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  The takes place in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995.  The film centers on two fictitious characters, a Bosnian solider played by Goran Kostic and Zana Marjanovic as a Bosniak woman with whom he had a connection before the war.  While chronicling the brutality of war and ethnic cleansing, the story shows how these two characters and their relationship are changed by the incredible and horrific circumstances surrounding them.

With the release of In the Land of Blood and Honey imminent, Angelina Jolie is promoting the feature extensively.  IAR's managing editor Jami Philbrick recently had the rare opportunity, along with other select members of the press, to sit down and speak with the Jolie about her directorial debut.  Jolie discussed how the film came about, directing for the first time, the difficulties of making a modern war movie in two different languages, and the responsibility to depict these events with the appropriate honesty and force.

Unlike many actors, Jolie apparently didn't harbor a longtime desire to direct someday, but instead, In the Land of Blood and Honey emerged from her desire to engage more extensively with the subject matter.  "You know, this was an unusual one because I didn’t set out to become a director," she explained. "And I didn’t want to make this film as, ‘I want to direct something so I’m going to write something.’ I wrote it because I wanted to think about these issues, and I’d written journals and op-eds, and this was kind of just an experiment for me. And I wanted to give myself this homework to kind of have this excuse. And then the cast came together and things started to happen, and somehow it became real and I couldn’t let it go, and I ended up directing."

Writing the screenplay, her own identity and experience were to some extent invested in the experiences of characters.  While most war films are written and by men, Jolie's femininity could have contributed to making the story unique. "In many ways, it’s the point of view of a woman," she said. "And it deals with the sexual violence against women. Not that a man couldn’t make that, but the internal struggles that a woman goes through and a woman’s point of view maybe makes it a little different. But, so much of my focus was also trying to understand the men.

She continued, "I was trying to put myself in the mens' shoes, which was the biggest challenge for me. I had to write for Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija). I had to write for Danijel (Goran Kostic). I had to be this other thing, and then direct them. So, in my mind, it was both. But, at the heart of it is my heart, and my heart is very similar to Lejla (Vanessa Glodjo). The loss of a child is my greatest nightmare. The question of whether or not I could turn against somebody I love and what that would take would be the relationship that I would relate to. But, especially the focus on the violence against women and the way the sexuality is handled, women together could discuss how far we could go and what we thought was appropriate, and we also knew what we didn’t feel safe with and how we would protect each other. So, we had this trust, as women together, to deal with the sexuality and violence together."

With the notable recent exception of Kathryn Bigelow on The Hurt Locker, it's not often that female directors are given the opportunity to direct films with a war-time setting, especially for their first feature, but rather than being daunted, Jolie enjoyed the experience.  "I loved being on the other side of the camera," she said.  "I loved watching another actress in the spotlight do an extraordinary job and I loved making her beautiful, and interesting, protecting her emotions, and showing people her talent. I loved being on the other side of the camera and interacting with the crew. When you are an actor you kind of have to stay inside this world inside the movie but when you are with the crew and you are on the outside, you are kind of in the dirt working through all the issues. It’s just a different way of working and I think I preferred it."

In order to tackle her first directorial feature, Jolie called upon knowledge she gained while acting for previous directors, saying, "I’ve had such amazing directors in the past, and Clint (Eastwood) has taught me about having a crew of good people that you respect and everybody treats each other well and there’s no dramas, you know? He’s a great leader in that way, and so I tried to create a family so that everybody’s just good people. When we were putting the team together we wouldn’t say, ‘Who’s the most talented?’ We’d say, ‘Talented, but is he a nice person? Because this is a really hard subject matter, and we don’t want people on set who aren’t nice people.’ (laughs) You know? We want a family. So I learned that from him, and from Michael Winterbottom I learned a lot about knowing which scenes to really kind of allow to go in one and help the actors so they could live it completely and not chop it up and not get in their way."

Though she ultimately enjoyed the process and had the benefit of having worked with tremendous directors in the past as an actress, her first time behind the camera was far from easy, it seems.  Of the production itself, she said, "It was very fast. We had forty-one days and I think $12 million and we had three and a half years of war and many different seasons to recreate. I found out how much snow cost. I’d say, I want to snow this whole area of Yugoslavia because in Bosnia, snow is snow. They would say, 'Okay well that is $100,000.000 worth of snow.' I would say, 'Okay but what’s $20,000.000 worth of snow?' Plus we shot in two languages so everything is doubled. Suddenly the already tight schedule was tighter. So we had to select scenes that had to go. We had to cut the script as we went, we had to adjust things as we go, and we had to condense things. But I do like working like that. I like being busy. I have a lot of respect for crew and actors so I’m happy that they felt I was professional and prepared because I try to be."

One fascinating challenge inherent in this film was the fact that, in one crucial respect, this was essentially two movies.  Jolie made the decision early on that two separate versions of the film would exist, one in which the actors speak Bosnian and one in which they speak English.  Though the languages are different, the content remains identical.  "They’re exactly the same time — two minutes off, actually," Jolie explained. "I think it’s because they speak faster in their authentic language. But no, they’re the same. They’re the same movie, but I think it feels very different because it’s like if you’re speaking Italian, the passions and the culture and the way you speak and the arguments you have versus an English accent, they’re actually different."

"I wrote it in English because I had to," she said, laughing as she began to lay out the process. "And then when we had it translated, we had it translated by different people from different sides to make sure the translation was fair and balanced, which you have to do with almost everything in this region. We talked together with the cast — because they all spoke English, they speak English very well if you’ve met them. And those who didn’t learned their scenes phonetically. We felt that the reason for making this film wasn’t just for the people of the area, and we wanted it to be authentic. And yet we know that there’s a lot of people out there that we want to learn about this part of history and speak about these themes, but these people often don’t go to foreign films. And so we sat and said, ‘Could we do this?’ Because for us, it’s not about making a movie, it’s about getting a message out and wanting to get it to as broad an audience."

The rare practice of creating such different versions effectively allow the filmmakers to access that broad audience more readily, as Jolie explained, "So now we have it, for example, in certain states, maybe they’ll say, this theater will say, ‘Foreign films don’t work, I’m not buying a foreign film.’ But we can say, ‘Okay, we have another one. Can you take it?’ You know? So there are certain countries — I think France immediately wanted the authentic language. America, there was a question. It was up in the air. And then I think the UK has bought the American — British, English, whatever you want to call it, traditional — but who knows, maybe they’ll change their minds when they think about it for a while. I don’t know, people seem to be shifting, they’re not sure."

The logistical challenge involved in shooting the same film in two different languages on a limited schedule paled in comparison to task of directing such unspeakably weighty material.  The burden of faithfully depicting truly horrific events with honesty weighed on the entire crew and required a self-aware, sensitive approach from Jolie as a director. "Because I’m not from the region, in many ways they directed me," she said.  "You know, I can’t direct Vanessa (Glodjo) and tell Vanessa how to run across sniper alley. She was there, so she can tell me. ‘Does this look right?’ So often I was the one asking them, ‘Did we get this right? Does that sound right?’ Or, ‘Tell me about when your neighbor’s baby died, how did she react? What happened?Can you give me more detail on that?’ So it was a very different situation for all of us."

"For example, the human shield scene was based on a story that a woman told me one day," she recalled.  "We talked and she walked me through the entire thing that happened to her. So is the scene with the women having to strip and dance naked in front of the soldiers while they laughed at them, in front of everybody. So, learning about that and then re-creating it, knowing it was real, was very hard, but nothing was ever as hard for me as it was for the actors who were there. The dinner scene, where everybody was eating the food, all of those actors were effected by the war, but one was able to get out. Everybody else lived off those exact food rations for three and a half years. So, when the food rations came out, they were very emotional. They were so cute too because they looked at some things and said, 'We didn’t have chocolate peanut butter. They have Tabasco sauce.' It was so moving, but they also had to sit down and think about it. Some of them can’t eat peanut butter anymore because they ate it for three years, so the taste of it makes them remember. It’s crazy. But, everything was sensitive to them."

"There were certainly moments that people had to step outside for a little bit and cry because something became too real and we just needed to take a pause, or we needed to sit together and talk about, 'What does this mean? What is this saying? Are we doing the right thing?' We were always asking ourselves that. You’re trying to find this balance, which is an impossible balance to find, really, in this region. You’re doing your best to present something that’s not a documentary or a political statement, but it has all these politics and it has all this sensitivity, so you’re walking a very fine line. So, we were always talking about this line and whether we crossed it. But, the opposite actually happened with us. Because it was so violent and because there were so many aggressive scenes against each other, in between takes, everybody was so kind to each other. Everybody looked after each other. Everybody was running to get each other something to eat or a jacket. They really looked after each other because they didn’t want to hurt each other. They were forced to recreate this, and then they felt bad."

The emotionally grueling process and attention to the details of such trauma results in a film that is sometimes difficult to watch, which was part of the intention behind its creation.  Jolie explained, "In order to get this message out of wanting people to pay attention and want for timely intervention — not just boots on ground but some kind of intervention, some kind of dialogue — that if we could make people feel that in a visceral way and want that while they’re watching it, that they’re wanting it and they’re angry it’s not coming, then that would be the conclusion that they would walk away with. But we did also... We tried to make just a traditional film with characters and good acting (laughs), but somehow you just can’t soften this kind of war. And the reality is the four-and-a-half-hour cut was a lot worse. Some of the hardest things were actually cut out because some people just really could not handle it."

"We wanted to make a film that’s universal and it could be anywhere," she continued. "But I landed on Bosnia because I remembered it. It was my generation. I remember where I was in the 90s, and I think I felt a guilt and a responsibility for not knowing enough, not doing enough, thinking this is something I should know more about. This happened in Europe at this time, why do I not know more about this? And the more I researched, the more compelled I was to make it and the more I felt we really haven’t discussed it enough, we really don’t quite understand it. And these people — it’s only 15 years later — are still healing from this process. And their countries are still forming and things are still changing in the region. It’s important not to... I see so often with post-conflict situations that when the conflict is over it’s, you know, a few NGOs stay but pretty much the attention goes everywhere else so quickly that proper healing is not done — proper care, really helping people through and out the other end of a situation like this. And this one, there was so much trauma and people were so divided, it’s still very, very hard for people in the region today."

In the Land of Blood and Honey opens in limited release on Friday, December 23rd.

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