Although it’s not director Matthew Heineman’s first time chronicling people in war-torn regions of the world, A Private War does mark his narrative feature debut (his earlier credits include the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, City of Ghosts). Based on the life and career of war correspondent Marie Colvin (played to perfection by Rosamund Pike) and adapted by Arash Amel from a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, the film walks through Colvin’s various frontline tours around the world, including a near-death experience in Sri Lanka during which a grenade explosion resulted in her losing sight in one eye. A Private War is gripping, chaotic and sometimes a tough watch as it seeks to re-create the environments Colvin experienced that damaged her mentally and physically, and it’s certainly an impressive directorial effort from Heineman.
I had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker last month while he was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival, and we dove into a discussion of making a film that honors the work and sacrifices of one of the most courageous journalists to have ever done the job. Please enjoy…
I’m guessing Marie Colvin’s name was familiar to you before getting involved in this project. What was you exposure to her, and how did this material find you?
I knew who she was, but I didn’t know her. I made a film called Cartel Land, and after that, I got sent a bunch of scripts, none of which I really wanted to make. But I got sent an early draft of this script and I felt a deep connection to her on so many different levels. I did some research, read the Vanity Fair article, which the script was loosely inspired by, and felt I had to make this film. It seemed like a really natural transition, going from documentaries to narratives.
One of the things I was startled by was how directly you deal with the PTSD aspect of the job, which of course they would have. There’s a quote in the movie about how some war correspondents see more war than soldiers. Was that one of the things that was important to you, to uncover the cause of some of her other issues, like the excessive drinking or keeping a distance from many people?
Of course. With all my films, I don’t like putting people in a box or painting people with simple brush strokes. I’m complicated, you’re complicated, we’re all complicated human beings and to explore this world and not make a hero-worshipping film was important to me. She suffered deeply from her calling, from what she was drawn to. I wanted to explore that. PTSD and the effects of war aren’t something that have been explored in film, and I wanted to at least attempt to get into her mind—what drove her, affected her, scared her.
What was it about her story that you thought would make a better narrative feature than another documentary?
If she were alive, I probably would have approached it as a documentary. The docs I make are present-day verite, watching life as it unfolds before you-type of documentary, not retrospective films.
So having her voice captured in some way, even if it’s by an actor, was important to you?
Yeah. I wanted it to be an visceral exploration of her and of war and journalism. For me, the film is both an homage to Marie, but also to journalism at a time when journalism is under attack, and we live in this world of “fake news.” I think it’s important to celebrate people who are out there to fight for the truth. I think it’s a tragedy that our society it so polarized, and it’s also a tragedy that the media has become the scapegoat and a political football being thrown around in Washington. For the most part, journalists are the bedrock of a free and open society, and it’s so important to remind people of the importance of journalism in that society.
I’m guessing a certain percentage of the people going to see this movie will know who Marie is and what her fate was. But what’s interesting, you structure your film as a countdown clock to her death. Why did you decide that was the way to go?
It’s not a traditionally structured movie, and that was one of my biggest challenges. I hate the term “biopic.” It’s not a cradle-to-grave story. It’s a psychological thriller; it’s an exploration of someone who is addicted to war, addicted to alcohol, addicted to many things and feels many things so extremely, and I wanted to explore that. The tension and arc of the film is her grappling with whether she is actually making a difference, and also the deep affects these war zones are having on her and are ultimately spiraling her into someone out of control, ultimately leading to her final assignment in Syria.
Were you able to shoot this in chronological order? I feel like that would have benefitted your actors especially to be able to do that.
I would have loved to have shot this chronologically. Rosamund went through multiple transformations, with hair and prosthetics and other things to age her over those 10 years that we cover. It would have been nice, but this isn’t a big-budget movie, and we weren’t able to shoot all in order. We shot all the war zones together in Jordan, not in order. And then we shot London afterwards.
When I think of Rosamund, I think of her as this distinguished British actress, and each time I see her in something, I’m reminded of her range. And still, I wasn’t quite prepared for what she does here. Were you ever hesitant to use her, and what was it that drew you to her?
It’s a great role for an actor, and obviously there are a lot of people I could have worked with, but I met Rosamund at a screening of my film City of Ghosts, and I was just blown away by her intelligence and passion, and we had breakfast the next morning. Her tenacity for wanting to play this role and understanding of Marie was astounding. There were two things I wanted in that role. One was somebody willing to get their hands dirty and really get in the trenches with me. And two, someone who would treat me as an equal. This is my first narrative film, and it was so clear from the beginning that we had this bond and very similar viewpoint on who Marie was and what we wanted to accomplish with the film. We both sent each other essays after that initial meeting about who Marie Colvin was. We each wrote 2- or 3-page essays, and they were strikingly similar, and I knew immediately that she was the one.
As a documentary filmmaker making your first feature, what part of the process involved the steepest learning curve for you?
[laughs] Two answers—a positive and a negative one. For me, the basis of the documentaries I make is trust with my subjects, developing a rapport to reveal those moments of humanity, of surprise, capturing those lovely documentary moments that you can’t predict. That’s all based on trust, and that trust is the bedrock of working with actors. So that skill was very much transferable. The hardest thing was, for docs, I’m often out there alone, shooting alone, with no one around me and no barriers or obstacles aside from those [inherent] in making a documentary. With a narrative film, every second is the intersection of art and commerce. If you want to change the angle or move the camera, it’s about time and money, or we might miss getting the next scene. It’s a constant of the ticking time bomb of money and time. It was a different experience for me.
I understand that you had a great deal of access to Paul Conroy [Colvin’s photojournalist companion, played by Jamie Dornan]. What did that bring the production, before or during?
He was incredible. One of the things that I did when I first came on board was spend a lot of time reading as much as I could about her and got to know her friends and colleagues and developed relationships with them. Obviously, a big part of that was Paul. For an actor like Jamie, it’s intimidating to have somebody like that on set. I wasn’t sure how that was going to go, and I introduced the two of them not knowing how we were going to play that, and they got along so well right from the beginning. And Paul ended up being on set every single day, and he was a huge inspiration, to Jamie and all of us. This is why we’re telling this story; it’s an important thing we’re doing. He’s a living, breathing encyclopedia to tap into for all of us. “Is this right? Did she do this?” We were constantly able to ping ideas and questions to him at all times.
Was he there when you shot the re-creation of the explosion that killed Marie and seriously injured him.
So, for him, that was an incredibly traumatic thing. He was also our on-set photographer and he embodied that role. But that day, Jamie and I said to him “You don’t have to watch,” and he still wanted to, but he actually fell asleep at the monitors while we were shooting. His body just shut down. I used mainly non-actors for all the war-zone scenes. Those people in Homs are really from there, and when you go in the widows’ basement, those are real women telling those real stories, and those are real tears. That morning we shot the final scene, I had a moment of silence for both all the people who perished in Syria and Marie as well. Paul was crying; we were all quite emotional. And one of our stuntmen came up to me crying and recognized Paul from the media center; he was there. It was an intensely emotional environment on set.
There are two scenes where you show her doing something that we don’t see her do anywhere else in this story: the Gaddafi interview, which reminds us that she was a phenomenal interviewer, and the final broadcast she does for CNN during the bombing, which reminds us what an incredible storyteller she was. Was it important to get all of that in to get the most well-rounded picture of her?
It’s nice to talk to people who understand the movie. That’s exactly it. She was so multi-faceted and complicated and talented at what she did. Normal people don’t really understand how the stories you read in the paper or your phone get to you, so exploring that and her singular ability to do what a lot people don’t do. A lot of people who cover war talk about context and politics or the size of the bomb, but she was focused on putting human faces on these conflicts and humanizing the real losers in war—the civilians caught in the crossfire.
Thank you so much and best of luck with this.
Of course. Thanks for talking.
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