One of the most famously photographed women in the world has now stepped behind the camera herself, but there’s nothing glamorous about the images she captured. “In the Land of Blood and Honey” marks Angelina Jolie’s debut as a writer-director, and Jolie – as well-known for her humanitarian efforts as for her acting – takes the opportunity to shed an unflinching eye on the horrific costs of the Bosnian War, set against an unlikely romance. In the first of a two-part interview, Jolie takes PopcornBiz inside her creative process.
Was the film the result, in some way, of the work that you’ve done with the United Nations over the years?
Yes, I’m sure it was. I wasn’t quite conscious of what was happening. You know, as we evolve, you don’t really analyze what was happening, but when I first started traveling years ago, when I went to a few countries, of course I was very emotional about it: the change as a person, as a mother. And then I went through a period of really getting angry and trying to understand what was happening and how to start to fight against it. So it’s been an evolution for me, and then part of this film was never expected to be a movie – I quietly sat alone and thought ‘I’ve written journals and I’m just going to sit with this format of films, since it what’s I’ve done in my life, and quietly see if I can express, write, a project where I can meditate and study what happens to human beings through war so I can better understand people in post-conflict situations, and better figure out how to help.’ And have an excuse, privately – it kind of give myself homework to have to learn things about the conflict that I didn’t know anything about. And so this was my private homework and it gave me purpose to watch documentaries and read books and research and watch news footage and visit the region and spend time with people. Never with the thought that this was going to be a film, just something that I was doing for what I felt what I needed to do and learn, and then somehow ended up evolving into a film.
How long did it take you to write it?
I wrote this a year and a half – two years ago I think, maybe. It happened really quick. As I said it didn’t intentionally happen, somehow it just happened and there it was. If I would have had 10 years, I probably would have gotten scared. So it happened to quickly for me to think about it.
How much did you follow your creative instincts as a director and how much did you turn to other directors you worked with or people you trusted to figure out how to do something at this ambitious scale for your first project.
Somehow in my mind, the script was very much inside these rooms, and of course when you start to have to accurately depict war, things have to get bigger and bigger. You know, it’s hard for people to even explain what the Balkans are, let alone understand this war, so what I did was I was very, very lucky. First, we sent the script without my name on it to people on all different sides of the conflict. And we decided that if people from all different sides of the conflict would agree on the same story and could participate, including Bosnian-Serb, Arabs, Croatians, Bosnian-Muslims, and even people from Serbia – that if they could agree on this, then we have something, there would be purpose for doing it. But if they could not, then we would burn it. So they came together and they taught me a lot. As we got together started to tell me more and more stories and so we started to expand and expand on the script. I met a woman who told me about being held captive and being used as a human shield and watching older women being forced to dance naked in front of soldiers. So all these things then changed and adjusted as we went.
The scale of it, I never anticipated but I was lucky to have [cinematographer] Dean Semler work with us. I actually called him, never expecting he would agree to work on this. I said “We worked together 10 years ago – can I just ask you a question?’ And he said ‘Yeah – shoot.’ I said ‘Can I just send you a script and just tell me what kind of DPs you think I should send it to, because I need help and somebody who would be patient with a first-time director.’ And he called back and said ‘I’ll do it.’ And I think I’d asked three times to clarify that he was saying he’d actually do the film. And he took a pay cut – everybody did. Everybody took a pay cut because everybody said ‘I want to do something that means something, and I’m jumping in.’ So I leaned on everybody. I asked everybody advice. Anybody who was willing to talk to me, I asked them for help.
How did your acting background influence your writing and directing style?
Well, certainly as a writer, I think I was probably able to flip characters in my head, as if I was playing different roles in order to write the different people because you kind of have to be one person, and inhabit him and write from his voice and be her and write her voice, so I think that helped. As a director, I hoped that I was able to help the actors by giving them the space and the respect they need and the trust. I gave them what I always felt I needed when I was working. And I would protect Zana [Marjanovic] in the scenes where she was very vulnerable, or had to deal with scenes with sensuality or nudity. I would be very considerate and only put in the film what was necessary for the story telling. With the big emotional scenes, I would try to protect them from the crew, from the noise. So you’re just trying to make these safe spaces and you try to help them.
What was it like being on the other side of the casting process?
That’s a really interesting question, I was really sensitive to it because I remember the days of auditioning and being nervous and so I really didn’t want to make people have to jump through hoops to do auditions and be nervous and make them more nervous. I kind of wanted to hire everybody [Laughs]. But I was always very conscious of that in making sure people knew and had strong feedback even if they didn’t get the part. It was hard, I didn’t want to put the actors through much and I actually saw each of their auditions once they got scenes and they all auditioned and I was pretty sure after I saw just a scenes once because after they did scenes, they talked. So I got a sense of them as a person and then I saw their scene work and then I pretty much cast them from that. And the people that I thought were going to be the ones, and I would say to Gail [Stevens, the casting director] ‘What were they like when they came in? Were they nice to everybody? Were they humble? Were they gracious?’ Because this was very important to me. And she would say ‘Especially these people were really, really lovely human beings, because of the subject matter.’ So then we sent the script out without my name on it, we just sent it to them and the few who we wanted, we just had our fingers crossed, because we knew how sensitive it was when they read the whole script, would they be comfortable with it. Fortunately they were.
One can only imagine the kind of philosophical discussions that could erupt on a set like this. Many of your actors and crew members has people that they lost in a war. Were there ever moments where you had to play the negotiator to get everybody back on track and not to get into the politics of what happened?
Well, we started on the first day and we had everyone come in from different sides, and I intentionally picked when we would watch their interviews, we also talked to them and I knew how they felt about – I knew they were all very intelligent and very open and thoughtful people as I was casting them. And I kind of instinctually felt they should talk, if they got in the same room and really talked it through. I heard their private conversations, I heard their interview, I knew they wanted the same goal, they worried for the same thing for their countries and they all considered themselves Yugoslavian. Because they deal now with this divide of being divided but they were all born Yugoslavian. So I was a little nervous and on the first day we had one of the hardest scenes, which was the scene where the women were taken off the bus and they’re raped. The women in that were Bosnian-Muslim women and the actors in that were mixed Bosnian-Muslim, Bosnian-Serb and Serbian men. So having to recreate this and actually physically do this to each other was going to be such a hard thing, and our first day they all got to know each other. But it was somewhat intentional, because it was either going to spark all these emotions immediately or it was going to do something else. And what happened was as soon as I called cut for the first time, Ermin [Sijamija] who was playing the aggressor, picked Jelena [Jovanova] up and gave her the biggest hug and apologized and hugged her, she hugged him back. And all the men who had ripped the earrings and the jackets off the women, put them back on them and apologized and took care of them and brought them tea and made sure they were okay. And by lunchtime, there was so much kindness because they were confronting with this story of ugliness of this past that they do not want to repeat. So it did quite the opposite.
Are you hooked on this directing gig now? Or would it take a really special project to get you back?
It would take a really special project. I loved this not because I wanted to be a director. I loved this because I’m happy to get this story out into the world. And I had this wonderful experience of basically working on this foreign film with actors from across the world and getting to know them and their culture and the history. So it wasn’t just a film for me and I don’t know if I can put that much energy – it’s a lot of work. [Laughs] It’s much more work and a lot easier to be an actor. I did not know that. I really did not realize how much work went into it.
PopcornBiz will have more from Angelina Jolie on the effect that the film and her humanitarian efforts have had on her famous family.