Matthew Heineman’s tribute to the heroic journalist Marie Colvin.By: Lauren Stannard
Matthew Heineman seamlessly transitioned from directing and producing documentaries to a narrative film withA Private War. In the film, Matthew, best known for “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts”, shares the story of Marie Colvin, an American journalist who was a foreign affairs correspondent for The Sunday Times. Matthew and Marie share the strong value of maintaining the authenticity of their subject’s personal life, as well as the depictions of the war zones they’ve covered. This goal, which Matthew referred to as his “North Star,” guided him through the writing, directing and production of the film.
Marie Colvin is powerfully played by Rosamund Pike who transforms herself to capture the journalist’s tough exterior, as well as her raw emotional state. Rosamund is strongly supported by Jamie Dorman who plays Paul Conroy, a freelance photographer and filmmaker that worked closely with Marie. Jamie and his cast were fortunate to have Paul on set for the production. Paul’s involvement undoubtedly aided in the genuineness of the film.
Greenwich International Film Festival hosted a sold-out screening of A Private War on January 16th. GIFF is fortunate to feature talent like award-winning director Matthew Heineman, who provided more insight into his work on A Private War in the Q&A below.
1. What was your “relationship” with Marie Colvin’s journalism and this story before embarking on making this film?
I knew of Marie’s legendary work and reputation as a renowned war correspondent. I felt an enormous kinship to her being a documentary filmmaker and admired how she approached storytelling: focusing on the human side of reporting on conflicts. However, I didn’t know many of the nuances of her life so I started researching Marie almost like I would a documentary.
2. Your background is documentary – what are the substantial differences in approaching a narrative film like this? And do you think perhaps the similarities are more nuanced for a story like this – as of course it’s a true story about a real person.
My doc work is run-and-gun vérité style, where I am either alone or with a small crew. Depending on the day, A Private War had well over a hundred crew members, so that transition was definitely one of the most profound for me as a director. But my background was vital in how I approached this story. Authenticity was my North Star in regards to Marie’s personal life, but also with the depictions of the war zones she traveled to. I tried to create an environment on set that allowed for improvisation and vérité moments to occur.
3. Talk me through the process of casting – did you always know Rosamund Pike was your Marie and Jamie Dornan your Paul Conroy?
I felt like Rosamund came after the role as if Marie was going after an article, and I knew almost immediately that she should play the part. I also really wanted someone who was going to get their hands dirty and treat me as an equal (given that it was my first narrative film), and I got both of those things in spades. She spent so much time researching Marie to understand her physically and mentally and worked for months with a dialect coach and dancer to get her voice and physicality right to transform into the role. It was incredible to see. It was a similar story with Jamie Dornan. I had gotten to know Paul Conroy during the research phase, so when I met Jamie, it was uncanny how similar they were in many ways—they’re both incredibly funny, but thoughtful and self-deprecating too. Jamie, like Roz, spent so much time preparing for the role.
But, unlike Roz, he had the privilege of having Paul on-set during production. He was such an inspiration to Jamie and to all of us really.
4. I know a lot of the refugees and locals depicted in the film were non-actors – can you talk me through the process of casting those roles and working with non-actors?
I tried to bring as much of my documentary ethos into my first narrative as possible. A big part of that was casting predominantly non-actors in all the war zones. We shot them in Jordan, and I spent weeks interviewing and casting refugees from the various war zones we were depicting, whether it be Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria. I really wanted to create a heightened emotional state on set and surround the cast with people that had real stories and authentic emotions from atrocities they experienced.
5. What has been the response from the people who worked with and knew Marie best?
It has been incredibly rewarding to the show the film to Marie’s family and closest friends and colleagues. I think, for many, it is an incredibly difficult watch because her death is still so raw. But, overwhelmingly, I think people are blown away by Roz’s transformation into Marie. I’ll never forget an email I received from her sister a few days after seeing a rough cut which talked about how amazing it was to have her sister back for 2 hours and how much she missed her. That really touched me. It was also really emotional and meta for Paul Conroy watching Rosamund play his dear friend everyday on set. [He wrote about this for THR: https://bit.ly/2QoqOgj]
6. Is there a quote or a moment in the film that you think best encapsulates Marie?
“…Covering a war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that. I care about the experience of those most directly affected by war, those asked to fight and those who are just trying to survive. Going to these places, finding out what is happening, is the only way to get at the truth. Despite all the videos you see on television, what’s on the ground has remained remarkably the same for the past 100 years. Craters. Burnt houses. Women weeping for sons and daughters. Suffering. In my profession, there is no chance of unemployment. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that someone will care.”