In many ways, filmmaker Matthew Heineman is an apt choice to make a film about the life of American war correspondent Marie Colvin. Colvin, who died reporting from Homs, Syria, in 2012, is the subject of Heineman’s first-ever narrative feature A Private War, based on a Vanity Fair article called “Marie Colvin's Private War.”
Playboy spoke with Heineman, whose film is out Nov. 2, during a recent press day in London about his experience moving to narrative from documentary, and how he enlisted actual refugees of war to appear in various scenes.
For a lot of doc filmmakers, it's sort of a gateway drug to the narrative world. And for me, I love docs—I want to keep making docs. I had no intention of making narrative film. I made a film called Cartel Land and afterwards was sent a number of scripts, none of which I particularly wanted to make. Then when I got an early draft of this script, I was just deeply moved by her story. I read everything I could about her. I read everything I could that she wrote. I knew of her, but I didn't know her personally, and I just felt like this was a story that I had to tell. I think if she was alive, I maybe would have made it as a doc. But she wasn't.
What did you feel compelled by?
I felt a huge kinship to her, even though I never knew her, for a variety of reasons. One, just in terms of her ethos on storytelling. My desire in my docs has always been to put a human face to really complicated conflicts, and I think she obviously had a very similar way of writing and storytelling. And I've also been in dangerous situations. I've been shot at. I've been in torture chambers. I've been in safe houses. Then the bizarreness of that and coming back to New York or wherever. That duality is something that I very much understood and empathized with. Obviously, never to the degree that she did over two plus decades of covering war, but I at least could understand and empathize with her experience.
That was my goal. This is my first narrative film, and I wanted to make the film as authentic and real as possible. Both authentic and real in terms of a portrait of Marie, but also the experience of being at war and recreating these war zones. And that extended on every level, to every aspect of making the film, from the way we shot it to the way it was designed, to the costumes, to the casting. Casting, particularly, was hugely important in this because I cast mainly non-actors, refugees living in Jordan where we shot them.
You used actual refugees?
We shot all the war zones in Jordan, and I cast refugees from the various countries that we were portraying. So, when we're in Iraq, the women who are wailing aren't actors—they're real people who are reliving real trauma, and those tears are real. And in Syria, when [Marie] walks into the basement and interviews those two women, those aren't actors. They really were in a basement in Homs. They were telling their real stories. I tried to create environments in which real stuff could unfold.
Was that challenging for Rosamund and Jamie?
I think that was very difficult for Ros to work in that environment because I don't think she's ever experienced something like that. In the hospital [in the film], the man who came in with his young baby who died in front of him, he was from Homs as well, and he was actually at a protest, and his 2-year-old nephew was on his shoulders and was hit by a sniper and bled out in front of him. And so, when he's carrying that baby, and he's reliving that trauma—those tears and those yells and those pleads and screams for, "Why, why God, why? Why is this happening?" That's all real, and it was really intense, so when we cut away to Ros and Jamie, their reactions are real reactions.
They were, I think, really moved and affected by this. At one point, we had to stop shooting for a bit because Ros was so affected. We went outside, and she was like, "What are we doing here? Are we exploiting these people?" I said, "Absolutely not. This is something that I deal with on a daily basis with my documentary work, is they want their story to be told, and we're helping give voice to that."
We went outside, and Rosamund was like, "What are we doing here? Are we exploiting these people?"
Well, it's the same as any documentary or any other project that I've ever done, is where it's just that people want to be understood, they want to be listened to. And they want the world to know what they've undergone and what they've been through. That's generally the same common denominator, whether you're a vigilante leader in Mexico in Cartel Land, or a group of Syrian activists from the capital of ISIS in my last doc City of Ghosts, to these featured extras in A Private War, a narrative film where they were cast to be themselves. They want people to know what happened. It gives them a voice, and that's what Marie did really. It's a clichéd term, but it's really true: She really gave voice to the voiceless.
Do you see this as a political film at all?
Not even in the slightest. I actively try to make my films apolitical. I have my political beliefs, and [it's] probably not too surprising to you what they are, but I don't think it should matter what I believe. I think the beauty of film is that films have the ability to unite people. I think films have the ability to create dialogue, to provoke conversation, and if you're just preaching to the choir, then what are you doing? I've always tried to make my films apolitical to allow everyone to come to the table, to really have a discussion. Especially in this world, where everything is so polarized and everything is so fractured, I think film has the ability to unite.
Does it turn out that making a documentary is a lot different than making a feature film?
I mean, I'm used to being out in the middle of nowhere in Mexico alone shooting myself, and taking sounds and downloading my footage and doing stuff like that. That's my background. So, to walk on a film set and have whole departments that do all those things and have 100-plus people and all this stuff, that was definitely a strange thing at first. But at the end of the day, it's storytelling. I think the most transferrable thing, at least for the docs that I make, is the bedrock of them is trust.
It's developing that trust with your subjects so that they can be themselves so you can capture those very human moments, those surprising moments, those confounding moments, those too intimate moments. I found that working with actors it was very important to developing that trust and that rapport so that they could feel comfortable to make mistakes, to improvise, to speak out and to challenge me and vice versa. A mentor of mine in the film world once said that if you ended with the story you started with, then you weren't listening along the way.
That’s a great line.
Yeah, I think that's good advice for life and I think it's good advice for filmmaking. And that's something that I've had to hold here every step along the way in my docs, and I tried to bring that into this process. Be open to the story changing. Obviously, you're working off of a script, so it's a different thing, but still within that, create an environment where accidents can happen, where stuff can unfold.
Did the experience make you want to do more narrative films?
I just want to keep telling stories. I want to keep telling stories that matter to me, and whether that's in the form of narrative or doc, I think the world is malleable, and the world is changing, and I try to make my docs feel like narratives. I tried to make my narrative feel like a doc, and I think it's a really exciting time to be making films, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to be able to do what I do.
It’s been a really popular year for documentaries. Do you think there’s a reason they’re in the zeitgeist?
Definitely box office-wise for docs, it's been a crazy year. I think we're definitely living in a golden age of documentaries for a whole variety of reasons. More and more people watching them, there's the avenues through which documentaries are being disseminated [that] has been democratized to some degree, so there's more outlets, there's more ways to get your films out there. It used to be, you'd go to Sundance, and you get bought by HBO, and that's it. There's so many different ways of getting your film out there these days, so I think it's a really exciting time.