January 14, 2012
By Johanna Schneller
Angelina Jolie’s one-woman war
If Brad Pitt needs a valentine for Angelina Jolie, I have just the idea: a bound copy of the first draft of her screenplay for her debut film as a writer-director, In the Land of Blood and Honey (which opens in Canada on Friday). It would be a touching, romantic gesture, because the script is a mess – typographically, that is.
"I’m bad with computers," Jolie said in a recent phone interview. "I didn’t even have [screenwriting program] Final Draft when I was writing it. So to do dialogue, I was typing space-space-space. It took me a really long time, until somebody explained to me I could get a writing program. So the first draft is all over the place." She laughs. "It’s so unprofessional."
Her laugh is warm, self-deprecating, and not unusual in the course of our call. And disarming, since I’d expected Jolie to be a bit aloof, and her answers canned. After all, she’s Angelina freakin’ Jolie – at 36, an Oscar-winning movie star (for Girl, Interrupted), tattooed mother of six, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and one of the most famous (and hounded) women on the planet. Reams have been written about her sex life, her knife play and the his-and-hers blood vials she and Billy Bob Thornton once sported. Lately, Jolie’s more regal side has emerged, all emerald drop earrings, sightseeing in Venice with her brood, and lounging in Louis Vuitton ads modelling luxury camo-mufti in Cambodia.
Instead of a she-devil or ice queen, however, Jolie sounded friendly and eager to communicate, almost as if she were still parsing out the film’s issues for herself. In the Land of Blood and Honey, a tortured love story set during the Bosnian war, and up for best foreign-language film at Sunday’s Golden Globes, is a tough sell, and Jolie has been chatting it up for months already – including to Barack Obama, during a visit to the White House with Pitt on Wednesday.
The bound script would be a good companion, Jolie agrees – "when I feel more confident and I’m not as embarrassed" – to the writing present Pitt has already given her: an antique typewriter. "Brad is the first person who read the script," she says, "and the first person to tell me that it was good. And believe in me. He produces films, and he’s such a solid man and solid actor. He’s been so supportive."
Still, she admits, there was a "slight adjustment" in their household as she added writer and director to her résumé. "I would sit up writing late into the night," Jolie says. "It wasn’t a joke in our house, but it was this odd experiment I was doing that seemed so unusual for both of us. I’d written op-ed pieces and in journals, but nothing like this. But like anybody who loves you, they’re happy when you’re happy. I think Brad’s happy that there’s something that brings me some peace."
When she started writing, Jolie wasn’t planning to make a film, or even to show anyone her work. "I wrote out of a quiet meditation with myself, about my own frustrations with violence against women, lack of intervention in crises, and trying to understand what happens to people in war," she said.
Vuitton ads aside, Jolie does walk the walk: She uses that army of reporters who trail her to shed light on war-torn regions, where she sleeps in tents, cradles babies and advocates for women’s and children’s safety, not unlike Audrey Hepburn before her (though fewer people questioned Hepburn’s sincerity). Yes, not many first-time directors can include the White House on their promotional tour. But not many screen their films at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, either.
"The more I read about the Balkan conflict, the more I felt compelled to learn," Jolie goes on. "It slowly formed into a project." She made a wager with herself: If she could pull together a cast and crew from all sides of the conflict, and they thought her story rang true, she would make the film. In it, a budding relationship between Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim artist, and Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian soldier, is literally blown asunder by the civil war in 1992 Yugoslavia. She becomes a captive in a women’s prison camp that he runs, and their relationship mutates against a backdrop of rape, murder and brutality.
The project was nearly swamped early on when misreports of the plot – suggesting that the leads fell in love after Danijel raped Ajla – led female victims of war to protest the film. But Jolie persevered, financing much of the $13-million (U.S.) budget with her and Pitt’s own funds. She shot two full versions, one in English (so it can be used as an educational tool, and for those who dislike subtitles) and the other in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. (That’s the version she prefers.)
"It’s a universal and human story, not a political statement," Jolie says. "There are so many wonderful artists in that part of the world, and none want to be divided. Their coming together to do this" – she earns extra points for good grammar there – "was such a beautiful thing. I felt responsible to them to try to protect that."
If the script is light on dialogue, Jolie had her reasons: "I’m a big believer in behaviour and what’s not said. It is sparse, but part of that is because of how careful especially Ajla had to be with what she said. And it was important to me to show humanity on Danijel’s side, too. To try to understand that most people aren’t born hateful and violent – that they both become something unrecognizable by the end.
"They both had to make a decision that so many did in that war," she continues, very earnest now. "This nationalism rose up, and people changed. People who were neighbours, friends, family. The two leads were born in the same hospital, they went to the same school, they were taught the same history. Now he has to check the box ‘Serb’ and she has to check the box ‘Other,’ because her parents are a mixed marriage. And their children would now go to separate schools, with separate histories."
On-set, Jolie tried to encourage an open, familial atmosphere where everyone was invited to contribute. "I don’t want to walk on-set and be The Director," she says. "I want to walk on-set and be Angie, who’s coming in with strong ideas and will keep things moving. But I’m going to be a friend that anybody can be honest with. Even if it’s ‘I hate this line.’ The directors that I’ve had bad experiences with are the ones who separate themselves and don’t listen. Or only listen to the lead actor."
She depicts the near-constant scenes of violence unflinchingly, but shot them apologetically. "We had this running thing where I’d say, ‘Let’s try to have an easy scene on Monday,’ and everybody would say, ‘What easy scene? You don’t have any of those,’ " Jolie remembers. Asking an actress to run through Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, Jolie knew that in real life, the actress had made that very run, and been shot at, regularly. And the rape scenes were tough on both actors in the equation.
But the hardest scene for Jolie to helm was one in which soldiers force elderly women to dance naked. Her research had taught her it was a true occurrence, and she planned to shoot just one take, with two cameras. But on shooting day, "it felt like I was personally torturing people," Jolie says. "I was so uncomfortable and so apologetic. But the women were strong for me – they told me they wanted to show this, they wanted people to understand what women in war go through." Still, Jolie endured a lot of sleepless nights – "many," she says. "I’m still not sleeping."
Now she’s in the throes of full-scale awards-season stumping. But Jolie is hardly unfamiliar with being dissected publicly. I tell her I can’t imagine what it would feel like if millions of strangers had opinions about me. "Well, thank you," she replies. "I’ve felt that for so long – since I’ve been working with the UN, which is 11 years – I guess I’m just used to it. It’s not that it doesn’t bother me, but it’s so par for the course that there’s no way around it.
"I think it keeps me extra centred on doing things from the heart and for the right reasons," she continues. "If you do that, you have the strength to stay straight. Nobody’s opinion of you affects you or unnerves you, because you just know. So maybe in some way it has strengthened me, to clarify my own sense of who I am, no matter how somebody sees me."
She laughs again, but not at herself this time. "People say to me, ‘Growing up, you were this kind of woman, and now you’re that kind of woman.’ I think, ‘God, if you knew anything about women, you’d know we’re all things.’ That’s what makes a woman, truly."
Jolie pauses for a nanosecond, and when she drops her final line, I can hear her grin. "It’s usually not women who ask me that."