Cartel Land and City of Ghosts are just two of Matthew Heineman’s significant documentaries. Both are grueling looks at their subject matters. Each time, Heineman gets to the grit, right there on the front line, putting himself in danger at times. It’s only natural that his feature film debut would be about Marie Colvin — the journalist who was killed on the front line trying to tell the truth about those devastated by the conflicts of war.
In A Private War, Heineman uses his documentary expertise to tell the story — all the more relevant in a time when both journalists and journalism are under fire for working to uncover the truth. The director conveys the mental anguish of witnessing war and looks at Colvin’s PTSD — an aspect of psychological stress that he was able to relate to from his own documentary work.
Rosamund Pike who plays Colvin is superb as Colvin, and has earned a Golden-Globe nomination for her portrayal. Heineman talks about how he worked with Pike to capture Colvin’s raw emotion and pain, while fighting to get these stories told. Heineman also talks about why it was important to him to feature real-life refugees and survivors in the film.
Why was Marie Colvin’s story the right one for you to make your feature film debut?
There were so many reasons. I think her story spoke to me in such a profound way. Based on my documentary work, I felt that same compulsion to go to places like that and cover stories in conflict zones. Also, there are the lingering thoughts and images that stay with you when you come home. In my work, I’ve tried to put a human face to conflict around the world. She did that for decades. I felt a kinship to her.
There was timeliness to it all with journalism and journalists under attack, I felt it was a story that I had to tell.
Her story is incredible. Her fearlessness led to her death, but she was determined to be out there with the people. You’ve been down there too when you were shooting City of Ghosts and Cartel Land. How did your experience help you when telling the story of Marie Colvin?
It was a huge part of how I approached the narrative. I wanted to draw upon it. We shot in a docu-style way. I wanted to make the film feel as authentic and as truthful as possible. I wanted to put you in her shoes and her mind. I wanted to make a psychological thriller and what causes someone to go to the most dangerous places on earth and the effects that had on a person.
A big part of being in those war zones was that we worked with refugees from the various countries we were depicting to play those background roles. When Rosamund walks into the widow’s basement, the women she is speaking to are real women from Homs, Syria. Those women are shedding real tears. When the second woman says, “There’s been a whole generation that’s been lost.” That’s not just her speaking to Ros, but to all of us.
In the hospital, the man who brings in the young boy is also from Homs. I spent weeks finding him. His two-year-old nephew was shot off his shoulders and bled out in front of him. So, the trauma and grief he brought on to set were almost unbearable. At one point, Ros walked off set and said, “I don’t know how to process this all. The lines between documentary and fiction are so blurred, are we exploiting this man?” I said to her, “This is something I deal with on a daily basis.”
You have a human instinct to give this person a hug or to give them space, but your job is to capture these moments. He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want his story to be told. That experience happened countless times during the making of the film. It really put Rosamund in a lot of uncomfortable places, but it was astounding to see her react and transform into this part.
You talked about shooting in Jordan. How did you recreate Homs there?
I was very fortunate to work with our DP Bob Richardson who has shot everything from Platoon to Born on the Fourth of July. He’s done stuff with Tarantino, Scorsese, and we spent months studying every war film we could get our hands on and creating a language with which we wanted to tell this story. Sophie Becher, our production designer did an amazing job of referencing thousands of images and she did an amazing job to bring these worlds to life. We didn’t have a huge budget but we shot almost predominantly on location with natural lighting. It was extremely important to me to make each one of those places make authentic and as real as possible right down to the rug and blanket in the media center. That was based on images we actually saw.
I read that Paul Conroy was on set. How did that help with telling Marie’s story?
For an actor, it’s a double-edged sword. Some actors would hate having the real person who you’re portraying on set. Others wouldn’t. Thankfully Jamie and Paul got along incredibly well and became dear friends. Paul was supposed to be on set for a few days but ended up never leaving. He was a huge inspiration to Jaime, to Ros and to me. He helped with that goal of creating an authentic world. There’s no better person than the person who was with her. So, to mine his brain for what it felt like and what it smelled like and what the energy was like really to bring the film to life. I feel like I owe so much to him.
You show her PTSD scenes and how the trauma affected her. Talk about the editing discussions you had to get that balance right?
That was so important to me to show what was happening. PTSD is not something that I think that is portrayed too often, at least in a believable way to me in film. So, attempting to personify what it’s like to have PTSD was a huge goal of mine. I drew a lot on stuff that has plagued me in what I’ve experienced. Ros and I spent a lot of time talking about my experiences. We talked to Marie’s friends and colleagues and Marie talked about it and what it does to someone’s mind was so important.
There are moments in the script that says, “Marie writes up an article.” I thought it was an opportunity to really get inside her head. With that mass grave scene in Iraq, I let the whole crew go, and it was a skeleton crew and I just wanted this low angle almost voyeuristic shot as if we shouldn’t be in the room with her. She’s experiencing the horror of what she just witnessed.
I told Ros I was going to give her the freedom to explore what she just saw. I said, “We weren’t going to cut. If you leave the frame, you leave the frame.” It was an attempt to get inside her head and those images that she couldn’t shake.