Interview: Oren Moverman, an accidental screenwriter

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Bad luck as a director led to a serendipitous change of career path

• Moverman poses during a photocall for his film The Messenger. Picture: AFP/Getty

OREN MOVERMAN established himself as one of America's most exciting screenwriters by working on films such as Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, and Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son. But it wasn't supposed to be that way.

After serving in the Israeli Defence Force in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories, Moverman moved to New York in 1988 to become a director. He studied cinema at Brooklyn College, and with help from an American documentarian he'd met in 1985, while patrolling in Hebron, secured a job with cinema legend Al Maysles (Gimme Shelter).

He was all set to make his directorial debut in 2000 with the self-penned thriller, This Side of the Looking Glass. But just three days before filming, the funding fell apart and the project collapsed. Moverman sent his unfilmed script out as a work sample, and suddenly found himself in demand as a screenwriter. When he did eventually get to direct his first feature, The Messenger, it was less out of choice than because he'd exhausted most other options.

Written by Moverman and a fellow immigrant, the Italian Alessandro Camon, the script about two US Army Casualty Notification Officers (Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson) grappling with their personal demons as they perform the duty of informing families that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq, was circled by Sydney Pollack, Roger Michell and Ben Affleck. "So I was the last man standing," says Moverman wryly.

Following a raft of Iraq war dramas from Nick Broomfield, Paul Haggis, Brian De Palma and Kathryn Bigelow, Moverman's film has arrived somewhat late in the day. Even so, the Iraq war is far from old news and clearly there are still fresh angles from which to view it. Moverman shows the damage done not only to someone who was engaged directly in the conflict, but also to the people at home whose nightmare begins with a knock at the door.

In Israel the entire population has a connection with the consequences of war because the IDF is a "people's army", says Moverman. Indeed, he remembers watching his father leave to fight in the Yom Kippur War, and knew from a young age about the teams that would arrive at a family's home when someone had died.

In America, on the other hand, death is mostly kept at a distance. In fact, until 2009 the media were banned from photographing coffins draped in the Stars and Stripes. Nevertheless, Moverman insists that he didn't want to make a political film. "That would have been the easy way in," he says, "and probably the thing that would finish it off. Once you go into politics and argument, you go into emotions, and emotions take you outside of rational conversation. We wanted a movie that could be very gentle and pull people into a dialogue."

Moverman didn't replicate his own experiences in the film, although the soldiers' "emotional landscape" is similar, he says. He feels close to Foster's character, who is filled with guilt and anger but working in a context where people pride themselves on not showing emotion.

Moverman still has family in Israel. "I worry about that place every day. It's beyond tragic and I don't see the (Israeli-Palestinian conflict] getting resolved any time soon. It's sad." As for his own future, his film-making career in the US is going from strength to strength. On the back of The Messenger and its two Oscar nominations, he has directed a second feature, Rampart, based on real-life corruption in the LAPD, and Steve Buscemi is lined up to direct his adaptation of William Burroughs' novella, Queer.

"It's one of my favourite scripts," Moverman says excitedly. "It's about Burroughs in Mexico City and also it's a story about becoming a writer, out of a need to tell stories."