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A PRIVATE WAR

About The Production
"A Private War is a psychological portrait of Marie Colvin, the legendary war correspondent of the Sunday Times," says director Matthew Heineman, who makes his narrative film debut after garnering acclaim for his work in documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land and City of Ghosts. "We follow her for the last 10 years of her life on the forefront of brutal conflicts in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria. The film is about the insatiable drive that she had to bear witness to the atrocities of war, and the toll that it had on her."

It has been six short years since Marie Colvin's death in Homs, Syria, on February 12, 2012. Heineman felt a great responsibility to tell her story as fully and truthfully as possible, similar to Colvin's own unceasingly rigorous reporting. The film was inspired by Marie Brenner's 2012 Vanity Fair article "Marie Colvin's Private War." But that was only the start. Heineman quickly began researching Marie like he would research a documentary. He flew to London, where Colvin lived between war zones, to get to know her friends and colleagues. He dug into anything he could get his hands on: her reporting, interviews that she had done, and interviews that Brenner conducted for her Vanity Fair piece.

"For me, it's been an incredible journey of getting to know Marie," Heineman says. "I feel a genuine connection to her - with my background as a documentary filmmaker - and an enormous kinship to how she approached storytelling: focusing on the human side of reporting on conflict. My mother is a journalist herself, and I grew up surrounded by strong, fearless women, so it's an honor to be able to tell Marie's story. I tried to truly understand who Marie was and to figure out a way to cinematically bring that to the screen."

CASTING MARIE COLVIN AND PAUL CONROY

Heineman didn't so much cast Marie Colvin as welcome the force of nature that blew into his life in the form of Rosamund Pike. The English actress had heard of the script through Amma Asante, her director on the biographical drama A United Kingdom, and made it her task to read it along with Brenner's Vanity Fair article. When she heard that Heineman was attached to direct, she pushed for a meeting. "I knew that Matt was a very original story-teller from seeing his docs," explains Pike. "I managed to get myself to see a screening of City of Ghosts before it was released, and I just thought - the truth he captures, the things he witnesses about human behavior - I want to make a film with this guy, because I know that if his language is the truth of human behavior, he's not going to fall for any artifice."

"I had a lot of convincing to do," she smiles. "I don't look much like Marie. I'm younger than her, I'm not American. There's a lot going against me. But I really wanted it. She entered my soul somehow when I first read that article. I don't know why. I don't have the desire to serve like she did. I don't have the courage. But I do understand about having a vocation that takes you suddenly out of your own daily life and then drops you back in. The distortion, or the disjunction between the two, can be troubling."

Pike describes Colvin as "a truly extraordinary yet recognizable woman; a woman who is brilliant, brave, courageous, but has the same flaws as any of us do." Like Heineman, she had no desire to fashion a hagiography, but rather portray a woman "who had a fierceness in pursuit of a story that made her overcome any trepidation, but who was also haunted by what she'd seen, [for] the human mind is not set up to deal with repeated exposure to trauma."

"She was one of a kind - talented, courageous, strong, funny - but she also battled demons, like we all do," nods Heineman. "The toll that war had on her was enormous. For me, embracing Marie's complexity was really important. I didn't want to make a piece of hero worship. I wanted to show the incredible work she did but also the lingering effect that it had on her." After they first met, Heineman and Pike wrote each other essays of who they thought Marie was and found them to be strikingly similar. Discovering themselves on the same page, Heineman and Pike felt an instant kinship. "I knew right away that I wanted her to be Marie," says the director. "Rosamund has that tenacity that Marie had. She fought for that role and she nailed it. She spent so much time researching Marie, understanding Marie, climbing inside of her head, her body, learning how Marie moved, how she held her tension in her neck and shoulder, really down to every single detail."

Also key was finding an actor to play Paul Conroy, the British soldier-turned-photojournalist who accompanied Marie on many of her adventures. Enter Jamie Dornan, whose eclectic body of work includes impressive turns in war-dramas Anthropoid and The Siege of Jadotville as well as starring in the Fifty Shades franchise and playing serial killer Paul Spector in the BBC series "The Fall."

"He spent so much time preparing for this role," says Heineman. "It's uncanny how much he resembles the real Paul, how much he sounds like him. He worked so hard to get there. He and Paul became dear, dear friends."

Just as it did for Pike, having Heineman as director sealed the deal for Dornan. "I think Matthew's main focus, like most documentary makers, is to tell the truth," he said, "and that isn't always the case in film, so it's a really refreshing having someone who wanted to honor the truth, rather than glamorize it or make it some sort of Hollywood version of what's going on."

In supporting roles are Tom Hollander and Stanley Tucci, the former playing Marie's editor Sean Ryan and the latter playing her romantic partner in the last couple years of her too-short life.

"Sean Ryan is the head of the foreign team at the Sunday Times," explains Hollander. "It's an interesting dynamic between the two of them because he is her boss but she's a very headstrong, brilliant woman who does her own thing. On one level he's an exasperated boss, on the other hand he's her very concerned friend because she's often in very dangerous situations."

Hollander shares why he felt a particular desire to be part of the project. "I knew Marie, a bit. I'd met her over the years, socially, so I was very happy to be involved in this story about her. She was a very strong and charming character. I felt that the script, and the heart of the film, was very much in the right place."

As for Tucci's character, it is one of very few creative liberties that A Private War takes, choosing to create a composite character out of respect for the real life characters. "Tony Shaw is a composite character," says Tucci. "There was a person she had a relationship with at the end of her life, but the name is different and there are certain aspects of him that are different. He's someone she meets at a party towards the end of the film and they end up having a really loving relationship."

Taking the role was an easy choice for Tucci: "I got a call, read it, thought the script was great, and loved the people involved - Jamie is a friend and Rosamund is a great actress who I've always wanted to work with."

INHABITING MARIE AND PAUL

Just as Heineman spent a year earning the trust and drawing on the knowledge of the people closest to Colvin, Pike too went through extraordinary lengths to inhabit her character. In the end, this commitment to the role literally changed her physically, but each step of the transformation was vital to the credibility of the film and worthwhile to earn the validation of those who knew and loved Colvin and have noted the remarkable way in which Pike manifests her on screen.

"I knew I had to get out of my own body," she says. "Marie had an extraordinary physicality. I worked with a dancer called Scarlett Mackmin and it allowed the character to enter me with gait and posture. The interesting thing is, I actually shrank by a centimeter-and-a-half while doing the film because Marie held herself in a way that she was prepared for attack."

Pike also worked with American dialect coach Francie Brown to replicate Colvin's distinct vocals. "She has such a cool voice! Wonderful. Everybody talked about it. She had a smoker's voice, which I don't have, and such power in her consonants and her vowels. It's a Long Island accent, but mixed in with having lived in London. She was a great raconteur. There's a muscularity to her voice."

Pike pored over every scrap of film and every snippet of voice recording, even gathering footage of Colvin from the cutting-room floors of the documentarians who had pointed their lenses in her direction. She gained invaluable insights from friends to help her to fully "unwrap Marie".

"Rosamund has captured the way Marie looked, right down to the gleam in her good eye when she spotted a scoop," says Sean Ryan, Colvin's former editor at the Sunday Times who is portrayed in the film by Tom Hollander. "She moves exactly like her, and the voice is so authentic. There were several Maries, each with her own distinctive mood, and Rosamund nailed them, from the party charmer to the witness-bearer, from furious to fragile. It was so uncanny that it took me a few days to get over it."

Costume Designer Michael O'Connor worked with Heineman and sifted through thousands of images of Colvin. He met with Conroy and some of Colvin's real-life peers, such as journalist Rosie Boycott, to ensure that Pike never failed to look the part. "They had articles of her clothing," he says. "You know, a jacket that she'd left one day... So it was great because you could have the real thing in your hands and a picture of her wearing it and then we'd give it to Rosamund." Same was true for Paul, said O'Connor, "Paul Conroy had the coat that he was shot in on the day that Marie died in Syria; he brought it in and it had blood stains as well as the cigarettes and lighter in the pocket from the day. I treated it like a semi-period film, because I could make things. For example, I made the pinstripe suit that she wears to an award ceremony, and I made a party dress that was similar to one that she wore and was photographed in. You get a sense of her amazing style."

Dornan, too, immersed himself in research, and had the added benefit of having the real Paul Conroy to consult, first during pre-production and then during the shoot, as Conroy was on set almost every day, both in Jordan, which doubled for each of the war zones, and then in London.

"In the early days, I struggled a wee bit because it's tough to embody someone who's just out of your eyeline," grins the actor. "But once we started to get to know one another, I loved having him there. I could go up to him and say, 'Would you react like this?' Or 'Why did you react like this?'"

Dornan devoured Conroy's memoir Under the Wire and spent many nights in the pub with his subject, building a friendship while soaking up his every characteristic. As for pointing a camera correctly, it helped that Dornan has long been a keen photographer himself, though he was unfamiliar with digital technology.

"I shoot everything on film. I have eleven cameras," he says. "But Paul gave me a couple of tutorial days in digital. We went out and shot some stuff. But yeah, I knew how to hold a camera and where to put it to my face!"

The overall transformation is impressive, though Conroy did have to step in at the start of the shoot to offer some vital advice. "I noticed early on that Jamie was holding back a bit," he explains. "I said, 'Look, if you're in a situation where mass graves are being uncovered, that is your reason for being there. Don't be shy about pushing people out of the way. You can apologize later'." This was especially key in many of the cinema verite environments that Heineman created to allow for action and dialogue to unfold in an unscripted way.

Conroy also parted with some of his personal possessions to help the actors in their quest for veracity. "I gave Jamie a couple of cameras I'd used in Libya, and the jacket I was blown up in. And for Ros, I lent her Marie's lighter, so every time she lights a cigarette..." He trails off, emotions rising. "I was watching [recreations of] real conversations that we'd had. On a few occasions I let myself go. I realized how much I missed Marie and what we did. It was poignant."

And does Conroy feel that Pike successfully captured his dear friend and colleague? "When I first met Ros, out of makeup, I was like, 'Really?' But she was like a sponge. I gave her a lot of video that I'd shot of Marie over the years. I saw her for the first time in costume on set in Jordan, and I was like, 'Wow'. It wasn't just her hair, makeup and patch, it was the mannerisms, the way she walked, the way she held herself. And she stayed in character the whole day. The first time I heard her speak, I was at the monitors with the headphones on, and the hairs on the back of my neck went up. She really had transformed."

GOING TO WAR

"We started shooting in Jordan first," says Heineman. "It was amazing to be able to capture Sri Lanka, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria all within one country. We were able to find locations that felt distinct. We spent many, many months creating all the different war zones, researching them and trying to mimic, as much as possible, what they looked like and felt like. With Bob [Richardson] and Sophie [Becher], I tried to make it as honest a depiction of war as you can do in a narrative film. We were on a movie set, so I wouldn't describe it as harrowing, but we were attempting to create the feeling of what war is like."

Production designer Becher explains, "For A Private War, I did extensive research, immersing myself in each of the six countries where the action is set: histories, culture, religion but also the most mundane of details like street lighting, building techniques, how a man prays to how he eats is important to me. Matt has considerable experience of shooting in conflict areas, and it was important to both of us that we recreated the individual war zones as realistically as possible down to the smallest detail. We settled on Jordan as it was the most realistic and offered us lots of varied landscapes to harness in the design process. Having made the big decisions as to where and how we were going to create the worlds, I then start to focus on the personal, the details that make you care. A pile of bombed out rubble is just a pile of rubble, but when you add a single shoe or a broken toy, the audience starts to relate without words what might have happened or even who might be below the rubble. Those small details make all the difference and start to build a bigger picture of the human consequence of war."

As soon as the actors came on board, Becher gave them a 'bible' full of images so that they might project themselves into the physical surroundings. "I talk at length with the actors who do their own research into their characters," Becher continues, "and I start to bring their ideas, thoughts and emotions into the set designs." She also, of course, worked closely with Director of Photography Robert Richardson to marry their visual aesthetics. "I'd go to Bob and say 'These are the wall textures' and we'd test out all the wall textures," she says. Their process was one of "sharing and talking," and Richardson's decision to shoot A Private War with very little lighting meant that each and every detail had to be accurate and precise.

For his part, three-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Richardson, who has longstanding working relationships with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, found the experience of teaming with Heineman "immensely satisfying."

"Matt's desire was to have nothing false in the frame," he explains. "His background was vital in defining how he visualized it in his head. He was crystal clear about what he wanted to avoid - places he would not enter, and those he wanted to. We spoke of composition, of lighting, of what method to move a camera. All of this stemmed from his documentary background."

"It was uncanny how Jordan was able to stand in for all these different conflict zones," recalls Pike. "The terrain was so varied. We went to a forest and Jordanians said, 'I had no idea this existed in our country.'"

Dornan remembers the Jordan shoot with a small shiver. "There wasn't an easy day," he says. "We were dealing with horrific situations - the plight on innocent people through some brutal totalitarian regimes. A lot of the time Heineman was using real Syrian refugees as extras. You'd hear someone wailing and one of the extras would be breaking down because it was digging up the past for them."

For Heineman, this was a key element of shooting the war zones. Through a grueling casting process, he found non-actors, who were refugees living in Jordan. "Authenticity was my North Star and this was especially important with the depictions of war. I wanted to surround Rosamund and Jamie and the other actors with people from those regions with real stories who shed real tears about real atrocities. I think this was tough at first for Rosamund and Jamie, but ultimately created a heightened, emotional environment that allowed real drama to unfold." For example, the women in the so called "widows' basement" in Homs were really from Homs and had been forced to live in similar shelters. After interviewing a number of different potential women, Heineman decided to feature two women and had them tell their own stories, which were quite similar to what was scripted, but in their own voice.

Pike recalls the moment of shooting that scene well - and with reverence. "When we came to shoot the scene in the basement, this room was filled with Syrian women and children for whom that was their reality. So when I spoke to them - when you see the tears of the women I speak to - that is their real story. When I behaved as Marie would have behaved and really asked them - I learnt a lot from Matt about interview technique - it all came back. It was a very fierce and profound experience. Similarly, when we filmed the footage of the clinic, which then became Marie's final broadcast that went out on CNN, the man who was playing the father of the boy who was killed was a man whose nephew had been hit by a sniper bullet while on his shoulders and was killed. And so the grief that came out of that man on the day we were filming was something I almost couldn't bear. It's a film that's narrative and yet it has a tremendous quality of documentary about it, too."

When shooting the final scene in the film, Heineman held a moment of silence for Marie and for all of the innocent civilians senselessly killed in Syria. It was one of the most emotional moments for the director as a featured extra and a stuntman - both from Homs - came up to Heineman and Conroy with tears in their eyes and thanked them for making the film. The featured extra had bullet and shrapnel wounds in his chest, and the stuntman actually remembered seeing Paul at the media center in Homs. Both had lost many friends and family members.

Conroy, a man who has seen more than his fair share of war zones while as a soldier and then a journalist, insists that both the research and the production design were faultless. "We were at an Iraqi checkpoint, and I needed to go to the toilet, so I walked away into the desert and found myself looking for landmines. Then two days later we'd be in a palm grove in Sri Lanka. It was like being at war but with the luxury of nice hotels and a cold beer at the end of the day."

The London scenes, meanwhile, were granted a different aesthetic. "The initial decision was to paint London with a finer brush - less rugged," says Richardson, though it was important that the 'home' and 'war' scenes co-inhabited the same film, meaning the visual distinction was blurred a little. "There are sequences that are well-polished and others which harken back to the war zone. We sought a balance."

Pike is keen also to stress that the London scenes, shot later, brought their own stresses. "It felt like we'd done all the harrowing stuff [in Jordan], and now it was London, and social scenes. But actually, for Marie, the fallout from war zones happened when she was at home. It was in London that I had to confront the cost as she paid for what she'd seen and the truths she told." She lets out a breath. "I've seen a fraction of what war correspondents see, but I've seen images that never make the front pages because they cannot - the reality of war is so much more violent than anything the public is exposed to. In order to play Marie, I had to look, to see. She took in a lifetime of some of the most abject horrors and sufferings."

"You can't see the things Marie saw without experiencing an intense form of PTSD," Pike continues. "And really Matt's made a film - and wanted to make a film - that's about the addiction to danger, the addiction to telling the truth, the addiction to living in a world where your stakes are life and death, and then the PTSD that can follow in the dark, private moments at home, and where on earth you put everything you've witnessed."

THE MUSIC OF THE MISSION

Also key to A Private War's potency is H. Scott Salinas' score, which seeks to complement the images but to never get in the way or to manipulate. Interestingly, Salinas points out that the music here is actually of greater subtlety than the scores he provided for Heineman's documentaries, City of Ghosts and Cartel Land.

"In Matt's documentaries, he blurs the aesthetic lines between documentary and narrative film by using music to amp up the adrenaline or heighten certain emotions more than other docs do," Salinas explains. "In A Private War, he really never wanted the music to get ahead of Marie and her emotional journey. So we found ourselves simplifying and being very delicate in certain areas."

The score began at script stage and continued all the way through until the film was otherwise locked, with Heineman and Salinas prepared to "re-examine" and "deconstruct" the music once the film was fully laid out before them. This constant probing resulted in some truly remarkable music during the war scenes.

"For the most part, it is all about Marie's internal state, and designed to slowly build in tension and intensity, with an inevitable dread, as it becomes more and more clear that she isn't going to stop until it maybe it's too late," Salinas says. "We used sounds in the score that are bomb-like, and other atmospheric devices to project a sense of unease at all times."

Also part of A Private War's soundscape, playing over the end credits, is a new song by music icon Annie Lennox. 'Requiem For A Private War,' written and performed by Lennox, forms a fitting tribute to Colvin and her work.

"I'm known as a singer-songwriter, but it's eight years since I've written a song because I've been working as an advocate and activist for women and girls," says Lennox. "I thought, 'Well, if I can write a song, it'll be miraculous.' But I couldn't stop thinking about it because Marie's life and the way that Marie died has been so poignant and affecting. Marie drew me. She was a unique, courageous individual who went into the most dangerous parts of war-torn countries to let people know what was going on. She risked her life doing that. She went beyond her own fears. It's an honor to be a part of this project."

GETTING THE STORY OUT

Told with sincerity and authenticity, A Private War is at once a harrowing war drama and an enthralling character study of an extraordinary woman who sought to unearth the personal in the political. It has been six years since Marie Colvin's tragic death in Syria, but all involved feel that A Private War is every bit as relevant now as it was then. "The film is not just an homage to journalism but also an homage to the tragedy of what's happening in Syria," says Heineman. "The film ends in Homs, where Marie died reporting on the horrors that the Assad regime is committing on its people. It's so tragic and poignant that since then, this story has only been exacerbated. Assad is still bombing his own people and over 500,000 innocent civilians have been killed since the revolution began. These are the people that Marie fought to shed light on. I hope that this film can help to continue that undertaking."

For Pike, it was vital that Marie's story should be heard, just as Colvin fought to tell the tales of so many others. "We try and include Marie's vivacious spirit," says the actress. "She entered a room and everyone was transfixed. It was a sort of glamour but it came with conviction of purpose. She was funny and outspoken and irreverent; she didn't take herself too seriously but took her job passionately seriously. There was complete commitment to the cause in the field." Furthermore, A Private War, Pike stresses, is a film about the art of long-form journalism and its importance in this time of bite-sized information. "It's a culture that takes time to understand," she says, "It's not a quick beep on phone that makes you feel outraged for a second."

Conroy picks up on the journalism theme and applies it to the fake news epidemic. "The media suffers a lot so I think it's the perfect time to say to the world, 'Hold on, don't tar everyone with the same brush,'" he says. "This is the opposite of fake news. This is the harsh reality that some people will go to bring the truth to the world."

Tucci agrees, declaring, "Journalism is in peril. Not only in countries like Syria but in America, too. Free and open journalism is crucial to a democratic society."

Hollander adds that "the news world that she was part of is changing, disappearing... these newspapers are losing their power," before offering another angle as to why A Private War is now more pertinent than ever: "Marie's story is that of a woman in a man's world doing it better than the men around her," he shrugs. "In that sense, it's very contemporary, and I hope people will find it inspiring. Marie Colvin is a heroine."

Dornan adds, "Awful things are still happening to civilian people in many parts of the world, and the more you can shed light on the people who are trying to feed us the truth rather than what's given to us by the mainstream news, the better. Not enough changes. People live under awful regimes, and a lot of times when people do come to different countries looking for help, we just think they're opportunistic scavengers who want to take our jobs. It couldn't be further from the truth. It angers me."

It is only right that the final word should go to the man who knew Marie Colvin better than anyone. "We've now had six years without Marie," says Conroy. "It takes time for the dust to settle. There's a lot of emotion. I would like the world to know the story of such a remarkable character, someone so devoted to the story that she's become a story. It would be amiss not to tell it, to look at her life as a whole, at what she sacrificed in order to tell the truth. I just hope that people see this film and walk away going, 'What an extraordinary person.'" He pauses. "I think she'd have a wry smile about this film," he concludes. "She was quite humble. She wasn't someone who sat at bars telling war stories. But I think she'd be quite touched to be recognized in this way. Deep down inside, anyway - she'd never say that."

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