Set in a valley in the lap of rolling hills about thirty miles to the northwest of Budapest, Tokod is one of the many sleepy little Hungarian towns severely wounded by the fall of socialism causing to lose its status as a major supplier of coal, steel and manufactured goods to the countries in the Soviet empire.
Unusually balmy for November, the sun casts a sharp ray of light on the decrepit remnants of what used to be the Tokod glass factory. The poor walls sadly fit the bill of a place shred by war in the Untitled Love story, Angelina Jolie`s feature directorial debut. Done with posing all dolled up for the current cover of Vogue magazine, Jolie took a huge leap of faith finding authentic locations in a country she`s never even visited bef ore, getting adjusted to a crew which doesn`t speak native English, and bringing her kids along on this grand two months adventure. What she apparently left at home was her ego, if she had any. The no-frill trailers marked in the lead characters` first names except for one conspicuously assigned to the "director" clearly signal a new phase in Jolie`s life. "The movie is the star here, not Angelina!", quips a young extra in Serbian army uniform, visibly a fan, having a smoke and lingering on just a few feet away from where the lead actress, Zana Marjanovic is trying to escape in front of the camera. Once Jolie says cut, the crew moves inside the structure for another setup, and Jolie`s tiny frame emerges from the tent where the monitor is stationed. In full director`s getup, a black coat, pencil pants, boots, shades and no makeup, she`s now strolling back to camp deeply immersed in conversation with the young lead actress and a supporting actor, both from Bosnia. The three of them are so engaged exchanging words, gestures and laughs that I would easily take them for college kids backpacking around Hungary and having a great time sampling historical sites. "Everybody on set is having a great time!" a Hungarian production assistant assures me, crediting Angie for the relaxed mood from get-go. No drama, no demands, no tantrums, no vanity here. "God bless, this is not your big budget Hollywood blockbuster", a seasoned crew member sighs with a smirk, "but it`s real, like the ones we make on a shoestring budget, those art-house movies for Hungary". And "it`s just pure joy to be around her", others melt. "Angelina is so good spirited, so respectful, such an inspir ation and such a pro", the costume department head chimes in, "I wish all of them coming here from America were like that!"
But as relaxed and relaxing as she seems to be on set, Angelina Jolie doesn`t conceal her nervous energy when she invites me in her trailer for coffee and a taste of the exceptionally moving raw footage on her MacPro. This is the first time she opens up about her labor of love since The Untitled Love Story started shooting in and around Budapest on September 28.
You live in the fast lane starring in movies, raising kids, and running around the world as a great humanitarian. Why and when did you find the time to write this script?
Actually, like nine-ten months ago I got the flu and had to keep some distance for a few days from my kids not to get them sick. So I was sitting in another part of the house and had been reading and felt like I should just start writing. But I didn`t have the Final Draft program, so I had to go space, space, space... And the first draft of it looked really funny. Everything was zigzag, it didn`t line up. It was a very funny, unprofessional looking piece. Then, for weeks, I left the script on my desk.
What gave you the idea for the story?
I`ve had a lot of frustration with how long it takes to intervene or understand what`s happening within a conflict and for the world to give assistance to these people in need, and get the right information out to the international community. I`ve met with so many people over the years, and in some way this story could take place in any country. The essence of it is we meet people on the eve of the war and we see what their lives could have been. We meet them as young people, and it`s a lot of hope and wonderful lives that come out from Yugoslavia. They`re an extraordinarily unique people. And then the war begins in Bosnia and it`s how even people who try to hold on to their humanity as long as they can are effected, it is about living inside war and witnessing the death of your friends and family, and what that eventua lly does to people and how it takes its toll on them. And it started for me with just that thought that if there`s a way to intervene even in one year what damage has been done ... But for four years, five years? Look at Darfur now! Things go on for so long without proper assistance and intervention.
The conflict in Yugoslavia had a long pre-history and has had a long-lasting history after the war was over.
It`s true. I had to learn so much. Because it started out with a simple story and I knew I had to get a great education in this part of the world in order to complete it. A lot of it came from the research I`ve done. I watched documentaries and films, I met with experts, but in the end I cast local people and they all sat with me and told me their stories and walked me through what they did during the war, how they survived the war and what their families went through. So they helped me complete the story. There are people from all parts and all sides of the conflict in the film and they all talked to me about how they felt. So we tried to make it kind of a collective voice.
The little you`ve shared so passionately about the film so far was that you don`t want to make a political statement and this is a movie about people. But sometimes you must take political sides.
Well, there isn`t an intended political statement. My goal was try to talk to people from all sides of the situation and allow them to have a voice. Allow them to have to go through what they went through and express it whether it be extreme cruelty or the loss of humanity or the extreme sense of hope or the beauty, whatever it was. I think if you represent something right, it`s not your view. It is their view. It`s a combination of views from different sides. And they are all stating what they believe in and they`re all making their arguments and the characters are all going through different things and they`re all doing different things and in the end they`re all being affected. If there`s a political statement it`s that hopefully people will watch it and say where was I when this was happening? How did I not know ? Why did I not do anything? Why did my country not do more? Why did it take so long? And next time when this happens what can we do to prevent? You would like to believe it couldn`t happen today. But I think there`s something about this time in history especially because it happened so recently that reminds everybody that it does happen today. We haven`t learned to deal with these issues, decades after World War Two. Hopefully it will also be a beautiful story where you get to know some of the people of the former Yugoslavia.
Why do you keep referring to Yugoslavia, a country that doesn`t exist anymore?
Because when I asked all these people in this film what`s your nationality or where you`re from even in the casting tapes, they`d say I was born in Yugoslavia. Now I`m something somebody tells me I am, but I was born Yugoslavian. Now a lot of them on paper are one thing or another or some even have to check "other" on forms because their parents are from different backgrounds. So now they`re Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, but then and at birth they were Yugoslavian.
How did you make sure of historical and political accuracy?
I was never intentionally trying to make something political. I was always trying to make it human. And so I tried to stay as close to real human stories that I knew had happened and I talked to people that really went through it and let these artists really express their true stories. And so in that there was truth. The more you dig in the more you find. This region is very complex, and there`re many opinions. There`re very passionate opinions on all sides for different ways of handling all the different scenes. But there were certain things that everybody agreed on. And in the end there was nothing in the script that any one actor said "you can`t have or this doesn`t make sense". So I let them say what felt right or what felt wrong and then we`d investigate different elements of the story to see if we can find diffe rent research on one element or one scene, and I tried to talk to as many people as I could and get a kind of a general sense. But at the same time I had to remember that we`re not making a documentary, and I couldn`t possibly cover this war. I can tell a piece of this war and I can tell a story that I think is worth telling and hopefully within it there`re many voices represented and I hope it will make people talk and discuss this war and these situations again, and remember the people that went through this. But I tried to also remember how to give characters and a dramatic story, and try to tell a story that would also be engaging for people whose focus isn`t politics. Because they don`t necessarily follow this kind of stuff in the news, or they wouldn`t necessarily want to see a political or a foreign film, but we hope they will be open to our film. Which is why we say it`s "a love story", only it`s a different kind of love story.
How did you raise the budget?
I gave the script to Graham King whom I did The Tourist with, and he said he`d support the project, and Brad and I also put our money in. We had a big talk about doing it with local people and no names. It had to be that way. And it got to a point where I almost couldn`t not do it! I didn`t want to be a director, it somehow just fell so into place. I had one day when I realized it all fell into place and I had that panic moment of oh my god... what am I doing? I don`t know how to do this. I`ve never done this. I don`t know what I`m getting into and getting myself into. And it`s not a simple story and it`s a sensitive story, and it`s the people`s history and the cast is from this area, and I want to make sure I do right by them. I had trouble sleeping for a little while. But it`s been the greatest film experience.
And then... you showed up in Budapest!
They came to me and said it`s great to shoot in Budapest. The crew came and they scouted and they said "you wouldn`t believe Raleigh Studios! It`s extraordinary. You wouldn`t believe the local crews. You wouldn`t believe the locations. We don`t have to fly everybody in, there`s a whole bunch of pros there."
The internet has been abuzz with you going, then not going to Bosnia to shoot parts of the film. What`s the latest?
We`re trying to make a film about not one particular person or group because that`s not the voice of the people. We`re going to Bosnia, yes. Anybody telling a story about somebody else`s history has to respect their sensitivities that they can never understand and they have to be extremely respectful and extremely careful. And I know here everybody on this crew is coming from the right place and their heart is in the right place and wanting to do a good thing and wanting to do what all the people feel comfortable with. If you`ve really lived through something it`s just so personal to you that there`s never anything enough to do or say the right thing. I have so much love for this part of the world, and I`ve got to know this cast from all over Yugoslavia and they`ve all become dear fr iends of mine and they`ve taught me so much.
How is it to be director now that the panic is gone?
Actually, from the very first day I`ve loved it more than I`ve ever loved acting. I`ve always loved being an actor but there`s something about being a director where you really get to know the crew and the actors so much more. You really become part of the team. Actors kind of stay in their scenes and their characters and they`re in their moments and they stay together quite often. But as a director... to really be able get to know everyone, the camera department, the grips, the electrics, the sound, the set designers and working closely with them...
How much do you need to know about technical stuff?
Technically I`m extremely lucky to have Dean Semler with me. Everybody knows him not just as an extremely talented DP but also just as a very helpful, gracious man. So any time I`m confused about something I can always lean over and ask him to explain it to me and he does it with such care and never making me feel I don`t know something but seems happy to help me learn. And I got some technical books. We laughed because I had a last minute pile next to my bed of different ways to shoot scenes, and I tried to do a crash course. And I tried to pull out images, reference images and light images, I did a lot of that to try to explain not just with words on the page but also with images to the crew what I was looking for. And we had a lot of research material that helped.
Is the film going to be black and white or color?
It`s shot in color but it could transfer to black and white. We haven`t decided that. I can show you... we put a series of pictures together in black and white and it was beautiful. But the important thing I want to make sure that we make a film for people who just want to go to the movies to watch a love story. To not be put off by anything that seems too heavy So we want to walk that fine line to make it accessible to everybody because it`s important for as many people to see it.
Are you shooting it in English or, in all fairness, in one or more languages of the former Yugoslavia?
We actually shot a full version in their native language and we shot a full version in English. We shot two complete films. I was only able to do it because the actors were so fluent in English so they were willing to work hard and do the scenes in two languages.
And which language will be your choice for distribution?
We talked to the distributors about it and they might just offer every country an option. So if they want it in the native language they can have it. That`s the plan. But we certainly have done it for the people in the area.
When are you going to release it?
I don`t know. I have lots of people giving me lots of opinions. I just want to do it right. I have to go back and edit both versions at the same time in Los Angeles, because Brad`s working there, so we`ll be in LA. And if it hopefully turns out well and people respond to it...we`ll see. But of course I want to pay respect to the area and the cast and the people, so I am listening to them and where they want it released. I still just hope to put a good film together.
(c)2010 GK Films LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Ken Regan
ANIKO NAVAI (c) 2010