‘A Private War’ Cast Illustrates Challenges in Authentically Conveying Legendary Journalist’s Legacy

Starring Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan, “A Private War” tells the story of celebrated and fearless journalist, Marie Colvin. Tracing her journey from reporting in Sri Lanka in 2001 right up to 2012 in Syria, the film portrays Colvin’s determination to give a voice to the voiceless in places of conflict and sheer terror as war correspondent to The Sunday Times, a British newspaper. Despite losing her eye after a grenade explosion in 2001 and, as a result, adopting her trademark eyepatch, Colvin confronts what would be others’ nightmares. In doing so, Colvin, played by Rosamund Pike, shows how the trauma of conflict can affect the individual. Alongside photographer Paul Conroy, played by Jamie Dornan, Colvin ultimately illustrates the cost of war in her final journey to Homs, Syria, conveying at the same time the humanity found in all these places in the individuals’ lives she touched. The Hoya interviewed lead actress Rosamund Pike, director Matthew Heineman and Marie Colvin’s sister Cat Colvin, who helped consult for the movie. The three spoke about the difficulties of accurately capturing the legacy of Marie Colvin, and detailed Cat Colvin’s lawsuit against the Syrian government. I was incredibly struck by the attention to detail in the scene at Homs. How did you get the aerial footage that looked a lot like Homs today and simultaneously, kept to the realism of the story? Matthew Heineman: We shot all the war zones in Jordan, and Homs took place in this abandoned construction site that we dressed to look as close to the city as possible. But we didn’t have a big budget so were only really able to dress the bottom floor and brought in a lot of rubble to look like the media center, office, widow’s basement and shelter where women and children are being held. But the drone shot is actually a crane shot that tilts up into a field, and then we were able to create a “2-and-a-half-D” environment where you populate buildings and imprint real photos from Homs. So it is a CGI shot but real imagery, so sections are full images, but each individual structure was a building from Homs and sort of cobbled together over two-and-a-half months to create what you saw. Rosamund Pike: But also, they’ve got the production design under Paul Conroy, who was with us during the shooting, and when he walked into the media center — we use the term loosely — but the whole top floor of the building was completely shorn off and almost looked like a bomb site. But he was absolutely stunned, I think sometimes people don’t appreciate the level of detail a production team puts in. For example, the mattresses on set were the same, and the blankets and, you know, he said he looked at every photo he could find, and I think he was really taken aback and quite shaken by it to be honest. And that must help you as an actor too with the production design being so close. Rosamund Pike: I think especially with a film like this, you want everything to be on a very, very high level, and that’s got to be totally truth and detail oriented. You know, the costume design isn’t going to be “Marie would look cool wearing this.” It’s finding out what Marie was wearing in that part of her life. What pants was she wearing, can we find them on Ebay? Can we get that backpack? If not, can we get something close? It’s the times when you realize how quickly things move. For example, we remade a Burberry leather jacket that she had and also a trench coat. And then one of her friends sent me a sweater saying they were Marie’s, and she’d like me to wear them. Was this role like anything you’d ever done before in the sense of portraying a non-fictional character? Rosamund Pike: No, nothing like this have I done before. I’ve played real people, Ruth Williams in a film called “A United Kingdom,” which tells the story of interracial marriage in the 40s. But, you know, I could create an impression of Ruth, but I didn’t feel a pressure to do a full impression of her. There wasn’t much footage of her anyway. But in this instance, perhaps because Matt is a documentary maker, and Marie was so vivid, it just seemed the right thing to do to try and embody this as much as you can, whilst the whole thing is in a way an apology for not being her and not being able to make a documentary about her. It was not just the work and the words that she wrote, you know, she was a person stopped everyone in their tracks when she walked into the room. She was just so unique — her voice, her humor, laugh, the way she walked. She cut a very unusual figure. Cat, did she always have this sort of daring streak from a young age? Cat Colvin: You know, I wouldn’t call it daring; I’d call it uncompromising. She’d set her sights on whatever it was, and then there was nothing that could stop her. She didn’t recognize barriers and would find a way to make that happen. And you know, she never held back. It was always 150% for everything. I was really fortunate to have her in my life. It was just she didn’t follow the rules, but I don’t even know if I can say that. She didn’t recognize that there were rules to be followed. Rosamund Pike: Which I don’t know if you pick up on. Journalists particularly have it, but if there’s a scene in Iraq where we’re in this big aircraft hangar, and when there’s a briefing, Marie is sort of hanging back at this table, and it’s where she meets Paul Conroy and yes, that scene is to introduce Paul, but it’s also to see how this woman is not following the pack and as all the journalists go one way, she goes the other. Cat Colvin: But you know it expressed in other ways, too. She was absolutely brilliant, not just in writing, I mean in science. She would take over the whole house with a fruit fly experiment. They were just everywhere! Or even recycling, she told everyone to bring their garbage to our yard to sort it, but she didn’t mention it to our parents, so our yard just filled with glass, cardboard and newspaper. But like I said, that was not abnormal I suppose. And did she keep you updated on where she was in the world? Cat Colvin: Not always. She would call me when she could from places which was pretty interesting. I remember she was in Misrata and Libya for longer than she expected, and we talked a lot then but about day-to-day things like where she was getting food. I mean you’re in a war zone and people are starving, there are no showers, but she made you laugh about these things. If she was really excited or even really upset about something, so Tahrir Square, I remember her calling and holding up the phone. She thought there would be real change, or even if someone reminded her of one of my kids — she was chasing these sex traffickers through the desert, and there had been a little boy who had been kidnapped, and it reminded me so much of my son. She called me a lot during that trip, but Marie didn’t contact you when people normally would, such as the holidays. But on my birthday, she always called me at midnight; that was her thing wherever she was. So she would call very unexpectedly. Rosamund, is there a scene that was your favorite to shoot or was particularly empowering? Rosamund Pike: I think some of the rewarding scenes to shoot are not my favorite. You know it’s a different thing — in this film there were so many difficult scenes to shoot that my favorite might have been one of the easy ones, but there weren’t many. You’re seeking things on a different level, I think, and with this, there was a day when we were filming the mass grave. That was something that I think only Marie would do. She rented a digger, and it’s not easy to get anything done in Iraq, let alone have a JCB turn up on time — well, admittedly two hours late, but on the right day — and go to a site where she believed there were bodies. I mean it’s a huge undertaking; you might not find anything, and you’re literally following information at hunch, a belief and a determination. So we had one shot to dig up the earth, and our production design team had buried skeletons and the things that Marie writes about in her articles. That’s the other thing is that every detail in the film comes from what Marie wrote about, and when she documented this, she wrote about the delicate brown foot bones and a blue trainer, and then that was all put in there for the jaws of the machine to find. Most of the people surrounding the grave site were Iraqis living in Jordan where we filmed, and the women were asked to bring pictures of their families. So the pictures I’m being shown are images that have stories similar to that, where people went missing and their families are hoping for closure. It was a day where we were chasing the natural light, and then as bodies and remains started to be unearthed, the reaction in our background cast, who I think knew what they were doing but didn’t realize they would be emotionally transported in the way that they were. It got to the point where one woman literally couldn’t contain herself because it brought back too much and then as the men started to move remains out, this prayer for the dead started up and, because of the way we were working, could be captured, and it was like an ongoing story where we occasionally reset cameras. In a way, the force of the people took over, then Jamie and I would just be responding and living in it as though it was real. Cat Colvin: And that day, Marie stayed well after she had the story, and she talked to every single person who wanted to talk to her. They felt their story would be told, she could have left after an hour if she had the story. Rosamund Pike: She wanted to know the stories of individual people. But there were many, many moments like that, and it’s not necessarily being empowered. It’s a feeling of deep empathy, I suppose, or human connection really. I think Marie was able to do this very uniquely even though wars can seem very far away, and she was able to connect people with these far away stories that seem terribly remote. I think what struck me the most was the sense of the individual in war throughout this film. I think you did this as a filmmaker, too, in the scenes with the Syrian refugees, as well. Rosamund Pike: They were all in Homs, and again, I think people are not anticipating perhaps the power of drama, what happens when you create it in a safe environment yet is a situation close to what you’ve experienced, emotion floods back and takes control of you. That’s what you’re asking your body to do when you’re an actor, but for these people, they’re not asking, they’re just reliving and all the time. Matt was playing with the boundary between truth and fiction. Of course, we’re telling a true story, and obviously I’m not Marie, but I think when you set the ground right, emotion that’s true will flow. That’s idea, you never really plan anything; you just occupy the place you’re supposed to be and see what happens. You convince your body and your mind that is real and see where you’re taken. So with the Syrians, it was incredibly powerful and maybe Matt talks about them, you know for instance the men who played the FSA guys who took us into the tunnel… Matthew Heineman: So the final day that we shot in the film, we held a moment of silence for Marie and for all the Syrian people who have died since, and it was really emotional for a lot of different reasons. Then, afterwards, one of our stunt guys and an extra, who was from Homs and had a hole in his chest from being shot, they started crying and came up to Paul Conroy and gave him a hug as they recognized him from the media center. You know there was a real sense of the fact they were doing this for Marie but also what she stood for and what she was trying to do as well in a human way. Cat Colvin: And I met some Syrians here who did a trip from L.A. to our hometown in Oyster Bay after Marie died. We stayed in touch but quite a few of them were from Homs and said it was the most beautiful city and, after the war’s over, we should come, and they’ll fix the town square and put a statue of Marie and Paul. And that is what’s easy to forget: it’s someone’s hometown. I think they’re losing hope because it’s just been relentless; six years and you saw what Homs looks like now — just rubble. Rosamund Pike: And the siege mentality of the Assad regime is to keep everyone completely cut off, and one doesn’t know what’s going on in the rest of the country. I mean I think they had no idea whether it was unique, or life was going on as normal elsewhere. I hope as Marie would have wanted; the film is about her life but also putting the focus back on Syria, and I think that’s the conundrum of the journalist — you don’t want to put yourself at the center of the story and sometimes, unfortunately, you become the story which is not at all what you want. And also Cat is bringing charges against the Assad regime… Cat Colvin: So we sued the Syrian government. The most important part of the lawsuit, for me, was getting the evidence into the public record and translated, so it can be used, hopefully, in a criminal case in the future. Rosamund Pike: You know, the silencing of the press was one of their deliberate war tactics, and Marie, after that broadcast to CNN, her location was pinpointed, and she was targeted. Cat Colvin: They were followed before they even got to Homs. The Syrian government was following them from Beirut and tracking each movement with eyewitnesses on the ground. Countries can’t be sued by individuals, but Syria is a state-sponsored terrorism, so they’re not entitled to sovereign immunity, which allows individuals to bring a lawsuit. So here in the U.S., it was a long process. We hoped to get them into the civil arbitration in the Hague because then people like Paul Conroy and some of the others who were injured could have joined the lawsuit, but we weren’t able to do that. You have to submit to jurisdiction in Syria and [the injured journalists] obviously wouldn’t. So I sued them in D.C. court, and the fact I am an American and so was Marie allowed us to do that. There is a lot of work going on, and a lot of people who are trying to collect and preserve evidence because it will likely be a long time before any criminal charges can be brought. We’ll keep fighting, and it’s a civil lawsuit, so monetary damages which will be difficult to collect but I’m hoping it will be an enormous number so at least it will catch people’s attention.

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