Director Mathew Heineman on making ‘A Private War’ and hopping from documentary to feature film


What: ‘A Private War’ screening with director Matthew Heineman

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Friday, March 8, 6:30 p.m.

How much: $15 ($10 for Aspen Film members)

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman, the Oscar-nominated documentarian behind “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts,” made his feature film directorial debut last year with “A Private War” where he worked for the first time with movie stars and makeup and stunts rather than pointing his camera at gritty reality.

“I didn’t have a master plan to make features,” Heineman said in a recent phone interview. “I love docs.”

After “Cartel Land” — his 2015 cinema verité doc about vigilantes battling Mexican drug cartels — became a sensation and made him a critical darling, Heineman recalled, he was pitched many scripts for features. He passed on them all.

Devoted to true stories and driven by an investigative reporter’s ethos, Heineman wasn’t eager to stray from documentary storytelling. But the legacy of the fearless war correspondent Marie Colvin changed his mind.

Last year, he released the much-acclaimed Colvin biopic “A Private War,” which plays at the Wheeler Opera House today in a special presentation from Aspen Film including a post-screening talk by Heineman. Based on Marie Brenner’s extraordinary 2012 Vanity Fair story about Colvin’s life, the film stars an intense Rosamund Pike as the woman whose deeply reported works for the Sunday Times of London exposed the horrors of wars from Sri Lanka to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and who lost her eye and eventually her life to her perilous work.

“It was really just the fact that this film spoke to me in a really profound way,” Heineman said of taking on the project. “I felt an enormous connection to her. In my docs I’ve tried to take geopolitical conflicts and humanize them, put a human face on them as she did. I felt deeply connected.”

Heineman’s mother is a journalist. His background is in documentary journalism. His searing 2017 documentary “City of Ghosts” is about the citizen journalists of Raqqa, Syria, exposing the brutal and bloody reality of life under ISIS. So Heineman knew Colvin’s terrain and felt called to tell her story.

“Given the world we’re living in, where journalists are under attack, I thought it was a really important film to make,” he said. “She had this incredible ability to create an empathetic connection to people who would otherwise feel so far away, I hope this film, in some way, can carry on what she tried to do.”

The film is a complex psychological profile of the fearless reporter, what drove her to the most dangerous places on Earth and the physical and mental price she paid for her devotion to exposing the ugly and human truths of war.

In one pivotal scene, her editor (Stanley Tucci) implores Colvin to give up warzone work, suggesting she turn her talents to something like the gardening section. She roars back: “I’m not hanging up my flak jacket!”

It follows her as she exposes government-caused starvation of Sri Lankan children, aggressively interviews Muammar Al Gaddafi about his abuses of power in Libya, uncovers a mass grave of Saddam Hussein’s foes in Fallujah and reveals Bashar al-Assad’s bombing his own people in Syria.

“This is the first draft of history,” she tells a colleague during one tense moment. “You have to find the truth of it. If you lose that you’re not doing anything — you’re just making yourself feel better.”

As a documentarian, Heineman has captured messy realities of the world. But capturing reality requires an entirely different set of creative skills than recreating that reality with actors and costumes and lights on a set. His background as a documentarian informed the way he approached “A Private War.”

“I wanted to bring that documentary aesthetic into this narrative process,” he explained. “Leaving room for improvisation, leaving room to allow for the happy accidents to occur.”

Filming in Jordan, he filled his cast with non-actors and refugees from the countries he was attempting to depict. Heineman spent weeks in Jordan finding and interviewing refugees to cast in “A Private War” and then incorporated their experiences into his film.

For a wrenching scene that places Colvin in a basement with mourning Syrian mothers, for example, Heineman cast Syrians who had actually lost young children in Assad’s war.

“Those are real women from Homs telling their real stories and reliving real trauma,” Heineman said.

Likewise, he cast a hospitalized man whose 2-year-old nephew was shot and killed as the man carried the boy during the siege of Homs.

“The grief and trauma he brought to the set was almost unbearable,” Heineman recalled. “At one point Rosamund walked off the set and said to me, ‘I don’t know if I can handle this. The lines between documentary and fiction are so blurred. Are we exploiting this man?’”

Girded by his documentary experience, Heineman beleived he was doing right in giving these people a platform and a voice in the film.

“I deal with this everyday on my documentaries,” he recalled telling his star. “It’s a human thing. If you want to give someone a hug, or give them some space, you do. Your job is to capture these moments and he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want his story to be told.”

It was a pivotal conversation that helped nudge Pike into a stirring, bone-deep portrayal. Released in November, “A Private War” earned Pike a Golden Globe nomination for best actress and Heineman a Directors Guild of America nod for best first feature.

Looking ahead, Heineman said he plans to keep one directorial foot in features and another in documentaries. He has both in the works now. Along with “A Private War,” Heineman last year directed the five-part Showtime documentary series “The Trade” about the opioid crisis.

“Film has the ability to bring people together and create dialogue in an otherwise very divided world,” he said. “I hope this film — like Maria’s work — gets people to stop and care and think about the world we’re living in.”

In January, a federal court determined that the Assad regime in Syria had targeted Colvin for assassination and ordered the country’s government to pay Colvin’s family more than $300 million. The nation may not pay the sum, but the case is believed to be the beginning of Assad being held accountable for war crimes in international court.

Meanwhile, journalism remains under attack around the globe and here in the U.S., where the president has deemed the press “the enemy of the people.” Heineman hopes that “A Private War,” and Colvin’s legacy, can beat back the forces seeking to silence the truth.

“We’re living in a world of soundbites and fake news, in a country where certain people in power are demonizing specific journalists and journalism in general,” he said. “This film is not only an homage to Marie but to journalism and the people who are fighting for the truth and shedding light on dark corners of the world. I think that’s an important message to get out there today.”


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