Angelina Jolie has emulated sultry star power her entire career, but she has accomplished so much more. With an Oscar, a gorgeous family of six, and extensive philanthropic work with the U.N., Jolie is carving a new niche for herself as a writer and director. She sits down to discuss her new film, In the Land of Blood and Honey -- a controversial love story set during the Bosnian war. Between the movie-making processes, how she communicates with her children, and the importance of getting her story across, Angelina Jolie shares her experiences with Buzzine.
Izumi Hasegawa: We do appreciate that you do round tables because so much of what we do now at press conferences make it really hard to focus in on what you're talking about.
Angelina Jolie: Oh, I can imagine. You only have a few minutes, then you have to write. It hurts, I think -- the work and our work, because you can't really have a discussion about it.
IH: And something like this which, is kind of an issue film -- and props to you for taking your first movie and dealing with war. It's really amazing. Was it something that came out of the U.N. work that you do?
AJ: Yes, I'm sure it was. I wasn't quite conscious of what was happening. As we evolve, you don't really analyze what was happening, but when I first started traveling years ago, when I went to a few countries, of course I was very emotional about it. The change as a person, as a mother. And then I went through a period of really getting angry and trying to understand what was happening and how to start to fight against it. Then I started looking into the laws, so it's been an evolution for me. And then part of this film is never expected to be a movie, and I quietly sat alone and thought, I've written journals, and I'm just going to sit with this format of films, since it what's I've done in my life, and quietly see if I can write a project where I can meditate and study what happens to human beings through war so I can better understand people in post-conflict situations. And better figure out how to help and have an excuse, privately. I kind of gave myself homework to have to learn about the conflict that I didn't know anything about. So this was my private homework, and it gave me purpose to watch documentaries and read books, and research and watch news footage, and visit the region and spend time with people. So never with the thought that this was going to be a film -- just something that I was doing for what I felt I needed to do and learn, and then somehow it ended up evolving into a film.
IH: To do something so ambitious, how much did you follow your creative instincts as a director, and how much did you turn to other directors you worked with or people you trusted to figure out how to do something at this scale for your first project?
AJ: As I said, if I knew. [Laughs] I didn't. Somehow, in my mind, the script is very much inside these rooms, and of course, when you start to have to accurately depict war, things have to get bigger and bigger. And it's hard for people to even explain what the Balkans are, let alone understand this war. So I was very, very lucky. First, we sent the script without my name on it to people on all different sides of the conflict. And we decided that if people from all different sides of the confict could participate -- including Bosnian-Serb, Arabs, Croatians, Bosnian-Muslims, and even people from Serbia -- if they could agree on this, then we have something. There would be purpose for doing it. But if they could not, then we would burn it. So they came together and they taught me a lot. A lot of them who aren't here today were the ones who were children in the war, and one of them lost 28 family members. They all lost somebody. So they, as we got together, started to tell me more and more stories, so we started to expand and expand on the script. I met a woman who's not in the film who told me about being held captive and being used as a human shield, and watching older women being forced to dance naked in front of soldiers. So all these things then changed and adjusted as we went. So the scale of it I never anticipated, but I was lucky to have Dean Semler work with us. I actually called him, never expecting he would agree to work on this. I said, "We worked together ten years ago. Can I just ask you a question?" And he said, "Yeah, shoot." I said, "Can I just send you a script and just tell me what kind of DPs you think I should send it to? Because I need help and somebody who would be patient with a first-time director." And he called back and said, "I'll do it." I think I asked three times to clarify that he was saying he'd actually do the film. And he took a pay cut -- everybody did. Everybody took a pay cut because everybody said, "I want to do something that means something, and I'm jumping in." Same with John Hutman. We worked together on The Tourist, and everything was about elegance and wealth, and suddenly there we were, working with no budget on a war movie. So I leaned on everybody. I asked everybody advice. Anybody who was willing to talk to me, I asked them for help.
IH: When you were developing the voices of the different characters, how much of a challenge...because you have to develop it in a different language...?
AJ: The first draft I did, I coursed it as much as I could. I don't know my rise. I tried to keep it quite clean, where just what is said is what needs to be said. And there's a lot of silence and there's a lot of tension. So the writing of it, I did my best to keep it simple and pure. And then, as we adjusted it into its authentic language...which this region is very complicated, so we had to not only get it translated, but we had to get it translated more than once because a translator couldn't be just a Bosnian-Muslim or just Bosnian-Serb, because even the translation could go slightly slanted one side or the other. So even that had to be agreed on by all sides – the final translation. And the actors themselves, this is their native tongue. They taught me, and often, if I wanted to make sure that someone had done and wanted to check performances, I'd ask each of them. So if Danijel had a big scene, I would pull Zana (Marjanovica) aside and say, "It feels right for me emotionally, but text-wise, is there anything that I should know?" So they reported on each other because I couldn't understand everything -- I had to ask.
IH: So how did you give your direction and setting up each scene? Would you do it in English with a translator?
AJ: Most of them speak English. We did the entire film also in English. There were only a few of them who learned it phonetically, but most everybody speaks beautiful English. So that wasn't a problem. And often what we would do is we would do the first shot in English -- the first take. Often because they wanted to do it that way, but it helped the crew. Because for the camera man, the DP, the script supervisor -- everybody -- we could have understood exactly what was happening in the scene, and then when it changed languages, somehow in our minds, we still understood what was happening completely because we had just been in the same moment. So as it transferred, it was able to change. For example, the camera man knew instinctually where to move in on that line because he somehow could feel that was that line, even though he couldn't technically...it was complicated. But they found so much, I think, when they would do their authentic language, and they would end up usually wanting to do it again in English. Their personalities are different. As if you had an Italian person or a British person. So their body language, their personalities change completely.
IH: Are you hooked on directing now? Or would it take a really special project to get you back?
AJ: It would take a really special project. I loved this, not because I wanted to be a director. I loved this because I'm happy to get this story out into the world. And I had this wonderful experience of basically working on this foreign film with actors from across the world, and getting to know them and their culture and the history. So it wasn't just a film for me, and I don't know if I can put that much energy...it's a lot of work. [Laughs] It's much more work and a lot easier to be an actor. I did not know that. I really did not realize how much work went into it.
IH: Regarding your regular routine as a mom and an actor, what did you sacrifice to make this film?
AJ: I would never sacrifice any time with my family. Brad (Pitt) and I – if we couldn't manage our schedules, we would always sacrifice work, so I stayed with him while he was doing Money Ball in L.A. with the kids. And I did the prep for this film mostly here, and I only traveled for two days and I came back, two days and I came back. I kept doing that because I couldn't leave my family for a long time. So I had a very scattered prep, and I only had three days in a country before I started shooting because I had to stay with my family. And Brad's film went over so I had to push back. We had three days where I was completely there, and then I started and he was there a week later. So we just do everything we can to try to stay together, and through the film, my family was there. So he took the kids to school, and after school, they came to set and we would usually stay outside of the set and play with the fake snow and try not to come anywhere near the camera because it's an inappropriate film for them to be near.
IH: How open or straight-forward are you with telling your kids about the problems in the world?
AJ: Very straight forward. My children have been to post-conflict situations, and they've been to refugee camps with me. For example, we have a house in Cambodia -- it's not a house; it's a room on stilts surrounded by a hundred Cambodian people that work with us to secure these 5,000 villagers. And it's a project in the middle of the jungle. We found 48 landmines on our property. We have neighbors that are landmine victims. And the kids play with local kids and they swim in the pond. So it's a part of what they know; it's a part of their life. Pax is from a country of conflict. My children's birth parents probably all fought in some way or dealt with conflict a little bit more. So when I go on U.N. missions, I always sit down with them and explain to them why I'm going. And they often know enough, especially the older ones who watch the news. And I tell them that I'm going to meet other kids like them and spend some time and make sure everbody's okay. And sometimes they give me little things to bring to them. So they are pretty lovely kids.
IH: How is your childhood different from the childhood you're creating for your children?
AJ: I'm trying to make them more global. As open as my mother was, we just didn't travel as much, and she always taught me to be a good person. She was always interested in things. She took me to my first Amnesty International for dinner when I was nine. She was part Native American and always told me issues, but we didn't live outside of America. We didn't travel; we weren't at home in the world -- our world was smaller. So with my family, I'm trying to raise them to have respect for all people and make friends around the world, and feel at home with the world and really live a truly global...because I think it's what forms them and it's really important to me. I make sure they do their math and their science, but that is the most important thing for me.
IH: How did your acting background influence your writing and directing style?
AJ: Certainly as a writer, I think I was probably able to flip characters in my head as if I was playing different roles in order to write the different people, because you kind of have to be one person and inhabit him and write from his voice, and be her and write her voice. So I think that helped. As a director, I hoped that I was able to help the actors by giving them the space and the respect they need, and the trust. I gave them what I always felt I needed when I was working. And I would protect Zana in the scenes where she was very vulnerable or had to deal with scenes with sensuality or nudity. I would be very considerate and only put in the film what was necessary for the story-telling. With the big emotional scenes, I would try to protect them from the crew, from the noise. So you're just trying to make these safe spaces, and you try to help them because, instinctually, you know what you would need, so I hoped to be very sensitive when it came to their craft. But it was quite easy, in a way, because I happened to pick extraordinary, talented actors.
IH: I could only imagine the kind of philosophical discussions that could erupt on a set like this. This involved families, and many of your actors and crew members had people that they lost in a war. Were there ever moments where you had to play the negotiator to get everybody back on track and not to get into the politics of what happened?
AJ: We started on the first day and we had everyone come in from different sides, and I intentionally picked when we would watch their interviews. We also talked to them and I knew they were all very intelligent and very open and thoughtful people as I was casting them, and I instinctually felt that they should talk if they got in the same room and really talk it through. I heard their private conversations, I heard their interview; I knew they wanted the same goal. They worried for the same thing for their countries, and they all considered themselves. Even when they were interviewed, they'd say, "And you're background is?" They would all say Yugoslavian because they deal now with being divided, but they were all born Yugoslavian. So I was a little nervous, and on the first day, we had one of the hardest scenes, which was the scene where the women were taken off the bus and they're raped. The women in that were Bosnian-Muslim women, and the actors in that were mixed Bosnian-Muslim, Bosnian-Serb, and Serbian men. So having to recreate this and actually physically do this to each other was going to be a hardest thing, and our first day, they all got to know each other. But it was somewhat intentional because it was either going to spark all these emotions immediately or it was going to do something else. And what happened was, as soon as I called "cut" for the first time, Ermin (Sijamija), who was playing the aggressor, picked Jelena (Jovanova) up and gave her the biggest hug and apologized. She hugged him back, and all the men who had ripped the earrings and the jackets off the women put them back on them and apologized and took care of them and brought them tea and made sure they were okay. And by lunch time, there was so much kindness because they were confronting this story of ugliness of this past that they do not want to repeat. So it did quite the opposite. I just saw 16 of them in New York a few days ago, and just to see them together is extraordinary to me. It means so much.
IH: Could you talk about what you learned and discovered through this production? Were there any life lessons?
AJ: I think doing anything having to do with war, you walk away so very grateful for everything you have and the safety that you have. But you also are very conscious that all the issues in this film are going on today in other parts of the world. Violence against women and lack of intervention, and man's inhumanity to man and these kinds of atrocities are going on as we speak. So there's a lesson in that we must speak out about these things. These are big issues of our times; we must speak about them, we must learn how to better understand how these things happen so we can address them. What was very frustrating is when you think of World War II and you think what we learned from that, and then you see Rwanda and you see Bosnia, and you just see that we're taking these incremental steps forward when it comes to how to address these issues -- we make new laws, we make statements, we decide something is genocide. But we still can be in a situation from the '90s where, for years and years, 40 minutes away from Italy, there is rape camps and slaughter and death, and we're doing nothing. We're doing nothing. So it's a big question for us of what instruments of law we've got to place to deal with these, how we better understand each other, what we do to address these situations. Again, the film is not a solution. It's not a political statement, but it raises those questions and those feelings.
IH: You're known for your compassion. Was there a moment where you realized that was the way to live life, and was there something that crystalized that intention?
AJ: The life-changing moment for me was the first time I went to a war zone, and that was Sierra Leone. I took two weeks 11 years ago, and I went. I wasn't an Ambassador or anything; I just asked to go and I was allowed to go. And I spent time in Sierra Leone, and I witnessed such a brutal conflict, where they cut arms at short sleeves and long sleeves. And seeing little kids who had both their arms and legs cut off with a hatchet and a hatchet stuck to a tree. I could not, for the life of me, understand how this was happening, and it was like someone smacked me in the face. For all the times that I worried about my own problems or thought that I had any or was not grateful or ever woke up...because in this country, for the freedom that we have and the safety we have, we're so far from what the majority of people are living. Of course, there's extreme poverty in this country, and that should never be ignored and that should be addressed. But across the world, there are these places where people literally cut hands off their brother or sister to try to force them to beg in front of trucks and through them -- men are forced to rape their mothers in front of people. It is beyond. And I went to Tanzania and I saw my first mass refugee camp, because there were about 500,000 people at the time. And when you see that sea of humanity displaced with the lack of human rights and not knowing what their future is, it's just so daunting. I was in complete shock. I didn't cry; I think I stayed quite still and totally in shock, and by the time I got to the airport, I broke down. I talked to my mother on the phone and decided that I would just try to live a better life and never ever forget what I had learned.
IH: Besides this film, which obviously had a very profound effect on you, is there another film that had that kind of effect on you?
AJ: I loved doing A Mighty Heart, which was the Daniel Pearl story. I loved that because I loved (Mariane Pearl's) message. And I think her message of tolerance and forgiveness is very important. I don't know if I could be as gracious, personally. And I've come to know her family and her son, so it was very important for me, that film. And I loved Michael (Winterbottom)'s directing. I thought it was just a great experience as an artist.
IH: When are you the most happiest? On set or being a mom?
AJ: Being a mom. Often I'm happy whenever I'm with my children, but there was a moment where we had just finished work in New York, and Brad and I were piled in the car with the kids and we're listening to Christmas songs, and we were laughing and playing games in the car, and I looked at Brad and I said, "This is one of these moments, isn't it? This is the moments we live for." So it's that. You just catch yourself sometimes and you look around. I'm so fortunate; I love my family so much. And they're such a funny, interesting group of people.
IH: Was Brad in any way used as a sound board when writing the script?
AJ: Yeah, he was the first person to read the script.
IH: So he gave you feedback?
AJ: Well, yeah. Because probably if he would have said anything negative, we wouldn't be here today. [Laughs] I just showed it to him as a private experiment that was on my desk, and he took it with him when he did a two-day thing in Japan, and then he called me and said, "You know, honey? It's really not that bad. It's pretty good." And we talked further about it, and he encouraged me through the whole process, and he came to set on most days and did some still photography for the film. He was always around and always supportive.
IH: Did those maternal instincts ever show up with your cast and crew at all?
AJ: Probably, in the sense that you're always answering somebody with something. [Laughs] When you have six kids, you're just used to, "What's next? Who else?" So I think the natural multitasking that comes with being a mother works well and transitions into being a director.
IH: I want to talk about the lawsuit. And I know, since it's a legal matter, you can't say much, but when you're writing something, does it surprise you that someone would come out of the woodwork that would say, "This is my property"?
AJ: It's expected and a par for the course, and I believe it happens in every film.
IH: What was it like being on the other side of the casting process?
AJ: That's a really interesting question. I was really sensitive to it because I remember the days of auditioning and being nervous, so I really didn't want to make people have to jump through hoops to do auditions and be nervous and make them more nervous. I wanted to hire everybody and find something for everybody. [Laughs] We had a wonderful casting director who was such a kind person as well, so I would always know that she would follow up with people, even though they didn't get the job and would look for other work for them. But I was always very conscious of that in making sure people knew and had strong feedback, even if they didn't get the part. So it was hard. I didn't want to put the actors through much, and I actually saw each of their auditions once they got scenes, and they all auditioned and I was pretty sure, after I saw just a scene once, because after they did scenes, they talked. So I got a sense of them as a person and then I saw their scene work, and then I pretty much cast them from that. And the people that I thought were going to be the ones, I would say to Gail (Stevens), "What were they like when they came in? Were they nice to everybody? Were they humble? Were they gracious?" Because this was very important to me, and she would say, especially these people were really, really lovely human beings because of the subject matter. So then we sent the script out without my name on it. We just sent it to them and the few who we wanted. We just had our fingers crossed because we knew how sensitive it was. When they read the whole script, would they be comfortable with it? Fortunately, they were.
IH: Being as sensitive as you are, the whole film is difficult emotionally, but was there one scene in particular?
AJ: Yes, there were many days that were hard, but I hated the day when I had to ask the old women to strip naked. I hated it. I only shot it once. I had two cameras and we only shot it once. We had robes for them, we had drinks for them, we had anything they wanted. I wanted them to go home and relax, and we were in Hungary so they were Hungarian women, so I was translated through somebody, and I think I must have went up to them five times and they thought I was crazy, to say: do they completely understand that the people inside have been directed, they have been told it's their job to laugh at them. They're not laughing at them because they're getting naked; it's because they've been directed to do that and not to take it personally. And I'm so sorry I needed to ask them to do this, but please know how much this is going to mean for people, they're representing the victims of war who went through this, and this message will affect people and they will be doing a great service to other women. And I'm going on and on, and these women are just looking at me saying okay, okay. Because when they were asked earlier on if they would be comfortable, they said yes, but I was just a wreck. And what was beautiful too was that a lot of reactions were cut away because, when it actually happened, most of the actors, even though they knew, they just couldn't -- they tried, but they couldn't laugh at them. They had a human reaction, so we just cut away and the women were gone. But when I went up to the women after and I saw them, I said, "Thank you so much. Please translate and tell them thank you, it was so brave of them and wonderful, and I appreciate it, and they can go home now. And they all talked and I asked, "What did they say?" And they wanted to know if they did something wrong. I said no, my God, I just don't want to put them through that again. Because they did it perfect and they can go home. They said they were happy to stay and they were fine, but for everybody -- the DP, all of us, the whole crew -- we hated it. We felt like we were torturers.
IH: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
AJ: I think I'll be working less. My kids will be needing me a lot when they hit their teens. [Laughs] If I know anything about being a teenager, I need to be braced to be spending a lot of time with all six of them and making sure I can be there for when they go through everything. So I'm sure I'll be working less or working from home in some way. Maybe I'll get to write or something.
IH: How long did it take you to write it?
AJ: I wrote this a year and a half or two years ago, I think. It happened really quick. As I said, it didn't intentionally happen; somehow it just happened and there it was. If I would have had ten years, I probably would have gotten scared. So it happened too quickly for me to think about it.
FilmDistrict's 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' is released on December 23, 2011.