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Alessandro Camon Has Words for “The Messenger”

Anne Hathaway read the announcement Tuesday morning, transforming Alessandro Camon from a novice screenwriter with a handful of jobs under his belt to an Oscar-nominated scripter alongside the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers — his competition in this year’s Oscar race.

Camon’s no newcomer to the film industry. A former film critic and a graduate of UCLA, Camon climbed Hollywood’s ranks producing such films as The Cooler, American Psycho, and last year’s gonzo cult favorite Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But it’s Camon’s script for The Messenger, co-conceived with director Oren Moverman, that has earned him overnight recognition.

A heart wrenching character study, Messenger casts Ben Foster as a decorated Army sergeant and Iraq war veteran who struggles with his current duties as the newest member of the casualty notification service. Woody Harrelson also received an Oscar nomination for his work in Messenger, playing Foster’s stoic, flawed supervisor. Days before the Oscar nominations thrust Camon and his co-writer into the glaring spotlight of the Academy Award spectacle, he called Filmcritic.com for a quiet chat about his process, his film, and his memorable characters.

Filmcritic.com: After years of producing, what was it about this story that compelled you to try writing the screenplay?

Alessanadro Camon: That’s a good question. Writing was always plenty for me. It’s something I used to do back in Italy. I wrote film criticism, as you do, and a couple of screenplays. But when I came to the United States, I came only knowing 300 or 400 words of English, so I knew that (writing) wasn’t going to happen in the short run.

I went to film school? and fell into producing. But producing, for me, was always meant to be a stepping stone toward writing.

You are Oren had collaborated on projects in the past. What led to Messenger?

One day, we started talking about the ongoing war, and I told him that I thought there was a story to be told about the war that nobody had told. It’s about this war, but it’s also about any war. It’s about the most unseen aspect of any war.

It really struck me that, with this war in particular, things are highly visible. We have a lot of reporting and footage. You can see a lot of aspects of the war. But you could never see this aspect. You don?t see the coffins. I realized that this might be one of the great untold stories of the war. We started talking about writing, and decided to write it together. I ended up being very happy with the film, and the creative process of writing the film.

Scripting lines for Woody and Ben’s characters must have been difficult. I’d like to know, however, what it was like writing the responses of the family members who are receiving word that a loved one has died in battle.

We started researching this by reading about real notifications. We read accounts both from the sides of the notifiers and from the families. And then we talked to a number of Army officers who did the job. What we learned is that you never know what is going to happen. There is a very, very wide variety of possible reactions. We read about a notifier who was physically assaulted and had his car set on fire. Violence happens. People lash out. People get so frozen in denial that they can’t process the information. That happens. And we felt a dramatic obligation to portray this, to portray this variety of reactions. And once we decided that, we really tried to imagine each back story. There are no notifications in the film that reflect exactly a real life (situation). But they all incorporate snippets of reality. They are all realistic. We really tried our hardest to put ourselves in the family’s shoes, to imagine what it would be like.

Which character, Will or Tony, was easier for you to understand and write?

That’s another good question. I don’t think that I can choose one over the other. What’s interesting about it is that this was written by two people, and it’s about two people, but we did not split up the characters between us. It’s not like we said, “OK, you focus on this character and I’ll focus on the other one.” Sometimes we joked about me being more like Tony and Oren being more like Will. But really, we put a lot of ourselves into both characters. Ultimately, I think what was interesting to me as an experience is that this is a movie about two guys becoming friends, and it was written by two guys who were becoming friends.

Can you talk to me about turning your script over to actors and watching them interpret your words?

I think we were blessed with gifted actors who really became these characters to the point where it is impossible for me to imagine the characters without the faces and the voices (of Woody and Ben). I think they brought a lot to the characters. They certainly came up with a number of different, and better, lines. But it goes way beyond that. It really is about infusing the lines and the descriptions of the characters with their souls. I just think they gave very, very soulful performances.

You’re a former film critic. Do you pay attention to the reviews given to your film?

I do. The film touched a nerve. We have received some really good reactions. It’s a small release, so far, so there is almost a disproportion between the number of people who have seen it — the number is relatively small — and the intensity of the reaction we have received. When people see it, they really do connect to it.

What really is the most gratifying is when we meet people who have a personal connection to the movie. This has happened to us a number of times with Vietnam veterans. For some reason, Vietnam veterans really respond to the film, and we have had some really moving encounters.

Do you have any thoughts as to why that is?

There are a number of reasons. Vietnam was the war in which the in-person notification process was first implemented. Up until then, it was done with a telegram. So there is a direct memory of these experiences for the vets.

Secondly, I think the distance of time helps the Vietnam veterans connect. I think people who are coming back from Iraq, the wounds are still fresh, and (watching this movie) could almost be too painful for them. One thing that we have not wanted to do is show the film to soldiers who are going back to war. But there is a definite and distinct perspective that the Vietnam generation has.

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