Given the surplus of information Americans are constantly bombarded with, it’s amazing to ponder just how much pertinent news has difficulty finding its way to the proper outlets. French director Elie Chouraqui’s new film (the ninth of his career), Harrison’s Flowers, attempts to shed some light on the beginning stages of the civil war in Serbia. Using the profession of war photojournalist, Chouraqui depicts with frightening intensity the horrors and mass destruction of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
Chouraqui himself was largely unaware of the predicament when fighting first broke out. ‘I was like everybody — I didn’t know what was going on in Yugoslavia. You heard terms like ethnic cleansing and no one was reacting,’ explains the filmmaker, blaming the absence of initial media coverage on a lack of understanding of the correct way to report the situation. ‘Nobody knew who was the good guy and who was the bad guy. It was a religious conflict, then an ethnic conflict. In a family, you’d have a wife that was a Croatian and a husband who was a Serb and they were fighting against each other.’
Two of the film’s American stars, Andie MacDowell and Adrien Brody, were also in the dark about the factors that led to the war. Says MacDowell, ‘I was curious about Yugoslavia during the whole war. I asked people to explain it and no one could make it clear to me. I don’t think anyone could understand it.’ Citing a more recent example of mass media’s occasionally limited scope, Brody points out that ‘prior to Sept. 11 there weren’t any stories about the hardships of Afghanistan in the New York Times.’
The film was shot in nine weeks during the fall of 1999, within a 90-mile radius of Prague in the Czech Republic. Even the set of the Newsweek offices, where Sarah Lloyd (MacDowell) works as a photo editor and her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband Harrison (David Strathairn) is a staff photographer, were constructed in the country. Chouraqui speaks about some of the difficulties of the shoot. ‘Nine weeks wasn’t a lot to make this movie. When you’re making a war movie, in a certain way, you’re in a war situation. When you arrive on the set every morning, you have a tank, soldier, explosions. It’s very exciting, but it really kills you too.’
Brody, who plays Kyle, a tortured young American photographer working in Serbia, discusses the real life dangers of the demanding production. ‘There were times when it was pretty frightening. Some of the explosives are knocking you to the ground. It definitely boosts your adrenaline level, and you use it to your advantage and hope that you don’t get injured.’ Unfortunately, Brody did not emerge unscathed. ‘They actually forgot to give me earplugs in a scene and they blew out a wall in a narrow corridor, and it completely damaged my ear. It was an accident, but it’s frustrating and that ear is still sensitive two years later.’
MacDowell confirms the atmosphere on the set. ‘It was as violently horrific shooting it as what you see on the screen. Having to be in that environment every day was emotionally exhausting.’ She was also unfamiliar working with a director, who employed the unconventional techniques of Chouraqui. Commenting about a scene where her character is nearly the victim of rape, MacDowell says, ‘It was horribly scary — I got angry at Elie. I said, ‘Look I can act; he doesn’t have to treat me like this.’ He was constantly putting us through hell to make it more real and more vivid for us. It worked in the end, but it wasn’t a lot of fun in the process.’ But the director defends his method of working with actors. ‘For that scene, I told Andie something very practical and technical. Then I spoke to the soldier and told him things that Andie didn’t know. Then I spoke to the other actor and told him things that only he knew. The actors know what they have to do, but they don’t know how the other actors will react. Andie saw that it was suddenly real. The actors forget for a while that they are in a movie. I do a lot of long shots and let things happen. I want the actors to be surprised.’
Brody benefited from fortuitous circumstances in researching his role. ‘I had the luxury of growing up in the home of a photojournalist. My mother is Sylvia Plachy [staff photographer for the Village Voice] and she inspired me so much and is probably the reason I’m an actor.’ Plachy also critiqued the movie for her son. ‘She liked the film very much and thought it was a pretty accurate portrayal. She also thought I was the most stylishly dressed war correspondent she’d ever seen.’
Although heavy fare such as Harrison’s Flowers is the norm for Brody, it was certainly a departure for MacDowell, most known for her work in lighter material like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Groundhog Day. ‘There is more talent involved in doing romantic comedies than people give you credit for, but they are light and easy and not uncomfortable to make like this film was. These roles are really hard to find. I’ve been frustrated since I did sex, lies and videotape. I would’ve tried to do something like this before if I would’ve found it.’ Although appreciating the challenge of exercising different acting muscles, she welcomes a return to familiar territory. Muses MacDowell, ‘After shooting this film I told my manager that next I needed a really nice, light romantic comedy.’Read More