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SCRIPTLAND

Moverman explores war's personal toll

March 19, 2008|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

Don't pick up an Oren Moverman script if you're looking for a little light reading.

In the wake of the writers strike, Moverman ("Jesus' Son," "I'm Not There") hurriedly began casting and scouting locations at military bases for "The Messenger," which will be his directing debut. The script, penned with writer-producer Alessandro Camon ("The Bandit K."), concerns two casualty notification officers in the U.S. military and their relationship with a woman to whom they must deliver bad news.

"We wanted to shine a light in a nonpolitical way on the people who are living with the consequences of the decisions to go to war," says Moverman, who spent four years in the Israeli military in the mid-'80s. "It has to do with people living in this waiting room between hell and the everyday, and trying to get back to life."

Even grittier is "Unthinkable," a screenplay written by Peter Woodward ("Closing the Ring") that Moverman revised last summer. The story manifests the "ticking time bomb" scenario; a terrorist suspect in custody has acknowledged the presence of three dirty bombs in American cities that will soon detonate, but won't disclose their locations.

Moverman hopes that the timely drama, which could go into production this summer under "Hard Candy" director David Slade, challenges people "to come clean about how they feel about torture by watching the process of the disintegration of an investigation," he says. In other words, where do we draw the line when using violent measures to extract information that might save lives? "Waterboarding is child's play in this movie. It really goes into the realm of the unthinkable. It's always going to be topical."

It's a debate given renewed vigor by President Bush's veto last week of a bill that would have prohibited the CIA from using extreme interrogation techniques such as waterboarding (otherwise known to civilized, patriotic Americans as "torture"). "I'm someone who is drawn to politics and to the world of policy," says Moverman. "I watch C-SPAN for fun. What I like about screenwriting is that it keeps me in school. I keep learning. Every project that I come into I'm not necessarily an expert on, but I definitely bring my perspective and a thirst for knowledge."

Casting 'puzzle'

You'd think casting a movie is one of the black arts for all the reluctance of its practitioners to explain the process. But their mysterious matchmaking is essential in translating a script for screen.

"It's a very political position," admits casting director Ronna Kress ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "Justice League of America"), one of the few who agreed to spill some general background after declaring any mention of specific names and projects verboten as a way to safeguard her ability to get rehired.

While not wholly independent of the descriptive elements built into the script, the casting "puzzle," as Kress describes it, tends to be a parallel design with its own logic. This is driven by the director and/or producer whose visions she's fulfilling (plus the studio and its marketing department, the budget, the actors' chemistry and availability, etc.) as much as by any screenwriter-invented details.

"You can't ignore what the piece of material is looking to deliver onscreen," says Kress. "So it's not that I'm discounting what the script says, but sometimes I like to challenge what's written: 'Isn't there maybe a different way that we can play this?' Or maybe there's not, and I have to stick with what that guideline is."

Filmmakers often consider even the most fundamental details of a character written into the script as flexible (age, race, ethnicity, gender, accent), which means you don't need to waste too much time on whether your protagonist is right- or left-handed -- unless it's a plot point. The aspect of the screenplay most relevant during the casting process is a crucial emotional scene that the casting director can choose to test the capabilities and sensibilities of auditioning actors.

"Some filmmakers don't feel like they need to [audition actors in this way] because it will take so much to get there in such a short period of time," says Eyde Belasco ("Rescue Dawn," "Half Nelson"). "But my feeling is, if you couldn't pull off that scene, you're going to have a hard time making your movie work."

"What the script provides you is your blueprint," says Kress, who's at times been hired even before a script is finished or a film greenlighted. "It's half and half -- if you read a script and a director [has] a vision of it, you're going to go with the director's vision and you may not actually see it on the page. But [with] the combination of the words written and the piece of casting, that part comes to life."

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. E-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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