Direct from Angelina
By Rich Cohen
Photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott
It took shape during her downtime, when the kids were asleep, and became a career-altering passion. Now, as Angelina Jolie’s screenwriting and feature directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, hits theaters, the 36-year-old star is feeling more vulnerable than ever before. On Malta, Jolie tells Rich Cohen how a tale of love and war in 1990s Bosnia took her far outside her comfort zone—and why Brad Pitt thinks it will make her a nightmare.
It was a secret project, something she did for herself, when no one was photographing, suggesting, or looking over her shoulder. Every evening, after the children had gone to bed, after the nannies had called it quits and Brad had gone off to wherever movie stars go when the world sleeps, after the house had settled into a mellow blue hum, Angelina Jolie fired up her computer and went to work, tentatively at first, then blazing away. She poured everything she knew into the story, the sting of first love, the winding streets of old European cities, the horrors of war, some of it witnessed firsthand during her work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Within a month, she had completed her first screenplay, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which, this December, becomes the feature directorial debut of Angelina Jolie.
As she knew nothing of screenwriting software like Final Draft, that first script was a mess of indents and jerry-rigged margins, a homemade cookie of a thing, which did not prevent Brad Pitt, the father of Jolie’s six children, from grabbing it. “He took it on a trip,” Jolie told me, “then called and said, ‘You know, honey, it’s not that bad.’ ”
In the Land of Blood and Honey is a love story set in hell: Sarajevo in the 1990s, when the Balkans were convulsed by an ethnic war that left an estimated 100,000 people dead and a million displaced and terrorized. The script was generated by Jolie’s anger and dismay at how poorly the world community reacts to man-made disasters. The Balkan war, which raged for three years before NATO finally intervened, seemed to capture this failing in its purest form. Human shields, sniper fire, massacres—Jolie has dramatized all of it via the twisted romance of a Serb soldier in command of a women’s P.O.W. camp and one of his prisoners. It’s dangerous territory, a scenario that drew protest from Bosnian activists (the group Women Victims of War) before filming even finished.
Jolie showed the script to Graham King, who has become the preferred producer for a particular set of ultra-cool directors and actors. King has worked with, among others, Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, The Departed), Johnny Depp (Rango, The Rum Diary), as well as Jolie herself. (King produced Jolie and Depp’s 2010 picture, The Tourist.) He agreed to finance In the Land of Blood and Honey—a small budget (a rumored $10 million), an independent release. The material was risky, filled with potential pitfalls, but there were commercial possibilities: it would be Angelina Jolie’s screenwriting debut. As a precaution, she could be surrounded by the greatest talent in the industry. But when it came time to hire a director, Jolie could not let the screenplay go. “It was something I didn’t trust out of my hands,” she explained. “So by default I ended up putting myself in as director.”
Mishandled, such material turns into The Day the Clown Cried, the famously unreleased 1972 Jerry Lewis movie about the Auschwitz-bound Clarabell, who makes kids laugh on their way to the crematorium. Handled correctly, it turns into Schindler’s List. Praise and awards rain down; the Hollywood trap is slipped. Though one of the biggest stars in the world, Jolie remains an actress attached to a human body that will age in an industry that can’t stand to watch. But with this film she can move beyond the surface of lip size and skin tone to rooms where the decisions are made—from talent to management.
You have to admire her. If she felt the need to write and direct, something lighter would have been the easy choice. (When Tom Hanks decided to direct, his first feature was That Thing You Do!, the story of a one-hit rock band.) Easier still would’ve been to continue on as she had been: big movies for money, small movies for soul, sitting back as the coffers filled. Being a movie star is not such a bad life. But this woman, a pure product of Hollywood, is not only wildly ambitious—she’s canny, blessed with the innate sense of a politician or gambler who knows that capital kept out of the game is not saved but diminished. To get big, risk big. Perhaps that’s why, at age 36, Angelina pushed her huge pile of chips, accrued over 15 years of good looks, tabloid gossip, and box-office hits, to the center of the table, where the wheel spins into a void.
Malta. Dusty hills, blue sea. A wind that never stops blowing. The third siege of that Mediterranean island. First came the Turks, who sealed the harbors with hundreds of ships in 1565 but were beaten back by a handful of knights, who slept in their armor and died for their God. Then came the Nazis and Fascists, who bombed the old town of Valletta into oblivion in the 1940s but were beaten back by the British. Then came the Jolie-Pitts, who arrived with an army of children, nannies, bodyguards, and staff in the summer of 2011, a campaign followed in the tabloids, which sent paparazzi to photograph every maneuver. Jolie with her six children—the adopted representing the conflict-torn regions of a world gone mad (Maddox, Cambodia; Zahara, Ethiopia; Pax, Vietnam), the biological representing the power of life (Shiloh, born in Swakopmund, Namibia; the twins, Knox and Vivienne, born in France)—at the island’s only bowling alley (angelina takes her kids bowling!—People); emerging from a toy store with gifts (playtime in malta!—E! Online); swimming with the dolphins at a water park (angelina jolie hides her bikini body under a wetsuit!—the Daily Mail).
The family decamped to Malta for Pitt’s film World War Z, a post-apocalyptic popcorn movie in which he plays a U.N. worker—hard not to read this as a friendly dig at Jolie: “I’m staying away from the politics of that one,” she told me—going here and there, interviewing survivors of the great zombie-human war. I met her a few days before filming wrapped and the band rolled on. If I had to draw a map of her internal world at that moment, it would be a mountainous country with highlands dominated by Brad and children, but the valleys filled with Blood and Honey. The movie was edited and scored, and Jolie was waiting to see what the world would make of her. She was vulnerable in a new way, had torn open her chest and shown her bleeding heart. “I’ve never felt more exposed,” she told me. “My whole career, I’ve hidden behind other people’s words. Now it’s me talking. You feel ridiculous when you get something wrong.”
We met at the de Mondion on top of Xara Palace, a hotel in Mdina, a heartbreakingly beautiful town on a hill in the center of the island. (The narrow, forked streets run between sandstone walls, a maze with a movie star at its center instead of a Minotaur.) Angelina stepped from the elevator onto the stone roof, where tables were set with white cloths and silverware, wine glasses, mysterious little forks. The restaurant does not have a good view—it commands the countryside, which stretches away in every direction, like the background in a painting by Caravaggio, who fled to Malta after killing a man in Rome. You see roads and stadiums, planes climbing from the airport, their jagged shadows moving swiftly over orchards and fields, distant towns, towers, domes, the sea. By choosing this restaurant, Angelina the Director put herself in a timeless scene, the ancient kingdom at her feet. The e-mail that notified me of the location included previous messages. In one, Angelina told an assistant to make a reservation for “630 early dinner at the place b and I eat outside. Xxx.”
That morning, the Daily Mail had run pictures of Jolie and Pitt at the restaurant under the headline date-ja-vu! brad pitt takes angelina jolie to the same romantic restaurant in malta where he dined with jennifer aniston eight years ago. According to the article, “The couple indulged, tucking into a seafood-based tasting menu by Executive Chef Kevin Bonello, which included a crab salad, poached rockfish, risotto with seafood and fine cheese.” You can’t go 15 minutes in Angie World without a hint of Aniston, who lingers like a sad spook, the girl bested and left behind. In the tabloids, these three—Brad, Jen, Angie—are locked in a kind of unholy trinity, the high-school drama of quarterback, cheerleader, and sexy newly matriculated student who breaks up the dream, playing out again and again, forever and ever, amen.
The restaurant was empty, having apparently been cleared out for the occasion. A few bodyguards lingered on the parapets. When you’re a movie star of this magnitude, a large part of life is logistics. Jolie led me to a table away from the waiters and the chef, sweating in his kitchen for this party of two. She fell into her chair and smiled. The big smile. The movie-star smile. Evening was coming on. The wind was warm and smoky. She wore a black dress, frilly and fine, open from the neck to the start of that area properly marked “Staff Only.” Her body, as slender as a reed and as soft as a daisy chain, followed the contour of her chair as the country rolled away. Perhaps celebrities appear hyper-real, super-alive, because you know them only from movie screens and photos—that is, two dimensions. To see anyone go from two dimensions to three can give you a queasy feeling. It’s the way you feel at the end of Pinocchio when the puppet turns into a boy.
Is there a point in describing Jolie’s physical appearance? Not only is she among the world’s most photographed people, she’s splashed across these very pages. You know her eyes, which, wide-set, tear-shaped, and green, register the slightest change in mood. You know her hair, her jaw, her teeth, her lips, which are voluptuously overstuffed, her slender fingers and body, which is skinny and not skinny all at the same time.
The chef came over to describe the specials, stood there in his white smock saying, “We have John Dory fish, rockfish, or dentex, a salty, Mediterranean fish.” (Angelina ordered lobster salad and John Dory.) Wine was poured. Red wine. Chianti, which a waiter called “oaky,” leading to a joke about Steinbeck. She’d been on Malta with her family for weeks, and I asked what they’d been doing.
“The kids have been learning about the history of the island and going to the catacombs,” she said. “I wanted them to have the full experience of traditional tourism, so I let them go without me.”
“Would your presence interrupt it?”
“Maybe. So just in case, you know?”
“What did you do today?”
“I hung out with the kids. Usually we have swim class in the morning for the twins, then art class. The boys got this crazy fish pedicure. It’s one of those things you shouldn’t talk about in an interview and yet… . There are fish here that eat the dead skin off your feet. I thought it would be fun to send the boys.”
“Did it hurt?”
“They were in hysterics.”
“Is it like when you put peanut butter on your toes and let your dog lick it off?”
“I don’t know. They said it was ticklish. The rest of us hung out at the house. We have a nice house, and swim and paint and play with the turtle. There’s a turtle.”
The wine came. Jolie raised her glass, then began talking about the big thing on her mind, In the Land of Blood and Honey. “The title was the hardest thing,” she told me. “First it was The Untitled Love Story, and everybody said, ‘It’s not fair to tell people it’s a love story.’ Then it was An Untitled Bosnia Story. But everybody said, ‘Nobody wants that. It’s an unpopular subject.’ This is when we were trying to raise money.” In the end, she found a perfect title: literally translated from Turkish, “Balkan” means “honey” (bal) and “blood” (kan).
I asked if there’d been a specific incident that sparked her, sat her at the computer, got her going. “I had the flu,” she said. “I had to be quarantined from the children for two days. I was in the attic of a house in France. I was isolated, pacing. I don’t watch TV and I wasn’t reading anything. So I started writing. I went from the beginning to the end. I didn’t know any other way.”
Her interest in the subject—what happens to ordinary people in terrible times—goes back much further, to 2000 at the latest, when she went to Cambodia to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It was in Cambodia that Jolie first witnessed the effects of war, men and woman who had stepped on land mines or been mutilated—hands, arms, legs chopped off—by the Khmer Rouge. “I realized there was a lot I did not know about the world,” she told me. “I decided to educate myself. I got books on every subject: NGOs, different parts of the world, the U.N. I sat up for days. I opened to a page on the exodus from Rwanda. I was stopped. I had no understanding of refugees. I called [the U.N.] out of the blue. I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’d like to go to Sierra Leone. I’ll pay my own way if you let me sleep in your compound.’ I traveled with them for two years, then joined.” Jolie adopted her oldest child soon after: Maddox, a Cambodian orphan, an indirect victim of the Khmer Rouge. Thus began the life of humanitarian work that forms the psychic background for In the Land of Blood and Honey.
Before shooting began, Jolie sent the screenplay to “reporters and writers, people of Serbian and Bosnian nationality who’d been through the war. I was gauging the accuracy,” she told me, “trying to make sure I wasn’t … ”
She paused, sipped her wine, then said, “If they said no, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Early on, she decided to cast no stars, only locals, each actor playing his or her ethnicity. “It couldn’t be anybody else,” she explained. “It’s their story. It was important that they were willing to do it. If none of them were willing, I wouldn’t have made it.” The cast was assembled in the manner of navy SEAL Team Six—this one because she can shoot, that one because he can stick the dagger—everything on a hush-hush, top-secret, need-to-know basis. “All information was hidden,” Goran Kostic, who plays Danijel, the Serb soldier who controls the action, told me. “It was obvious it was somebody big. You’re an actor, you audition, and they don’t tell you who it is, you know it’s somebody from the top. I had no idea. Nor did I want to speculate. I did what I had to do. Later, when they told us Angelina Jolie wrote the script, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see how she was able to put all of it together.”
“When I found out it was her, I thought, Unbelievable,” said Zana Marjanovic, who plays Ajla, the female lead. “[My character] was so authentic I felt [the writer] must be from here.”
The movie was shot in Sarajevo and Budapest. The mood on the set was crucial. Jolie wanted it to be a world apart, where people from every side of the conflict lived and worked together, then brought that experience to the film. “I’m from the country,” said Nikola Djuricko, who plays a Bosnian guerrilla. “I know the people. And I know what happened. And for me it was cathartic: watching it again, going through that bloody war again. I was crying. I didn’t know where to put myself.”
“We knew it would be hard,” said Jolie. “They remembered this war, lived through it, were personally affected. To ask them to relive it was a big ask. They had to trust me.”
As far as Jolie was concerned, the script was only half finished when the filming began. She wanted the actors to flesh it out with details from their own lives—another reason it was important to cast locals. Goran Kostic’s father was an officer in the Serb Army. Vanessa Glodjo, who plays a Bosnian, was often shot at during the war. “I lived on the front line,” she explained, “and had to pass in front of the snipers every day to go to school.” The Caffe Club Gogo, which appears in Blood and Honey before Sarajevo is torn apart, is named after an actual establishment owned by Marjanovic’s father, Gogo. “Of course, Angie had her own story to tell, but all those little, tiny details she let come from us,” Glodjo told me.
At the last minute, Jolie decided the film should be shot in two languages, English and the language of the former Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian. “Three days before shooting, Angelina goes, ‘I came upon this notion that we should do it in your native language as well,’ ” Kostic told me. “I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ Nine weeks, and you want two languages?”
“Two takes in English, one in our native language, then back to English,” Marjanovic explained. “You translate into a different language but keep the accent and melody and behavioral characteristics of Bosnian. So the character speaks English like a Bosnian.”
“When you speak your native tongue, your energy changes,” Jolie told me.
The waiter appeared. He was sweating. The kitchen was out of the John Dory. Would it be O.K. to substitute the rockfish?
Are you certain, miss?
I asked Jolie if she felt she was wading into dangerous territory with this movie. From the point of view of certain Bosnian critics, it’s the story of an abused woman falling in love with her captor. (Perhaps 50,000 Bosnian women were raped during the war.) Jolie actually lost permission to shoot in the country for a few days while officials studied the screenplay. “That wasn’t what it seemed,” she told me. “It was just one person who was misinformed and never read the script.”
The movie maps the power dynamic of a romance that begins in peace and ends in horror. Boy meets girl—if boy is a soldier who enslaves but protects girl. At times—this is the brilliance of the film—it’s hard to tell where love leaves off and hate begins. But there were moments when it made me acutely uncomfortable: the male protagonist, the sort of character who, in most films, is presented as pure, fathomless evil, a Nazi monster, is here tricked out with backstory and motivation. Yes, he commands a rape camp, but his father is putting a lot of pressure on him! As I walked away, I asked myself, “Am I feeling sorry for Ivan the Terrible?”
“One of the things coming across from the beginning was that [my character, the villain,] was getting sympathy,” Kostic told me. “But we’re all born pure and innocent, and then something happens and we turn into something unrecognizable, wild and ugly. All these bad guys we love to hate were born pure. There was a day when they were innocent in the eyes of God. So I’m not surprised but quite grateful for the sympathy you felt for Danijel.”
“People will judge for themselves,” said Jolie. “I think if you make a good movie people walk away arguing.”
She looked at the countryside. The sun had set, the wineglasses were empty, the wind was blowing, the constellations were dangling yellow lanterns. “There’s a famous quote,” she said. “ ‘If it doesn’t scare you, it’s not worth doing.’ I think there’s truth to that. I love being home with my kids. I love simple things and wonder why I can’t just enjoy them and live that kind of life. But I wouldn’t be happy. I wouldn’t feel my life is of much worth. And, honestly, no matter the outcome of this film, the cast is proud, and we became a family. They’re going to have an opportunity to use their voice. And if it just does that, great. But I understand. I often questioned myself. I thought, God, if I was on this side, how would I feel?”
The movie wrapped in late fall. Weeks of editing in Los Angeles followed. I asked Jolie if she had been influenced by other directors along the way or used any movies as models. “I’m sure I’ve been influenced by things I’ve watched and read, but try not to be,” she said. “I loved Dog Day Afternoon. I loved Lawrence of Arabia. I loved Taxi Driver. But I’m not one that watches a lot of movies. Brad jokes with me, because I’ll watch a movie and I’ll be asleep in five minutes. I’m terrible. There’s some of my own I’ve never seen.”
“I love Lawrence of Arabia because I love the desert,” she explained. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and crossing the Sahara is a dream of mine.”
Jolie described the surreal experience of test-screening Blood and Honey, the seats of a movie theater filled with “average Americans” filling out cards, commenting on a film that’s impressive and beautiful but just as brutal as early Scorsese. (“If you think the movie is tough, you should’ve seen the four-hour version,” Jolie said, laughing.) “It was horrifying,” she said of the screenings. “They wanted me to sit in the audience. They said directors sit in back. I went home and turned my phone off.” She did read the comment cards, though—most of them nice, some less so. (“You go right to the worst,” said Jolie.) Some compared the movie to Schindler’s List. Some to The English Patient.
The experience gave her a renewed respect for the ragged life of the screenwriter. “The funny thing is, when you’re on set and somebody says, ‘The beginning of this scene should have more life, more banter.’ And everybody looks at you and you realize, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to go off in the corner and write something. How strange. I’ll be right back.’ And you go in your room and think, Oh my God, how am I going to do this? Then you give the pages to your actors, something you find sexy or important. But you don’t know if anybody else will. They might laugh at you, find it ridiculous. It’s much easier as an actor to say, ‘Well, it’s his direction; it’s his words.’ I remembered so many times when the writer sent me pages and I’d go, ‘Ugh—I don’t like that.’ And now I’m like, ‘Oh, God.’ You put your blood on the page when you’re a writer.”
I asked if making her own movie would change her work as an actress.
“Brad thinks I’m going to be a nightmare.”
“I had such a good experience he thinks I’m going to be impatient with directors, which I already am. I get impatient with people working on a film that have their head in their hands like it’s the most complicated thing in the world.”
I asked if Pitt had been helpful during the process. “Yeah, he’d come in and say what he liked or what he didn’t understand. Like any woman, I would listen to most of it and fight a few things. He’s been so supportive. But it’s hard to separate the person that loves you from the critic, so I don’t think he’s a fair judge.”
This made me think of the reviews, good and bad, that will come as sure as the turning of the earth. Jolie said she won’t read them. “I’ve never valued somebody’s opinion of me over my own sense of right and wrong,” she said.
“I got past the cast screening—that was all I needed,” she continued. “I had such a big drink after that, I thought I was going to fall over.”
“I was always asked and always said no,” she told me. “I never wanted to. I don’t focus on film much in my life. I like acting because you do it a few months, come home, and you’re with your family, and you have an experience, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, an adventure. But I’ve loved this process more than I’ve ever loved anything.”
“Then you’ll do it again,” I said.
“I hope so. I mean, I don’t know if I have the confidence yet that I’m good at it. It still feels like a private thing, that little script sitting in my desk.”
We ordered decaf cappuccinos, followed by dessert wine and a visit from the cheese cart. I explained my idea for a movie called Fromage, like Speed—runaway cheese cart, a city of steep hills, a bomb.
Jolie said her next project will be a Disney movie called Maleficent, a character from Sleeping Beauty. “She’s the one with horns. She’s a bit dark. It’s a new story,” Jolie explained. “I told Shiloh, and she fell in love. Now I have to do this film: my daughter is waiting to see it.”
“I’ve noticed that you don’t play a lot of girl-next-door types.”
“Yeah,” she said, laughing, smiling, stretching, leaning over the table. “I went on a few of those auditions when I was younger and they told me I should just quit.”
“Are you getting married?”
“No,” she said. “I’m not pregnant. I’m not adopting at the moment.”
I phoned Jolie a few days later. There were questions I still had, points I wanted to pursue. She had left Malta. I reached her in London, where the skies glowered and the air was heavy.
“You told me you do not see many movies,” I said.
“And that you often fall asleep when you try.”
She agreed on this too.
“But do you see Brad’s movies?”
(Here’s what I was thinking: What a scoop!)
“Since I’ve been with him I’ve seen all the ones we’ve gone to the premieres for,” she said.
I asked if she had a favorite.
“I think I liked Jesse [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)] because I knew how hard he worked on that,” she told me. “It’s interesting: when you live with an artist, it’s not the film but the process you respect. I know he took a risk on that, fought for it, stood true to what he believed. He didn’t cave when people were pressing him, and he made a beautiful film.”
“Do you help each other on movies?”
“We read each other’s things. More now than when we were first together. We throw each other scripts and say, ‘Is this good, or have I lost my mind?’ ”
I asked if she had a jewelry line coming out, a question suggested by my sister-in-law.
“Yeah, I did it for fun,” Jolie said. “The proceeds go to the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, a foundation I started with Gene Sperling.” (A friend of Jolie’s, Sperling, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, currently serves as the director of the National Economic Council.) “I like certain types of jewelry I wasn’t finding,” she said, “big, chunky stones with gold. I worked with a designer, saying, ‘If I had an ideal ring, it would look like this.’ Or ‘I’d love a pair of earrings that look like that.’ But I never wear jewelry. Unless I go to a premiere. I’m the worst.”
I could hear one of her kids in the background. I’m pretty sure it was Shiloh. She was demanding the application of a Band-Aid. “All right, sweetie, all right, all right,” said Jolie.
I asked if raising kids had changed her view of her own parents. I was thinking of her famously stormy relationship with her father, Jon Voight, but she spoke only of her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who died in 2007. Being a parent makes Jolie respect her mother even more, she said, “because she was a single mother, and that can be challenging. There’s something nice about looking at the person you’re sharing this experience with and laughing about something the kids did. You look at each other over your kid and know that everything’s going to be all right. I think for a single mother, for any single parent, it must be difficult not to have somebody to share it with. But there’s something wonderful about it, too. My mother and brother and I were closer because there wasn’t another parent. We sat up in bed at night watching TV. By the time I was older, my mother was like my sister.”
I was interested in a story I saw the next day in Us Weekly magazine—I mean, no, it’s not The New York Times, but it’s not the News of the World either. It said Pitt and Jolie were to be married in a small ceremony in the South of France. With this in mind, the blanket denial I had received after the fromage cart rolled away struck me as Watergate-like.
I thought about this, then sent an e-mail:
One more question. I have just been forwarded a story from US magazine that says you and Brad are soon to be married. Normally I would not bug you on matters of your personal life, but I have you saying you are not getting married and missing such big news, or having it wrong, could damage my sterling reputation for having my finger on the pulse of the American scene.
Can you just let me know what’s up, so I don’t make a fool of myself?
The response came a few hours later. “Not to worry. No secret wedding. Xxx”
Picking Her Battles
If you were a normal person who also happened to be the biggest movie star on the planet—sexy, tabloid fodder, and all that—and decided to write and direct a film, it would probably be, the first time out anyway, a romantic comedy, a gay romp, spirited fare of the not-too-taxing variety. Of course, if that were the case, you would not be Angelina Jolie, who for her debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, has taken on the very nature of love and war: the human condition in general, Bosnia’s in particular, where one day it was cafés and evenings out and the next it was massacres and human shields. Not Nora Ephron territory, in other words, or even Steven Spielberg territory. Jolie has instead entered the realm of Mr. Tolstoy, where excited youths ponder questions like “What is a man?” The film features a cast of relatively unknown actors from the region, each with his or her own connection to the conflict that racked the Balkans from 1990 until 1995, among them Vanessa Glodjo, who spent those years dodging sniper fire, and Goran Kostic, whose father, as an officer in the Serb Army, was on the other side of the riflescope. “It’s important to talk about the war, about our emotions,” says Nikola Djuricko. “It’s something we have to do more often.” Angelina, once the Hollywood wild child, has built a meditation on love and hate from the shattered glass of a terrible struggle.