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December 21, 2009

A Chat with the VT Native Behind 'The Messenger'

Messenger The Messenger is one of those award-season movies everybody's talking about. And starting January 8, Vermonters who didn't catch it at last fall's Vermont International Film Festival will finally get a chance to see it at the Palace 9.

In advance of that, I had a phone chat with Lawrence Inglee, the film's producer — who, as it happens, was born in Rutland and lived in Vermont till he was 15.

The Messenger is a drama about the U.S.' current military engagements, but from an unusual home-front perspective. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster star as two casualty notification officers, servicemen who have the job of delivering the bad news to the families of fallen soldiers.

When the duo knock on a door, they have no idea what they'll find — violent grief, anger, resignation. And neither did the actors, at least on their first take, because the notification scenes were played unrehearsed.

Inglee says that was the inspiration of first-time director Oren Moverman, who wanted to know "how do you recreate this type of emotion? This is one of the most intense moments any of us could ever imagine encountering. All of us make those calls or get them." So "the actors were given the freedom to experience the moment" — they walked through the blocking of the scene, but "didn’t meet the other actors till the door opened. They didn’t know what was going to happen, either."

The scenes could get so intense, says Inglee, that Harrelson likes to joke that, while the actors playing the bereaved might cry during the scene, the actors playing the notifiers would need to "go off and cry afterward. It was emotionally draining."

But the pain paid off — Harrelson has a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. The Messenger has also garnered Independent Spirit nominations for Best First Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor and Actress.

Inglee, 36, says his dad used to own a video store in Springfield, Vt., where he had a chance to pick the movies — "one of my great pleasures. In a backwards sort of way, that was where my interest in movies began." Later, he moved to L.A. "with no contacts or connections" and got a job with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's production company, Imagine Entertainment. Working for another company, he associate produced Roland Emmerich's eco-disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. Last September, Inglee started his own production company, Lightstream Pictures, which has various projects in the works.

The Messenger started as an idea that came from co-writer Alessandro Camon. When he told his friends Moverman and Inglee about it, "it immediately became clear to us that this was a way of telling a life-affirming story about war without ever going to war," Inglee says. "A human perspective instead of a political perspective."

So far, Iraq-war-related dramas haven't done well at the box office — not even critically acclaimed The Hurt Locker. Some commentators have speculated that Americans hear enough about war on the news; they don't want to mix it with their entertainment.

What made Inglee take a chance on The Messenger? "For me, it’s always the story first," he says. "Everything stems from that. The good news about Hollywood is that you can still move mountains if you have a great script. We had a great script."

Before they started shooting, the filmmakers and stars traveled to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where "we met soldiers with missing limbs," says Inglee. He hopes the movie will "put a direct human face on this group of people ... it’s a small group of people, and it’s distant from our daily life, many of us. It brings us all back to a place where we remember that these are all real human beings."

Especially around the holidays, many moviegoers avoid fare they expect to be "depressing." But Inglee insists The Messenger shouldn't be seen that way, grim as its protagonists' task may be. "It’s important for people to not be afraid of the movie," he says. "It’s full of life, and it’s often very funny. At its heart it’s a buddy movie."

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