"We went to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. We met on a train going to Walter Reed and spent time in the amputee ward. That was a very harrowing experience. It was the first time, at least for myself, that I had seen the results of war in a very visceral way. The place is a remarkable facility. But it was the first time that I saw the face of warfare outside of magazines, the statistics, the chilling numbers. You see these boys and girls, children with missing legs and burned up pretty bad, and their attitude was so positive. When they would ask, 'What are we doing here? Why are you saying hi?' Sheepishly we were saying that we were making a film about casualty notification officers. They would say, 'Oh, man, boy. I would rather go back into combat than do that.' You take that with you into filming, a sense of service to these men and women rather than yourself," explained Foster. "Even what you might call a dramatic scene, a big scene within the structure of the film, say I wanted to nail it, it was more I want to serve you guys and get out of my own way."
Foster always fills in the backstory of whatever character he's playing as much as possible before starting work on a film. That definitely held true for The Messenger. "If I can’t see it, I can’t feel it. So a lot of prep time is based around gathering information, research, spending time with people that maybe have lived similar experiences and walking, and letting these pictures and these experiences be it books, documentaries, stories and letting it bleed into your own, 'What if it was me?' Walking, for whatever reason, has always been a great tool for taking it out of the intellectual, getting it into the body, getting it into an unconscious place and it begins to realize itself. It develops. Keeping journal entries has been a useful tool," said Foster.
"Filling in details that are not in the script allow these pictures to be more realized in my head. It’s not, 'Oh, this would be cool if…' It’s, 'This is an image,' and you can find these images anywhere, or songs. This is a song that reminds me of a feeling, it feels like something, and start gathering. It creates an inner life that can be drawn from and is drawn from when I feel most lost. Drawing from these images takes me out of my head of trying to construct something that isn’t there. It gives it permission to be with the other actors and not force it. There’s a ground that’s been laid."
One thing Foster discovered while preparing to play Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery was that the procedures for notifying the next of kin have changed over the last eight years. "They go with a chaplain now. I think so. I’m pretty sure that that’s where we fudged. It’s developed over the past eight years, casualty notifications, because there have been so many notifications made in the past eight. And the army is intending to refine an impossible task," explained Foster.
Foster says there's also another important step after the initial notification. "There will be someone who comes after the notification that handles the organization of the funeral. There’s a follow-up following that, and I guess you could call it also its own theater. There’s a script that the soldiers follow which is a strange metaphor to the theater of war. There are spooky parallels."
And Foster's proud of the reaction real service men and women have had to The Messenger. "There was a fantastic thing that happened the other night in Savannah, which was really surprising. We all went to Hunter, the war base, and that was remarkable meeting the families, pregnant wives asking for Woody to sign a f***ing Twinkie [a Zombieland reference] and it meant the world to them. You start seeing these values and saying, ‘I’m going to send it to my husband who left this morning at 2:30 in the morning. He’s going to love it.’ There was one soldier that came in full fatigues. I can’t repeat what he said but it just went online the other day. It’s the only thing in the article where a single soldier stood up who had been in combat and spoke. It’s about a page and a half long and this seems to be the consistent reaction is that they’re grateful in a way that we’re not sugar coating. We’re not giving an easy answer. We’re not giving a political agenda. We’re just saying, 'Okay, these are human beings. This is what they do. Yes, they’re brave but they’re also human beings and dealing with the difficult circumstance. But they are still looking to connect and they don’t have a language, a vocabulary with their family who didn’t go and see it so they’re very isolated.' So to see people who lovingly, but show it warts and all, that we’re all trying to figure it out and make relationships, love, make friendships, connect again, is difficult but possible. The gratitude has been overwhelming."
* * * * *
The Messenger was directed by Oren Moverman and is rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.