ABOVE: CATHERINE KEENER IN WAR STORY.
War Story is not a light movie, but you’d never know it by talking to star Catherine Keener and director Mark Jackson. With chemistry so tangible and laughs never-ending, you’d think they would have made a romantic comedy. But the film is about a war photographer, astutely played by Keener, who is traumatized by her experience photographing refugees in Libya and seeks refuge in a hotel in Sicily. The second feature by director Mark Jackson, this keenly observed and contemplative film brilliantly showcases a side of Keener we’ve never seen before. On a trio of mismatched stools in a pop-up photo studio on Main St., Park City, Interview sat down with Keener and Jackson the day before their Sundance premiere.
DEENAH VOLLMER: Catherine will join us in a minute. Mark, let’s start with how this project came together.
MARK JACKSON: It’s part of a trilogy. The first one is called Without. That came out a few years ago. It’s an island trilogy, all set on islands. This one is set in Sicily. I met Catherine through the curator of the MoMA when my first film was programmed there and I told him about this project. He asked if I had anyone in mind for the lead and I said, “Catherine.” He said, “Do you know her?” And of course I did not know her. He put us in touch. We became penpals and that’s how she became involved in the project. I wrote it specifically for her.
VOLLMER: She’s amazing in it.
JACKSON: I’m excited for people to see her like they haven’t seen her before. She really carries this whole thing. She’s in almost every frame of the film.
VOLLMER: Had you been interested in war photography before this film?
JACKSON: Certainly. It’s based during the Arab Spring in 2011, and I was on my way to Libya to shoot it. I stopped in Sicily and ended up falling ill. I was holed up in that hotel.
VOLLMER: The same hotel that it’s filmed in?
JACKSON: The same hotel. It’s my Italian family’s hotel. During that time is when the New York Times journalists were captured in Libya, so I started thinking about this story.
[Catherine Keener arrives.]
CATHERINE KEENER: Hey! I like your thing!
JACKSON: Thank you, it’s green.
KEENER: We like each other’s clothes. We always have. I’ll be on the short stool. I’ll be the submissive one. There’s no camera around, right?
JACKSON: Just me stuttering.
VOLLMER: No, you sound great. Hi, Catherine. It’s an honor to meet you.
KEENER: Aw boy, that’s what they used to say. [laughs] No, they never said that.
VOLLMER: Catherine, what attracted you to this project?
KEENER: Josh [Siegal] from MoMA put us in touch. I was like, “That sounds good!” Then I watched the movie Without and I was like, “That sounds really good.” Then we started this emailing thing. That was fun, for months. We didn’t even know each other. We never met and we just had these emails back and forth.
JACKSON: We invented a shared history.
JACKSON: We’re like, every New Year’s we go to the Top of the Rock.
KEENER: [laughs] And the airline we take. It was like, crazy. It was so fun. He started talking to me in Italian. We went through every phase of a relationship, which was really funny.
JACKSON: We met for the first time on New Year’s. You came into town for New Year’s and I wasn’t sure if you were kidding or not. And you’re like, “Where are you?” And then I hightailed it over to the West Village.
VOLLMER: That’s momentous.
KEENER: It was!
VOLLMER: What did you do at midnight?
KEENER: I was outside talking with people. I talked to my son.
JACKSON: You were giving New Year’s hugs. I think the vast majority of everyone has a crush on Catherine.
VOLLMER: I’ll raise my hand to that.
KEENER: Oh, my goodness.
JACKSON: I was no exception to that.
KEENER: Thank you, but—
JACKSON: Outside was this outpouring of love that was augmented by—
KEENER: It was very loving. Augmented by drink and New Year’s and it was beautiful. He just stood there laughing.
VOLLMER: Sounded like you guys had so much fun. How did you transition from laughing to working on this very serious film?
KEENER: We laughed through it. We did, I mean, no. We did because it was so heavy. Did you see it? Did you like it?
VOLLMER: I did. It was a remarkable film.
KEENER: That’s nice to hear.
JACKSON: I love seeing her in this kind of role. I was excited to write it and imagine you being shot in this way. We shot it in a documentary style, a lot of single shots, breathing stills.
KEENER: There’s a lot of breath to it.
JACKSON: It’s a very small film, limited time, limited resources. Before we went out to shoot I went out to L.A., and Catherine and I spent a month together.
KEENER: Yeah, he came out for like a week and then he kept staying. You had a job that you never went back to. [laughs]
VOLLMER: Tell me about making the film.
KEENER: I don’t remember a lot of it, but I remember it was fucking hard.
VOLLMER: What part of it?
KEENER: What part of it was hard, or really fucking hard?
KEENER: The part that was hard was being very isolated in this particular part of Sicily. There weren’t options. You think Sicily is fantastic and it was, but where we shot, it was a friend’s hotel. They were amazing, amazing. Everybody had a job ultimately.
JACKSON: Everyone pitched in. The whole town pitched in.
KEENER: There wasn’t anything else to do and it wasn’t romantic at all, except in a way it was. I kind of take that back.
JACKSON: Six-day weeks and there’s not a single scene you’re not in.
KEENER: Everyone was crew, so we all had the same hours. We worked however many hours and then 10 hours later we’d start again. We all signed up for the same thing. What was really fucking hard was the material. We were trying to be authentic, we didn’t have the money to make up shit so we had to go with what was there and what’s there is pretty sad, and dire. And so there was not a lot of pretending. You know that beautiful long shot when they’re following Hafsia? It’s forever and it’s so gorgeous. That whole time I’m sitting with those men who are making bread on a trashcan lid and with such finesse. It was incredible. That was quite an experience. Those things happened over and over again.
JACKSON: There’s not a false note in her performance; and I think that Catherine would make an amazing journalist, because she has a bullshit detector that is unparalleled.
For more from Sundance 2014, click here.