Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There’s nothing ordinary about the character at the center of writer-director Brad Silberling’s AN ORDINARY MAN. No, this man – a general (Sir Ben Kingsley) – is an Eastern European war criminal, shuffled from safe house, to safe house, living a life of solitude. That is until a maid, Tanja (Hera Hilmar), enters his life, giving him an opportunity to have a real human connection.
I spoke with the gracious filmmaker about everything from his films’ connective emotional through lines, to the dangerous beauty of Serbia’s landscapes, to employing women in integral behind-the-scenes roles to keep him and the narrative’s authenticity in check. Our conversation goes to some pretty candid places.
To start off, I wanted to thank you for your A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. My mom passed away almost 9 years ago, and that film really helped guide me through the whole grieving process. It’s such a beautiful movie.
That’s amazing. That’s fantastic. Thank you. That means a lot. I know there are those, whether it’s a movie, or a piece of music, or something on paper, that comes at the right moment that’s everything. I’m glad that was there. Thank you.
This sort of leads me into my first question which is I see a connecting line between your films – they are about personal connections, but also there is that undercurrent of grief. Do you see these things? Do you consciously lean into some of these tonal undertones?
I see them because smarter people like you point them out – and I’m not being facetious. We’re blinded artists. We are just attracted to a heartbeat that is meaningful to us. I’m not being coy. There’s nothing conscious that’s drawn between each of the films. And yet, I’m clearly…
Listen, it’s interesting. My film, MOONLIGHT MILE, I was 24, 25 when my girlfriend Rebecca Schaeffer was killed. I remember an agent said to me, whom I bumped into after that. He said, ‘Well. Here’s the thing. You just got your PhD in life a little early.’ It sounded glib, but it was meaningful. I think that essentially the dualities of loss and hope and everything in between, maybe it was just more exposed to me, emotionally at least, early on. I remember after she was killed, I was under contract, I was just out of film school, I had just started my career. It was one of those moment where, just after she died, where I thought, I know I can’t do any work that isn’t going to ring true emotionally to me where I can’t access my feelings – as complex as they are now. So it wasn’t that I was only going to go off and do films about people perishing and obvious narratives of grieving. It’s why I haven’t been able to go off and do a great shoot ‘em up movie. I need to have some emotional access to a movie.
So I do think there’s truth to it. Even in a small comedy I did with Morgan Freeman, 10 ITEMS OR LESS. Again, it was pointed out to me, that the characters meet in the course of the day, crack themselves open and get honest, and, again, intimacy is transformative. In the end, there is that loss because they have to acknowledge they’ll never see each other again and yet they got a gift from the experience. Yeah, I can see that. I wrote a new picture that I’m in the middle of trying to cast and [laughs] it probably holds true again, totally different circumstances. Truth in human behavior is always the most entertaining to me.
Where did the kernel of the idea for AN ORDINARY MAN come from?
I had taken three films to the Sarajevo Film Festival over the years, which was really the only time I had spent in the Balkans. I was moved, upset, a bit outraged – each country has their own story of this so it’s not exclusively Bosnian. When I was reading up on war criminals who were out there that were very adept at evading capture. What I know to be true is that each country is complicit in hiding these guys. I kept thinking, ‘where is the justice?’ Because it’s me, what struck me was that the only justice could be emotional.
I read one of the fugitives out of Serbia, this character Ratko Mladić, who was responsible for the siege of Sarajevo. He was moved in plain sight, from couch, to couch, in Belgrade amongst a group of dwindling loyalists. His daughter committed suicide in her 20’s. She wrote a really credible account of her father’s actions. She used her own military pistol. He refused to believe it was true – to take responsibility – to believe it was a suicide, because of his convictions. I read a report coming out of the Hague tribunal that Mladić was a big pain in the ass – a huge personality. At one point, they moved him into his own apartment and he refused to have his own security detail. They were literally just dropping off cards, groceries. They provided him a maid and I was so struck by that.
I thought this guy would be dying for human contact. If somebody comes into his little apartment, who is that?! And how is he going to trust that person – and yet, he’s going to desperately need that person. Here’s this guy desperately trying to live this vicarious relationship he never got to have with his own daughter, because of what he’s done, but he’s doomed to keep recreating that loss.
The story is as much about The General’s as it is about getting to know Tanja. I noticed some of your key production roles were women (DP Magdalena Górka, line producers Mary Guilfoyle and Andjelija Vlaisavljevic, first AD Michele Panelli-Venetis and second AD Milana Milunovic).
Right, right. I had the greatest skills with them. You’re right.
That feels like such a smart idea to sort of keep things truthful. I don’t know why every film doesn’t do this especially when they have female characters, to keep things authentic and deliver the best product possible. And to keep you accountable.
Oh my god! Absolutely! I’m finishing up a pilot today. And I had to call on my DP, Tami Reiker. Oh – you nailed it. It’s the best creative resource for me. It’s a set of eyes – authenticity on all things female. The other day, Tami said, ‘Brad. There would never be that much lip gloss on that girl in that situation. She would be an idiot.’ I was like, ‘Oh good, good, good! Help me, please.’
Especially, there, you’re dealing with cultural authenticity too. Beyond the sexes, you’re talking about Serbian behavior. I wanted it to be rooted in truth. My DP was Polish and there were many, many commonalities that she taught me in between the post-communist life in Poland versus the Balkans. I couldn’t have made the movie without that surrounding support.
Let’s talk about collaborating with Sir Ben. I’ve interviewed him before and was so impressed by his work ethic and passion for his craft. What was it like seeing him breathe life into what you had written? What ideas did he bring to the table maybe you hadn’t thought of?
I’m married to an actor and I thrill at what they do. When you have the opportunity to hear, for the first time, words that have lived in your head, come out of the mouth of him, or whoever, I don’t just twist inside. I twist on the outside. I’m ecstatic and thrilled. As you said, he has an incredible work ethic. I sent his agent the script on a Friday and we were meeting by Tuesday. His responsibility with material and passion is so keen and productive.
The first thing we talked about was… I have a phobia of people speaking in middle eastern European accents, but they’re all talking to people with other Middle-Eastern European accents. We should be doing a subtitled movie then! I said, ‘I would really like you to be speaking, not only English, but with your accent.’ He said, ‘Oh God. Yes!.’ Rather than being a polished RFC accent, he wanted to lean back on the region of his youth and also a bit more Yorkshire, because it was more true to the character.
He was so struck by this guy being a Commander with no troops to command. He’s still going to be shining his shoes – all of that behavior was noted in scripts, but it really grew. As a visual storyteller, I got to jump on that.
You showcase the city and countryside so gorgeously. This looks like an entirely different side of Serbia than we’re used to seeing on film.
Yeah. It’s like a cruel beauty. It’s there in the region. If you’re a tourist in Croatia and the other villages, and cityscapes in Sarajevo and Belgrade, they have both. They have history in the cobblestones, but there’s blood. All of it’s there. Graffiti. Yet there’s this beauty to it too. Before I went to scout it in Belgrade, I didn’t know that city. I loved it. That was me with my eye trying to see both. What is this environment that both these characters have – she’s grown up in and he in his mind believe he’s the hero of. You need to feel that in the visuals.
The film has an interesting color palette. I’m curious why you landed on the amber tones of reds, yellows, oranges.
You know, again, there’s a point of view that you don’t want to knock people in the head with, but that you want to build into your design. It was a combination of what I saw there, but specifically, it’s an opportunity to have, for lack of a better term, an ‘autumn romance’ palette that this character through this human connection can find some transformation. I didn’t want to do that bleach bypass, cold, blue-green, Eastern European palette that we’ve seen a thousand times in thrillers, because I didn’t think it was true to the emotional story. We went the other way. I’m pleased by that.
AN ORDINARY MAN opens on April 13.