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
Some stories have the power to stay with us for far longer than expected. This wound up being the case for director Greg Barker after he compiled his documentary capturing the life and work of United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello. The humanitarian’s internal, introspective struggles were something the filmmaker felt unable to fully explore through the footage he had access to back in 2009. Being that emotional motivations and insight are integral components of drama, Barker felt compelled to continue the story through his first narrative feature in Netflix’s SERGIO. The film tells not only the story of Sérgio’s (Wagner Moura) ideals that were successfully implemented and those that led to tragic consequences, but also a love story between the man and the love of his life, Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas).
What was it about Sergio’s story that stuck with you all these years after you had done your documentary?
I saw it as a narrative feature from the very beginning when I first came across the details of this journey. [Author] Samantha Power had known Sergio and was writing a book about him. She’s a friend. We had got together for drinks in about 2005/ 2006 and had told me about what happened in Iraq with the rescue mission and I thought of it as a movie right then. At the time, I was making investigative films for PBS so no one was going to give me millions of dollars to make a feature yet, although I did have that hope one day.
I saw the story as something can speak beyond the normal public television audience and maybe as a feature documentary at Sundance. The doc is now on Netflix and it’ll be a companion piece to the narrative. Making that, there was this emotional side to Sergio’s struggle between his purpose in the world and his struggle to connect to those closest to him, which I identified with. I wanted to explore that through the narrative because that’s hard to get to in a documentary. There was no footage of that and no way of addressing that directly. It felt like unfinished business that I had. It’s a long journey.
What was the process going from the insight you learned making your documentary, to getting the rights to the book, to getting Craig Borten to write a feature? Those seem like major steps, I would think.
Sure. Anything worth doing isn’t easy, right? Everything is seemingly impossible and you make it happen. There was something about his story that does draw people in. It wasn’t hard to find a great screenwriter. It wasn’t hard to find a great cast. I come out of news and love making first person, feature length documentaries and I love that process. I found that more and more, I was drawn to the universal emotions of the human experience that’s more relevant now than it was even ten years ago. I think that today so much of non-fiction is mistakenly seen through a political lens – almost everything. It’s very hard to break through the noise. Fiction is some place that people can come to regardless of their… they don’t judge it.
How did you come up with telling this story in a non-linear structure?
It’s an experiment. We had a discussion between Craig, Wagner, our producers and Netflix. We talked about movies we loved, references with that non-linear structure like one of my favorite films, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. A man is trapped in his body and recounts and has to come to terms with his life – some similarities, different styles. Movies like ENGLISH PATIENT. We bounced around ideas. Exposition is always a question of what do you need out. How much information do you need to have in so it doesn’t get in the way of emotions? It’s a process of experimenting. Craig’s great insight into this was there was a certain structure to this that was a favored nation deal at different points. He came up with this brilliant insight into how to withhold information. All the flashback – whether we had too many flashbacks, or not enough – was looked at in the editing room with our brilliant editor Claudia Castello.
Did Ana speak with the real Carolina?
Yeah. Ana met Carolina in Rio as we were doing final prep. We met her at our crew hotel. None of the cast were trying to imitate real people. It’s a work of fiction inspired by real life. Wagner has watched every piece of footage of Sergio. Ana dived into all the information she could find about Carolina and that whole world. And then what all great actors do is take that and internalize it and find their own way with the character. It was amazing to watch.
The scenes in the rubble where Gil and Sergio are trapped and being rescued look and feel incredibly realistic. The rubble is symbolic of these are all of his hopeful ideals that have come crashing down on him. I’m curious how you conducted the accuracy with details and use of sound design to harness the power of those scenes.
Thank you. When we were making the movie, we knew they were the heart of the movie in a way. We filmed them last. Part of the reason is that it took a long time to build. It was done in Thailand on a big soundstage. It was a massive set. Yeah, it is symbolic of this man who lived an expansive life and had run away from himself on an emotional level, to then be trapped and have everything – his ideals, his work – fall in on him and have the love of his life just outside. It’s heart wrenching and tragic.
I always imagined sound design being massively important for that because you can think of the whole movie taking place in Sergio’s head in the rubble. You’re hearing real things, but sometimes it’s imaginary and sometimes it’s a distorted version of reality. I had a lot of discussions with our sound designer, Karen Baker Landers. She connected with the movie very early on, from the script stage and saw a rough-cut. It was a real work of passion for her. It’s extraordinary and brings the whole thing to life.
It was interesting for the actors too. We were in there on that set for 7 days. They were trapped. They can’t move – it’s safe and everything, but they were trapped for quite a long time. Wagner said he felt like death was present there. It was very reverential. It was very emotionally taxing for them. We kept the crew incredibly small, so there’s an intimacy to it. What those rescuers did in real life and the cast in there were amazing. There was an intimacy with those four guys in an impossible situation.
Coming from your background as a documentarian, what tools there did you apply here when making your first narrative feature?
That’s a good question. I’ll give a shout-out to a friend of mine, who also made his first narrative, Matt Heineman, who did A PRIVATE WAR. He was 6 months ahead of mine in production. We both filmed in Jordan. We used a lot of the same crew. I called him up when I was prepping and asked, “How did you do it? What was it like?” He said. “Just trust your doc instincts,” which is kind of what I knew anyways. But it was good to hear him say that. In documentaries, it’s all about asking, “Does it feel right? Does it feel true?” It guided me.
It was this sense of making it feel authentic. With those rubble scenes and the crowd scenes in Iraq, which we filmed in Jordan, most of those extras are Americans, UN staff and US soldiers, most of them had actually been in the military. The one guy who is holding Carolina back, he’s a former special ops soldier, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, now retired. Most of the extras are refugees from Iraq and Syria resettled in Jordan. When we filmed those scenes, after the bomb goes off, I showed the extras and cast the real footage from that day. They were so moved to have the opportunity to tell the world a bit about the struggles their region has gone through in the past 15-20 years. You would think they wouldn’t want to go back there. But they wanted to do this. The determination to help tell this story was really moving. Working with real people, that doc background really helped.
What did you learn about yourself making this movie?
(laughs) I learned that I could make a movie. I felt very confident that I could do it, but until you do it, you don’t know. I learned that a lot of it was about communication and being clear. I also learned a lot about my own emotions. Coming from the world of journalism and documentary filmmaking, you keep your own emotions at bay. You can’t do that as a director. You really have to be in touch with your own feelings – and be honest with it and be able to talk about love and death. I learned I had the capacity for that.
The other thing I will say (laughs), I’m from the California suburbs. Wagner is very emotive and he’s a great hugger. He’d hug me and be like, “Greg, you’re a terrible hugger.” (laughs) By the end of the production, I could give him this big hug. He was all, “Greg, you’ve learned how to hug.” That’s probably the most important thing. (laughs)
SERGIO begins streaming on Netflix on April 17.