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As a first-time director, Hollywood star Angelina Jolie wanted great talent on the crew for her upcoming movie In the Land of Blood and Honey, who could create a comfortable working environment. “I wanted good people around this cast and this subject matter,” she says. “I wanted people with heart who wanted to do this for the right reasons.”
The first step was to find the producer who would nurture the project as closely as she would, and for Jolie, that was Graham King. “I don’t think anybody else would’ve done it beside Graham,” she says. “It’s a famously unpopular subject matter, especially with film. Financially, it’s not been a lucrative subject matter for producers.
I chose Graham because I’d worked with him before. He’s a very direct, no-nonsense person and I knew he’d just tell it to me straight. We would go head-to-head. If we had to fight something out, we’d come to a conclusion together. There wouldn’t be 30 executives to please.”
One of the first crew members she approached was her DP, Dean Semler. Australian by birth, Semler has built an impressive résumé in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award in 1991 for lensing Dances with Wolves. Jolie worked with Semler on The Bone Collector, and the two had remained close.
“I wrote to him, asking if he’d read the script and if he would recommend people I could call for this,” Jolie recalls. “I assumed he’d just give me a list of names that would be good for the film. But then he said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I couldn’t believe it.” Getting the look right was of paramount importance—a way of maintaining authenticity.
“Angie showed me a lot of photographs as references,” Semler recalls. “It was very inspiring to see how she wanted the film to look. She knows what she wants and will tell me exactly how she wants it to look.” Jolie knew that Semler’s highly versatile talent would be able to pull off the right balancing act between beauty and destruction.
“He’s so talented that you could look at a few of his films and none would look quite like the other,” she says. “Dean has such a confidence and ease. I knew that he would make it beautiful without making it so beautiful that it became poetic and not real. I knew that he would capture something that would have elegance to it, but not so overdone that you would become distracted by the photography.
It had to have beauty in it, though. We talked a lot about the fact that there was no electricity during the war. We had to work a lot with a single bulb, or windows—single light sources. We drew on Vermeer and Rembrandt, anything that we could think of that would bring us around to the challenges of lack of light.
It’s not a very expensive film, but the way he shot the film makes it look like it cost much more than it did.” Jolie had recently worked with production designer Jon Hutman on The Tourist, a film that had a very different approach to set design. But she knew that their working relationship would be right for In the Land of Blood and Honey.
“He’d never done a war film,” Jolie says, “and suddenly he was in rubble. We’d just come off The Tourist where everything was beautiful, and here he is in mud! He was so great to work with.” Costume designer Gabriele Binder brought a keen eye toward the authenticity of the period and of the location, something that Jolie greatly appreciated.
“I think one of the most misunderstood things about filmmaking is costuming,” Jolie says. “People often get acknowledged for great wardrobe for a period piece or some extreme drama, something that really stands out to the eye. But I think the hardest thing to do, hands down, is to make something look real.”
Binder agrees. “We tried to come close to the people who lived through the war, to their reality,” she says. “She understood the colors of that time, of 1990s Yugoslavia,” Jolie says. “We picked colors for each character that are so subtle you might not even notice.” “I knew lots of people in the areas of Bosnia that were excited to send me materials so that I could understand their clothes better,” says Binder.
“We had an idea about what we liked with color. We tried to stay with blues and browns—something very Eastern European. It’s not necessarily immediately beautiful, but as you look at it, you are drawn to it.” “Hopefully, they will feel like real people’s clothes, matched to real personalities,” says Jolie.
To do that, Binder spent a great deal of time with each individual actor in order to create unique costumes for their characters. “Gabriele talked to each actor in such detail that every single one of them, no matter how small their part, had a real say in who they were, and why they were dressed the way they were.
That’s very, very hard. In military uniforms, for example, everyone is wearing the same clothes, and sometimes they can look like they don’t suit the person wearing them – they can be too shiny, too new. . Gabriele managed to get past all of those hurdles. I think she’s extraordinary.”
Semler, Hutman, and Binder have all marveled at Jolie’s collaborative nature. But for her, that instinct seems perfectly natural. “I walked on that set every day so grateful and amazed that I was surrounded by so many talented, extraordinary people. It would’ve been foolish to not let them help guide the process,” she relates.
“I think that’s the most wonderful thing about filmmaking: the team. I never felt that as much as an actor because we’re separated from the crew. Emotionally, we’re in a place that we have to stay in. We live in that second world, the world inside the production. The crew works as a team, as a collaborative unit.
You inspire each other; you get excited by each other’s ideas. It’s the most fun part of the creative process. It’s wonderful to be a creative person, but to play, experiment and learn with others is really what we all want. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Every single person who worked on that film taught me so much.”