Share & Connect
Between 1992 and 1995, the Bosnian war claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 people and drove more than 2 million people from their homes, as refugees or internally displaced persons. In a pattern of “ethnic cleansing,” militias attacked and expelled civilians in areas under their control to create ethnically pure enclaves.
It is against this backdrop that Angelina Jolie is making her directional debut this year with In the Land of Blood and Honey. After securing her script and the financing, Jolie set about assembling the right actors for the jobs. It had always been paramount to approach the casting process with sensitivity and care.
“When the roles were being cast, we had the casting director ask the actors what they’d gone through, what their backgrounds were,” she says. “I wanted to cast a Bosnian Serb as the lead actor, and a Bosnian Muslim or someone from a mixed family as the lead actress. I also wanted men from Serbia willing to work on the project, not just Bosnian Serbs.
That country’s involvement artistically was very important to me.” People from all backgrounds and creeds were asked to come together to tell this story. The first actor to come on board was Rade Šerbedžija. Šerbedžija plays Nebojsa, the Serb general whose invocations of tradition and nationalism have a strong sway over his conflicted son, Danijel.
Croatian Serb by birth and raised in Zagreb, Šerbedžija was known in Hollywood in the 1990s for playing foreign villains. While the character of Nebojsa certainly fell along the villainous spectrum, Šerbedžija sensed something richer and more resonant about him than most depictions of Serb soldiers during the war.
“I had been offered a number of roles in films about the war in Yugoslavia, and had refused quite a few,” he says. But Jolie’s script offered a different take on the war. “Angelina called me and we talked,” says Šerbedžija. “I liked her approach to the subject, and how she talked about it, her motives and her passion.”
For Šerbedžija, the scope was what set the film apart. “I think that the script Angelina wrote has the depth of a Greek tragedy, which is really hard to find in today’s movie making,” he elaborates. “That’s why I hope that by approaching the tragedy from an intimate angle, maybe it will help people understand the war as not one happening to some ‘strange people in a far country,’ but to people like them, complex people that get dragged in. It can also happen to them.”
For the rest of the cast, Jolie kept herself anonymous in order to avoid any coloring of the project for the auditioning actors. “The cast didn’t know who was behind the film, or the size of it; I kept my name off the scripts. I just wanted to know if they were responding to the material.” Zana Marjanović, a Bosnian Muslim who plays Ajla, the film’s protagonist, was convinced that the script was a local creation.
“Those scenes were so authentic. I was almost sure they had to have been written by a Bosnian writer! It seemed so familiar to me.” Such a response to the film’s story was crucial for Jolie. “I had already decided that we wouldn’t make the film unless the actors responded positively.”
Actor Nikola Djurićko, a Serbian who plays Serb soldier Darko, remembers when he discovered that Jolie had written the script and was to direct it. “The casting director said to me, ‘She liked you a lot,’” Djurićko says. “I asked, ‘Who liked me a lot?’ She said, ‘Angelina Jolie.’ I said, ‘Don’t you lie to me!’ It was like winning the lottery, because as an actor in Belgrade, you don’t expect to get an offer like that very often.”
Goran Kostić, a Bosnian Serb who plays Danijel, the tortured soldier who’s caught between his love for Ajla and his loyalty to his father, thought that it made perfect sense for the project to have come from Jolie. “When I first found out that it was Angelina who wrote the script, I was of course surprised. I thought, ‘why does she want to do this?’
Then when I thought about the subject matter and her humanitarian work, I realized that she wants to help the world, so of course, this film fits. It’s a natural progression, the next big step in her work.”
The character of Ajla is a Bosnian Muslim artist, a woman whose expressiveness and lust for life attracts Danijel. Those qualities also leave her confused about her feelings for him once the war starts. Such a complex individual required a performance from someone with a star-like presence. For Jolie, Marjanović has the transfixing qualities of a movie star.
“When Zana’s audition tape came on, I physically leaned forward,” Jolie says. “She’s someone who draws you in. She has something about her that very few people possess on screen. She has a mystery and a strength that I find captivating and powerful. She’s very much a woman to me. She represents what a woman is.
She holds the screen without having to do or say anything. That was so important for the character of Ajla, because she lives so much in silence. The actress had to be so complex and interesting that you could be fascinated by her just standing in a room. Zana has that, I was so lucky to work with such an extraordinarily gifted actress who had such a depth of emotion that she brings to the screen.”
Moviegoers can experience the full story in cinemas around the US on December 23, 2011.