Charlize Theron and Paul Haggis on In the Valley of Elah

The star and the director talk about the challenges making the independent film

Charlize Theron and director Paul Haggis were in Los Angeles recently to promote their new post-war drama, In the Valley of Elah.

The independent film stars Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Frances Fisher, Jonathon Tucker, Jason Patric, Josh Brolin, Jake McLaughlin, Victor Wolf, Mehcad Brooks and Wes Chatham.

On his first weekend back after serving in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) goes missing and is reported AWOL. When Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a former military MP and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) get the phone call with the disturbing news, Hank sets out to search for their son. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a police detective in the jurisdiction where Mike was last seen, reluctantly helps him in his search. As the evidence grows, her missing person's case begins to look more and more like foul play, and soon Sanders finds herself in a fight with the military brass as she and Hank struggle to keep control of the investigation. But when the truth about Mike's time in Iraq finally begins to emerge, Hank's entire world is challenged and he's forced to reevaluate long-held beliefs to solve the mystery behind his son's disappearance.

We attended a press-conference with both Theron and Haggis participating, and here is what they both had to say:

So this is based on an actual incident, but the...

Paul Haggis (PH) : It's based on two actual incidents.

...and at the beginning it says "inspired by real events".

Paul Haggis:Actual events.

How much dramatic or artistic license was taken with the events?

Well, I found two true stories, one in 2003 and the other one in the beginning of 2004, and decided to meld them. Richard Davis' story, which is the largest portion of this ... a lot of the events are exactly as you saw it, and exactly what happened in the locations ... and with the chicken house and the strip club and everything. There was, Richard's parents were on the set and they will tell you that the story is different than their son's because I was very concerned because I called them and said "you understand I am fictionalizing this story?" and he looks ... if you meet him, he sort of looks like Tommy Lee, doesn't he? He sounds like Tommy Lee, he looks like him. He's a very quite, proud American, a military police officer, a Vietnam vet, Korea vet, like a trucker. He's just ... everything that we said. He'll tell you that the specifics of the murderer are still in question. The men were convicted ... one man is convicted of the murder and the others were convicted of "aiding and abetting"... ... ...

Charlize, what do you take away most from working with Tommy Lee Jones as an actor, what impressed you most about doing all the scenes with him?

Charlize Theron (CT) : Just that he's really good. It was funny because Paul and I had lunch and he brought up Tommy and he said he wanted Tommy to play the part. I was very intimidated, because he's a great actor. He's very strong, and Paul said he's the guy and I tend to ... if I decide to do a job, want to be able to trust my director, so I really trusted ...

Paul Haggis: It didn't work out this time (chuckling)

Charlize Theron: No, not so much, so I'm changing that now. (chuckling) Paul was completely right, and I can't imagine anybody else playing this part. He's incredibly talented, we all know that. The thing that blew me away the most, was how accessible his vulnerability is for who he is physically. You see this guy, that's like, really tough and strong, and then the camera roles and it's like he has access to that ... and very few men, I find, that I've worked with, is will do that. I think it's tougher for men, but for him, it's just there. I had a great time working with him.

Paul Haggis: He was interested because it was hard for her. I'd go over and give her directions saying "you have to be tougher in this scene with him" and she was "look at the way he's saying that ... it's breaking my heart."

Charlize Theron: And I said, "Tom, did you hear that?"...

Paul Haggis: "Look at his face, it's heartbreaking"...

The three soldiers that were here, the veterans that you cast in the movie, they all said we've been shot at ... and we're all afraid of Tommy Lee Jones. Charlize, did that factor...?

Charlize Theron: You know what, he ... look ... Tommy doesn't suffer fools-easily(?). I think everybody knows that, but I have great respect for somebody that's very direct and very honest and I don't have thin skin so, I'm OK with that

Paul Haggis: And Tommy loved you too.

Charlize Theron: Tommy for some reason, I don't know what it was, but he really did take me under his wings, like right from the...

Paul Haggis: From the moment he walked on the set, he admired your work he told me that he admired your work for so long and so, everyone says that, but he kept saying "nah, nah, nah she's a fine actress ... Charlize wants to do this" ... and then he ... as soon as he saw her on the set, it was love story between these two, he just loved you.

Charlize Theron: Well, Fran McDormand was great because she said "what I use to do when I worked with him is I would just walk on the set and give him a big hug, and somehow his guard would just drop" and so I took advice and I remember ... remember I came to Albuquerque to do hair, make-up test and wardrobe thing and you guys were already shooting? It's tough when the movie's already started and you kind of show up, you're the new kid on the block and I walked onto the set and Tommy was about to do this scene and I just kind of walked up to him, I was shaking, but I just give him this big hug, and he just said nothing to say.

Paul Haggis: "Leave me alone woman".

Charlize Theron: Yeah, he's like "I got to go to work now", but I had a great time working with him.

Charlize how do you go about selecting your roles? Is there a general checklist you go by?

Charlize Theron: Money .. a paycheck.

Paul Haggis: In this case I called her up. I've been hot ... I've been asking her for two years to do this movie and I'm writing this and writing this and writing this and she finally she said "Show me the script when it's finished. Stop talking about it" and so I finally called her up on a Wednesday, I was in Italy and so I'm emailing the script, would you look at it? She read it overnight, she called me on Thrusday morning and said "I'm in" and I said "Do you understand it's a passion piece, there's no money". She says "I'm in" and then I called Tommy.

Charlize Theron: You know, it's usually a combination of two things and sometimes it's not as equal as it was in this case for me, but it's the material and the director ...and it was very very equal for me on this.

Is it important to you to downplay your obvious beauty? It seems like your last few roles...

Charlize Theron: No, I just want to tell good stories. The stories that matter to me. The stories that I think are beautiful.

Paul Haggis: The stories were you can be pretty.

Charlize Theron: Nudity is something that really didn't make it in the movie.

That shower scene...

Paul Haggis: Yeah, her and Tommy, exactly, yeah

CH: You know, Paul and I talked about this a little bit when we started talking about Sanders and I always said to Paul "you know, people make such a big deal about it" and the irony of it is that when it comes to finding a character for me, it's about the fact. You look at this woman, it's not about "how can we make me look different" ... it's not about that, it's like how do we get access to the truth. To me that's always the biggest question whether it's "where is the scene going" or "how do I physically look" or how are we going to facilitate Paul and tell him the story correctly.

Paul Haggis: And I think we make a bigger deal with women than we do with men, because often times you would put Clooney in an office someplace in the Mid-West and not think two seconds about it, but when you put a beautiful woman there and you go "well, she's not (mumbling)", I mean...

But if Clooney was blonde in the Mid-West and had a...

Paul Haggis: Of course, and the first thing you talk to it is how this character and Charlize was really wanting to disappear into this character, does it disappear into the landscape and that's what I believe she did. We talked about what she was doing. She says "I'm think I'm going to let my hair go back to natural, I've been thinking about that for a while anyways" ... she did that and there was nothing like adding a nose or a fake ear. She just came.

Charlize Theron: We had a broken nose ... it's not a transformation.

Paul Haggis: Oliver Stone has been really lovely to me. Oliver saw an early screening of this and was sitting right in front of me and a third into the movie, he went "Shit, that's Charlize Theron". This is like 40 minutes into the movie and it was nothing remarkable she did other than the fact she become that character and that's what's remarkable about her.

Charlize Theron: That's part of the job.

Paul Haggis: She becomes the character ... exactly

I'll say that your films of the last few years have some sort of social themes. Is it hard for you to get interested in a project that doesn't have that?

Charlize Theron: No, I'm doing one now. Well, you know, I like intelligent stuff. I like things that actually say something and I mean it's not an agenda of mine. At the end of the day, I much rather do a piece about people in the story that I find riveting and intriguing and moving versus really caring some kind of heavy political agenda on my sleeve, I mean, it's not who I am. It's not why I do this. I do this because I am an observer of people. I think that's why I want to be an actor, I've fascination by human beings and the circumstances that they find themselves in.

So where does playing a drug superhero's girlfriend, fit in then?

Charlize Theron: Actually, I'm not his girlfriend.

You're Jason Bateman's girlfriend.

Charlize Theron: You know, it could so easily sound like a little summer blockbuster, but it's actually got a lot of weight to it, that's why I wanted to do it, I mean it happens to be a big-budget film and big star like Will Smith, but it actually has a lot of weight to it and, but it was very smart, and very intelligent and this kind of historical element that I was fascinated by. It's not silly, it's not stupid .. it's fun but I think it's smart, I think it Akiva (Goldsman) writes interesting material and there you have it.

Charlize, what's been your experience of working behind the camera, because I understand something like Ferris Wheel, which I guess is now called Sleepwalking. That you are producing and acting as well, so do you feel you have more creative control and why is that particular movie such a passion of yours?

Charlize Theron: In general, I think Paul can probably agree with me that small movies have a hard time getting out there and I think since I did Monster, I really started understanding how hard it is for first time directors. I think there's a lot of great stories out there, but it's high-risk, because it's a first-time filmmaker, it's tough to get the financing and when I find something that I really like and I can get it off, then I put my time and energy into that. It is a lot of work, so you have to make sure it's something you really, really love and I've never been the kind of actress that just like to show up and say my lines; I'm fascinated by what the crew does, I'm fascinated by what Paul does, I'm fascinated by what the DP (Director of Photography) does and I think that real interest in filmmaking and it's nice when I can go and do that sometimes and then it's also great to not do it (chuckling), the responsibility.

I would character this is a passion piece and you said "Hey, we don't have the money", yet it is filtered through this murder-mystery or this who-dunnit. The social-political kind of statement of the film, was that a big hindrance in raising the money?

Paul Haggis: Yes

Because it had a political point of view?

Paul Haggis: Well because this is the end of 2003 and beginning of 2004, we were still driving around with flags in our cars in Santa Monica (CA), at that point and our President was telling us that it was unpatriotic to even question what was happening in Iraq, so trust me, it was not easy. It was very funny because I heard this said no "Oh, all these guys are suddenly jumping on this bandwagon now that the war has become less popular. Where were these sons-on-bitches three-and-a-half, four years ago when we were trying to get money for this thing, you know? Same with these other films that are coming in, it takes three or four years to gestate.

It says in the press notes that Clint Eastood (helped)...

Paul Haggis: Clint did, yeah. I couldn't get the thing made. I went to my agent ... ... and said "find me, go through all your files, find me stuff, look for something that you know in your heart you know would never ever, ever be made into a movie and bring it to me. And so he did and this is one of the articles they brought and I took it to my movie agent and he said "no one is going to finance it", so I took it around, took it to a couple of studios anyway, six months later, people are going "yeah, we really want to work with you Paul" and nothing is happening, so I called up Clint and sent him the article and said "read it". I thought he's going to come back and go "you commie son-of-a-bitch, never talk to me again" and so, but you never guess what Clint is ever going to come down on any issue. It's one thing you know, as soon as you think you know Clint Eastwood, you don't know Clint Eastwood, and so he called me back and said "Wow that is tough material" and I said "Yeah but it's the truth". He said "Yeah, I hope you make it". So he called a guy at Warner Bros. and said the kid, I'm the kid. "the kid has something I'd like you to take seriously".

And that got it going?

Paul Haggis: That's what got it made.

What about the Emily Andrews character? Was she actually part of the real story?

Paul Haggis: No

That was an invention for the movie?

Paul Haggis: Yes exactly. There were seven or eight characters, because the true story took six months for the body to be found and then many many months for the truth to come out.

So it didn't happen in four or five days?

Paul Haggis: No

Paul, the deception in the war is a constant, but do you think there is more of a deception in cover-up in regards to...

Paul Haggis: This isn't a movie about deception and cover-up per-se, there's no real cover-up by the government in this ... this is just really a story about how brave men and women have to do and the possibility of giving tasks that where there is no right answer, there's no way to get through the day without having truly big dilemmas, that seem insolvable.

When you were working with the veterans as actors, did you encounter, among the ones you choose, or were looking at for the role, any resistance to the storyline?

Paul Haggis: No ... something we did as soon as we started, we had a first draft cut. I showed it to Charlize and then I signed up to veterans organizations and had somebody taking them around and started showing them, because I want to know with a lot of vets working on the movie and both in front of the camera, behind the camera. We would be shooting a scene and we'd show a scene and the police squad and a couple of the extras would come over and go and really thanked us, this is a great experience. I'm shipping out on Monday and I just wanted to say thank you and we'd go and they're going back to a second stint, so the responses were incredibly popular. 99.99% of everyone who said "yes, this is our story, this is what's happening. It happened to me, it happened to him". I had two Marines at my house yesterday morning. One active duty, both senior active duty, one is a vet and they have just seen the movie and they had to come and talk about it and how much of their experience and how important it is to get it out. You don't do it for that reason, you do it ... it's a movie, it's entertainment, but you want to hopefully ask important questions rather than make statements and this hopefully has some disturbing questions.

Paul, can you give us a (James) Bond update? Daniel Craig had said that this one might go in a more humorous direction ...he said that you're going in a more humorous direction.

Paul Haggis: No, he was joking. That was humor. It's what you saw in Casino Royale, you'll see in this.

What can you do now that you've restarted...

Paul Haggis: I have no idea which is why I didn't want to do it, but now I'm doing it and I'm having a great time and I'm on page 22 and I'd get to page 23, if you guys just leave me alone for a few hours.

You're doing the screenplay for the new Bond movie?

Paul Haggis: Yeah, I'm doing it right now.

I thought it was suppose to start in January?

Paul Haggis: It's suppose to start in December.

And what's happened to that idea?

Paul Haggis: I'm on page 22.

Charlize Theron: Seriously, don't encourage him, because he'll have it in two hours. Six in the morning "by the way, here's 40 new pages".

Paul Haggis: We're trying to get Susan Sarandon to do the movie, and I never thought of who we were going to cast and I thought maybe Susan would do it, and I'm thinking "Susan Sarandon would do my movie?" and I looked and the thing is there's no scenes, so I'd write stuff and bring it to Charlize and say "what do you think about this?" ... and she said "oh, I like that.let's try this" and I was writing in the van as we are driving home.

Charlize Theron: You were writing in-between takes ... insane.

Tommy Lee said that he initially turned this down, what did you do to convince him?

Paul Haggis: I don't know.

You didn't change anything?

Paul Haggis: No

You didn't say "this is what you were born to play"?

Charlize Theron: You guys had a meeting.

Paul Haggis: We had a really good meeting. yeah, I don't know what changed his mind. I didn't know he turned it down.

Charlize, did you meet any officers that you did research with?

Charlize Theron: Yeah, I did. I met a woman in Albuquerque and she came in and hung out with me in the trailer and it was really just more to understand, my biggest concern was to always interrogation scenes, that's why I really wanted to meet somebody because you see those cenes on TV so much and you just kind of, it becomes like, I'm not saying this is bad, but you know "you can't handle the truth", so I just wanted to, I need some help on that because also how Paul had written it, and how it's edited, editorialized in the film, which was that I'm talking and then you see somebody new and to do that in a way where it's truthful but somehow escalates to what Paul had written, so I met with the woman who interrogates all the time and a detective and she came.

Paul Haggis: What did she tell you?

Charlize Theron: She said that, it's actually very opposite from what is on television, because you really don't want to antagonize them that much, but she says sometimes when it is something that kind of touches you, but something that is really serious, you do get to a place where you have to push a little bit but she said most of the time, the best thing to do is to stay very, very neutral and that's, towards the end, we went to that place of like "now I'm really going to put you in that position because these are young boys and you try to get them to kind of, get so angry and so passionate that they would say something that they wouldn't say if they were calm and correct, but I like that Paul kind of worded very, she was being very reasonable, it's kind of an attitude of like "so why wouldn't you say that ... why wouldn't you just say you were there ... why didn't you want them to know that? I like that, that it wasn't very overly "actory" and I liked the one at the end, I like the little underline of the father coming back and seeing him and just felt very real.

Did she face the sexism that your character faces in the office?

Charlize Theron: I didn't really go into that because I've done a lot of research on North Country and many fields, not just in the modeling community but the thing that I found probably the most upsetting was that bigger things still going on today in much bigger corporations than what happened to Joise Aimes.

Paul Haggis: Most of these guys in that office, would never thought of it as sexism ... "What's wrong with her?".

Charlize Theron: That's always the case.

Paul Haggis: Exactly ... they never think it is, No.

Clint is famous for shooting the rehearsals and actors don't even know that they are being...

Paul Haggis: We never do one take in this, no.

Susan was saying there were long takes in the beginning and by the time she got there, you were worn out.

Paul Haggis: Yeah. I did a bunch. Sometimes I do one take, sometimes I do twenty.

Charlize Theron: You are very good in tune, because actors are all different ... and it's very tricky when you throw us all together because we all work differently and you want to get the best work out of every individual actor and I think it's a real talent for a director to be able to shoot in a way where he's not compromising himself, but he's also doing it where he knows the actors are working at their best, and there is an instance actually when I said to him flat out, I said "I don't like rehearsal, that's just me, I'm a cow and if you milk me a lot, I'm going to get dry" and I was working with a certain actor who really loved rehearsal ... really loved working out every single kink, and it was about three in the morning and it just got to that place, where Paul had realized that I wasn't delivering anymore because we had just overdone it, and it was incredible because, he just came up and said "We're going to pick this up tomorrow" and I just thought that was so .. very few directors would be that in-tune. A lot of directors will just be on their schedule and I understand that, I mean it's reasonable, they have to make their film, but Paul just realized that from what I had told him and watching my work that I wasn't going to be able to go there, and so we break it up next day and I was a little fresher for me, I was a little better ... but it's tough when you have two actors that are very, very different like that.

In the Valley of Elah opens nationwide on September 14th.