Angelina Jolie is basking in a standing ovation at Telluride after the first screening of “First They Killed My Father.” It’s the film she wanted to make: Based on the 2000 memoir of Loung Ung, who was five when the Khmer Rouge forced her family into work camps, it required a $24 million budget, a 60-day shoot, a two-hour, 16-minute cut. The only place she pitched the film is the only one who would let her make it: Netflix.
“She had a very specific view of the story she wanted to tell,” said Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “It’s very traditional. It’s just as resource-intense to make a small film as a big film, where there isn’t much infrastructure in Cambodia. It would have been difficult to get made anywhere, with all local talent. It all pays off on the screen.”
While Jolie’s film may be traditional in some ways, it’s radical in many others. “Netflix said ‘yes,’ and good on Ted Sarandos,” said Jolie. They could have said, ‘Yes, but here are your restrictions: You have to do it in English, you have to ask someone who’s known from China to play her mother, you have to cut these things to make it a smaller number.'”
Here’s Jolie’s vision for the film, which became the biggest film ever shot in Cambodia and is now the country’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign-Language film. It will be hard to beat — and it could also serve as checklist of reasons why any studio would say, “No.”
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1. The movie chooses truth over gloss.
Ung was 30 when she began talking to family members in Cambodia and researching “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” And 17 years ago, when Jolie visited Cambodia for the first time to shoot “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” she read Ung’s memoir and looked her up, sharing her desire to adopt a Cambodian child — who turned out to be her son Maddox. They have been close friends ever since.
Jolie and Ung worked on a script, whittling her story into a lean screenplay and looking for the visual details. Ung still cherishes the blue shirt in the film, the one article of clothing from her past that did not get dyed black. “The book is the film,” Jolie told me at Telluride. “The guide. I don’t feel like I made this as much as I just put the pieces together and brought people together. It’s grown into something we all made together. And Maddox is learning about his country for the first time.”
2. A young girl’s realistic and very uncomfortable perspective tells the story.
Jolie slowly takes us through each transition, showing it all from the perspective of wide-eyed young Loung Ung, who learns what it means to be unsafe and abused and starving. Along the way, she loses family members and trains to become a child soldier. And she is eventually separated from both of her parents and all but one sibling.
“They were on that road, and they just can’t get off that road,” Jolie said. “And their feet hurt and they want to get off that road and the audience wants to get off that road. You have to make them stay on that road and let them see how heavy that thing was that she was carrying.”
Agile Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s cameras take us close to Ung as she experiences what is going on around her. You see the flora and fauna, the beauty of nature, flowers and insects. On set, leeches were so commonplace in water scenes that everyone just flicked them off. And that’s a real giant fuzzy tarantula.
3. It’s a Cambodian movie.
Of course, Jolie has seen “The Killing Fields;” it’s one of her favorite films. But she “wanted to do something where the hero was Cambodian,” she said. “And I wanted it to be mine. And shot in Cambodia.”
Jolie loves directing because it lets her pursue subjects that she cares about, even though “the pressure of being the director and making sure it goes well for everybody can be really hard,” she said. “I also like the responsibility and I like to work hard and I hope I can be a good leader collaborating with great people.”
Also joining Jolie, who has been a Cambodian citizen for a decade, was Cambodian filmmaker and producer Rithy Panh, who directed foreign-language Oscar nominee “The Missing Picture.” His Rithy Bophana Prods. hired and supervised more than 500 Cambodian craftspeople and technicians, many of whom, like him, were survivors or children of survivors of the genocide. The film recruited more than 3,500 Cambodian background actors.
“It was very hard to get things brought in,” said Jolie, “the equipment and moving things around. Rithy never make me feel like he was looking over my shoulder. He was giving me what you would want, which is support.”
Ironically, given his history under the Khmer Rouge, Pan helped organize the Khmer Rouge soldiers on set. And Ung’s role was “taking care of everybody,” said Jolie, who juggled large battle sequences, stuntmen, explosions, and thousands of extras. “I was making sure everyone was safe first and foremost, for sure,” she said.
In one battle scene, the children are caught in the crossfire between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army, crouching in the river trying to find cover. “Mapping out a battle sequence that is going to be seen from one person’s point of view focuses you,” she said. “You can’t just shoot any shot that you feel is cool. You put yourself in a restricted position. We had to find a part of the river where she would be in the center of that, and figure out how things would move around her.”
4. The sound design is delicate, the soundtrack minimal.
The score by Marco Beltrami is neither manipulative nor overbearing. “I want to use it where I need to use it, and I like it to feel real,” Jolie said. “Because it’s the emotional point of view of a child. We needed to be her, absorbing things at the pace that she would be able to allow herself to be observant, so she looks directly at some things at the end, and that’s when it gets more horrific. This was a child’s mind that gets assaulted.”
Finally, Jolie wanted Netflix for its global outreach. “I feel this kind of film needs an audience,” she said. “I wanted to educate people, I wanted to do this for Cambodia. I didn’t want it to be that small thing that disappeared. It will reach over 100 countries. I appreciate there are times people want to see a movie together at home. Because it’s very emotional and it’s heavy and they have the option of watching it on their own time. What I felt was best was to really get this message out.”
“First They Killed My Father” premiered on Netflix September 15, and is currently in limited iPic theaters for a one-week day-and-date run.