<I>A Private War</I> editor Nick Fenton
Issue: December 1, 2018

A Private War editor Nick Fenton

Independent editor Nick Fenton spent the first half of 2018 cutting A Private War, the Matthew Heineman-directed feature about celebrated war correspondent Marie Colvin that’s based on an article from Vanity Fair. Colvin, who was injured in the field, requiring her to wear an eye patch, eventually returned to cover war zone conflicts. She ultimately died during a later attack in Homs, Syria. Rosamund Pike portrays the journalist, lending insight to her battles with alcohol and PTSD.

Fenton helped Barry Layton finish the film American Animals, and was introduced to Heineman, a close friend of the director. They share a background in documentary work, which would be well suited for the style of storytelling A Private War was to use.

Much of the feature was shot in Jordan, which was used to represent many of the war zones Colvin reported from. The feature also shot in London, for scenes where Colvin was back at home, struggling from her experiences.

“They were shooting digitally,” Fenton recalls. “They were lightweight (Arri) Alexa cameras, and that style came from (cinematographer) Robert Richardson’s work with Oliver Stone, way, way back on Salvador (1986) — the kind of visceral sense of being there…And also Matthew’s own work in Cartel Land (2015), where he shot a lot of his own material.”

The film takes place during the last decade of Colvin’s life. It opens with actual dialogue of the reporter, reflecting on her career and the danger she faces. The audience is then taken into Rosamund Pike’s portrayal, and the incident that led to her injury.

“It never was intended to be a history lesson,” Fenton explains of the film. “Audiences could come to the film with a whole variety and varied amount of knowledge of current affairs. It was really important that the main thrust was her psychological damage, and how that was chipped away during her very hard, dedicated life to journalism. That was absolutely crucial - to always get a sense of her point of view and emotional journey through those decades.”

The film began shooting in November of 2017, spending six weeks in Jordan before moving on to London in January of 2018. Fenton edited the project up to early June, knowing that it would be unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. He worked from a hotel in Jordan during the film’s early production, cutting on a rented Avid set up. A digital lab and grading suite was located there too.

“Bob Richardson is a perfectionist, so he would want to color his rushes,” he recalls. “Once he was happy with how things looked, it would be passed on to us. It was all happening in a few hotel suites.

“Every night, Matthew and I would look at assemblies of the previous day’s material,” he continues, “and we’d be talking about, ‘Do we need more?’ ‘Is it working?’ ‘Is it authentic enough?’ ‘Do we need anything else?’ It was very much a collaborative effort and conversation from the very start.”

The film is not heavy on visual effects, but there are a few shots that are used to help tell the story. London’s One Of Us handled visual effects, including the shots that open and close the film. In both scenes, a drone is used to provide an aerial view of Homs, which has been decimated by ongoing fighting. As the camera moves higher and higher, more and more destruction is revealed.

From an editing standpoint, Fenton says he likes the film’s “nonlinear element,” which allowed him to move through the decade of Colvin’s life, both in the field and at home in London, where she faces her struggles.

“I think some of her PTSD sequences are quite interesting in how they allow us to subjectively move between locations,” he says. “Through her damaged visions, we are able to move from one time to another and I think that, hopefully, was successful.” 

The film counts down the final years in Colvin’s life, starting approximately a decade out and ending with her death in Homs, Syria. Titles alert the viewer that the sequence they are watching is “Nine Years To Homs,” “Five Years To Homs,” etc. 

“They were there from the get go,” says Fenton of the visual alerts, “but we did debate a great deal on whether or not they should be there? We decided to start in Homs, with her voice almost coming back from the dead. It seemed right to count down from that point, so that we knew exactly where we were in the beginning.”

Looking back at his work, Fenton is pleased with the film’s sense of authenticity and realism - something the whole team strived for.

“The particularly successful moments were when Marie and (her photographer) Paul are in Homs, and they were talking to real Syrian refugees, who have experienced those stories,” he says of the storytelling. “To be able to blur those current events and true history with drama and use an actress — Rosamund playing Marie — to tell those stories, I have never come across anything like that before. Blurring those boundaries between documentary and fiction, I found really interesting.”