I might as well quickly get out of the way the most obvious detail: Yes, Angelina Jolie is an attractive human being, this day exuding more seriousness of purpose than glamor. But I left thinking less about her than about the strange experience of interviewing her. Let me try to explain.
First some background: Jolie has written and directed her first film and it is a very serious affair, indeed. “In the Land of Blood and Honey” is a dramatic account of events during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, in which more than 100,000 were killed amid ethnic cleansing and atrocities against civilians, including systematic rape. Jolie has worked hard, with a cast of superb Bosnian actors, to capture the horror and brutality through the lives of her characters. It is, at times, hard to watch.
Last week, we received an email telling us that Jolie would be in Washington and available for interviews at such and such hotel. Would we be interested? Well, yes. It all sounded straightforward enough. But then we experienced the strange world of the celebrity “press junket.” I admit it: We at the NewsHour are generally sheltered and spoiled. I have the enormous privilege of talking to great writers, musicians, actors and other artists who really want to talk to us and who are often very ready and willing to give us the time and space that our long-form style calls for. But this, the junket, was something quite different.
We were invited — along with many others. More than a dozen interviews in a few hours: It’s an efficient way for the star to do her publicity. And efficiency and precision were the order of the day. A small army of publicists handed out time slots, showed us to the “hospitality suite” to wait, asked us outside the interview room when our turn was near, ushered us in and ushered us out. Next, next, next and thank you and thank you. Our first time slot, to interview two of the actors, was set for 3:16-3:24 p.m.(!), including greeting, putting on microphones, quick camera check and so on. So, we were told, you’ll have about five minutes for the interview, strictly timed and enforced. Second interview, with Jolie and another actor, from 3:24-3:32 p.m. Same deal — though even more strict because this involved Jolie herself.
Precision and control — I had to laugh: Just the week before I’d gone to the Pentagon to interview Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The Jolie press junket, as it turned out, was a far more controlled and patrolled affair! Please understand: I don’t mean to complain, just to note. And to take the thought further: There is great artifice in television, more than we usually like to talk about. When I sit in a television studio with someone who looks a bit nervous, I might say: “Don’t worry, it’s just the two of us at a table having a conversation. Just like real life.” Sure! Just like real life with lots of cameras, lights, time cues, a control room full of people watching nearby, a million and more others watching on sets around the country and the world (including the guest’s loved ones, praying he or she doesn’t faint or freeze up on live television).
When we go on the road for stories, we have equipment, lights and usually a small team of people creating the very “intimate” moments you see. My favorite story along these lines happened last year in a very small rural village in Haiti. After shooting our interviews, we wanted to capture some scenes of village life. A woman was sweeping her steps. Our cameraman began to roll. The woman looked at the camera. Our producer explained that it doesn’t work if she’s looking right at the camera. “Just act naturally. Pretend we’re not here.” To which the woman responded: “How can I pretend you’re not here when you just spoke to me? You ARE here.” A very wise woman. We could only laugh.
So, plenty of artifice goes into the creation of television stories. The press junket was a small corner of that world offering a bit of reality (yes, I was in the room and spoke to Jolie) and a bit of illusion (we were the tiniest part of the tame pack).
Does this matter? Perhaps not — it’s the result that finally counts most. Jolie and the actors were passionate and as engaged as they could be under the circumstances. You can decide for yourself when you see our final piece. But sometimes — for me, at least — the process is as interesting as the product.
And no, I did not ask — and have no new information — about Brad or any marriage plans.
Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Angelina Jolie about her film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” will air on Tuesday’s NewsHour.