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Our dirty questions to Deborah Correa and Ron Yungul

The director and the writer/exec producer of The War Between, a brand new Civil War drama about two frenemy soldiers from opposing sides, discuss the origins and the challenges of the project with Joshua Polanski

Deborah Correa is an American-Colombian filmmaker with fiction and documentary work spanning television, film and podcasts. Ron Yungul is an American writer and producer with works nominated for prestigious competitions such as Chesterfield Screenwriting and Nichols Fellowship. They joined forces in order to create The War Between xxx, which premiered earlier this year at the Phoenix Film Festival. Set in April 1862, the American Civil War is in its second bloody and violent year. Compatriots are killing their own, driven by hostile ideological differences. The events of the story follow the engagement of California Volunteers with Confederate forces for control of the Southwest near Tucson, at Picacho Peak on Tuesday, April 15th, 1862.

Joshua Polanski talks to them about their personal journey, the joys and the obstacles of filmmaking, filming in the desert, working with real war veterans, and what it feels like to see your words come to life!

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Joshua Polanski – How did you fall in love with movie? Was there one movie or one director that was particularly informative for you?

Deborah Correa – So many. But early on I fell in love with Stephen Spielberg movies. It was the ’80s….my parents had to rent a VCR machine when we wanted to watch movies, so it was big deal. I’m one of five kids and I still remember when we finally got to watch E.T. [Spielberg, 1980)]. It was epic. Indiana Jones were our favorite movies growing up. We watched those over and over. I thought I wanted to be an archeologist. But it was Saving Private Ryan and Schindlers List [Spielberg, 1993 and 1998] that really showed me the power of film. Once in film school, I was influenced by the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, and Mexican filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu. And Terrence Malick for sure. Evan, our DP, got me into Wong Kar-wai. But early on it was Spielberg, probably still is. Though there is a film I think about all the time. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [Julian Schnael, 2008]. To me, that film is perfection.

JP – What originally attracted you to this story?

DC – The simplicity of the story; the innate conflict between the two lead characters coupled with the stakes of survival in the desert. I knew we could make that movie. The setting, too. I didn’t know the Civil War was fought in the Southwest, and as far west as Tucson. Learning about the California Column, the volunteer Union force that pushed the confederacy out of Southern California and the southwest, was fascinating. It’s a part of US history I knew nothing about and that drew me to it. Also, I really liked that neither character was “good”. They each have their bigotries and biases. Their blind spots. Obviously one is on the wrong side of history. But once you actually get to know people it’s harder to dehumanise them. I love the reversals in it as well. Ron did a great job with the research and the historical accuracy of that time. Ultimately, I think the story resonates with today. It’s a Civil War story that could be applied to our society today. I love the questions the film raises….How do we move forward and learn from the past? How can we evolve out of old primal patterns based on survival? I think the end of the film addresses that.

JP – The two leads are pretty great, which is important considering it’s just them for most of the runtime. How did working with such a small cast affect your role as director?

DC – I loved it. I was able to hone in on the arc, journey and motivations in a more granular way. I was really blown away by the prep both actors did. They each built onto the backstory to help create the motivation for the characters, to make it real for them. I really enjoyed collaborating with them to create the space and structure for the scenes…the dynamic was really curated from our conversations about the two characters and their goals.

JP – Obviously there’s another movie in theatres now titled, Civil War (Alex Garland). What impression do you imagine a viewer might gather from a double feature between that film and your film?

DC – What a great question. Impression…well, that we still have a choice. There is hope. That we can choose to dialogue and have debate vs. defaulting to violence. That we can evolve past the dualistic cycle of violence and choose life, walk away from revenge and dehumanisation of people we don’t understand or think we don’t want to know. I would start with Civil War and end with The War Between. I really liked Civil War. To me it’s a cautionary tale of what happens when the people in a society/country can’t or don’t talk to each other anymore. Civil War illustrates, the mutual destruction the comes from in-transient division and corrupt leadership. The War Between offers a more hopeful idea in that we can choose a different way, we can still change and create a better life.

The ending of Civil War hit me really hard because it reminded me of something that happened when I was younger and living in Medellín, Colombia in the ’90s. Not to give anything away, but when Pablo Escobar was killed there was a photo that I will never forget. The conflictive feelings that came up for me then, came up at the end of Civil War. Really powerful! Whether or not someone likes the film, Alex Garland made something for us to talk about and reflect on. I feel like the best films and art for that matter, ask the hard questions. We don’t always get answers but that’s up to us.

JP – What was the hardest scene to film?

DC – Oh man, what wasn’t the hardest scene to film…that would be an easier question. Generally, all the interiors were much easier than the exteriors. Everything was challenging because we had such little time. So much of the success of getting the film in the can, was due to the actors, crew and our amazing DP, Evan Jake Cohen. We’ve worked together since film school so we have a short-hand and can move fast. Evan is great, on top of being very talented, he is very grounded and a positive force on set.

The battle flashbacks were tricky because of the horses, heat, smoke, guns and SFX. The Butterfield Stage Depot scenes were extra tedious, all the blocking there had to be so precise. I like it better when the actors can move freely and we flow. But most scenes hinge on the blocking. The depot scenes were like that the most.

JP – What was the role of the Heroes Journey with the film?

DC – I worked on a Film 45/History Channel docuseries called, Warfighters, produced and created by and with veterans — we worked with over 90 veterans in front of and behind the camera on that series. My grandfather was a WW2 veteran and a huge influence in my life. I have always wanted to work with veterans and that show opened the door in a way. And that’s where I met LTC Scott Mann. In one of the episodes, we told the story of his team in Afghanistan, the Green Berets of 7115 including Romy Camargo, who was shot and paralysed from the neck down. Scott is an amazing leader and artist, who has started a non-profit that uses storytelling workshops to help veterans and their families heal from the PTSD of war trauma. In The War Between, we worked with veterans on our cast and crew and want to continue doing that. We are promoting the Heroes Journey and are encouraging working with veterans in film. Scott also wrote, produces and acts in his play, Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret about his experiences as an active duty Green Beret and the effects on his family. He also adapted it to a low-budget film that lives on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Google TV. The Gary Sinise Foundation is touring the play nationally. The Heroes Journey workshops, travel in tandem with play, but people can also book the workshops to host independently in their communities. I believe in the power of art and storytelling to help heal from trauma and I want veterans and their families to know that they’re not alone. Their info is here: http://theheroesjourney.org/

JP – How did you get into screenwriting? Has it always been a passion or is it a more recent venture?

Ron Yungul – I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, since I was given a super 8 film camera when I was thirteen. Just before starting grad school, I took a summer screenwriting class at San Francisco State University many many years ago, with the intention of writing farce comedies, a la Blake Edwards. I soon fell in love with cinematic storytelling and it became a goal of mine to try my hand at almost every genre I could think of, save musicals!

JP – What was the original seed of the story?

Ron Yungul – A few years back I happened to watch the director’s cut of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1968), which takes place during the Civil War, and there was a sequence involving an artillery duel in the desert. I just assumed it to be a purely imaginative episode taking advantage of the Spanish desert where it was filmed. Little did I know it was based on the actual Battle of Glorieta Pass, which actually took place in the American Southwest. Combine that with the plot of one of my favourite World War 2 movies, Hell in the Pacific (John Boorman, 1968), and there you have it. Two enemy soldiers are stranded in a remote location and must put aside their differences in order to survive.

JP – We rarely see or think about the Southwest of the United States in the context of the Civil War. Can you walk me through your decision to set the film there, as opposed to the states at the heart of the conflict?

RY – Well, as I implied previously, the Civil War in Arizona is a subject unfamiliar with, I would say, most casual students of American history. If one is to tell a tale of survival and the common bonds of humanity even between enemies, what better place to tell it than either a deserted island or the desert itself? The first has been done, so I chose the second, aided of course by a little inspiration from Sergio Leone.

JP – The two leads both have religious names: Moses and Israel. How important were their names to the story and what did you hope to communicate with those choices?

RY – The name Israel Terry for the Union soldier is a tribute to my great great grandfather, who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. His full name was Israel Terry Halstead. The name Moses just seemed right for the son of a deeply religious father and the fact that it paired well with Israel is just frosting on the cake.

JP – What is it like to see your screenplay adapted to the screen? What are some of the changes that you observed in the process of adaptation?

RY – Good question! Being the xxecutive producer as well as the writer, it was incumbent upon me to be on set each day of filming, as well as respond to the needs of the production script-wise. The biggest challenge was to rework and reshape the story to fit the exigencies of time and budget. Certain scenes would need to be pared back, and plot holes would have to be filled which only became apparent in those last desperate hours before words became action. Overall, though, it was both gratifying and terrifying to see my words come to life and once the shock of seeing it happen wore off, it became somewhat enjoyable!

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The first two images are of Deborah and Ron. The third one is a production still, with Deborah pictured on the left.


By Joshua Polasnki - 07-05-2024

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