As she developed her story about lovers on opposite sides in the Bosnian War, Angelina Jolie drew on everything she had learned traveling to combat zones. But she started at home, imagining herself and partner Brad Pitt at such extremes.
"In the Land of Blood and Honey," Jolie's writing-directing debut, hurls two lovers — a Bosnian Muslim woman and a Bosnian-Serbian man — from their tender relationship before the war into the horrors of work and rape camps, where brutality, betrayal and degradation are daily matters.
"The closest relationship in my life is Brad," Jolie said in an interview for the film, which opens in limited release Friday and expands in January. "It's the man-woman relationship. So for me to put myself in a position to be able to write from, it would be, well, what if it was me, and what would it be like? And what would it take? Could I ever turn on him? Would this ever happen? Would he ever turn on me? So you try to put yourself inside, and that's how that relationship started."
The result is worlds away from the vanity projects some superstars end up with when they play at directing. Jolie holds nothing back in depicting the savagery of the war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as ancient ethnic rivalries reignited after decades of communist rule.
As a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, Jolie, 36, had visited Bosnia and felt a growing compulsion to help dramatize a conflict about which the world at large had been misinformed or even indifferent.
When the war broke out, Jolie herself was a teenager with other things on her mind than conflict in a distant land.
"I was being a 17-year-old. I knew only a little bit about it," Jolie said. "It just felt very far away, and until America got involved, I don't even remember any headlines in our papers."
As the years passed, Jolie remained busy with other preoccupations — Hollywood party girl, Academy Award winner for "Girl, Interrupted," marriages to actors Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton, the latter a wild love affair that was a gold mine for gossip tabloids.
Then came the action comedy "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," in which Jolie and Pitt starred as married assassins gunning for each other. Home-wrecker headlines followed as Jolie took up with co-star Pitt, who ended his marriage to Jennifer Aniston.
Jolie already had begun her humanitarian makeover, adopting a child from Cambodia and using her celebrity to shine light on children in peril, the plight of refugees and other causes around the world.
As she and Pitt's family has grown — they now have three adopted and three biological children — Jolie's image has transformed from sinner to saint.
"I've always tried to step outside my comfort zone. Sometimes that can be good and useful for hopeful things like this," Jolie said, referring to her film. "And sometimes, when you're younger, it can be very destructive and a bad thing."
Visiting war zones changed her perspective, but it was the home front — taking on children — that made the big difference.
"That was what changed me completely, and then I knew that once you decide to become a parent, you can no longer be in any way self-destructive or selfish. You live for someone else, and it's over. It's all over," Jolie said, laughing.
"But in the greatest way, because the chaos — no wild days as a punk are ever as interesting or as chaotic as my life with my children is now. They can out-punk anybody you know."
Jolie said she wrote the screenplay for "In the Land of Blood and Honey" as a private exercise, but once Pitt read it, he told her to put it into circulation and get some feedback.
Without her name attached, she sent the script to people on all sides of the Bosnian conflict. The response was favorable, and before long, Jolie was casting actors, mostly people who lived through the war or had close relatives and friends in the thick of it.
Cast as Muslim artist Ajla, Zana Marjanovic was 8 years old when the war broke out. She and her mother fled to Slovenia while her father stayed behind in Sarajevo. Goran Kostic, who was 20 and living in London when the war started, was cast as Ajla's lover, Danijel, torn between love and duty as a leader at the camp where she is interned.
With graphic scenes of rape, sniper slayings, civilian massacres and soldiers using women as human shields, the film was a balancing act as Jolie sought to tells a story representing all sides.
Jolie's reputation as a humanitarian envoy reassured the locals that the film would be a fair and honest depiction, said Marjanovic, who recalled the stir created by Jolie's visit back to Sarajevo last summer for a film festival.
"We're just too cool to be concerned about various superstars walking around our city," Marjanovic said. "But when it was Angelina — that was just the one superstar we're not immune to. It wasn't only because of everything she's done as an actress — it was that and the fact that she's doing this film about Bosnia. I think everyone had really high hopes, and I believe they'll feel that it came from the right place, that she will portray us truthfully and do a great job."
At U.S. theaters, the film mostly will play in a Bosnian-language version with English subtitles. But Jolie and her actors shot a second version in English that's available for domestic and overseas markets where subtitled films might be a hard sell for audiences.
She prefers that viewers see the native-language version, but the English one is "there for whoever wants it, because we want to reach as many people as we can," Jolie said.
Jolie eventually wants her children to see "In the Land of Blood and Honey" — though for now, she's keeping them on a cinema diet that includes her "Kung Fu Panda" animated tales.
Of her own movies, "I think the most fun one for them will be 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith,' because who doesn't want to see their parents try to kill each other?" Jolie said. "'Wow, mom and dad are going crazy.'"