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Tracing the odd real-life tale of 'Hunting Party'

Richard Gere (left) and Terrence Howard star in 'The Hunting Party,' a film from Richard Shepard based on the real misadventure of some journalists in Bosnia. Richard Gere (left) and Terrence Howard star in "The Hunting Party," a film from Richard Shepard based on the real misadventure of some journalists in Bosnia. (Karen Ballard/Weinstein co.)

NEW YORK - In the spring of 2000, journalist Scott Anderson and four fellow reporters embarked on a brandy-inspired search for one of the most wanted war criminals in Bosnia, a surreal expedition in which they were mistaken for a CIA hit team, garnered the attention of the actual CIA, and prompted the launch of a real black-ops mission.

By the time it was over, the mysterious American military official who put a stop to their freelance operation admitted that they had stumbled into a truly unique misadventure.

"You know, in my 20 years of service, this is the strangest thing I've ever been involved in," the lieutenant colonel told them, according to Anderson's account, published in Esquire in October 2000. "It'd make a helluva movie."

It took seven years, but a cinematic version of the journalists' trip through the rabbit hole of postwar Bosnia finally hits theaters Friday.

"The Hunting Party," starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard, blends drama and dark comedy in its tale of three journalists who try to rectify the sluggish international criminal-justice system by single-handedly rooting out one of the war's most brutal killers.

The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard, who read Anderson's article shortly after finishing shooting another dark comedy, 2005's "The Matador." At the time, Shepard was interested in telling a story about postwar intrigue along the lines of "The Third Man," a 1949 film set in Vienna in the wake of World War II .

"It wasn't my dream in life to write a movie about Bosnian war criminals," he said. Once Shepard read Anderson's piece, however, "it scared the pants off of me, purely because I loved it so much."

Intrigued by the tale, he took a weeklong trip through Bosnia guided by Philippe Deprez, a Belgian journalist who was part of the original escapade. By the end of it, "I was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to write this, but I've got to write this,' " Shepard recalled.

The writer-director decided to forgo a straight drama and instead set out to make "the B side of a double feature for Warner Bros. in 1943, an adventure movie that had some edge."

Using the experiences of the real journalists as a jumping-off point, Shepard turned the film, originally titled "Spring Break in Bosnia," into a story of a bizarre road trip, at turns ridiculous and sinister.

The driving force behind the wheel is Simon Hunt (Gere), a washed-up television correspondent intent on locating a sought-after war criminal to pay back an old debt and reclaim his professional standing. Promising the story of a lifetime, he persuades his former cameraman, Duck (Howard), to help him track down "The Fox," a fictional Bosnian Serb. They're joined by rookie TV producer Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), who, though apprehensive, goes along on the ride, hoping to prove his mettle.

Within the broader drama is the personal journey of Hunt, a man who had reached the pinnacle of success, only to watch it all crumble away.

"I'm old enough to know guys who have made that transition, who have lost it, whether they're in journalism or acting or sports," Gere said. "We're watching a guy try to make sense of how he lost it, why he lost it."

Howard, who signed onto the movie before even reading the script because it was penned by Shepard and starred Gere, said that the older actor's focus inspired him.

"He became my Yoda, and I became his young Padawan Learner," said the "Hustle & Flow" star.

Made for less than $20 million, the film was shot in 42 days on location in Bosnia and Croatia. Croatian actress Kristina Krepela was cast as the young Muslim Bosnian woman with whom Hunt falls in love, and many locals worked on the crew and as extras.

"It needs that reality, it needs the ghosts of that region to get on film," Gere said. "As a viewer giving yourself to the movie, I think you feel that."

Although the movie departs sharply from what actually happened to Anderson and his friends, it does capture the absurdities of postwar Bosnia, a place where the US State Department ran ads offering to pay $5 million for the capture of war criminals, publicizing a toll-free number that worked only in the United States.

The movie also preserves the sense of frustration felt by the real journalists, who in mere days appeared to come tantalizingly close to locating Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb fugitive whom UN and NATO troops had been pursuing for five years. But their inquiries triggered the attention of UN officials and the CIA, and in the process, an informant who promised to lead them to the fugitive went into hiding. Karadzic, who is accused of ordering the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, still remains at large.

"Obviously, many things have been changed and fictionalized from what we went through," Anderson said, "but I feel like Richard Shepard really captured the creepiness, the sense of foreboding that was always in the air in the Balkans, the sense of never knowing which way is up."

Howard said the film has a strong dose of "Michael Moore-ish" political outrage.

"This has a lot of implications for the entire world community," he said. "We're on record saying, 'None of you did your jobs.' "

Shepard - who stresses that "this isn't a war movie; this is a postwar movie" - is more circumspect about his intentions.

"I hope people think at the end of the film," he said. "I hope they question the official story about everything. I don't mind if that's the reaction. But you know, I just wanted to tell an entertaining story."

It was that sardonic treatment of somber material that persuaded Gere to sign on to the project.

"I've seen a lot of these movies that take on a serious subject and feel an obligation to be almost documentary-true to honor the subject," the actor said. "But Richard was trying to do something else. He didn't want to defile the fabric of that reality, but he was going at it with these guys who were very irreverent, and I thought it really worked."

That said, the director and the actor differ strongly about the ending of the film, in which the three journalists manage to extract their own form of justice on "The Fox."

"The revenge on that character helps no one," Gere said. "That to me is not an appropriate message. It's cheap."

He and Shepard debated the topic endlessly. Shepard said he believes the ending is appropriate for the kind of quasi-adventure movie he set out to make, and doesn't mind that Gere challenged him about it.

"If you're going to have a discussion about something that is intrinsically going to help or hurt the movie, that's a good thing," he said.

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