Isabel Ellsen

French journo's life experience fuels her fiction

Age: 40

Birthplace: Paris

Repped by: Francois Samuelson at Intertalent Agency (Paris)

The film that changed her life: “The Killing Fields”

Worst advice or studio note: “When director Elie Chouraqui read my first draft of ‘Harrison’s Flowers,’ he sent me this note: ‘Sarah (the leading role eventually played by Andie MacDowell), cannot be a war photographer. … It’s not sexy enough for a woman. Her husband will be a war photographer and she will be … his assistant.’ ”

Making the transition from award-winning war correspondent to produced screenwriter can be a tricky move, but French scribe Isabel Ellsen is living proof that with the right amount of inspiration and hard work it’s possible to walk in both worlds.

Ellsen, who began working as a journalist in 1978 at age 18, was sent to Lebanon in 1986 because, as she recalls, “There was no one else available and I was bothering everyone, talking about how much I wanted to cover a war.”

From 1986 to 1996, she worked as a staff writer for Le Journal du Dimanche, covering events in Afghanistan, El Salvador, Israel and the former Yugoslavia, among others. She won the Prix Mumm for journalism in 1988 and the Sabre d’Or for best war reporting in 1990, the same year she started photographing in addition to writing about the events she saw.

Since then, she has twice worked as a still photographer for Luc Besson. “I think he liked the idea of having a war photographer on set.”

Ellsen has published two photo books and four novels, one of which she adapted into the screenplay “Harrison’s Flowers.” Based largely on Ellsen’s own life, the film stars Andie MacDowell and David Strathairn as photojournalists torn apart by war in the Balkans.

Ellsen, who wants to move into directing, admits, “The screenplay was very difficult to write because this was the story of my life and it was painful to change the way it happened. If I have to adapt one of my novels again, I will also direct the film.”

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