Touching The Dark 'Heart' of Reality

Documentary-style films about harrowing circumstances are the forte of Michael Winterbottom, whose latest effort,
Documentary-style films about harrowing circumstances are the forte of Michael Winterbottom, whose latest effort, "A Mighty Heart," stars Angelina Jolie, below, as Mariane Pearl, wife of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and slain by Muslim extremists in Pakistan. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

With hard-hitting, documentary-style films set in the torturous recesses of Guantanamo, the dusty hopelessness of refugee camps and the genocidal terror of the Bosnian war, British director Michael Winterbottom regularly coaxes moviegoers to consider the awful, the horrible and the morally unjust -- not exactly popular fare for the big screen.

For the most part, Winterbottom has been sequestered in the art houses of big cities and the "world view" sidebars of international film festivals, where his films preach to the pre-converted -- the left-of-center intelligentsia who put more stock in the BBC than Fox News.

But that cultish obscurity is about to disappear with this weekend's release of "A Mighty Heart," a movie that retells the true story of American journalist Daniel Pearl, whose 2002 abduction and murder at the hands of Muslim extremists reverberated around the world.

With Angelina Jolie -- perhaps the world's best-known actress -- in the principal role as Pearl's wife, Mariane, Winterbottom has made the most high-profile film of his career. It's also one of his most expensive, with a budget of approximately $16 million.

Although the budget is bargain-basement by Jolie's standards, the role is an opportunity to do poetic justice to a powerful story, centered on a woman she calls a close friend, and it's a rare chance to showcase her acting talents between "Lara Croft" projects. To that end, Jolie's publicity machine has been in high gear since "A Mighty Heart" screened at Cannes this spring, with the actress granting interviews at most celebrity stops, including "Larry King Live" and even "The Daily Show."

Sitting in a hotel bar in Washington, Winterbottom seems blissfully unconcerned by this convergence of the Hollywood Babylon he usually avoids and the reality-based stories he likes to pursue. For Winterbottom, the movie was another opportunity to tell a true story with as little of the artifice of conventional filmmaking -- and as much of the real world -- as possible.

"I guess one of the things I like about real stories is, there are givens that you're not controlling," he says, in the rapid-fire spillage that amounts to his version of conversation. "Real stories give you a good excuse for not tying everything up, because it doesn't work out that way. There isn't a climax here because there wasn't a climax in the real story."

Normally, Winterbottom and his creative partner, Andrew Eaton, decide what projects to film, says the 46-year-old filmmaker. (Their varied résumé includes last year's "The Road to Guantanamo," part fiction, part documentary, about three British Muslims held in Guantanamo Bay for two years before being released without charge; and 2002's "24 Hour Party People," about the 1970s pop scene in Manchester, England.) But in the case of "A Mighty Heart," it was Brad Pitt who contacted them. The actor and his Plan B Entertainment producing partner, Dede Gardner, had loved his films and wanted to make this one in his down-and-dirty, quasi-documentary style.

Winterbottom and Eaton met with Pitt and a pregnant Jolie in Namibia in 2006 to secure the deal, and Pitt "gave us the freedom to go off and make it our way. They had the money and the stars and the project, but we could still kind of make it the way we wanted to."

Winterbottom told Jolie about his working method -- a no-frills style that employs handheld cameras and eschews artificial lighting and large crews. Where most filmmakers attempt to control their invented worlds with tight scripting and carefully monitored production shoots, Winterbottom actively seeks the real world.

"I like the idea of putting actors into environments that are not controlled by you," he says. "I like the fact that the actors have to interact with people who have not been told where to go. So the actors have to be aware of what's going on around them."

Winterbottom, Eaton says, "tries extremely hard to make films as truthfully and as real as they can be."

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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