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."
For 2002's "In This World," a movie in which two Afghan refugees trek from a camp in Pakistan to Great Britain, Winterbottom and a small crew followed the actors through border checkpoints and refugee camps -- forcing the performers to deal with whatever happened along the way.
"The story was very, very simple, an outline," he says. "So it was actually just [a case of] watching them, the way they behave, the incidents, the people, the places they saw. And it was a very small crew, so, obviously, the filming was actually quite easy and, actually, it's really enjoyable because new things are happening all the time and you're not planning."
"A Mighty Heart" is set in Pakistan but Winterbottom shot the majority of his scenes in Mumbai, India. He also filmed in Karachi, Pakistan, revisiting the same locales Pearl had been to before his apprehension. Although Jolie did most of her work indoors in Mumbai, Winterbottom coaxed her and co-star Dan Futterman (who plays Daniel Pearl) outside for some guerilla-style forays. They knew their time was limited before the crowds caught on to Jolie's presence.
"Michael's method -- because it's so fast and unencumbered and mobile -- frankly enabled Angie to get out on the streets in a way she normally can't," says Gardner, who went to India and Pakistan. Because Jolie was made up to resemble the curly-haired, darker-skinned -- and pregnant -- Mariane Pearl, Jolie managed to temporarily filter through the crowds undetected.
"We had a 10-minute lag time before people caught on to it," Gardner says. "You had to jump out and grab it and get done before the crowds assembled. It was really fun. And Michael works quickly. He manages to get those scenes in 20 minutes."
When the production was shooting at the train station in Mumbai one day, Futterman recalls, "Michael said, 'Let's get on the train.' I thought it was the worst idea, but I didn't say anything. But Angie said, 'Yeah, sure.' There's not too much you can dare her that she won't do. So we were on the train."
Winterbottom pursued this serendipitous, documentary method in Pakistan, too, Futterman says.
"We'd stop somewhere on the streets, pile out, shoot and go somewhere else. . . . Karachi is a real character in the movie. It's like no place you've been -- that feeling of its bursting at the seams, people from all over, and the infrastructure seemingly held together with a rubber band."
For Futterman, Winterbottom's method reflects the director's worldview.
"There's something proletarian about his attitude towards the world. To him, the guy in the street is every bit as fascinating as the biggest star in the world. And he's going to shoot that way and make the movie more interesting."
Winterbottom, who was briefly a documentary filmmaker before he moved into feature films, says he likes to show the real world to "capture something of what people are like in a place, how they behave in the world outside."
He explains in his typical conversation-as-flood:
"If the characters in the film are also made to engage with -- you know -- even it's just boring stuff, like, they're just in a bar talking. But you know, they're drinking in a bar. It's midnight and the music's on. They behave different -- they're drinking or they're drunk or whatever -- They're behaving differently than when it's 8 in the morning on a set, and they go to a fake bar with fake drinks. And so, so, I like that element of chance in filmmaking."
Winterbottom's documentary eye has never left him. He remembers how, during the shooting of 2000's "The Claim," a frontier drama filmed in Canada, he became more fascinated with the parking lot filled with camera crew and their vehicles than with the artificial town on the hill the production had constructed.
"The car park for the crew was much more spectacular than our set," he recalls. "There was 150 people and loads of vehicles in it. And all the effort and money of that budget was going into the car park, and not enough was going into the film."
Which is why he prefers to stay at the low end of the budget scale. Big-budget filmmaking, he says, is "like dragging a really long tail around with you." He prefers to work with about $3 million per picture so "we can get the money and make them, as opposed to spending two years to try and persuade someone to give us more money."
And the ideas never stop coming. Winterbottom is incredibly prolific, making an average of one or two movies a year. He's shooting "Genova" later this month in Italy, starring Colin Firth. And with Pitt's company co-producing, he's planning "Murder in Samarkand," a film based on the memoirs of Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who was fired for drawing attention to human rights abuses.
"I have a feeling he will be 76 and still saying to me, 'I have this great idea for something,' " says Eaton. "And I'll be saying, 'Leave me alone.' "