Fidgeting constantly while answering questions in a quick, British monotone, director Michael Winterbottom resonates with the nervous energy of a young artist brimming with ideas but without enough time to share them all. Winterbottom’s newest film, “A Mighty Heart,” opens this Friday and is based on the book by Mariane Pearl about the frantic search for her husband, journalist Daniel Pearl, during his abduction by terrorists in 2002. Angelina Jolie plays Mariane in this harrowing real-life drama about the lengths that people will go to for the ones they love, and the labyrinthine, often life-threatening difficulties facing souls who pursue truth and compassion amidst an embattled world.
A prodigious filmmaker behind the recent “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” and “The Road to Guantanamo,” Winterbottom has teamed up this time with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment to craft Mariane’s story in his trademark minimalist, documentary style. Sitting down with Winterbottom for a roundtable Q&A in San Francisco, we discussed Angelina Jolie, terrorism, and the “Rashomon” Effect that comes with piecing together a complex story.
Q: Can you explain your production process and how it affects the unique results you get visually, and also in terms of performance?
A: The idea is to make the film as simply as possible. In this case, the first thing we did when we started work was to go to Pakistan, because we needed to meet some of the people involved in the story, and also to go to the locations. We spent a quite a lot of time casting actors in Pakistan and looking at locations and setting up the production, trying to persuade the government that we could film there.
We had a lot of the Pakistani actors, we were working with the real police, so we did a lot of the police raids scenes. We were lucky because we could shoot things like Danny in the Hotel Akbar, in the real Hotel Akbar. We shot the scenes in Islamabad in Islamabad, we shot the restaurant where he gets arrested in the real restaurant where it all took place. All that stuff is very simple; it’s out and about in the streets. We had literally half a dozen people for the local Pakistani crew, all really great young, enthusiastic people. Not necessarily professional actors, just people we met and thought were good.
Then we went to India and did the interior of the house, which was bigger. There were more people there, probably about twenty or thirty. But it was still the same basic principle: let’s keep it very simple. We shot in sequence, over a period of five weeks. We started at the beginning and ended at the end. Everyone wears radio microphones, so they can wander where they want to go. It wasn’t, “Stand here and say this.” The actors can do what they want to do. We had the camera following them. We always did the whole scene as one scene, and then we’d stop, so the takes would be around five to ten minutes. People had a script, but they would have to improvise off of it. You had to listen to what everyone else was saying, because everyone said something different each time. You actually had to listen to what the other person was saying and respond to that, rather than just waiting for your line. By the end all of the actors got to know each other really well.
Q: Since you were doing a movie based on historical events, and the actors were representing real people, did you have any reservations about letting them improvise their scenes?
A: I went around and met all the people involved and talked to them. You’re talking about something that happened several years ago. It’s not as though they could say, “Well, this is exactly what I said, so you’re not doing it right.”
Everyone went and met the people they were playing. Mariane Pearl and Angelina Jolie knew each other really well and spent a lot of time talking about things. The idea was that when they came on set they, as an actor, knew more about their character, the real person, than anyone else on set. So at least they felt comfortable enough so that while they can’t know exactly what was said, they had more knowledge than the writer had, or I had, and could therefore justifiably say that they’ve got as good an idea as anyone else does about what their response would be.
So we had a lot of information. We really did try to keep the script close to what had been told. It wasn’t a question of creating any dramatic flights of fancy. It was very simple. For instance, when they’re breaking the news of Danny’s death, that was by combining all the various versions we had, which were not always exactly the same.
Q: Dan Futterman does a great job in the film. Was he the obvious first choice to play Daniel Pearl?
A: I met a few people, but as soon as I met Dan I thought he was the right person for the part. He’s a really bright guy, he’s very thoughtful, and he just seemed to be very credible as a journalist. He looks quite like Danny, so that was also a plus. [But] it was more about how he behaved, really, and how he talked about things. He was very interested about the script and so on. I think also a little bit of it was the fact that he’s a writer. Having written “Capote“, which I thought was a really great film. It might have been different if he’d written a film I thought was rubbish!
Sometimes you get an actor to play a writer and they try and do things by thinking, “What would a writer do?” I just thought he wouldn’t have that baggage. He wouldn’t be worried about what a writer would do. He’d just be thinking, “What would I do?”
Q: Did you shoot more of Dan Futterman than what was in the film?
A: We shoot more of everyone. But the film begins with the day of the kidnapping. And it ends with Mariane back in Paris. So therefore the film is about Mariane. Mariane says in the book, this is about Danny as well. But actually the book is about Mariane. The book is about Mariane’s experience and what she went through and the people she was with. That’s what the film is.
In lots of ways it’s like, “Well, wouldn’t it be great to see more of Danny?” I guess, yes. But this is the shape of the story, and it’s hard to see how to do that within the shape of the story. We did shoot more, but not significantly more. It’s not like we were trying to show their relationship for a year of time before the events. And we certainly never wanted to try and speculate on what was happening to Danny which we didn’t know. We managed to stick to what we knew, attached to Mariane’s point of view. Clearly we also heard from a lot of people like the FBI and Randall Bennett and the Pearls back in L.A. about all the things they were doing, which are not in the film either. We were telling Mariane’s story from Mariane’s point of view. It was hard enough to shoehorn that into the film without trying to tell other stories.
Q: The title of the film, “A Mighty Heart,” is the same as the book. Would this have been your choice for a title for the film?
A: I don’t think I would have ever come up with it out of thin air. To be absolutely honest, we were all thinking that maybe we ought to come up with a better title. But there was so much publicity about the film when we started filming in India and other places, that it was almost a bit like that decision was done. That moment was gone, it was now called “A Mighty Heart”. I like it [now].
Q: You’ve been making films with your own production company, Revolution Films. But this time you were asked to make a film by Plan B, attached to a major Hollywood star. How was the filmmaking experience different?
A: It was good. It was very good. But, I have to say, it was very lucky as well. Because when they asked us to do it they said they wanted us to make the film the in the way we make it. Plan B said they wanted us to make it in our own style, so we used our own crew. We explained to them how we shoot, and they said that was great, that’s how we want you to shoot on this.
In a sense it was the best of both worlds for us, because they came to us saying, “We want you to make your kind of film. It’s the kind of approach we want in this film; we want you to do it in a kind of cheap, scruffy way.” Which is, I think, shorthand for what we do. And we were like, “That’s great because that’s how we always work.” And they really let us get on with it, in the details, on the actual day-to-day level. We just make it how we always make it, with a kind of hope to be brought back to America.
At the end I think a combination of the fact that it’s a real story, and the fact that we had the power of Angelina being in it, and Brad being a producer, we didn’t really have too much hassle at the end. It’s been a pretty easy experience for us.
Q: So you had creative freedom?
A: Yeah. We had the advantage of having a huge star in it, but also someone who knew the person they were portraying. It was the best possible thing from our point of view. It was someone who Mariane knew, who was very similar to Mariane, who Mariane trusted. It was a completely different experience than if we had a project where we had been chasing after some huge American star and we got someone from the studio.
Q: Is it just coincidence that this is so similar to a project that you just completed? Was “A Mighty Heart” meant to be any kind of companion piece to “The Road to Guantanamo”?
A: Depends on what you mean by “coincidence”. I think part of the reason I was offered this film is because I had worked in Pakistan before and had done “The Road to Guantanamo” as well. So that was not a coincidence.
Q: Did you have a resistance to doing a continuance of “The Road to Guantanamo”?
A: Yeah, I did have some resistance. Not in terms of doing this film, but just the timing of it. We’d done films that were similar in the past, but the next film always tends to be something different. Having just done “The Road to Guantanamo,” we were going to do a film in Italy that was completely different; a nice summer holiday film. And then Plan B called up and asked if we wanted to do “A Mighty Heart”. And I said yeah, because I’d already read Mariane’s book and thought it was a really good book. But we said that we were already going to do a film in Italy. So we said we’d think about it. But then they said, “You have to do it now. We need to go now.”
Q: The screenplay is a guideline, but can you explain your role in crafting it?
A: What happened was I was sent the script by John Orloff. And when Brad and Dede [Gardner, CEO of Plan B] contacted me it was like, “Well, we have a screenplay but we’re not really happy with it.” The screenplay largely followed Mariane’s story. It’s not like it was radically different.
I then worked on the screenplay with Laurence Coriat who I worked with before on “Wonderland.” He’s a French writer, and we did some work on it to really just get back to the book. For us it was let’s try and get the chronology straight. Because from the book it’s not always obvious about exactly what happened when. So it was not only getting back to the book but the chronology before the book. So I met all the people involved and got their version of events and tried to clarify the chronology from their point of view as well. Obviously any group of people remembering something remembers it in a slightly different way. Then it was really just a question of deciding which bits to keep and which to not. By the time I’d met all the people, I had a huge amount of options of what people were doing. Everyone was working incredibly hard to do whatever they could to help the situation, and most of that had we had to leave out because we just didn’t have time. In the end we had to say, “Well, it’s Mariane’s film, it’s Mariane’s story, it’s Mariane’s perspective.” She didn’t talk to any of those people before she wrote the book, so she wrote a very accurate version of what she remembered. It wasn’t necessarily what everyone else remembered.
Q: So your role was like an investigative journalist.
A: Exactly. You could have done the film kind of like “Rashomon” or definitely a sort of “Citizen Kane” scenario. All these different people remembering all these different things, and what is the truth?
Q: There are scenes in which the torture of suspects yields helpful information. You’ve dealt with this topic before in “The Road to Guantanamo.” Have your feelings on the use of torture changed at all?
A: No. If we’re talking about, “Is it right to torture people,” you’d be crazy. I don’t think anything has changed. When we came to research the story, you can’t refer to Mariane’s book about what went on, and we referred to newspaper articles, and it’s clear, if you look at events, what must have gone on. I then had firsthand accounts of people who were there who told me what went on. So I think given that we’re making a film about journalism and honesty in journalism and integrity, you cannot then not put it in the film. Clearly this is what happened. It’s a key moment in the investigation, a key moment in the story, that’s what happened, that’s why it’s in the film. The film doesn’t try to comment on, “Is it right or wrong?” People will have to judge that for themselves when they watch the film.
Q: Did Mariane ever actually see the tape of Danny’s death?
A: No. Well, as far as I know, no. From everything she said I would be amazed if that were the case.
Q: You’ve been praised for your directorial finesse in downplaying Angelina Jolie’s celebrity status. Could you talk about how you affected that?
A: It wasn’t about me letting her do her thing. She did her thing. I suppose that’s true of all the actors. I think my part as a director is choices about people, and then you try and create the environment in which they can do their work. The starting point of the performance is that Angelina knows Mariane, she’s a friend of Mariane’s, she spent a lot of time talking to Mariane and she really wanted to be Mariane, to represent Mariane in the film. I think, then, within the film, Angelina was really trying to be Mariane on set as well, in a sense of being part of the group and being as generous and welcoming to the people, like the taxi driver from Karachi who got flown over to be the taxi driver in India, people who have no experience of acting, people in the catering crew. She was great on set. She was on set the whole time. I assume she consciously put the equivalent of Mariane on our set and made everyone feel they were all together as part of the group. She was great to work with.
Q: In writing the book, Mariane says that she wanted to continue Daniel Pearl’s goal of journalistic dialogue and mutual understanding between cultures. I wonder if with this film you have the same hopes?
A: Look, to be honest, when you’re making something, you’re engaged with just doing that story and the concrete problems of how to tell that story. I’m not a big fan personally of “the message.” But I was impressed by Mariane’s book. I think it’s amazing that she’s willing to be that forgiving, to be that constructive after what’s happened. She refuses to be negative and to give in to hatred, and thinks more about what is possible to be positive about, and how maybe she can pass it on to Adam, her son, and how you can pass it on to the next generation, to be more positive about what’s going on. It’s incredibly impressive.
But I think also it’s incredibly impressive how well she tells the story, given that it’s her story, that it must be so emotional to her. that she manages to find a way of telling it incredibly clearly and interestingly. So for me, really, it was just a question of how to make this film accurate, simple, engaging, rather than what’s the message of the film. I’m not trying to think, “Well, if we make Angelina do this here then that will make this message in the end.” It was more like, “Does this seem true, does this seem believable, does this seem interesting?”