Exclusive: The Mighty Winterbottom!

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ComingSoon.net has interviewed British director Michael Winterbottom four times in the past three years though none of those situations might be considered the ideal. The first time was in 2004, when we talked to him over the phone using less than ideal equipment about his sci-fi flick Code 46. Then in 2005, we sat in a room with him, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to talk about his period comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story–he let his stars do most of the talking. Last year, it was a crowded roundtable of journalists to talk about The Road to Guantanamo.

A Mighty Heart is possibly the director’s most high-profile movie in his eighteen year career, because it follows the investigation surrounding the kidnapping of journalist Daniel Pearl as told in the memoir of his widow Mariane Pearl, who was six months pregnant at the time. Mariane is played by actress Angelina Jolie, who controversially darkened her skin with make-up to appear more like the real Mariane.

ComingSoon.net hoped to have better luck this time, but let’s face it, being one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 21st Century so far, with only Johnny To offering any competition for that title, Winterbottom is a very busy guy, rarely having time to do interviews in the middle of finishing up one movie or starting the next one, and he was especially in demand to talk about this movie.

Sadly, our limited time didn’t give us a chance to ask him about his next project Genova or his third collaboration with Steve Coogan, Murder in Samarkand, also about a real person involved in recent Middle East affairs, but we did get another chance to look into the way this versatile filmmaker works before he had to run.

ComingSoon: Nice talking to you again. I’ve interviewed you four times, more than any other director so far.
Michael Winterbottom: (laughs) Sorry about that.

CS: Well you’ve made a lot of movies since I’ve been doing this.
Winterbottom: That’s true.

CS: Is this movie going to get the widest release of any of your movies?
Winterbottom: Yeah, I think so. I hope so.

CS: I remember talking to you last year for “Guantanamo”…
Winterbottom: Yeah, it was about this time last year I think.

CS: Yeah, that sounds about right, but was this movie already in the works at that time? It really seemed to come from out of nowhere.
Winterbottom: Yeah, I think we started work on it at the beginning of May last year, so yeah, I must have already been working on it. I can’t remember exactly how it worked, but I think I just popped over here for a week during preproduction. I think we’d probably already been to Pakistan and done a little bit, because what happened was we were offered it in April last year, beginning of May, and so I went out to Pakistan to do some research, and we did a little bit of filmmaking straightaway there and some second unit stuff. I think I’d probably already done that by the time I came to America last year.

CS: Well, you kept it a really good secret, because I don’t remember hearing much about it until September when we first saw the photos of Angie as Mariane. How did this come about? I know that the producer knew your work and gave you the book, where did things go from there?
Winterbottom: Yeah, well really. I actually had read the book a couple years earlier–I liked the book–and then the end of April last year, Brad and [ Dede Garnder ] called up and said, “Would you be interested in making it?” so I went and made Mariane in Paris, and then we all went down to Namibia and spent two or three days talking about the film and Mariane’s experiences and then we started making it.

CS: Was Dan Futterman cast fairly early as Daniel Pearl? How did he come onto it?
Winterbottom: I think the very first thing we did was we obviously started working on the script, so I went back and part of that was to meet all the people who were in the house. I think the first thing we did was I went to Pakistan and met the people like Captain, Dost and others in Pakistan. We also looked at the real locations and went round sort of filming in case we couldn’t get back, which is probably why I didn’t talk about it when I was here. I think we were trying to not tell anyone we were doing it for a while, to give ourselves a chance at getting stuff in Pakistan before it became too difficult, too public. So then, we went over to America after that to meet the people in America like the people from the Wall Street Journal and Randal Bennett, all those real people, and at the same time, do some castings. I can’t remember when it was, but basically we did one set of casting and as soon as I met Danny, I really thought he would be the best person for the part.

CS: Did they already have a script for the movie at this time?
Winterbottom: Yeah, but when they called, they said they weren’t really happy with what they had, and they wanted to have another go at it.

CS: So you ended up doing a lot of your own research rather than going with what was in the script?
Winterbottom: Yeah, obviously meeting the people and talking to them, we had all their stories as well as Mariane’s and then a writer called, Lawrence Coriat, that I worked with before on “Wonderland,” and then I just had another go, going back really to try to work on what the chronology of the story was, to make sure it was as factual as we could, to make it as accurate as we could, and that was the process really. Having dialogue that explains and tells you what need to do, we kind of always knew–especially in the house where all the main stuff happens–that we’d be allowing people to improvise around that, so we didn’t start agonizing about exactly what was said here or what was said there, because we knew it was going to be a guide rather than the sort of final dialogue.

CS: Was there anyone who didn’t want to be involved in the making of the movie like the Pakistani police?
Winterbottom: No, one of the things, and it’s kind of part of the story, was that Mariane managed to make all those people who came to the house get closely involved, so they’re part of the team really. She stayed in touch with them, they’re still close, so Captain, for instance, I think he’s Adam’s godfather. She’s really close to him. The fact that Mariane has introduced me meant they were all entirely cooperative.

CS: Did you shoot the flashback scene of Mariane and Daniel very early in the production?
Winterbottom: No, basically we did a little bit of 2nd Unit when we first went to do research, then we spend quite a long time trying to get permissions to film in Pakistan properly. That section of the film we did in July I think, so we brought Danny over to Pakistan, and we did all the Pakistan casting and did all the stuff with the police, really all the exteriors in Pakistan in July, shooting for a couple of weeks, and then we sort of went off and prepared India. We didn’t really shoot Mariane… the first thing we did was all the French flashbacks, which was the wedding, but that was like September. It was early in the sense of Angelina’s shoot, but we had already done the Pakistan first. Basically, we sort of agreed to do it in the beginning of May, and then it was a mix-up between researching, writing and filming all the way through the year. We still were doing a bit of something in March back in Pakistan, so it’s sort of been spread out and mixed up really, rather than being like “This is the filming, this is the prep time.”

CS: So essentially, you were able to shoot a lot of the search and investigation in Pakistan even before you had Angelina shooting anything?
Winterbottom: We wanted to do that partly just because obviously once Angie has started, as you say, that’s when all the publicity comes out. We wanted to get as much done in Pakistan before people were too aware of the project really.

CS: That’s actually pretty smart. A lot of people were talking about movies like “United 93” and “World Trade Center” being too soon after the events. This movie follows Danny Pearl’s death in the same amount of time, five years, so did anyone you talked to feel it was too soon to tell this story?
Winterbottom: I don’t know. Obviously, Mariane wrote the book maybe three or four years ago, so in a way, this is Mariane’s story. This is a story that takes place in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s clearly a story that could only have happened since 9/11, because Dan and Marian were in Pakistan in order to cover the aftermath of 9/11, but at the same time, it’s Mariane’s story, more even than Danny’s story, and it’s a story about someone who is incredibly strong in a terrible situation. Given that Mariane is comfortable about it being told, I think the key thing really, ’cause it’s her story we’re telling.

CS: I’m not sure how much you’d been reading in various places about perceptions of the movie, but there seems to be somewhat of a stir in the African-American community questioning the fact that you had Angelina playing the role of Mariane with darkened skin, rather than getting someone who already had dark skin such as Thandie Newton or even a Latina actress.
Winterbottom: I can’t really understand that. How would a Latina woman be more like Mariane, who’s French, half Dutch, half Cuban and a quarter Chinese. It just seems incredible generic, like a non-American is somehow more like another non-American than an American, which is kind of bizarre. I mean Angie’s mother is French, but I think the most tricky for Angelina becoming Mariane was the accent, so I think if there was any issue, it would like, “Why not get a French woman to play the part?” But then of course, you got another set of issues, because the whole film is English. From my point of view, I first met Angelina in Namibia and it was with Mariane, and when I got there, they already knew each other and were obviously friends. Mariane trusted Angelina, and apparently–I hadn’t realized it at the time–but Mariane said in France at the press conference in Cannes that she was the person that asked Angelina to play the part. So Mariane thought she was the best person to play the part. It’s really incredibly weird in America that you kind of feel that anyone who’s not American is the same. It’s a very strange thing.

CS: I’m not sure if it’s an American vs. foreign thing. I think it’s more about getting someone less high profile or someone who looks more like Mariane without having to use make-up.
Winterbottom: As I say, from my point of view, it was perfect, because it’s incredibly difficult to tell a story about someone who’s a real person who’s alive. When I got there, they clearly were very similar people, they’re friends and when they talked about, not only about the film or Mariane’s experience, but when then talked about how they see their roles as women and their roles as journalists or actors, they’re very similar people. As I say, Mariane actually wanted Angelina to play the part, so it was perfect.

CS: Did Angie have to stay in the accent or make-up throughout the shoot to be able to stay in character as Mariane?
Winterbottom: Not in that sense, but the way we film is that we have quite short days, we film for about eight hours, but a lot of the time within the day, we’re actually filming. We don’t really light and it’s handheld, it’s very simple and we shoot the whole scene, so we might be filming for like ten minutes, then we stop for a couple minutes, then we film again for ten minutes. Actually, during the day, they’re probably spending more time filming than not filming, so in that sense, she’s obviously in the accent the whole time, but not in the kind of massive way… I’m sure when she went back to Brad, she wasn’t still talking in Mariane’s accent.

CS: You have all this experience shooting in the Mideast and Pakistan and all these places, so has it gotten any easier at this point? Did you have to do any of the guerilla-type shooting that you’ve had to do on some of your previous films?
Winterbottom: In fact, the stuff we did in Pakistan, we just shot the way we always do, so we had a very small crew. First of all, we just ran out–me and the cameraman and a couple other people–and did some general shots of the real places in case we couldn’t go back, but then we were able to get back, so then we took Danny, so all that stuff like hotel bars, the restaurant where he’s kidnapped, all those places are the real places. We just took our actors into real places, into real Pakistan police stations. We were working with the Pakistan police and doing rounds with them, so yeah, all of that was exactly how we normally film, then most of it is really just inside the house, and again, it was a very simple set-up with seven or eight actors, and we shot in chronological order, so we shot for about five weeks. We just began with the day Danny’s kidnapped and gradually worked our way through to the end when Mariane leaves.

CS: As far as working with the authorities, you actually had real policemen in some scenes?
Winterbottom: Yeah, yeah, obviously we were there before and we spent a lot of time talking to people in Islamabad trying to make sure everyone was happy with the idea that we were filming there, and we had a lot of interaction with the Karachi police. The only kind of problem was we had a lot of hassle from the intelligent agencies, the ISI and the other intelligent agencies, so they were always in the hotel, they were always on set filming us and hassling our crew. It did get quite tricky at one point. We sort of had to stop and decide if we were going to leave or just go and do it somewhere else and we were going to tell everyone what kind of place Pakistan is… but then we finally got results. Sorry, I’ve gotta go, but thanks so much.

And just like that, he was gone, off to catch a plane or a train to somewhere else, most likely to start shooting his next movie.

A Mighty Heart opens everywhere on Friday, June 22, and look for more attempts to get Michael Winterbottom to sit down for an interview in the next couple years.

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