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Capone Interviews The Great Michael Winterbottom, Director Of A MIGHTY HEART!!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’m a big Michael Winterbottom fan, and I’m looking forward to reading this interview as I code it, especially since the great Capone is the one who conducted it:

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. About three years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to cover the Bermuda International Film Festival and spend a lovely week with some great people watching an odd but excited selection of movies. The guest of honor that year was director Michael Winterbottom, a man for whom the word prolific doesn't begin to cover how fast he works to produce some of the most diverse and exciting films coming out in any year. On the day Michael arrived on the island, there was a lunch reception during which he and I had a chance to chat informally for nearly an hour. I had just seen his newest work NINE SONGS the night before, a film I really liked if only because it reminded me of my 20s--sex and concerts and more sex and more concerts--and we began our conversation discussing music. I was supposed to interview Winterbottom later during the festival, but he essentially vanished until the last day (when he was being honored and interviewed on stage by another writer) and so I never got the interview. Looking very young for age 46, Winterbottom has put out about a movie a year, directing such works as BUTTERFLY KISS, WELCOME TO SARAJEVO, JUDE, I WANT YOU (my personal favorite), THE CLAIM, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, TRISTRAM SHANDY, CODE 46, IN THIS WORLD, and his last film ROAD TO GUANTANAMO. His new film is nothing short of greatness, and is the first film of the year I feel is worthy of all kinds of awards and acclaim. A MIGHTY HEART is about the notorious series of events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in early 2002 and how his pregnant wife Mariane desperately searched for her husband using the full resources of several nations and intelligence agencies. It's a harrowing and crushing story, and it's the best acting Angelina Jolie has even done, and probably Winterbottom's most mature and weighty film in his career. I conducted this interview with Winterbottom with two other writers, so I'll differentiate between my questions and theirs. Capone: Michael, there's probably no way you remember this, but we actually met at the film festival in Bermuda.

MW: In Bermuda, right. I thought you looked…had you ever been there before?

C: No, that was my only time.

MW: It's easy to forget that it's not exactly a tropical location, especially in March [when the festival is held].

C: It's about on the same parallel as Pennsylvania.

MW: Yeah, the water was cold when we were there.

Question: Over the last few years, you have been an incredibly prolific filmmaker who has worked in a wide variety of genres--you have done drama, comedy, science-fiction, biopics and you could even argue that "The Claim" is a kind of western--and you always seem to coming up with a new movie that you can't imagine that anyone else working today might have thought of. In the case of "A Mighty Heart," though, I can imagine other people making a film with this particular subject matter and in a way, I guess that makes it even more unusual in terms of coming from you. How did you come to choose this particular subject as your latest film?

MW: Most of the films that I have done in the past are ones that I have originated with Andrew Eaton, my producer, and we usually have two or three ideas going and then we make one of them. In this case, we were offered the film, so it had a different type of background. Plan B [Brad Pitt's production company] had persuaded Mariane to give them the rights and DeDe Gardner, who works with Brad Pitt, had given me the book about two years earlier. I read the book and I was really impressed by it. Last April, Brad called up and asked if I wanted to do it now. They had a script but they wanted to go again because they weren't completely happy with that script. That meant I would be working on the script and going to Pakistan and meeting all the real people in the story and shooting at the same time and that appealed to me--I like doing things all together instead of separately.

C: You insisted on meeting with everyone who was with Mariane at the time. Why was that important?

MW: Obviously, we are telling Mariane's story from Mariane's point-of-view, to a large extent, but the other people are real people as well and they were going to be in the film. We kind of had to meet them anyway to talk to them about the film, and I wanted to get their versions of what happened. They all had a lot of things to say that weren't the same in Mariane's book--perhaps things that she didn't really know--and since the book was from her point-of-view, she didn't really go around much to talk to other people, apart from probably Asra, since she was involved in the writing of the book. It was great to talk to people like the Captain [the man in charge of the Pakistani investigation into Danie's whereabouts] who was working all hours of the day outside the house on the investigation. Obviously, when you talk to different people, you get different versions of the story and when we got a difference of opinion about what happened, we then went back to that person and tried to get a sense of something that they would feel was kind of close enough to their memory of the truth in order to be accurate by triangulating any differences in order to find a point that seemed to be correct. It gave us loads of extra useful information and we had to do it anyway to persuade them that it was okay for us to use their lives in our film. I also wanted the actors to meet them. Inside that house, there was this small group of people that came together in this very closed location and it seemed like you wanted relationships to develop over the period of filming that echoed the real relationships. Obviously, the best way to do that was to have the actors meet the real people for however long they could--they got a handle on who that person was and their version of the events and how they behaved. Will Patton had to go to Kuwait to see Randall Bennett, who flew up from Iraq to meet him.

Q: Even before you came along, was Angelina Jolie always the lead for the film?

MW: I don't know about "always," but when I was offered the job, she was going to be the lead. I met Mariane briefly in Paris to start with--I think it was more for her to meet me than the other way around--and then we all went down to Namibia, DeDe and Andrew, who were the producers, and myself and Marianne, to meet with Brad and Angelina there. We had about three days talking about the possible film to come from Mariane's experience. Mariane and Angelina already knew each other and had obviously talked about things before so we mostly went through details a lot. Yeah, Angelina had comments on the script but as I remember, she was more asking Mariane about particular things about what was going on instead of saying "I think this should be in the film." It made the whole thing kind of easy because they knew each other and trusted each other and that was important.

Q: One of the impressive things about the film is that, while the basic material could have easily been molded into a standard-issue melodrama, that is not the kind of film that you have made out of it--instead, you have used a documentary-like approach that stresses the day-to-day reality of the events that you are depicting. How did you come to choose that particular storytelling approach and was their any resistance from producers or studios that might have preferred a more straightforward melodrama?

MW: No, that was one of the lucky things. When we went down to talk about the idea in Namibia, I think that DeDe had the idea that we would be the right people to do the film for a while. It was Plan B's project and then became a Plan B-Revolution co-production and they basically gave it to us to go away and make it the way that we would normally work. I think that DeDe had shown Brad ROAD TO GUANTANAMO, and he thought that was a great starting point for how he wanted [A MIGHTY HEART] to be. Given that he was picking our scruffiest and most low-budget effort right from the beginning, it was kind of clear that they wanted us to make the film with the people we normally work with and in the way that we would normally make it so that it would end up looking and feeling like the films that we normally made. Obviously, you still have the studio issue and at the time, it was with Warners. I'm not sure how or why, but it very quickly switched to Paramount Vantage and that was great from our point-of-view because I knew John Lesher separately from when he was an agent. By that stage, I was already on so he knew what he was getting while at Warners, Brad would have had to persuade them that I was a good idea since I hadn't worked with them before. It was kind of lucky. If someone asks you if you would like to make the film like a movie-of-the-week, obviously, no one is going to say "Yes," but when you are actually making the film, you aren't sure whether you are or not. When you are making it, you just try to make it as well as you can while hoping that it doesn't turn out terrible. You just do what seems right.

C: From the films that you have made that are based on true events, you have a fierce loyalty to telling the truth. Correct me if I am wrong but it looked to me as if Daniel Pearl was not shown in any scene in this film in a situation that is speculative--it is always something that can be confirmed, where someone definitely saw him. Why was that important?

MW: There is a very speculative book out about Daniel Pearl called "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" After we got to the point of agreeing to do the film, the first thing to do was to go to Pakistan and start researching and just before doing that, I read this speculative book about him and when I did that, I thought that I didn't want to go to Pakistan because it seemed too scary and it also made me feel like the Pakistan government would never let us film there. It was a bit of a panic and in a way, that book is effective because you come away from it as if it was a good detective story or thriller but it was also kind of false. Once you start speculating, you just get into this area and that was not an area we needed to get into in the film. It was so speculative, in fact, that it put me off going anywhere in that direction. It was an easy choice to make because this story is about Mariane and her experience. We followed the shape of her book through her experiences and the people that she meets are really the people in the house. It is really about Danny's absence and not about what is going on with him. It seemed like that would be an effective way of telling the story as well. Since I had talked to all of the people who were in the house and the actors had talked to them as well, we had all this information that was cross-referenced by six or seven different people so it seemed redundant to start making up other stuff that no one could possibly know.

Q: How did Dan Futterman get involved with the project?

MW: Basically he came in on a normal casting call. We saw a bunch of people in New York and Los Angeles and when I met him, I thought he was the right person. It was really just meeting and talking to him--I thought he had the right kind of intelligence and personality. I think what also predisposed me towards him is that he was a writer and I liked that idea. I really admired the script that he had written and it gave me a lot of confidence in him as a person.

Q: One of the unavoidable things that a filmmaker must face in telling a story like A MIGHTY HEART is that practically everyone who buys a ticket to see it is fully aware of how the story ends. How much of a challenge was it for you as a filmmaker to tell a story along those lines, especially when the ending is as grim and tragic as the one seen here?

MW: It didn't strike me as that much of a problem, but maybe it was more of a problem than I realized. I think that the only thing that people really know is what happened to Danny--they know that he was kidnapped in Pakistan and then beheaded--but I'm not sure that they know anything beyond that. Let's face it, when you do a completely fictional film, you often think that it is more interesting to tell people the end and then flash back to the beginning and tell what happened up until that point. It never struck me as a particular problem that you knew what the conclusion of the kidnapping was. Really, the film is more about Mariane--her response to the kidnapping and the news of his death, her relations to the other people in the house, and their relationships to the investigation outside. When I read Mariane's book, I found all that stuff interesting and I hope that people feel the same when they watch the film.

C: In some of your other films, improvisation has played an important part. Was that a part of this film or was this something that wasn't suited for that?

MW: The screenplay was taken from the book and the conversations with all of the main characters. Then the actors went off and met the characters and they would get another version of the story along with some other material as well. Because Mariane basically stays in the house for the whole story, we had five weeks in one house and that made it incredibly easy to shoot the film in chronological order. We could start and just plod our way through the story and we shot it in pretty much the same period of time as the story. As the actors began to get to know each other a little better and by the end, there was a network of relationships that was similar to how Mariane had described the house. By the time they got together for that final dinner when Mariane is telling them not to feel bad, it really felt like they were that group of people. Within that, each day would have scenes with dialog that would roughly tell you the information that needed to be told but then you could chat around it for quite a long time.

Q: The one scene that I was curious about was the one towards the end when Mariane learns of Daniel's death and goes off into a room by herself to have her brief emotional breakdown after having been seen throughout the film as very calm and controlled. It is the one cathartic moment when her character gets to let everything pour out but that is the kind of over-the-top moment that is usually best suited for soap operas or Oscar clip reels if it isn't done right. Can you talk about how you developed that particular scene so that it would still fit in with the tone of the rest of the film?

MW: Everyone describes how Mariane never really showed any kind of weakness or emotion in the house, but they also said that when they finally found out the news, there was huge outpouring of grief and they all pretty much described it the same way. When it came to do it, we knew why things happened and who said what from the real accounts and we sort of blocked it out. It was obviously clear by that point, after shooting for three or four weeks, that we were trying to make sure that we didn't portray Mariane by making her too emotional--the whole point was not to give in to those emotions since she stayed strong by not giving in to those emotions. She spent the entire time trying to clamp down on those emotions and in a weird way, from our end, that was probably harder than going through and revealing the emotions because actors don't want to come across as cold. It was then critical that we have that kind of release because once she had that release, they realized what she had been keeping inside. We just blocked it out and ran through it. Angelina was completely there from take 1 so after that first take, it was just a question of making sure that the cameras were in the right place so that we didn't completely fuck it up.

C: You aren't a director who likes to repeat himself and yet this is the third film that you have made on what is going on in this region [IN THIS WORLD and ROAD TO GUANTANAMO]. The other two films are small stories that represent much larger ones and I guess that with A MIGHTY HEART, you could look at it as a small and intimate story that is also the kicking-off point of more than 200 journalists being killed since these events happened. Were you conscious of that as well--that this isn't just a love story and a kidnapping but that it also ushered in a new level of journalists being killed?

MW: At the time, it was shocking because it seemed to be the first of that type and it had a certain resonance because of that. If you compare this to ROAD TO GUANTANAMO, I think they are kind of quite similar stories--they are both individual stories of people who get caught up in the acts of 9/11 with extreme actions on both sides. It didn't seem to me as that was the point for doing the film because there have been hundreds of thousands of people killed and it doesn't really matter if they were journalists or women or children--they are all people who have died unnecessarily and a lot of them have died. In a sense, that is what gives a kind of resonance to a film like this or a film like GUANTANAMO--the way that the polarization of the two sides since 9/11 is still going on. You could take a story that no one had ever heard of and it would still hopefully have the same impact.

Q: For a film of this nature, where you are obviously imparting a lot of detailed information throughout, how long does it take in the editing room to put together a cut of the film that conveys that information without causing viewers to get hopelessly lost or bogged down in those details?

MW: You just have to keep messing around with it. We finished the main filming in the beginning of December but between getting back from India and the Christmas holiday, we didn't really get going until the beginning of January. With editing, you can keep at it forever, so it does help in some way to have a deadline. At some point, we decided that we were going to try to get it ready for Cannes, even though we weren't sure whether we could. In the end, we were working right up until the last second before Cannes--about five months. In this case, the film had a lot of dialog and in some of the other films that we have done in this style, they have been pretty sparse with dialog, which is easier in a way. In this one, you have to look at the pictures and listen to the dialog as well. For the first cut, I had to kind of wade through everything and pulling out the stuff that I liked and then seeing what I had. That first stage took about six or seven weeks just to look through everything and pull stuff but after that, it got a bit quicker. The truth is that if the deadline had been August 1st instead of May 1st, I would probably still be working on it. With the first four or five cuts, you are obviously making it better to yourself but at a certain point, the changes get pretty marginal--some things get better and some things get worse--and you realize that although you are changing it, you aren't necessarily making it better. On this one, we were working on it up until about four days before we showed it, so it was quite a scramble in the end.

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