Director Michael Winterbottom's widely varied films include The Road to Guantanamo, Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Code 46, and Welcome to Sarajevo, among others. During a recent San Francisco visit, Winterbottom told me about his approach to adapting Mariane Pearl's book A Mighty Heart with Angelina Jolie in the leading role. We chatted in San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel on June 7, 2007.
Groucho: Can you explain your production process and how it affects the unique results you get visually and also in terms of performance?
Michael Winterbottom: Well the idea is just to make the film as simply as possible. So obviously it depends what you're making exactly how that works. In this case, the first thing we did when we started work was go to Pakistan and was really for me to meet some of the people who were in the house. And also to go to locations and see the locations. But it took two or three people: Marcel Zyskind, the DOP, came—we took a camera in, as well—and Marko [Mark Digby], the designer, a couple of other people. So at that point there's like three or four of us just traveling around shooting traffic shots and second unit of the Hotel Akbar, and the place where they stayed in Islamabad, the guest house, and so on. Because we weren't sure we could get back in. So then the second trip—we spent quite a lot of time casting actors in Pakistan and looking at locations and setting up production, trying to persuade the government that we could film there. And we sort of thought we had, so we started filming: we did about two and a half weeks filming in Karachi. So then we were sort of slightly bigger. So then at that point we were like—so Danny Futterman came over for a few days. We had a lot of Pakistan actors, we were working with the real police, so we did a lot of police raids. And we were lucky—it meant we could shoot things like Danny in the Hotel Akbar, in the real Hotel Akbar in Rawalpindi. We shot the scenes in Islamabad in Islamabad, we shot the Village Restaurant where he gets arrested was in the real Village Restaurant where it all took place—but that's all still very simple stuff; it's out and about in the streets. So we had really half a dozen local Pakistani crew, all really great, really young, enthusiastic people. A lot of local kind of cast. They weren't necessarily professional actors; they were just people we met. Some were actors and some were people we met and thought were good. So that was still like maybe twenty of us, about fifteen people from the U.K. And still had no camera and no lights, that sort of stuff. And then we went to India and did the interior of the house, which obviously is bigger. It's more people there, probably twenty or thirty security, let alone anything else. But it still was the basic same principle of let's keep it very simple. We shot in sequence, pretty much—in a period of five weeks. We started at the beginning and ended at the end. As new characters came in, new actors would come in. So the idea was to kind of create an atmosphere in the house that was not dissimilar to the atmosphere that we're trying to get in the film. We had lights; we had lights outside, but it's basically still the same thing of everyone wears radio mics, so they can wander where they want to go. There's no like, "Stand here and say this and start here." It's like they can do what they want to do. We run around with the camera following them. We always did the whole scene as one scene, and then we'll stop, so the scene would go on five to ten minutes. So people have a script, but they also have to kind of improvise off of it. And there they have to listen to what everyone else is saying, because everyone says something different each time. You actually have to listen to what the other person is saying and respond to that, rather than just waiting for their lines. I have to say, by the end of that period in the house, they'd all got to know each other well. So by the time we were filming the dinner scene at the end—the goodbye scene, people were really close. It was the end of our shoot. These people, a lot from all sorts of backgrounds, actually got to know each other pretty well. So what we do is just try and do things as simply as possible. It was a very long answer for what should be—
G: I know the screenplay is a guideline, but can you explain your role in crafting it? 'Cause you mention the interviews that you conducted as research. I wonder if those predated or postdated the script.
MW: 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 wasn't like it was radically different. It was still exactly the same story obviously. So we went down and talked about it. So having talked through it all, I kind of then worked on the screenplay with a writer Laurence Coriat who I'd worked with before on Wonderland; he's a French writer. And we did some work on it to kind of really just to get back to the book. It wasn't really worrying too much about how the screenplay was written; it was just like "Let's get back to the book. Let's try and get the chronology straight. Because the chronology from the book's not always obvious when you get down to details. "Do I understand exactly what happened when?" So we went back not only to the book but to a chronology that they had before they wrote the book. And also, as you said, I went and met all the people who were in the house and got their versions of events and tried to clarify the chronology from their point of view as well. And obviously any group of people remembering something remember it in a slightly different way. So I tried to straighten out the chronology in the script back to what actually happened. And then it was really just a question of deciding which bits to keep and which to not. By the time I'd met all ten of them, I had a huge amount of options of what people were doing. Everyone was doing their own stuff outside of the house; everyone was working incredibly hard to do whatever they could to help the situation, and most of that had to be avoided—not avoided, but we had to leave out because we just didn't have time. In the end we had to say, "Well, this is Mariane's film, it's Mariane's story, it's Mariane's perspective." And obviously it was helpful to talk to Captain. He had worked with me on the investigation. I also talked to the guy who ran the CPLC, whose real name is Jameel Yusuf, and it's Kaleem Yusuf in the story. And got a lot of information from him. Some of that contradicted each other. You know, it was like who worked out what, and what happened? I talked to Dost, and he had a slightly different version of what happened, as well. I talked to Danny's fixer in Islamabad; he was the person who went with him to meetings with Arif and with Bashir. So I've got his description of those meetings. And he was the only person really who'd been there. And to be fair to all of them, Mariane wrote the book very much from her point of view. 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 exactly what everyone else remembered. So there are lots of things which everyone agreed on, but there was obviously, when you get to the margins of what was going on with Danny and his fixer, what was the meeting like with Bashir, what was the meeting like with Arif, we had versions that were more first-hand in a way than the versions in Mariane's book. So obviously if we felt that was more accurate, we'd go with that. If there were differences of opinion which were more like "Well, this is a contradiction," then we talked about it again and tried to work it out, what seems—try to get them to agree in a way—
G: So your role was like an investigative journalist.
MW: Exactly. And you could have done a kind of Rashomon—all the different—yeah, you could've definitely done a sort of Citizen Kane scenario. All these different people remembering all these different things, and what is the truth? (Pause.) But that wasn't what we were doing.
G: Ironically, it seemed like the film almost extended into the Cannes press conference when Chris Burns asked forgiveness of Mariane Pearl. You couldn't have staged a better moment to highlight the themes of the film. You didn't stage it, did you?
MW: (Laughs nervously.) No, I think, um, someone staged it. But it wasn't us. Uh, yeah, no, it was—well, you know, it was weird. I mean, it's a weird moment to pick, I think, to ask that. I mean, not necessarily saying it would be a weird question to ask, but when there's like 250 people in the room, or fifty cameras, it would be quite an odd moment to pick—he did say all this on camera in front of the biggest possible audience you could have—maybe he could have found a quieter moment—You know, Mariane handled it very well. I have to say Mariane is incredibly impressive when you meet her. I mean, when I first met her, she impressed me right away. She's just incredibly warm and friendly and kind of open. And then the press conference so I was impressed again. Because she's like—when you think of all the conflicting emotions she must feel, and how difficult it must be to be asked questions that are interesting, questions that are not so interesting, and have those kind of moments, and she handles everything with a lot of—she's very good at sort of handling the situation—much better.
G: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of A Mighty Heart, click here.]