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A Mighty Heart - Michael Winterbottom interview

Michael Winterbottom (right) directs A Mighty Heart

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PROLIFIC British director Michael Winterbottom talks about making A Mighty Heart, the film about murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and working with Angelina Jolie.

He also discusses some of the challenges of filming on location in Pakistan and working with the film’s producer, Brad Pitt…

Did you have to think twice about taking on A Mighty Heart given that it would be your second film in a row that was connected to the war on terror?
Michael Winterbottom: Hopefully, whenever you do a film you think about it a little bit and we had just done Road To Guantanamo, so there was a sense that the timing wasn’t great. We’d been due to do a film in Italy last summer, so originally we said maybe we should do that first but they [Plan B and Paramount Vantage] said they needed to do it now. So it was a little bit of a shame that we were doing a film that was a little bit in the same area and set in the same time. But on the other hand, I thought Mariane [Pearl]‘s book was very powerful and it was a chance to try and match it.

But this is a very different film about the war on terror in that it almost celebrates the triumph of the human spirit at the darkest of times?
Michael Winterbottom: Sure, yeah. From my point of view, having read Mariane’s book, we were going to keep the film very simple and try and focus on Mariane, like you say, and the people in the house, which is what the book does. We really sort of borrowed the shape and structure of how she tells the story in the book.

Angelina Jolie gives what is arguably the performance of her career. How did you enjoy working with her?
Michael Winterbottom: I thought she was great. I first met her with Brad [Pitt] and my own dad in Namibia when we were talking about whether we were going to do it or not. I think there were lots of things that were very, very lucky from our point of view because both Brad and Angelina knew Mariane and were really personally committed to making it a story. Also, I think Mariane and Angelina are very similar in lots of ways – Mariane’s views about journalism are quite similar to Angelina’s views about her work with the UN and so on. So, I think the reason why Angelina wanted to do it was because she connected to Mariane and felt she recognised a lot of things in her.

From the very beginning, when she started working on the film, she was great. When we talked to other people in the house about Mariane, they said she was clearly trying to make a group of very disparate people feel like part of a team and part of a family [during Daniel’s missing days], and I think Angelina was aware of that and wanted to do the same thing with the film. She was very inclusive of everyone from the most junior member of the crew upwards. Everyone felt very relaxed and very much part of the group as opposed to there being a star and then everyone else.

Everyone is obviously going to be talking about Angelina’s performance. But Dan Futterman is also superb as Daniel Pearl…
Michael Winterbottom: Yeah, we went out and did some casting in America with all the people that we thought were possible but once I’d met him I kind of felt he should be the priority because he’s a good actor and he’s also physically very similar to Daniel. That’s important because while you’re not necessarily trying to impersonate someone you’re kind of looking for someone who has some of the same characteristics. But Dan’s a writer himself and that was important because some actors sometimes try to over compensate for being what a journalist is like.

Dan is very bright and intelligent, I thought he wrote a great script for Capote, and I liked the sense that he had another aspect to him besides being an actor and that he could bring that to Daniel a little bit. I also think he was a little bit nervous about coming to Pakistan because he was the only American in the end who did come out. I’m sure he had some reservations about doing it but I think it ultimately really helped because he overcame those worries. And because we were taking him into some of the real locations, it helped his understanding of the character and the situation as to what the experience might have really been like.

Did you get to meet Mariane yourself?
Michael Winterbottom: Yes. The whole thing was quite compressed with time. So, I met her briefly in Paris and then we all went down and had about three days in Namibia, which was the longest period we were together. After that, she gave instructions to all the other people so I went off to Pakistan and then America meeting all the people that were in the house with her. As soon as we got the shape of the script down I went back to Paris to talk it through with her and after that we were off filming. So, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time together but she was always very open and very supportive if we needed help.

And yet at the same time, from the very beginning she was very hands off in terms of content. She never said anything like: “You must change this.” Or: “You can’t do that.” She very much felt that we should make the film and she’d help but she didn’t want to be involved.

Has she seen the film?
Michael Winterbottom: Yes. We showed it to her before we took it to Cannes and she was very positive about it in the sense that you could be about that sort of experience. I’m sure the whole thing was difficult for her but she chose to write the book and obviously felt it was important to tell her version of the story. At the same time, every time you have to revisit something like that it’s not a very pleasant experience.

How easy was it to gain access to some of the real locations you used?
Michael Winterbottom: Most of the exterior stuff we tried to shoot in the places where it happened, such as the place where Daniel was kidnapped – even places where some people were arrested. But because of Mariane’s introductions, I met all the other people that were there, such as Captain [the police investigator played by Irfan Khan], who were very co-operative. It meant we had easy access to the locations in order to find out where things happened and to make sure we got the story accurate.

But given that it’s quite a problematic story in a lot of ways for Pakistan I wasn’t sure how much help we’d get and in the end we had a lot of co-operation and a lot of problems. The intelligence agency was basically quite hostile to the project and made things difficult, whereas people like the police and the interior ministry were supportive.

What were some of the biggest problems you faced?
Michael Winterbottom: From the beginning the intelligence agencies were following us the whole time and they would hassle the crew a little bit. We also weren’t always sure what was going on. When we started filming we thought we had most of the permissions from Islamabad but we never had exactly the right document. We were all very open about it and everyone knew what we were trying to do [with the movie] but at the same time… we started filming thinking we were OK and the police in Karachi were helping us but then after about two days they stopped helping us.

Our local crew especially began to get more hassle from the intelligence agency people who kept stopping them and making them feel uncomfortable. They would also always be there filming us when we were filming. When they eventually arrested some of the people we were working with we said: “OK, we’re going to leave the country, we’re going to complain about it all and we’re going to kick up as much fuss as we can because this film can’t work here because of your attitude.” They then backed off a bit and in the end the Culture Ministry was trying to encourage us to come back and make more films.

I think it’s like any country, though. Pakistan is not a unified country where everyone feels the same – we had people who were genuinely very supportive and people who were very involved in the investigation who were very proud of the work they did and therefore wanted the film to be made. But at the same time we had other people that felt it reflected badly on Pakistan. We were lucky in the end that we were able to shoot pretty much everything we wanted to shoot.

How involved was Brad Pitt as producer?
Michael Winterbottom: It was very much his idea. As I understand it, he wanted to get the rights to the book and he was the person who persuaded Mariane to give the rights. I think she was in two minds about whether that was a good idea. But he gave us the ability and the freedom to make the film and was very supportive of the things we wanted to do. It became a co-production between the company that myself and Andrew have and Plan B.

It’s a British film and that meant we could go off and do stuff in Pakistan the way we normally do it, which perhaps we wouldn’t be able to do if we were working for an American studio because they have all sorts of red tape and are more nervous about places like Pakistan and Iraq. So Brad was great. He was there when we were filming in India and, to be honest, he was there to be with his family. Obviously, at the end he was great as well because he helped to make sure that everyone from the studio side and our side was roughly in the same area about what we were trying to do with the film.

The film opened to mostly positive reviews in America. Was that pleasing? Were you concerned about the American response?
Michael Winterbottom: I went over there a little bit before the opening and everyone seemed to have a good response to it, which was great. But once you’ve made a film it’s weird because of course it’s great when people like it but at the same time it doesn’t really kind of affect your own feelings about the film that much. You’ve been involved with it for so long that it’s nice on a social level if people are relaxed about it because they’re happy with it but at the same time there’s a part of you that feels that once you’ve made it, it’s done, it’s finished, so there’s no point in continuing to worry about it. You have to start worrying about the next film instead…

And what is the next film?
Michael Winterbottom: We’ve just been filming in Italy, so it’s set in Genoa and Colin Firth is playing a British guy who has been living in America for 20 years. He’s got two daughters, who are 12 and 15, but they’ve been in a car crash with their mother and she has died. It starts just after that, as they leave America and go to Genoa for a year, where he will lecture in university. But they’re sort of in limbo – they’ve left America and their friends and they’re waiting to start their new life in Italy – it’s August and everyone is on holiday, so they have a month before they start just to hang out in the summer. Basically, it’s about three people in limbo before they start their new life.

Read our review of A Mighty Heart

Read our interview with Angelina Jolie