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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector Series-Michael Winterbottom-A Mighty Heart

Director Series-Michael Winterbottom-A Mighty Heart

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Ripped from the headlines may be a cliche, but few films merit that description more than A Mighty Heart, which describes in excruciating detail the hostage-taking and subsequent horrific beheading on video a month later of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in January 2002 by al-Qaeda terrorists. The movie starts with Pearl heading to a clandestine meeting in hot pursuit of al-Qaeda shoe bomber Richard Reid when he gets kidnapped, in large part because he is Jewish.
A Mighty Heart stars Angelina Jolie, who delivers a deeply-felt and Oscar-worthy performance as the central figure in the film. She plays Mariane Pearl, the six-months pregnant wife of the abducted journalist. She has come to Karachi with her husband, prior to a planned vacation for the couple, as he goes off on a final reporting task and disappears. She then goes through the nail-biting ordeal of the search that ends when she learns he was murdered, and breaks down in a primal expression of grief. The emotional scene is effectively filmed by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, with Jolie in almost total darkness.
Aside from being drawn to the part, the participation of superstar Jolie in the relatively low-budget production can be explained by the fact that one of its main producers is husband Brad Pitt and his Plan B Productions (which was also one of the producers of The Departed). Pitt optioned Mariane Pearl’s memoir of the events which serve as the basis for the script. Meanwhile, dogged reporter Pearl is convincingly played by actor-writer Daniel Futterman, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for his screenplay for Capote.
For innovative and prolific English director Michael Winterbottom, who has done 14 films in the last dozen years, A Mighty Heart represents a summation of much of his previous work. A number of his past films have also dealt with the implications of terrorism in today’s multicultural world. Some have also included journalists as characters. Winterbottom started in documentaries, but switched to docudramas in 1997 with Welcome to Sarajevo, about a British television journalist caught up in the internecine Balkan wars.
He also has demonstrated his versatility in that span with comedies, movies about rock bands, and a futuristic science-fiction parable. Last year he directed The Road to Guantanamo. It’s the true story of three young men held without charges for two years in the notorious American prison who ultimately get released from Gitmo. Guantanamo won the Silver Bear for best direction at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2006.
A Mighty Heart, meanwhile, is Winterbottom’s first major studio film. It debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released in late June, with boutique Paramount Vantage handling worldwide distribution.
Winterbottom’s success in completely immersing viewers in the story of the film and its crowded, pungent and dangerous Third World setting owes much to his behind-the-scenes crew chiefs, all of whom have worked with Winterbottom on previous films.
They include Zyskind, the young Danish director of photography who has lensed seven of the director’s films; production designer Mark Digby; editor Peter Christelis; sound engineer Joakim Sundström; and costume designer Charlotte Walter. The spare score was composed by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman (daughter of composer Michael Nyman), interlaced with appropriate ethnic sounds. Special kudos should also go to casting director Wendy Brazington, who helped find the multitude of Pakistani and Indian actors who are characters in the movie.
Before filming started, Winterbottom and Mariane Pearl, along with producers Dede Gardner and Andrew Eaton, flew to Namibia where Jolie and Pitt were living at the time. It helped that Pearl and Jolie hit it off famously. For the film, the stunning Jolie was deglamourized. With her hair in curly ringlets, she bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Mariane. Also during prep, the director had all the other actors try to meet and get to know their real-life equivalents. Futterman met with Pearl’s parents and friends.
By coincidence, Winterbottom had been shooting in the Asian subcontinent when the real-life drama unfolded. “I was in Pakistan in 2001 when Daniel and Mariane were covering the war in Afghanistan,” he says. He was there making In This World, about an Afghani couple using smugglers to get them to England. “And we heard about Pearl’s death while in Peshawar. So I had my own experience of Pakistan when I read Mariane’s book, and I was impressed.”
A Mighty Heart was shot almost entirely on location, first in Pakistan, then in the south of France for a flashback scene of Dan and Mariane’s wedding ceremony, and finally to India, for nearly two months of filming. The shooting in India began in Pune, where many Pakistanis live. A lot of the film occurs when Mariane stays at the house of one of Dan’s colleagues from the Journal. The house, creatively decorated in a contemporary style by Digby, with a dramatic octagonal table which serves as a kind of central headquarters for those trying to find the reporter’s whereabouts. Finally, on to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), for several weeks and a wrap.
Principal photography began with filming in Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. “We filmed on the streets and in the real locations that Danny went to,” says the director. Much of it was done in hit-and-run documentary fashion both for versimilitude and because the director was worried that he might be asked to leave the country because of the politically controversial nature of the subject matter. Some of it reflected poorly on how the head of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, responded to Pearl’s disappearance — especially when he was questioned at a news conference about the possibility that the country’s notorious secret service might have been involved. Musharaf appears in the actual television broadcast, as does then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell intermittently as the crisis builds. Other documentary footage is also seamlessly interwoven.
Therefore, in the scenes in Pakistan, the shoot moved quickly. “But I don’t think it would have been possible to make A Mighty Heart without filming in Pakistan,” says the director. The whole point of making the film would be lost — we want the audience to trust that they are seeing an accurate account of what happened.”
Zyskind shot much of the film in verite style with a handheld DV camera. Natural lighting was used as much as possible. Most of the time, Winterbottom, seeking spontaneity, skipped rehearsals for the actors and encouraged improvisation. “We try to shoot the whole scene as it would naturally happen, and we shoot the entire scene on each take to allow a natural rhythm to develop,” says the director. “The scene can then change and evolve with each performance.” Winterbottom even skipped saying “action” when the cinemtographer began shooting a scene. “I have worked with Marcel so often, he knows almost instinctively what I want,” says the director. But sometimes he needed to grab Zyskind by the back of his shirt to show him where he wanted him to move while the camera was rolling.
Supervising sound editor Sundström added a lot to the atmosphere, as the sounds of the settings were rendered with uncanny accuracy. “We used a lot of radio marks — there was a radio mark for every actor,” says Winterbottom. “There was a lot of piecing together of sync sound.” Sundström did the same fine job last year on The Constant Gardner, which takes place in another dangerous Third World locale. He was nominated for a BAFTA last year for his work on that film.
Finally the rapid-fire beat of the editing by Christelis contributed to the building tension and pace in A Mighty Heart. Many of the edits last only a few seconds. But despite the complex nature of the detailed story and the re
lentless pace of editing, along with use of some flashbacks and time shifts, the story line is surprisingly easy to follow. In many ways it plays out like a police procedural.
What’s ahead for Winterbottom? At the end of June he’s scheduled to start shooting his next movie, Genova, in Italy. It’s a ghost story about two American girls and their British father who move to Italy after their mother dies. That’s a change of pace and another new genre for the director.

Written by Jack Egan

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