Michael Winterbottom's OF A  Pearl

Michael Winterbottom, right, points the way forward as the cameraman trains his lens on Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, during the filming of Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart", which opens on June 22 in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Peter Mountain/Paramount Vantage)

By Omar P.L. Moore | The Popcorn Reel

June 12, 2007


A difficult situation: here was director Michael Winterbottom trying to film his new movie in Pakistan, only to find out that Irrfan Khan, an actor from India, had his visa application denied by the Pakistani authorities.  So the director improvised: since the actor could not come to Pakistan, Pakistan had to come to him.  Pakistani actors were flown into India and their scenes with Mr. Khan -- many of them critical to Mr. Winterbottom's new film "A Mighty Heart" -- were shot there.    

This was just one of several challenges that the cast and crew faced when making the film, which opens in the United States and Canada on June 22.  For those who may have forgotten, or need refreshing, in January of 2002 Wall Street Journal South Asian bureau chief and reporter Daniel Pearl, an American, was abducted and kidnapped in Pakistan.  He had been in Pakistan to investigate the possibility that Richard Reid, the would-be shoe-bomber caught just before boarding a plane in December 2001, was connected to a Muslim cleric in Karachi, Pakistan, Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Galani.  After three weeks of investigation, frantic searches, urgent pleas and failed leads in the search for the journalist, Pearl was murdered early in February 2002.  Pearl's fatal demise was captured on videotape, and after having his throat slit by his captors, a group of Islamic extremists, he was beheaded. 

"A Mighty Heart" deals discreetly with the violent last minutes of Mr. Pearl's life by not showing any violence.  The film isn't about Mr. Pearl's violent end, rather his enduring imprint on the life of his surviving wife. 

To that end, another challenge was to balance the political dimensions that factored into Pearl's murder with the emotion and strong feelings of love that Mariane Pearl, herself a journalist (with the publication Global Diary), an award-winning documentary film director -- and now a widow -- had -- and still has -- for her late husband.  Mariane's book A Mighty Heart: The Brave Story Of The Life And Death Of My Husband Danny Pearl became the basis of the director's film, which was written by John Orloff.  Winterbottom, the director of such diverse films and documentaries as "The Road To Guantanamo", about three British nationals imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for two years without being charged for any terrorist crimes; "Butterfly Kiss", "With Or Without You", "In This World", "24 Hour Party People" and "9 Songs" -- had never before taken on such a high-profile real-life story that had caught the world's attention as this one had, and he was in San Francisco recently to talk about it.

"Obviously there's two completely separate strands of the film, one of which is Mariane in the house . . . her relationship to the people in the house like Asra (Archie Punjabi) and Captain (Irrfan Khan) and the Wall Street journalists who arrive."  Mr. Winterbottom, from Blackburn, England, speaks very quickly and in a low monotone voice -- he may have had a head cold on this day -- but you can still hear every word he is saying.  He is a slight figure, wearing a black shirt and jeans, with black-and-white plimsoles on his feet as he alternatively reclines and shifts forward in what looks like a reasonably comfortable chair.  

"I decided right or wrongly that that [the activity in the house with Mariane and the other participants] was the center of the film . . . [m]y idea was to try and make an adaptation of the book -- of course we're trying to deal with that -- we're also telling Mariane's version of those events -- we start with Mariane talking, we end with Mariane talking.  It's kind of like those events seen through Mariane's eyes.  And then within that, you know her book is able -- because her book is more free to kind of go more off into backgrounds, to go into political backgrounds, contexts and so on.  Which is hard to do in a film."

Image:Daniel pearl highres.jpg
Mariane Pearl, Global Diary journalist, author and widow (of Daniel Pearl, right.)  In 2003, Ms. Pearl's memoir A Mighty Heart: The Brave Story of The Life And Death Of My Husband Danny Pearl hit bookshelves.  Mr. Winterbottom's film is based on Pearl's memoir, and is released by Paramount Vantage.  The movie will open in theaters in the U.S. and Canada on June 22.  (Photo of Mariane Pearl uncredited; photo of Daniel Pearl appears in Ms. Pearl's memoir A Mighty Heart).  Daniel Pearl, a journalist and South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, was savagely executed by Islamic fundamentalists in 2002 after being abducted and kidnapped while in Karachi, Pakistan.  He had been in Pakistan to investigate the possibility that would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid was connected to a prominent and respected Muslim cleric in Pakistan, whom Pearl had come to interview.

Photo of  Tamara Tunie Photo of  Sophie Okonedo
Brad Pitt brought in Angelina Jolie (far right, as Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart") to play Pearl, and while Jolie is astounding and brilliant as the widowed journalist and author, some may wonder whether Tamara Tunie (far left) or Sophie Okonedo, (center, Oscar nominee for "Hotel Rwanda") could have played Mariane Pearl.  (Photo of Tunie: Stephen Lovekin/WireImage; photo of Okonedo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage; photo of Jolie: Peter Mountain/Paramount Vantage)

Once the structure of the film was decided, Winterbottom knew exactly where he wanted to take the audience. 

The objective, he said, was to "try to kind of briefly show glimpses of their past, glimpses of the events leading up to Danny's kidnap, to show enough of the investigation that Captain and the FBI and so on were doing, to try and show what was going on about trying to find Danny, and try to at least uncover some aspects of who might have been responsible for the kidnapping.  And through the chart and other things try to see at least some sense of how complex the relationship between different groups, different individuals is -- but that is already going to be quite a lot to do."

Other contextual aspects, such as locales -- where Pakistan is as a country in the narrative; trying to connect Danny Pearl's visit of Pakistan to the larger broader picture of Pakistani society for the uninitiated filmgoer -- and orienting the viewer to these and other nuances, added a lot more to the plate of the filmmaker and his team.

Still, Winterbottom tried to stay as close to the real-life events as possible, unwilling to do what many filmmakers are tempted to: take dramatic license.  "Within the story . . . there are things where sometimes not much happens in a period of time then you get two or three things in one day that all kind of come together, which in a drama you would kind of definitely not do because it's very -- kind of awkward."

Maryela and younger sister Natalia, residents in a poverty-stricken village in Colombia.  This photo was part of a story Mariane Pearl wrote on her travels in Columbia, for the publication Global Diary, for which Pearl writes.  Mariane Pearl is also an award-winning film director, a former host of a radio program in France, and has written for Telerama.  Ms. Pearl has been a journalist for almost 20 years.

Mariane Pearl, who was six months pregnant with her son Adam just days before Daniel Pearl's murder in February 2002, would be one of the film's biggest advocates.  It was she, after all, who gave her blessing to the film and was one of its consultants.  (Asra Nomani was the other.) In an interview with Glamour magazine last year, Pearl admitted that initially she "wasn't even sure [she] wanted to do a movie," citing that"[e]verybody was using terrorism for their own political agenda at that time, and really, this is a story about Danny.  But when I met [producer] Brad [Pitt] -- well, out of all the studios, he was the only one who had actually read the book!"

Brad Pitt had befriended Mariane Pearl before he and Angelina Jolie became a couple.  Mr. Pitt's Plan B production company got behind "A Mighty Heart", with Pitt and fellow Plan B producer and company president Dede Gardner producing Winterbottom's film along with Andrew Eaton, who co-founded Revolution Films with Winterbottom. 

Jolie, who won an Oscar for her supporting role in the 1999 film "Girl, Interrupted" wanted to do the film because she admired Mariane's courage, poise and tolerance in the aftermath of her husband's slaying, although in an interview with Glamour Pearl said that when she first learned of her husband's murder she "grabbed an AK-47 from one of the guards."  Later in the same interview Pearl confessed that "[i]f they had brought a person who was guilty [of murdering her husband] to the house, I would have shot him."  It was at that moment though, that Mariane Pearl revolutionized her thought process.  "But I would have destroyed everything Danny believed in, and everything we did as a couple -- and I couldn't do that.  Putting that gun down was my biggest act of courage."

Angelina Jolie and Mariane Pearl in a meeting in 2006, shortly before Jolie began production on "A Mighty Heart".  Brad Pitt had been friends with Mariane Pearl before Michael Winterbottom got to direct the film.  Pitt put Pearl in touch with Jolie, and Mariane gave her blessing to the film and was a consultant.  Never did Mariane try to control anything when filming, Winterbottom said.  Pitt's Plan B Productions produced the film, which also stars "Capote" screenwriter Dan Futterman (right) as Daniel Pearl.  (Jolie-Pearl photo: Marvi Lacar/Glamour; Futterman photo: Peter Mountain)

Of Mariane, the director said that "she trusted them [Pitt and Jolie] to make the film that she would want . . . Mariane was incredibly supportive and helpful.  But never, ever for a second sort of gave the impression that she wanted to control what was in the film.  She was very, very nice to work with."  The director met with Mariane in Paris for three days during which they discussed her experiences.  "It was very helpful listening to her . . . she's a very impressive person to talk to," said Winterbottom.

Winterbottom received Mariane Pearl's book two years before he was handed the directorial reigns of the film.  Her memoir book recalls her passion for her husband, detailing his idiosyncratic behavior, his courage, wisdom and love, as well as his ideals and beliefs about the world and the people who live in it.  Mariane's book also recalls the humorous moments the couple shared, including a joke that Daniel Pearl cracks.  After Mariane receives the news that she is carrying a boy inside her and tells Danny that it feels a little strange to her to have the male sex inside her, she writes that he said: "You know honey, that's how it all started . . . ".  The book also details her impressions about some of the people around her, including Asra Nomani -- Mariane's friend and Mr. Pearl's colleague at the Wall Street Journal.  Nomani is described in the book as a "most unconventional woman."  Nomani is an Indian-born Muslim who was raised in the American state of West Virginia.  In 2002 Nomani was in Karachi to finish research on a book she was writing about Tantra called Tantrika: Traveling The Road Of Divine Love.  Tantra is associated with the Kama Sutra and its sexual practices.

                  *            *            *

The film crew had its share of obstacles while making "A Mighty Heart" in Pakistan.  Despite being helped out by some "really great people", Winterbottom said that the country is "a tricky place to know what's permitted and what's not permitted."  Even when things in Pakistan seemed okay they weren't necessarily comfortable or settled for the film crew.  "It's very bureaucratic," remarked the 46-year-old director.  "We had a few problems where we thought we had permissions that we didn't -- the intelligence agencies were quite hostile to the film." 

At first the crew had support from the police when filming in Pakistan, and then later, all of a sudden the support eroded almost instantaneously.  People began to follow, accost and hassle the crew.  "It all kind of got kind of quite messy," said the director, whose crew stopped filming for a couple of days.  After meeting with the intelligence agencies during the break in filming -- and when Winterbottom and co. left Pakistan for the last time -- the Pakistani culture minister entreated the crew to come back and film there and promised to finance their next film.  The magic words spoken by Winterbottom to the intelligence agencies during their meeting went something to the effect of: "if we leave, we will tell people that we left because you wouldn't let us film here."

"A Mighty Heart" was shot entirely with a high definition video camera, except for the archival news footage that is shown.  The film has a distinct documentary feel to it and is powered by Angelina Jolie's phenomenal performance as Mariane Pearl, certain to be among the list of nominees for an Academy Award come next January.  Archie Punjabi ("A Good Year") plays Asra Nomani, with Will Patton as Randall Bennett of the U.S. Embassy.  Irrfan Khan ("The Namesake") is a standout as Captain, the Pakistani chief investigator who leaves no stone unturned in his effort to find those who kidnapped and murdered Pearl, who was also the South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.

Irrfan Khan as Captain in "A Mighty Heart", which opens in the U.S. and Canada on June 22.  The movie poster right, showcases the relationship of Daniel Pearl and Mariane Pearl.  Dan Futterman and Angelina Jolie are pictured in the poster.  (Photo: Peter Mountain; poster: Paramount Vantage)

Michael Winterbottom has been talking about "A Mighty Heart" for many hours on this day, and one can tell that as much as he is invigorated by the challenge of bringing Mariane Pearl's story and recollections of Daniel Pearl to the big screen, he is just as happy to talk about other film ventures.  When asked about "24 Hour Party People" and its star, British comedian, satirist, actor and writer Steve Coogan, the director lights up, half-springing from the position in his chair. 

A smile spreads widely across his face.

"About two years ago, Steve and I were talking -- Steve was saying he kind of always wanted to do some sort of comedy in [outer] space.  I thought it was a really great idea.  And I thought it would be a really great idea to do a comedy in space where nothing happens.  The reality of space is that when you look at NASA websites . . . it's so boring.  It's sounds so exciting -- the idea -- but in reality . . .".  Winterbottom mentioned Danny Boyle's upcoming film "Sunshine".  He had discussions with a cinematographer and wanted to film on Mr. Boyle's set in London after "Sunshine" would wrap up its filming on each given day. 

The director kept pondering the idea of a big comedy on Boyle's undisturbed set with nothing happening, as a nightly contrast to the "Trainspotting" director's big, serious, epic space drama (which opened earlier this year across Europe to somewhat disappointing box-office returns.)  "So, Steve and Patrick ["Notes On A Scandal" writer Patrick Marber] and I, in fact, worked for a little bit of time on this idea that . . . Patrick and Steve were gonna be on the spaceship -- like two losers on a spaceship with nothing to do." 

Winterbottom spoke to "Sunshine" producer Andrew Macdonald and asked to film for about six hours during the night.  Winterbottom notes that Macdonald and Boyle were initially very enthusiastic about it.

"Then they came back and said, 'we won't let you -- you might damage our set at night, but you can do it -- as soon as we finish [the film] you can do it.'"  There were only a few meetings between Winterbottom, Coogan and Marber and the idea began to germinate into something more prominent.  "Paramount was going to do it," the director recalled.  Later however, as things began to take a turn for the not-so-great where the space comedy's actual filming was concerned, Winterbottom and Marber "got into a bit of a fight about it," the director said.  Winterbottom said that his own agent "hated that script" for the would-be outer space comedy.

Archie Punjabi (left) as Asra Nomani in Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart".  The real-life Nomani (pictured above) was also a consultant on the director's film, and was a colleague of Daniel Pearl at the Wall Street Journal.  Nomani, an author who is also a good friend of Mariane Pearl, is described in Pearl's memoir on which the film is based, as "a most unconventional woman."  (Photo: Peter Mountain/Paramount Vantage; Black and white photo of Asra Q. Nomani: Courtesy ICM)

When asked about his vacillation between comedy and dramas in his filmography, Mr. Winterbottom revealed, "I think the comedies are much more serious in reality."  He would like to do more films in the vein of "24 Hour Party People", but added that "it's harder to come up with an idea that's really silly." 

Winterbottom has several more films in the pipeline -- his feat of directing fifteen films over the last twelve years indicates that his restless energy will continue to burgeon.  This month he begins filming "Genova", starring Colin Firth, Catherine Keener and Hope Davis, in Genoa, Italy, and in Boston, Massachusetts.  He will then follow that with "Murder In Samarkand", about Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who was fired in 2004 when he pointed out the abuses and torture violence under the American and British-sponsored ruler Islom Karimov.  David Hare penned the script.  Mr. Coogan will play Murray in the film, which the director calls a comedy.  Winterbottom cites that Murray's memoir makes for funny and riveting reading, and mentions that the first seventy pages are largely devoted to stories about all the people Mr. Murray slept with while in St. Petersburg, Russia, before going off to Uzbekistan.

Winterbottom also gets a head start on a third film, which he won't complete for another five years.  Called "Seven Days", the film is about a convicted drug-smuggler behind bars who charts the relationship with his wife.  The director, true to his methods of realism, will shoot the film for several weeks at a time continuously over the next five years to accurately reflect the lead character's time in prison.

But the principal focus right now is on "A Mighty Heart", a quiet and urgent film that resonates throughout and sparkles with emotion and strong performances.  In North America the film is released by Paramount Vantage and opens in the United States and Canada on June 22.  "A Mighty Heart" had its world premiere last month at the Cannes Film Festival.

Related stories:  Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl/Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf

Patrick Marber Q&A on "Notes On A Scandal"

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.


Home   Features   News   Movie Reviews  Audio Lounge  Awards Season  The Blog Reel  YouTube Reel  Extra Butter  The Dailies