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
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
"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."
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.
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
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"
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