Interview Jim Theapleton

Before Jim Threapleton met Kate Winslet on the set of 1998’s Hideous Kinky, the young London lad was making his way steadily up through the ranks in the hope of one day making his own films. Working as third assistant director on Hideous Kinky, Theapleton had already lined up the same position on the indie romantic comedy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and the big-budget Hollywood action comedy The Mummy. But falling in love with Kate Winslet changed Jim Theapleton’s plans ever-so-slightly. Married less than twelve months after meeting, two years later, on October 12th, 2000, Jim and Kate had a baby girl, Mia. Three years later though, the couple were divorced, Winslet famously heading off to sunny Hollywood to be with her new man, director Sam Mendes, this couple marrying in May, 2003, their son, Joe Alfie, born seven months later. Perhaps it’s understandable then, given the above soap, that Jim Theapleton’s CV has been blank since 1999’s The Mummy. Until now, that is, his debut as a writer and director finally emerging. And what a dark little picture it is.

Shot on HD for a mere $100,000, Extraordinary Rendition deals with a modern true-life horror by telling a fictionalized account of a young, happily-married English man of Moroccan descent is plucked off the streets of London, drugged, and then whisked in a private jet to a dungeon far, far away. To be tortured and questioned. And then tortured and questioned some more. Omar Berdouni (United 93, The Hamburg Cell) takes the title role, whilst Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord Of The Rings, the big monkey in King Kong) is the besuited torturer who regards a flight to Washington with his wife and two kids as pure hell. As he forces a man to sign a confession by cruelest torture his henchmen can come up with.

Q:As Variety says, ‘a horror story for our times’ – were you it important to you that people would be shocked by this movie, or were you more concerned about informing them?

A: I would have to say it was probably the latter. What struck me first, in terms of coming into contact with some of the stories that we were researching, and the political debate that surrounds the subject, it was a desire to contribute to the increasing public awareness of extraordinary rendition. While we were aware that there would be a certain shock value to some of the elements – certainly the torture – the will was really to shock politically. If people weren’t aware that extraorindary rendition was out there, and it was being used by various states around the world, then it was always our main ambition to raise that awareness, and increase the level of debate surrounding the subject.

Q:I read that your film is based largely on the experiences of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was arrested at New York’s JFK airport in September 2002, and carted off to Syria, where he was imprisioned and tortured for a year…

A:Well, he’s certainly one of the most prominent victims of extraordinary rendition that are known about at this time, but I would resist to suggest that we based our movie on his experiences. What we were keen to do from the start was use the factual stuff that we were able to gather at the time of going into production – which was relatively little then; there were a few reports around that gave us some broad strokes – but it was to take the actual idea of extraordinary rendition and create a fictionalized portrait. So, while it is true that Amnesty International and Liberty were on hand to give us any guidance that they felt was appropriate, this is a fictionalized account. Certainly, no one has been taken from the streets of London. Not that we know of, anyway.

Q:Given the grim reality of your subject matter, you must have felt a tremendous weight of responsibility here?
A:Absolutely, and really, that was the underpinning principle, which was not to be in any way flippant with the subject matter. Why we were definitely endeavouring to make a film that audiences would respond to, it was always with the intention of, as you suggest, highlighting a very real violation of human rights, which became very prevalent. We didn’t want to create something that felt strictly docudrama, too observational, or finger-wagging, and thereby creating something that was very dry in the retelling of known facts. We wanted to make something that was creatively strong, but when it came down to the portrayal of the torture – the waterboarding, for example – that was heavily researched, because that’s one of the major tennents of the debate that surrounds this unbelievable concept that has been utilised by various states around the world. So, there was a fine balance between fact and fiction, and a strong desire to stay away from anything that might appear flippant or sensationalist.

Q:Bush likes to have his own private little screenings in The White House – I’m guessing Extraordinary Rendition won’t be on his list, but does it bother you that the name Jim Theapleton could be on someone else’s list now?
A:No, I didn’t really think about that side of it. Even if there are certain elements keeping tabs on certain traffic, intellectually or whatever, we are obligated to keep these subjects and our protests at the forefront of public awareness as much as possible. As part of our DVD release, one of the platforms we’re using is a screening in the Houses Of Parliament in London. So, there’s been a warm reception to the movie in political circles, and the success we’ve had on the festival circuit has always been in terms of stimulating debate. Sure, this is not going to be warmly received in the White House, or by certain sections of the Labour government, but I would like to think that the boundaries of public debate are still wide enough for those governments to at least discuss the issues.

Q:You’ve been out of the business for nine years now – busy bringing up Mia?

A:Really, it was just that my producing partner, Andy Noble, and I have been working on a slate of projects since those days. Since I took the path towards writing and directing, I realised that the gestation period for a film is incredibly long. Getting financing for a film in the UK takes years, and whilst we had quite a few films nearing that financing, Extraordinary Rendition became the first, and most immediate, project that we were able to get off the ground. We knew that if were hoping to catch the wave of public debate, it was going to be necessary to be as speedy with the development process as possible.

Q:That quote from Dick Cheney at the start of your film – ‘Men without conscience are capable of any cruelty the human mind can imagine’ – does it make you despair for humanity, or are you optimistic?
A:I think it’s a little of both. It’s hard not to be pessimistic when you see the level of protests compared to the culpability, and responsibility, which has seemingly been relatively low. I don’t know if that’s an establishment’s shrugging of its shoulders – a million people march in London against the war, and yet Britain still goes ahead – but, having said that, the protests are still out there. The current wave of protests against China over Tibet, the constant highlighting of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is still public debate going on. So, prospects are bleak, unless people are willing to stand up and talk about things like Extraordinary Rendition, like Tibet, like the War On Terror.

Q:You’ve only ever had one acting gig – ‘Man sitting on wall’ in Hideous Kinky, which you did brilliantly, by the way – but you are a known name. Thanks to your having been married to Kate Winslet. Given that celebrity is the biggest currency in the world these days, have you made your peace with your claim to fame, or is it an eternal pain in the ass?
A:I think I’ve made my peace with it. I was always relatively peaceful with it, in as much as, before I met Kate, I was working hard in the film industry, and that never changed. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married Harvey Weinstein or Steven Spielberg, or whoever, none of that helps when it comes to finding good ideas for films, or when it comes to getting money to finance those ideas that you have. It’s a laborious and complicated process, making a film, and being connected to any celebrity really doesn’t change that. The connections that potentially came through my marriage to Kate does help. There’s a good chance that if I hadn’t been married to Kate, you wouldn’t be talking to me about my debut film, so, I accept that my history has a certain level of currency about it. I don’t find that, as you described it, a pain in the arse that some people still do talk about it. Once my interpretation of the circumstances and a certain amount of my work is viewed under its own terms – which is very much the case with Extraordinary Rendition – I would imagine that people move on. And you either engage with that side of things or you don’t, and I’ve always preferred to quite quietly go about my business, and put my work out there when I can. Hopefully, that will be enough to stimulate interest me as an artist. As opposed to being Kate Winslet’s ex-husband.

Interview: Paul Byrne

Extraordinary Rendition is out on DVD April 28th (check out the trailer below)