Michael Winterbottom is a prolific British filmmaker who started off making television programmes before moving into features. Three of his movies, ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’, ‘Wonderland’ and ’24 Hour Party People’, have been nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He talks to Movies.ie about his current feature ‘A Mighty Heart’.

Winterbottom’s distinctive way of working – long scenes shot in chronological order where the actors are encouraged to improvise – was embraced by star Angelina Jolie and indeed all the cast who included Dan Futterman as Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal bureau chief who was kidnapped and murdered by extremists whilst on assignment in Karachi.

“She was fantastic to work with,” Winterbottom remarks of Jolie. “Before we started we talked about the way we normally film. How we run the scenes all the way through, use a hand held camera, shoot a lot of footage, improvise and so on. And she seemed to like the idea. She was great from day one.   

“As an actress and a person I think she felt very strongly about portraying Mariane in the most accurate way. Mariane and Angie were friends when I met them. As a director if you’re making a film about a personal experience, it makes sense that the person being portrayed completely trusts the actor playing them. Mariane and Angie have that trust.”

Jolie’s partner Brad Pitt had optioned the rights to Mariane Pearl’s powerful, moving book, also called A Mighty Heart, and approached Winterbottom to direct the film. “I read it was really impressed by it,” says Winterbottom who then set about assembling his crew and cast.

Winterbottom likes to work with several key collaborators who have been by his side on earlier films, like cinematographer Marcel Zyskind. They have worked together on The Road To Guantanamo, A Cock and Bull Story, 9 Songs, and Code 46.  

“It’s good to feel comfortable with those around you and when you find a group that work well together it helps to make the process as relaxed as possible,” he explains. “Also, the crew were all very talented in their own right. We had a mutual respect of one another and I think that helped to create a good environment for everyone involved.”
 
 A Mighty Heart was made on location in Pakistan, where Winterbottom filmed many of the exterior locations where Daniel Pearl had visited in his work as a journalist, and India. In India, Winterbottom, his crew and cast recreated the house where the Pearls had been staying in Karachi when Daniel was abducted.  

The house became the nerve centre of the operation to find him – teeming with intelligence agents from America and Pakistan who were spending endless hours alongside Mariane, her friend Asra Nomani (played by Archie Panjabi) in a understandably, oppressively tense atmosphere.  

Mariane was six months pregnant at the time her husband was kidnapped and as a journalist herself, was an active member of the team trying to hunt down the kidnappers whilst trying to remain healthy, and as much as possible, stress free for her unborn son.  

Mariane was closely involved with the genesis of the film and has become close friends with both Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Her input was crucial, says Winterbottom.

“Mariane is an incredibly impressive person. She is extremely warm, generous and open. She orchestrated the introductions to the people we needed to meet, she answered all our questions about her experience and what she had been through. Mariane also granted us the freedom to make the film as we saw fit.”

Winterbottom and his colleagues spent five weeks in the house and filmed the story in chronological order – from the dinner party Mariane and Asra are arranging the night Daniel goes missing to the time, weeks later, when they discover he has been murdered.

“We had five weeks to shoot in the one location, the house. It therefore made sense to do this in chronological order,” says the director. “In the end we pretty much shot in the same period of time as the story. This allowed the actors to grow closer to one another.  

“By the end there was a network of relationships similar to those that Mariane had described in the house. When they sat down for the final dinner scene and Mariane tells them not to feel bad, it really felt like they were that group of people.”

Winterbottom, 46, was born in Blackburn, England, and has earned a reputation as an incredibly diverse filmmaker. He followed up 2005’s comedy A Cock And Bull Story with the docu-drama The Road To Guantanamo. His earlier films include In This World, the story of two Afghan refugees and 24 Hour Party People, homage to Manchester’s bustling music scene in the 1980s.

Q: As we understand it, Plan B approached you for this film. What happened?

A: Dede Gardner from Plan B gave me Mariane’s book back in 2004. I read it and was really impressed by it. Then Brad and Dede called up in April 2006 and asked if I was interested in directing the film. So Andrew and I went down to Namibia and we talked about the story and the way we usually work. They were happy for us to work in the way we usually do and with the crew we usually use. So we said yes.

Q: Did Angelina Jolie, the actress, surprise you at all?

A: Well she was fantastic to work with. Before we started we talked about the way we normally film. How we run the scenes all the way through, use a hand held camera, shoot a lot of footage, improvise and so on. And she seemed to like the idea. She was great from day one.  As an actress and a person I think she felt very strongly about portraying Mariane in the most accurate way. Mariane and Angie were friends when I met them. As a director if you’re making a film about a personal experience, it makes sense that the person being portrayed completely trusts the actor playing them. Mariane and Angie have that trust.

Q: How hands on was Brad Pitt?

A: Brad never put his hands on me!

Q: At what point did you meet Marian?

A: I met Mariane for the first time in Paris back in April last year – she had the chance to meet me as a possible director and I was given the chance to spend some time with her. Following that meeting we then all went to Namibia to meet up with Brad and Angelina – Mariane, Andrew and Dede the producers, and myself.

Q: Having spent some time with her, how would you describe her?

A: Mariane is an incredibly impressive person. She is extremely warm, generous and open. She orchestrated the introductions to the people we needed to meet, she answered all our questions about her experience and what she had been through. Mariane also granted us the freedom to make the film as we saw fit.  

Q: How many of the real people involved did you meet?

A: I met and spoke with all of those involved. Even though this is Mariane’s story, it was really important to get all perspectives. Essentially I wanted to make a film, which reflected the way Mariane and Danny worked as journalists. That meant keeping the portrayal as honest and accurate as possible.

Q: How did that inform the story you, as a director, wanted to make?

A: Mariane’s book was obviously the starting point but in meeting the different people involved it was possible to benefit from each individual perspective on the events. This seemed appropriate given this is a story of two journalists. I approached the film much in the same way a journalist would approach a story. Taking on board the perspectives of all involved in order to produce the most honest version of events.

Q: You shot the film in chronological order. Obvious question, why?

A: We had five weeks to shoot in the one location, the house. It therefore made sense to do this in chronological order. In the end we pretty much shot in the same period of time as the story. This allowed the actors to grow closer to one another. By the end there was a network of relationships similar to those that Mariane had described in the house. When they sat down for the final dinner scene and Mariane tells them not to feel bad, it really felt like they were that group of people.

Q: You’ve worked in Karachi before. Is it getting easier?

A: Most of the exteriors in the film were shot in Pakistan. We shot with a very small crew, and we worked with a lot of Pakistani actors. When you shoot in Pakistan you just have to dive in. We spent a lot of time trying to get permission from the right people in the government. We had a lot of co-operation from the Karachi police force.  

Q: Do you need government approval?

A: You do need Government approval and we had a lot of help from Kamal Shah, the Secretary to the Interior Minister – he had been head of the Sindh Police during the search for Daniel Pearl. We did get some hassle from the Pakistani intelligence agencies. They managed to persuade Karachi police to stop cooperating with us. It was just low-level hassle. It eventually got resolved and by the end it was okay again. Pakistan is like every country, there are a lot of different opinions and not everybody thinks the same way about things.

Q: You worked with regular members of your crew again on A Mighty Heart. How important is that for you?

A: It’s good to feel comfortable with those around you and when you find a group that work well together it helps to make the process as relaxed as possible. Also, the crew were all very talented in their own right. We had a mutual respect of one another and I think that helped to create a good environment for everyone involved.

Q: The actors are playing real people. How did they respond to that?

A: All the actors responded very well. They all meet their real counterparts and spent time with them and got to know them. They heard their versions of their story. It was clear all the actors felt a responsibility to the characters they were playing. In many ways, because the story was shot chronologically the actors in character got to know one another in a way, which mirrored the way the relationships developed in the main house.

Q: You were in Pakistan at the time of Daniel’s death. What do you remember of that time?

A: I was in Pakistan in 2001 when Danny and Mariane went there to cover wars in Afghanistan. I don’t think anyone thought the sort of thing Danny was doing was unnecessarily dangerous. In the film we show that he was careful to ask people’s advice about the meeting he was going to, and the meeting was going to take place in a restaurant in Karachi.

Journalists all have to try to meet the people they’re reporting on, and it’s an extremely brave thing to do. I believe he was a very honest journalist and wanted to meet the people he wrote about. Part of the reason it was so shocking was because people didn’t expect what happened to Danny to actually happen in Pakistan. Pakistan wasn’t Iraq. It wasn’t a country at war. Danny was not a war journalist.