By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com
Talking technique with Michael Winterbottom about A Mighty Heart (2007, ***)
MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM’S FIFTEENTH OR SO FEATURE, with a reported $16 million budget, distributed by Paramount Vantage, the arthouse arm of the larger company, is a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, but also not a star vehicle.
Drawn from the memoirs of Marianne Pearl, the widow of Wall Street Journal investigative staffer Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) who was executed in 2002 after being kidnapped in Pakistan over his reportage and for being Jewish as well, A Mighty Heart allows Jolie to disappear into a buzz of fact and confusion, of investigation and concern and perplexity. Winterbottom likes to drop viewers into the midst of a world, like a restless documentarian might, and cleanly yet somewhat obliquely offer up all the information we need, as in recent pictures like the futurist fever dream of Code 43, (2003); the rock-show-and-sex 9 Songs (2004); the hybrid doc-fiction of The Road to Guantánamo (2006) and the refugee’s odyssey of the stunning In This World (2002). (He shares a knack for detail and instants of behavioral authenticity demonstrated through work with directors like Michael Mann: here is a world, do you see it?)
The 46-year-old Winterbottom started working with cinematographer-camera operator Marcel Zyskind with the guerilla shoot of In This World, and has worked with him on seven films since, largely with handheld DV cameras, including here. No rehearsals, masters or close-ups, just takes that mostly ran the length of a scene, shot mostly in natural light, in the sequence they happened historically from Pearl’s disappearance through the weeks of mystery after. Winterbottom claims not to even call action or set any sort of blocking marks for the camera, often guiding Zyskind by touches and grabs of the shirt.
“He’s very young,” Winterbottom says when I ask Zyskind’s age. He’s Danish, and on 24 Hour Party People, Robbie Muller worked the camera, the great cameraman, and he’d just worked with Lars von Trier [on Dancer in the Dark], and Marcel was his assistant, and he came over to be Robbie’s assistant. The next film was In This World, and the idea was [having] a very small crew, one person on camera, one person on sound. We were going to spend all this time traveling across the desert. I just wanted someone enthusiastic and young.” Someone more experienced would “have to have a crew behind them. Marcel was incredibly young, I think he was 21 or 22 at the time.”
He’s become Winterbottom’s right-hand collaborator, and they’ve evolved a working method across several films, especially in the more fleet, limber formats of digital video. What about the shirt-tugging? Winterbottom laughs readily. “Yeah, we do a lot of that, I’m afraid. It’s weird. The thing is that… You gradually have to react to what you’re doing. So in the case, from In This World onwards, [we] want to shoot in a way [that’s simple]. There’s a lot of traveling in In This World. We’re following the two guys, the two refugees. They are actors, but they’re also refugees [in real life]. So if we’re in a market and following them, he’s just basically shooting, I can maybe see something he can’t, he’s concentrating on them. So I’d be batting him, pointing this way or that way, or signaling he’s too close or, I think we’ve got the shot. To allow the action to continue and flow like in real time, we’d do it differently each time, it isn’t like we’d do exactly the same shot and let it run fifteen minutes every time. We obviously did more shots. But we’d get enough material [without traditional coverage] that we could cut that together. It started like that.”
The technique has grown. “But when you get into the house [in A Mighty Heart where everyone awaits word on the developments in the case] where you’ve got seven or eight actors, and most the key ones are professionals, and coming in and out are actors who are not professionals, you kind of get a little bit more nervous about tugging and shouting, or whispering and stuff, but at the same time I still wanted the actors to be able to run the scene through. Some first takes might be fifteen minutes long. I want to give [the actors] the flow they need but I also want to make sure I have the material I want to use in the film. It’s not just that she does great things, but… It’s not only about cutting, because these days you can cut almost anywhere. It’s weird, the whole traditional cutting rhythm can be different, but you want to be in the right place. For me, it’s about accumulating enough moments that feel right and strong enough to be in the film. Marcel’s a great operator, but obviously if I think Angie is doing something stronger here than here, I’d ease him over. Since I’m the person who’s going to be putting it together afterwards, I want to make sure that I have enough stuff. I stop filming when I feel I have enough stuff.” Winterbottom pauses, leans forward to offer another tribute to his young collaborator. “But he’s doing loads and loads of stuff! I’m not pushing and shoving him all the time!”
[A Mighty Heart opens wide Friday across the country.] [Ray Pride] [Winterbottom photo © 2007 Ray Pride]