Michael Winterbottom has directed one movie a year for more than a decade, but there are few people on this side of the pond who could name them. It's not that he's a bad director. In fact, he's arguably one of the best and most innovative filmmakers we have, pushing his medium -- both in terms of production techniques and narrative styles -- as far as or even further than Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze or Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu.
His films like The Road to Guantanamo (2006), Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and 24 Hour Party People (2002) are the epitome of post-modern filmmaking, employing meta-fictional narratives that have, for the most part, only existed in literary fiction. And yet he remains an enigma in the United States.
That's likely to change. A Mighty Heart, his latest turn behind the camera, might propel the filmmaker into the mainstream thanks in large part to his latest leading lady: Angelina Jolie, more famous these days for her tabloid press than her considerable talents as an actress.
After a long break from serious roles (despite what she might have thought when she took them), Jolie has just as much opportunity here as Winterbottom to prove to moviegoers why they should be paying attention.
The courage of Mariane Pearl, wife of Washington Post journalist Danny Pearl who was the first Westerner to be kidnapped and beheaded by Muslim extremists in post-9/11 2002, serves as the movie's titular heart and drives Winterbottom's most traditional movie to date.
"I'm not drawn to that linear, traditional, well-told story that gives you only one perspective on it, that have that beginning, middle, and end; the characters go on a journey, they have their crisis, and they learn from it," Winterbottom admits over the phone from Washington, D.C., where he is promoting the movie. "That kind of thing I don't find I'm very comfortable with. I don't find it very interesting. I prefer to do anything I can to get away from that 'I'm telling you this story and this is the meaning of the story.' I like to leave a little more space, a little more openness. That seems to be more interesting to me."
Ironically, A Mighty Heart always had a point -- to defy terror by not being terrorized, to defy it by not passing that hate on -- but Winterbottom refuses to bloat that meaning with senseless melodrama. Infamous for his guerilla-style filmmaking, allowing his actors to improvise and treat the script as little more than an outline and a heady, self-reflective narratives, Winterbottom bucks mainstream Hollywood's approach whenever possible.
"Sometimes we don't even have a script at all," he says of his movies. "We just have a story outline. But on the films we have scripts (like this one), we always just take the script as a guide, as a way to organize the film, so we know what story we're supposed to be telling at that moment."
At first blush, it would be easy to dismiss the casting of Jolie as a concession to mainstream Hollywood, as an opportunity for Winterbottom to make the big studios pay attention, but that's not quite the case -- though it's undeniable that A Mighty Heart will go a long way to increase Winterbottom's notoriety stateside.
Whereas his production company Revolution Films usually develops and produces its own work, Winterbottom was a director-for-hire here. He came to the project mere weeks before production began, hired by Plan B Entertainment (Brad Pitt's production banner). When asked if Jolie would have even been considered if the project had been Revolution's, Winterbottom says, "For us, we were being offered a film. It was already financed. Angelina was already involved."
In other words: Financing movies is hard. When you're offered the chance to make one you might be proud of, you take it and hope for the best.
That said, Winterbottom was more than happy with the casting of Jolie once he had a chance to sit down with her.
"When I met Angelina, Mariane (Pearl) was there, and meeting them together, I thought they were very like each other," he says. "Mariane obviously trusted Angelina. They talked about Mariane's experience, they talked about the story -- but also they just talked about their own experience in the world as women and mothers, their children, what they're trying to accomplish with their lives. They just seemed very similar, so I thought it was perfect casting for such a personal story.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but later, when we showed the movie at Cannes, at the press conference afterwards Mariane said she asked Angelina to play her -- which surprised me."
Winterbottom's interest in political subject matter should not be misconstrued as filmmaking as a tool of protest.
"(I'm not trying) to change the world, no," he says. "But as a person I'm engaged by these stories, so you want to make films that engage in some way with those important issues and their relationship to individuals. But you have to find the individual story. I've never thought, 'I have to make a movie about a theme.' I'm more interested in stories connected to issues." ©