Cannes Film Fest 2007–In Michael Winterbottom's political drama, “A Mighty Heart,” which premieres in Competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, the widow of the slain journalist Daniel. In the 5 years since Daniel Pearl's death, nearly 230 journalists have been killed in the line of duty.
On January 23, 2002, Mariane Pearl's world changed forever. Her husband Daniel, the South Asia Bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, was researching a story on shoe bomber Richard Reid. The story drew them to Karachi where a go-between had promised access to an elusive source. As Danny left for the meeting, he told Mariane he might be late for dinner. He never returned.
“I don't think it would have been possible to make A MIGHTY HEART without filming in Pakistan,” says director Michael Winterbottom. “The whole point of making the film would be lost. We want the audience to trust that they are seeing an accurate account of what happened.”
Pakistan is a challenging environment for filmmakers, as Winterbottom and producer Andrew Eaton learned in 2001 while shooting IN THIS WORLD. “It wasn't a pleasant time to be there,” said Eaton. “There was a real fear among Pakistan authorities for the safety of Western people working there.”
Collaborating with Pakistan
Eaton knew the pitfalls as he began the process of obtaining official permissions for A MIGHTY HEART. “Our best ally was Kamal Shah, Secretary of the Interior Ministry,” said the veteran producer. “Shah was head of Sindh (state) police in Karachi when Danny was kidnapped. He understood what the film was trying to do, and felt the portrayal of the collaboration between Pakistan and U.S. authorities ultimately shed a good light on Pakistan.”
The Pakistani actors agreed. “When you read the script and the book, you see a very fair representation in terms of the people who were helping,” said Mikail Lotia, who plays Captain's young computer expert. “I felt it was worth trying to bring that across on screen.”
Shooting in Real Locations
Principal photography began with filming in Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, on the cusp of monsoon season. “We filmed on the streets and in the real locations that Danny went to the Village Restaurant where he was to meet Imitaz Siddique, the CPLC offices, Cybernet and the Hotel Akbar where he met Bashir,” said Winterbottom. “We stayed at the Sheraton in Karachi (as John Bussey and Steve LeVine did during the search for Daniel Pearl).”
India would serve as the setting for Asra Nomani's house, the story's central location. Danny and Mariane stayed there when they visited Karachi, and later, the team searching for Danny made it their headquarters. The house for the film was found in a community called Sindh Society in the city of Pune, home to many Pakistanis. The production spent five weeks at the Pune house, before moving west to Mumbai for several more weeks of work.
Like Karachi, Mumbai is a teeming city on the Arabian Sea. Irrfan Khan, the quietly intense Indian actor who plays Captain, was on his home turf there. “He had as many people chasing after him in Mumbai as Angelina did,” said Winterbottom. The company filmed at iconic landmarks including the Gateway of India and Churchgate Station, as well as at local madrassas, a morgue, and a maternity ward. Street scenes ranged from police raids to an ecstatic Ganesh procession.
Filming in all locations proceeded in typical Winterbottom style: director of photography Marcel Zyskind, who has worked on seven films with Winterbottom, operated a hand-held DV camera. There were no rehearsals, and no master shots or attendant series of close-ups. Most takes ran the full length of a scene, and scenes were shot in sequence. Winterbottom didn't call “action” or tell anyone where the camera would be. That was decided in the moment, sometimes with Winterbottom gripping the back of Zyskind's shirt to steer him. Natural light was used whenever possible to allow actors and camera freedom of movement.
“Michael creates an environment which feels as little like a movie set as possible,” said Futterman. “He's looking, I think, for those surprising and unscripted moments of authenticity.”
Script as Starting Point
Winterbottom asked the actors to treat the script's dialogue as a starting point and improvise as much as possible. “They have spent time with the real characters, so they have heard how they talk. They know details of their personal stories and their points of view on these events,” he said. “We try to shoot the whole scene as it would naturally happen, and we shoot the entire scene on each take to allow a natural rhythm to develop. The scene can then change and evolve with each performance.”
Improvising within the framework of complicated and sensitive facts kept everyone on their toes. “We're playing journalists, so we're always discussing facts,” said Archie Panjabi, the Indian-born British actress who plays Asra, and previously worked with Winterbottom on CODE 46. “Just the number of names and people and aliases and organizations involved in the case made it incredibly challenging, especially when you don't know what the other actors are going to say.”
Shooting in Order
It paid off: “It felt like we were really in these moments together, and shooting the scenes in order made it much more real for us,” said Jolie.
Jolie's changes added another layer of authenticity, and put American actor Gary Wilmes in the right mood on his first day as reporter Steve LeVine. “I hadn't met Angelina yet, so I walked into Asra's house for the first time as Steve did in real life,” he recalled. “I had never seen her without the wig, and felt much more that I was with Mariane than with Angelina.”
Before coming to India, the production visited the south of France for scenes including Danny and Mariane's wedding, at Chateau de Valmousse in Lambesc. Futterman had already filmed in Pakistan, but the wedding day was Jolie's first on set.
“The way Michael shoots, I had no rehearsal,” said Jolie. “I was in my room getting ready and they said, 'Okay, come down the stairs.' So that was it. I walked into the wedding and we said our vows. I had looked at Danny's and Mariane's wedding footage just before, and it made me terribly sad. It was such a happy moment for her, so beautiful. They loved each other so much, those two, and you can see it in the wedding. It was hard not to cry.”
Pregnant and Unrecognized
The day after the wedding sequence, Jolie was filmed on the street in Marseilles, portraying Mariane after she has left Karachi to await her son's birth. “She was walking down the street heavily pregnant, in a long gray skirt, carrying two shopping bags,” Walter recalled. “People walked past her, and bumped into her, and nobody recognized her. It was quite amazing.”
While highly regarded actors filled A MIGHTY HEARTS principal roles from the U.S., England, India and Pakistan, many small roles went to non-actors, mostly from Pakistan. “There's not a big acting community in Pakistan,” said Wendy Brazington (24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE), Winterbottom's casting director since 1997. “So if a guy on the street looked right for the part, we grabbed him.”
Visa hassles aside, Winterbottom was keen on bringing people from Pakistan to India, for the authenticity they contributed, and to expand their horizons. “People like the taxi drivers or Shabir (Asra's houseman) had never been on a plane before, or outside Pakistan,” he said. “Our real fixer from Islamabad played the fixer Masud, and our fixer from Peshawar on IN THIS WORLD came to India and played an I.S.I. officer.”
Karachi travel agent Telal Saeed was uniquely qualified to play “Kaleem,” the character based on Jameel Yusuf. Yusuf heads CPLC, formed in 1989 by Karachi industrialists to recover kidnap victims. Saeed knew him socially, and then professionally when his own nephew was kidnapped and held for 91 days. “CPLC has state of the art equipment, computerized for surveillance, especially for monitoring phone calls,” said Saeed. “The FBI was surprised to see their set-up and coordinated with them on the Daniel Pearl case.
Saeed's brother Bilal, a hotelier and father of the kidnapped boy, was cast as interior minister Moinuddin Haider. “It was a very connected group,” said Jolie. “I didn't even know who was a non-actor because it all just felt right.”
It felt right behind the camera, too, where Winterbottom's long-standing team worked alongside Indian and Pakistani crew members. “What was really great was that Dede and Plan B, and especially Angie, were so relaxed and friendly, that all these people with completely different experiences just got on with it,” said Winterbottom.
Jolie understood the potential for risk, and for reward. “We talked about the risks before we started filming, the security concerns and what it would mean politically if we got it wrong. We could anger more people and make it worse,” she said. “But if by some small chance we get it right, maybe we can do a little something towards bringing people back together, or at least looking at each other in another light.”