Mighty Heart: Winterbottom's Real-Life Political Drama

Cannes Film Fest 2007

In the 5 years since Daniel Pearl's death, 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.

In the face of death, Danny's spirit of defiance and his unflinching belief in the power of journalism led Mariane to write about his disappearance, the intense effort to find him and his eventual murderer in her memoir A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl.

Six months pregnant when the ordeal began, she was carrying a son that Danny hoped to name Adam. She wrote the book to introduce Adam to the father he would never meet. Transcending religion, race and nationality, Marianne's courageous desire to rise above the bitterness and hatred that continues to plague this post 9/11 world, serves as the purest expression of the joy of life she and Danny shared.

The night Danny disappeared, Mariane kept vigil with Asra Nomani, an old friend and colleague of Danny's at the WSJ, living in Karachi. Both women were seasoned international journalists with formidable investigative skills, but they were also foreign women in a country that had become increasingly volatile since September 11. By dawn, they knew they were facing a crisis that required strong allies fully briefed on Pakistan's proliferating terrorist cells, its byzantine bureaucracy and its notorious Inter-Services-Intelligence agency (I.S.I.).

Dozens of local investigators swarmed the house that morning, including a man called Captain, the then head of Pakistan's brand new counter-terrorism unit. With Asras house as headquarters, Captain's men, along with an American diplomatic security agent, two Journal colleagues and the FBI, dedicated themselves to the search. After five harrowing weeks, amidst escalating media frenzy, they found the kidnappers. Among them was the known militant Omar Saeed Sheikh, aka “Bashir,” the go-between who had offered Danny information relating to the shoe bomber story. Then came the devastating news that Danny had been brutally murdered weeks earlier.

Mariane and Danny believed that by bearing witness to events and allowing all voices to be heard, truthful journalism could bridge communities in conflict. Mariane has remained devoted to this principle, refusing to succumb to hate or fear. After Danny's death, she went home to her native France to await Adam's birth. She and Adam now live in Paris, France.

Brad Pitt's Interest

A MIGHTY HEART was filmed in Pakistan, India and France during the summer and fall of 2006. Its journey to the screen began three years earlier when Plan B Entertainment acquired the rights to Mariane Pearl's memoir (co-written with Sarah Crichton).

“Brad's interest in the book was inspired by Marianne's tremendous courage, and the generosity with which she shares her story,” said producer Dede Gardner, Producer at Plan B. “The process with Mariane from the beginning was driven by mutual respect. We were very conscious that a movie without her input and approval wouldn't be worth making.”

Mariane Pearl's Involvement

Pearl's feedback was sought on the screenplay and on potential directors. “We sent her films to watch and had many discussions about the qualities that we all felt were crucial to our choice of director,” said Gardner.

Choosing Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom began making documentaries in England in the late 1980s and moved into dramatic features a few years later. With his 1997 film, Winterbottom began shooting dramatic stories in documentary style. To heighten the sense of reality and truth, he kept his crews lean and unobtrusive, and encouraged his actors to improvise. His preferred subjects, from the political docudrama “The Road to Guantanamo” to the lighter but still provocative “24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE,” were well-suited to this approach.

A Winterbottom fan since “Welcome to Sarajevo”, Gardner gave the prolific director Mariane Pearl's book at a London meeting in 2004. He was intrigued. “I was in Pakistan in 2001 when Daniel and Mariane were covering the war in Afghanistan,” he said. “We were filming “In This World” in Peshawar, when we heard about Danny's death. So I had my own experience of Pakistan when I read Marianne's book, and I was impressed. It seemed very recognizable.”

By early 2006, Winterbottom had completed two more films, including “The Road to Guantanamo” (which also filmed in Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba and Britain). That film convinced Pitt that Winterbottom should direct “A MIGHTY HEART.”

Meeting Mariane

Brad called and we talked about the book and his ideas about how the film should be,” said Winterbottom. “Then I went to Paris to meet Mariane, and finally, in May, Andrew, Mariane, Dede and I went down to Namibia to meet up with Brad and Angie. That was the first time I met Angelina and it was great to see her with Mariane. They were very close and very similar straight-forward and easy to deal with. Our conversations were practical. We talked about what should and shouldn't be in the film.”

Angelia Jolie on Mariane

Still, she did worry about taking on “A MIGHTY HEART.” “Mariane has suffered the ugliest side of all that is going on in the world today and came out of it believing we cannot just be angry and blinded by hate, but must continue to have a dialogue,” said Angelina Jolie. “If I don't represent her right, and people don't see what a beautiful, strong, open-minded, loving woman she is, then I've done a disservice and hurt a really great woman.”

Mariane on Jolie

Mariane Pearl wasn't worried. “I am delighted that Angelina Jolie is playing my role in the adaptation of my book,” she said. “I deeply admire her work and what she is committed to. I am also happy that Michael Winterbottom, a versatile and talented director who genuinely loves truth, is working on this project.”

Winterbottom used Mariane Pearl's book as his bible in structuring the film. “We started by following her descriptions of events,” said Winterbottom. “Then I tried to meet with everyone who was with her at the time–Asra, Captain, Randall Bennett and his deputy Zahoor, Dost, John Bussey, Steve LeVine, Asif (Danny's translator and fixer in Islamabad) and Jameel Yusuf of the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC). Each meeting added extra details to the story.”

Futterman as Daniel Pearl

As he cast the film, Winterbottom also asked his actors to meet with the people they would play. For Dan Futterman, that meant the people closest to Daniel Pearl, personally and professionally.

Futterman was grateful for the access, especially to Mariane. “We met in Los Angeles, where she still brings her son to visit Daniel's parents,” said Futterman. “In what must have been a painful meeting for her, she was concerned only with making me feel comfortable, and with giving me information about Daniel, his work, family, and their relationship. We spoke and emailed repeatedly after that, and she visited all of us in France in the days before we began shooting there.

Futterman found other sources helpful, too. “Asra Nomani was very informative about the Wall Street Journal, Pakistan and the work of journalism in general,” he continued. “Steve LeVine spoke with me extensively about the investigative work he did with Daniel in that part of the world. Daniel's fixer in Islamabad, Asif, sat with me while we filmed in that city, to talk about working with Daniel. And Daniel's parents, Ruth and Judea, were encouraging, informative and very generous.”