Kidnapped journalist’s murder leads to Jolie film

[14 June 2007]

By Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SAN FRANCISCO—“I write this book for you, Danny, because you had the courage of this most solitary act: to die with your hands in chains but your heart undefeated.

“I write this book to do justice to you, and to tell the truth.”

So writes Mariane Pearl in the opening of her memoir, “A Mighty Heart: The Inside Story of the Al Qaeda Kidnapping of Danny Pearl.”

Mariane Pearl’s story about the early 2002 kidnapping and murder of her husband, Daniel Pearl, the South Asia Bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and the efforts by Pakistani and American counter-terrorism forces to find him and his abductors, has been told in a forceful and eloquent new movie, “A Mighty Heart,” opening nationwide on Friday. Britain’s Michael Winterbottom directs an American, Pakistani and Indian cast, starring Angelina Jolie and Dan Futterman as Mariane and Daniel Pearl.

“I remember reading Mariane’s book and being very moved by it and very impressed by it,” says Winterbottom in a recent interview here. Her book was “a reminder of what it was like to be Mariane in that situation—waiting for news, trying to do whatever she could to help Danny’s safety.”

But the book also offers “glimpses of the world outside, the world of Pakistan,” Winterbottom continues. “I think Pakistan is like the most acute version of the post-9/11 world. It’s where all the forces come together in the most immediate way, and in the most confusing way.”

It was his knowledge of Pakistan, having made two films there—2002’s “In This World” and 2006’s “The Road to Guantanamo”—that Winterbottom believes convinced producers Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt of Plan B Entertainment to ask him to direct “A Mighty Heart.”

In April 2006, Winterbottom went to Namibia, where Pitt and Jolie were staying at the time, to discuss the project.

Even so, having just finished “Road to Guantanamo,” a docudrama about three young British Muslim men who were arrested in Afghanistan and then held in the American prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, for two years before they were released, still uncharged, Winterbottom was a bit reluctant.

“Normally, I like to do a different sort of film next,” says the director, who has interspersed his more political films, including 1997’s “Welcome to Sarajevo,” with lighter fare such as “24 Hour Party People” and “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”

But it turned out to be too good an opportunity to pass up.

“The first time I met Angelina was with Mariane,” Winterbottom recalls. “Seeing them together, it seemed like perfect casting. They were very similar—they were both very glamorous, very beautiful, both strong, both intelligent. They both talked about the world in a similar way.”

Pitt and Jolie also “liked the idea of doing it very simply,” Winterbottom says, and that fit in precisely with his usual approach to filmmaking.

“I like hand-held cameras, no lights, radio mikes so that people can improvise,” the director explains, which allows him, his cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, and their crew and actors to move quickly and relatively unobtrusively in real locations.

“There’s no shouting `action’ or shouting `cut,’” he says, “so it looks a bit like either people messing around on their holidays or like a little TV crew.”

Winterbottom started the film in Pakistan, shooting in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi, the city in which the Pearls were staying with a friend—fellow Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani (played by Archie Panjabi)—when Daniel Pearl was kidnapped.

And many of Futterman’s scenes were shot in actual places—restaurants, hotels, etc.—where the story takes place. In addition, Winterbottom, who believes strongly in “actors working in real environments,” estimates that about 80 or 90 percent of his movie’s exterior shots were filmed in Pakistan.

The house which served as the Pearls’ in the film, however, was in Pune, India, a city with many Pakistani residents.

“We decided it was just too difficult to shoot Angelina in Karachi,” the director explains. It would have been easier to film the entire movie in Pakistan, except for a few scenes set in France, where Mariane Pearl is from, he says, but “the Pakistan government felt that wasn’t a good idea.”

The Pearl case, Winterbottom adds, “was a high-profile story in Karachi, and Angelina and Brad are obviously high-profile anywhere, so the combination seemed like pushing it.”

Besides, he says, “since we were filming for five weeks just inside one house, it kind of felt like it wouldn’t be justified.”

The house itself is very important in the film. Although “A Mighty Heart” depicts the events leading to Daniel Pearl’s abduction, when he was supposed to meet a source with information about shoe bomber Richard Reid, the movie is centered in the Pearl household. It becomes the headquarters for all the forces—counter-terrorism experts from both Pakistan and the United States, Wall Street Journal editors and others—trying to find Daniel.

Noting that the real Mariane Pearl had remained very strong throughout the ordeal and “had built a kind of team spirit from all these different people who perhaps in other circumstances would have been an odd mix,” Winterbottom says, “we worked really hard to create the same spirit on our set that Mariane had created in her house.”

The director credits his star for helping to foster such an environment. Jolie was “fantastic to work with,” he says. “One thing about her knowing Mariane is that she wanted to represent Mariane on the set.”

Winterbottom says he was not concerned that Jolie’s international celebrity might overwhelm this story.

“Why would you not want someone who knew the person very well and, to my eyes, was very similar?” he asks rhetorically.

Just as Jolie came to know the real Mariane Pearl, Winterbottom insisted that his other actors meet their real-life counterparts—or in Futterman’s case, the parents and siblings of Daniel Pearl.

“The reason for doing it,” Winterbottom says, “was I wanted the real characters to tell the actors what was going on in their heads and what they remembered. I thought it would make the actors feel confident, that they would feel like they were representing these people in the film.”

So just as Mariane Pearl wanted to write a book that told the truth about her husband, in “A Mighty Heart,” Michael Winterbottom has tried to make a movie that is honest and accurate, one which does justice to the strength and courage of Daniel and Mariane.

“I hope the picture just reflects what it was like,” Winterbottom says.

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