Tim Roth's first film as a director, The War Zone, is a shocking tale of incest containing graphic scenes of abuse. But just how personal is it? Andrew Davies finds out.
Tim Roth is playing a game. He has a dark secret and we have to guess what it is. But this isn't some cozy Agatha Christie whodunnit. It's more like an episode of Cracker, and there's no neat, happy ending.
Roth's secret lies buried within his stunning directorial debut, an adaptation of Alexander Stuart's controversial novel The War Zone. Eight years after leaving his south-London home for Hollywood and a solid career as LA's favorite petty criminal an low-rent hoodlum in films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Gridlock'd, Stuart's novel has finally brought Roth back home. The War Zone was originally awarded the top prize at the Whitbred literary awards in 1989, only for it to be sensationally withdrawn at the last minute when one of the judges objected because of the book's graphic descriptions of incest and parental abuse.
Try to suggest some kind of autobiographical link between Roth and his new work and he immediately waylays you with a smile, and then stonewalls any further questions. He looks at the ceiling. "You can see the film, and you can see that I made the film, and you can draw your own conclusions," he says, wearily.
Roth knows the questions won't go away, just as the excruciating scene in which Ray Winstone's character sodomizes his own teenage daughter in an abandoned Second World War coastal bunker imprints itself on viewers' minds. "The film is hollow without that scene," says Roth. "If you're going to deal with a subject, then fucking treat it with respect. I don't think this is a sex scene -- from the father's point of view, maybe it is -- but I think it's murder; he is killing his child."
Roth posts warning about delving too deeply into his heart of darkness, and is quick to denigrate those who pry into his private life for making "irrelevant or dim" assumptions. "When I first looking for something to direct, this was the first thing that came along. The producers gave me the book. I didn't know it existed," he says, covering himself. Again his replies raise more questions than they answer -- Roth has dramatically changed the book, employing the original author Stuart to write a fresh screenplay which makes the abuse far less ambiguous. Whereas the novel has the daughter as a predatory female looking to break down sexual taboos, in the film Jessie is the victim of her father's perversions.
Whenever he comments on abuse, Roth's voice noticeably changes, a note of anger creeps in: "If we're going to deal with this subject then we must show it, show what these people fucking do, and show how invisible they are and how we'll never know who they are."
If Roth knows particulars about who they are, he's not letting on, and is convinced that the film is authentic in its portrayals. "You want him to be an ordinary man and that's very hard to play -- to make him anybody's dad or brother. It's very, very important to be honest and respectful and make the abuser correct and accurate. You don't want him to be the bad guy -- that's too easy. If he's the devil, if he's just this monster, then you're in Disneyland. Victim Support helped us -- we'd send them a draft and they'd go 'Bullshit, true, bullshit, bullshit, true,' so we discarded stuff," he says.
For a man who may have just committed commercial suicide, Tim Roth looks surprisingly calm. He's already brought hard-man Ray Winstone and others on set to tears during the shooting of The War Zone -- they were seared by the painful rape scene. It's a typically renegade return to Britain for Roth who has confounded expectations in a career which has ranged from geeks and Nazi skinheads to arthouse flops and big-budget fops. He even had a musical interlude in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.
Roth's return to Britain is every bit as devastating as Gary Oldman's directorial debut, 1997's brutal foray into working-class alcoholism and domestic violence in Nil By Mouth. The War Zone is about as far from Hollywood glamour as it is possible to get. Roth now lives in LA with his wife, Nikki, and two young children, although he has a 15-year-old son in London from a previous relationship.
"I want it to do well here, because I love it here, and it's my country. I've enjoyed all the Hollywood films I've been in, even the bad ones, but I was desperate to come back and do something serious and grown-up. It sounds pretentious, but fuck it. The War Zone is a knee-jerk reaction against what I've done in Hollywood, although I had a great time and will go back to that. But I wanted to make the kind of film I've never been offered."
From his unforgettable debut as the skinhead anti-hero in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain to his famous turn as Mr. Orange, leaking to death in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, to his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the English thug Cunningham in Rob Roy, Roth has become an international star.
With his hooded eyes, Roth seems half-awake at the best of times. But for a man who left school with hardly any qualifications, Roth is far sharper than most. Bullied at school, Roth has the victim's knack of deflecting attention without causing confrontation and leaves potential aggressors nothing to pick on. He's happy to talk about safe subjects -- film, cameras, praising the strengths of his cast -- but there's a much stronger resolve not to allow you any further in. There are few chinks in his armor.
For someone who spends so long in front of the camera, he's uncomfortable being photographed. Scuffing his shoes against the pavement, he rolls on his heels, trying to disappear into the wall while his ill-fitting jeans gravitate floorwards. Roth seems like an ill-at-ease teenager, suffering in hormonal silence. You begin to see his own awkwardness in The War Zone, mirrored by Freddie Cunliffe's brutally honest portrayal of Tom whose realization of what is happening between his father and sister tears the film apart.
"I loved Freddie. He is the epitome of that pain of being a teenager. It was important that we could identify with that pain and the loss of innocence. It's something we all hope to forget. I never want to be a teenager again. It was hormone-hell, actually physically painful and horrendous. Your eyebrows join in the middle, and you stop being cute."
Freddie Cunliffe and Lara Belmont (Jessie) give phenomenal performances made all the more impressive by the knowledge that neither had ever acted before. Lara was spotted in London's Portobello Market, and Freddie had only come along to the audition with a friend to keep him company.
"I saw Made In Britain again recently. I thought my acting was crap and very naive, but it was raw, and that's what the director wanted. He saw that in me, and it's exactly what I was looking for in Lara and Freddie," Roth explains.
Roth's style owes much to his early work with British directors, Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh, who brought Ray Winstone, Roth, Gary Oldman and Phil Daniels to our attention in the Eighties with films such as Scum, Meantime, and Made In Britain. Both directors encouraged creative input from actors and crew, something Roth has been keen to mimic.
"Sometimes the crew would turn around and say: 'This is nonsense, we're all doing bullshit here.' And you'd sit down with the actors and say: 'What are we going to do now?' There were scenes which were inspired by things the clapper-loader said. It was collaborative -- I learnt that from Alan Clarke and Robert Altman. I learnt that from feeling good when that happened to me as an actor."
The War Zone makes for devastatingly frank viewing, perhaps helped by the openness he encouraged on set, but Roth's private life remains enigmatic. He wants his work to take precedence over his public persona, and so is prisoner of his screen roles. Whatever he does, he's marked like the tattooed neck of Nazi skinhead Trevor -- 'Made In England'.