What do you do when the challenge goes out of the work you love? When you realize that the job to which you dedicated your life just isn't fulfilling you? If you're Tim Roth, you switch from acting to directing and tackle one of the most controversial books of the last twenty years, Alexander Stuart's The War Zone.
By Wendy Ide
One year ago, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Tim Roth announced to the world that he would no longer be acting. He'd just completed shooting his directorial debut and was still buzzing with a zealot's intensity. Acting was over, filmmaking was the reason that he had been put on this earth,. Several months and a "talking to" from Ray Winstone later and Roth is acting again. He's in an opulent Parisian hotel on a day off from shooting a costume drama with Gerard Depardieu, Uma Thurman and Timothy Spall. It is, Roth says obtusely, a suspense film about waiting for the fish to arrive. He realizes that it is possible to love two jobs and expects that at some point he will "rediscover the buzz" of acting. But as yet this has not happened. In the meantime, his passion is still The War Zone.
Roth's feature debut is a domestic horror. A seemingly happy, normal family is shattered by the revelation that the father is routinely sodomizing his daughter. Through the harrowing course of the film Roth forces the audience to confront the realities of abuse absolutely. There are no soft, fluffy edges to cushion the impact. It is a journey to a place that most people would prefer to ignore. There is no escape, no relief, mirroring the fear and isolation that is felt by victims of abuse.
For a first-time filmmaker to tackle such a complex and disturbing piece of literature is potentially career suicide. But Tim Roth was never the kind of person to pussy about in the shallow end. It makes a sink or swim situation all the more exciting if there's the real possibility of drowning. "I couldn't do a light comedy, I would get bored. I thought, 'Jump in'. I read the book, it broked my heart. It's the sort of film I've been waiting to make all my life. It just happened to be as a director as opposed to as an actor."
It shouldn't really be surprising. Roth has a history of risk-taking and danger-seeking. To prepare for the character of Trever in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain, he attended National Front meetings incognito, uncomfortably aware that the consequences to his kneecaps could be serious if anyone found out that he was an actor. This, after all, is the man whose idea of a relaxing holiday was to bum across America, sleeping rough, hitvhing and jumping freight trains from Canada to California. The fact that one or more killers were also riding the rails bludgeoning sleeping hobos to death for their food stamps probably just added a little spice. He was never going to take the easy option.
Despite the fact that Roth had no directing experience, the producers had no doubt that he would be able to handle the job. Co-producer, Dixie Linder recalls, "We thought he'd absolutely be able to get the performances, but we thought maybe he'd need help on the technical front. We realized quite soon that he was incredibly technical, he had phenomenal knowledge and I think that's because he's so rosy. On sets, he wouldn't sit in his caravan, he'd go and hang around the cameras and he knew every different aspect to it."
Roth's decision to use non-actors in two of the four central roles was equally brave. As neither Lara Belmont or Freddie Cunliffe had any acting experience, they depended heavily on Roth's directing skills for guidance. Tim Roth's young protoges have a whole film to carry and the responsibility for their success or failure ultimately falls to the director. Why set yourself such as immense challenge for your first film?
"I don't think I considered it a challenge. I just considered it to be necessary. For the two kids, it was always what I wanted to do. Partially because I didn't want the audience to be looking at them and associating them with something else. I wanted them to be really available to be our children, our brother, our sister and not to be thinking, 'Oh she was really good in so and so.' It would clutter it up. But also it's a great way to find out if you can direct."
The search for the right pair to play the troubled brother and sister was exhaustive. Roth estimates that the casting department saw around 2,500 hopeful adolescents. However the two successful candidates were found virtually by chance. Lara Belmont was spotted shopping at Portobello market, one of 40 girls invited to read for the role after the casting department did a walk-about with a Polaroid camera. Freddie Cunliffe turned up at one of the big "cattle-call" auditions but only to keep a friend company. "He didn't know what was going on. The casting director saw him and pulled him out and had him read the book on tape and showed it to me. And I thought, 'He's really interesting'. He looked like he was in hormonal distress."
Roth doesn't consider that working with untrained actors is any harder than working with trained ones. "It's generally harder to work with trained actors, or it can be. No, you can't specify. You have to be a different director to each actor." The varying techniques he used to ease performances out of Freddie and Lara back this up. "It was very hard for Freddie, 'cause he thought he needed to do something and I wanted him to do nothing. His character was to be a witness. So the thing I always said was 'No acting is required Freddie. If I see you acting I'm going to cut and then we're gonna start again. Just sit there and count backwards from 20.' I didn't want him doing acting." For Lara, Roth drew upon his own acting experience, initiating her into the arcane world of 'tricks of the trade' and 'emotional buttons' all of which he is far too astute to share with a journalist. What he will say, and in a way that leaves no doubt that he means it, is that within a week, Lara was behaving like one of the best actors he'd ever seen. He was looking for his Linda Manz (Days of Heaven) but what he found was an Ingrid Bergman.
Roth feels he now has a responsibility to both of the young actors. Having plucked the pair of them from obscurity to make the film, he realized that they might not be equipped to deal with the consequences. "Lara is mine forever now. As is Freddie. They're mine and I have to look after them. You're taking two people who have never acted therefore you're changing their lives. This film is in their lives forever so I have to watch out for them now. You don't want to be an abuser when you're making a film about abuse." The role of protector during Tim Roth's own dramatic apprenticeship was provided by Alan Clarke, although Roth denies that he was ever the emotionally vulnerable type. "I didn't care. Me, I really didn't. I just thought I was really lucky. And at that point I just wanted to be famous. It's 'I wanna be on the cover of a magazine and I want all my mates to think I'm great.' And also, if you're a boy, 'I want all the girls to want me.' I mean that's the level that I was working on because that's how naive you are and that's why it's always good to have someone looking out for you. But Alan Clarke looked out for us because that's just how he was."
For the peace of mind of the producers, it was important to counterbalance the two inexperienced leads with two very strong actors to play their parents. Roth chose Tilda Swinton to play "Mum" as he'd always wanted to work with her as an actor. "I was spoiling myself." For the difficuly role of "Dad", Roth had ruled out Ray Winstone at the beginning of casting. "I'd seen him do some very strong stuff. I didn't want someone to walk in and everyone to go: Oops, here comes the bad guy!" But Roth's attention was caught repeatedly while he was watching tapes to look for crew members. Winstone cropped up again and again. "Within these films would be these little things happening. I'd think: Wait a minute, was that planned or did the camera people and the director get very, very lucky? So I had to find out." Winstone clinched the role with one very astute comment. "He said, 'It would be great to play a good guy for a change.' And that is very smart. Because if I'm saying 'Here comes the monster,' then we'rea ll in trouble because that means we can spot them. I don't know how to spot these people. How do we know? If we knew, we'd put them down at birth."
To emphasize the dichotomy of "Dad" the father versus "Dad" the predator, Roth encouraged the cast and crew to consider the production as being two separate films. "I didn't want Ray to think of himself as the abuser in any way. I wanted him just to play a dad." Roth believes that the impact of the abuse is increased because the audience initially forms a connection with and grows to love what they perceive as a normal father who loves his normal kids. However, the film is not entirely successful in that aim. The problem lies in the fact that rarely will an audience come to the film in ignorance. They'll have read the book, browsed the reviews: it's unlikely anyone will watch The War Zone as fresh as Roth hopes. That all is not well at the heart of the family is implicit from the title. They never seem entirely normal and likeable because of the audience's expectation that something unspeakable is festering beneath the surface of the domestic unit.
Those who are already familiar with the book will notice that is metamorphosised considerably during its journey to the screen. Alexander Stuart himself adapted the book with input from Roth and from a team of "bullshit spotters", themselves victims of abuse, who were asked to scour the script for anything that didn't ring true. Thus some of the complexity of the father/daughter relationship is lost from the script. The book's final horrible twist has also been dropped from the adaptation, though the film loses none of its considerble impact because of this. The most effective alteration was Roth's decision to change the sex of the new-born baby from a boy to a girl. The change made it easier for the audience to imagine the unimaginable: that the father might turn his attentions to his other female child and that Lara's character, Jessie, might have been the victim of abuse from as early an age.
The distressing nature of the subject matter meant that Roth had to be especially careful to recruit a crew who would be supportive of both Lara and Freddie and of each other. "I assumed their technical abilities were available to me but I wanted 'huggers' and people who are emotionally sensitive." The other highly effective support mechanism that Roth employed was to make sure that the entire cast and crew got to wind down after a day's shooting. Unofficially, they included a party fund within the film's budget. Dixie Linder concurs: "He did a thing that he says he learned from Alan Clarke, but which I think is also part and parcel of his personality: he made it really enjoyable. I think people think we're a bit weird but it was a really fun film to make." There are rumors that some of the crew relaxed so hard at the end of the day that they were thrown out of their hotel by the proprietor. Roth insists that they were "all studying to be priests" and Linder puts it down to a misunderstanding: "Someone complained that the water that was coming out of the taps was really dirty and he just took it the wrong way . . ."
Roth is currently looking for his next directing project. He recently set up a production company with Dixie Linder, but they have not yet found an idea that they feel will be strong enough to follow The War Zone. What is certain is that they will not be turning their hands to fluffy Brit-comedy. Dixie Linder says: "So many people say to me why don't you do something that's a little but more light hearted? And I just think that you wouldn't get as much out of it. Tim and I still debate abuse and discuss it three years on. All the films we're talking about now have got a real heart to them."
But what of the acting? Ironically, it is his name as an actor that facilitates the relative artistic freedom he enjoys as a director. It is unlikely that The War Zone would have received financing had it not had the allure of an international star attached as director. Linder was involved in an earlier attempt to bring the book to the screen. "When we originially optioned it, Danny Boyle was going to direct it. Then when he pulled out, it was very hard to find another director that financiers thought was as viable as Danny. And I remember thinking this just isn't going to happen. But when Tim came on board, everyone we went to put money into development. And this is the man who hadn't directed a short, a commericial, anything."
Tim Roth is shrewd enough to realize that his status as an actor will continue to ease the reservations of jittery financiers. And that if he wants to continue directing challenging, uncompromising cinema, he might have to take the occasional profile-boosting acting job. But the acting challenge that will rekindle his love of the job remains elusive, although Roth confides that there is a projects currently under discussion that might just do that. Last night, Roth got a phone call from one of his heroes -- a European director with an extraordinarily savage, poetic vision and a reputation for being as mad as a tree. Althought it has not yet been confirmed that Roth will be acting in his next film, the possibilty obviously excites him. "He's incredible. And he gave me a call. That'll get me back in." Oh and in case George Lucas happens to be reading, Tim Roth would be happy to be accept a role in the next Star Wars. Roth claims to be under a certain amount of pressure from his 14-year-old son, Jack. "I didn't get a job in Star Wars so I'm completely uncool now. I would have taken the job in a second. Definitely. It would have been a laugh. Well there's the bordeom factor, but the payback afterwards. If you've got your own figure, you're pretty cool at school. Dad should have a light sabre. So I can have it." Roth Vader perhaps?