Dog of War
By Richard Johnson
With his tattoos and stubble, Tim Roth looks hard. And he's got a string of 'boys movies' to his name. But now he wants to make films that matter, and maybe the best way to do that is to direct them himself. Which brought him to his debut, The War Zone, a painful, truthful film about incest.
Tim Roth is secretly proud of the fact that he has only one suit - the black, single-breasted number he wore in the film Reservoir Dogs. It's a standing joke among his friends. "I keep trying to get him in a nice suit, but he won't have it," says the actor Ray Winstone. "I think Tim's one for an image."
The workwear jeans and biker boots (complete with a hole in the sole where Roth once stood on a nail) give him a look of urbanity. "A cross between a hip director and a builder," according to Winstone. He has a wardrobe full of cap-sleeved T-shirts, because they show off his tattoos to best advantage. Three are to mark the birth of his children, and one is for his wife. With big blue letters that spell out "PERISH", and a Brussels lace border on his upper arm, Roth looks useful. Handy, even. And that's just how he likes it.
Of course, he says, it's all so much smoke and mirrors. When it comes to actors, people do tend to confuse the person with the persona. "Which persona would that be?" asks Roth. Quite rightly. It's not Vincent van Gogh -- from Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo -- is it? Or Guildenstern - from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. And it's certainly not the camp Prince in Rob Roy.
"That was a big old bit of nonsense," the actor says. "Touch of the old Terry Thomas, wasn't it? I thought I was going to get fired. After we started shooting the character that way, I thought the studio was going to get the rushes and go, 'Get that fucker off that movie.'" But they didn't. In fact, the performance earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.
No, when people think of Tim Roth, they think of the characters he has played in Quentin Tarantino's films - Mr Orange, the bleeder from Reservoir Dogs (1991). Or Pumpkin, the hold-up hood in Pulp Fiction (1994). Or the bell-boy who did the ginsu thing with that pinkie in Four Rooms (1995). "Unfortunately, the removal of body parts has become a recurring theme in my career," he says. Which means that Roth gets more respect on the street than your average short guy. He knows that the whole thing is nothing more than a dramatic construct, but he's tired of all the nonsense that acting brings with it. "I am the opposite of handy," he says, with a sigh. "I'm the worst fighter in the world. Besides, in Reservoir Dogs I'm the bad guy. I'm covered in blood. What's cool about that? I fucked that right up." He wants a change. He wants to direct.
Roth doesn't walk - he swaggers. The swagger was more pronounced than usual when I met him at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But then that's because his directorial debut, The War Zone, was to be screened that evening. Journalists would prefer it if the Roth swagger was the result of a deprived London childhood. Rickets, perhaps. But it's bow legs. He was actually raised in Dulwich, a leafy catchment area off London's South Circular Road, where parents go for the sake of their children's education. Still, he isn't nervous about the screening. "I've been to Cannes with three different hats on," he says. "As an actor with Reservoir Dogs. As a presenter: last year I presented the best director award to John Boorman for The General. And now I'm here as a director. I told them to make me president of the jury next year. That should cover just about everything."
We push through the crowds on the Cannes seafront, the Croisette, trying to get to The War Zone's technical run-through. Most directors wouldn't bother. "But the projectionist could be a pool attendant," he says. "I've been to screenings before now where the film is torn. Upside down. Back to front. In the other room. I just want to make sure it's right." Roth sits, scrutinising the 5m screen from six different seats in the cinema. Like the new student in film school, he loves his jargon - there's hair on the gate, and the print is way too blue. But he's a perfectionist. He even notices that two of the French subtitles need to be changed. "I'll never be happy," he says, with a smile. "The worst seat in the house tonight will be next to me."
We have a few hours to kill before the screening. He lifts up the awning on the Soho House yacht moored in the harbour. "When I think of Cannes, I think of Clark Gable," says Roth. "But fast forward, and it's us. Look at all this." He gestures at the sump oil clinging to the hull of the yacht. And the empty McDonald's cartons and foam cups bobbing in the water. "Not exactly Clark Gable is it?" Carol McGregor, Ewan's mum, is inside pitching an idea. It's for a narrative delivered alongside a film's dialogue to explain the action to visually-impaired patrons. "Blinding idea," says Roth, who could have chosen his words more carefully. Then he sits in the corner talking to Ewan about his idea for a gay cowboy film.
When strangers come up to Roth - as they do, four times in four hours - he is genuinely pleased. But he can't sustain conversation. He just lights yet another cigarette. He's always photographed smoking. He says it's just photographers trying to make him look hard. But I can't imagine him agreeing to part with his filters for anyone. When people (he calls the worst offenders "space invaders") stay too long, he starts punching numbers aimlessly into his mobile phone to save embarrassment. And makes like he wants to leave. Which, actually, he does. He disappears with his entourage on to the sand, to some charity ball raising money for breast cancer, where all the women have implants - pure Bunuel. The party on the next beach down is for an over-financed porn film. Roth knows that all that ever really changes at Cannes' functions is the sponsor of the free bar. Besides, his mind is on tonight's screening.
He is happiest by the side of Nikki, his wife. The pair were married in Belize while he was working on Nic Roeg's Heart Of Darkness, a TV film made in 1994. They now live in Los Angeles with their two children. Roth is so not LA. He isn't into gym culture, and hates the way they put parsley on your eggs. He misses Indian takeaways, and every day bemoans the fact that film in LA is as artistic as welding. He's much more East Coast than West Coast, but it's in LA that, for the moment, he makes the best living. His new house is convenient for the boys' schools, and he may even shave off his perma-stubble to do the school run. "The house was built in the 20s," he says. "With a lot of trees -- very good for a treehouse." But he has been so busy recently that he's only been home for a total of 25 minutes.
Roth is bad on eye contact, and squints a lot. Maybe it's the cigarette smoke-screen. But the truth is, he doesn't really like answering questions -- even about the colour of the walls in his house. "I'm not going to tell you what my house is like. It's my fucking business. I don't want to know what your bedsit's like." The swagger, the stubble, the tattoos -- I thought he'd be mouthy. But no. Unless it's about The War Zone. He'll criticize politicians, but he won't criticize a director. Or a film. He won't even criticize his own performance out of respect to the director. "It's not my performance -- it's the director's performance." Like the darlingest luvvie.
A total of six times he says, "That's for me to know -- and you not to." When someone is this circumspect, interviews aren't easy.
He is known to be a real family man. Four-year-old T (Timothy) Hunter and two-year-old M (Michael) Cormac still travel with their dad when he's shooting overseas. "Right now, it doesn't matter where they're educated," he says. "But it will. I have a lot of parental guilt. I'm a Jew and a Catholic by proxy. The kids will come with me, until they're too old. I can't upset their schooling. That's when I have to really decide where I want to live. Under Thatcher -- and under Major -- I didn't want to be in Europe. But the arts seem to be flourishing now. Whatever you think of Blair, the arts seem to have more of a place in Britain. Maybe I'll live there. But if it all starts to be shut down again, I'm off. I can always make films in Britain, but from abroad."
Artistic integrity can get very expensive - the man has bills to pay like the rest of us. As well as T Hunter and M Cormac, he has a 15-year-old son, Jack, from his first marriage. "That's three kids to put through childhood. And school. And college. I do have to work to make a living. Obviously, there's more to it than that. I am kind of seduced by the idea of doing something the kids would really approve of. My eldest, who is never impressed by what I do, keeps asking why I wasn't in Star Wars. I say, 'Because I wasn't asked.' I would have done it. For him and for me. I love those films. Light-sabre? I'll take it. Pass the alien. I loved A Bug's Life. I'd love to do a voice for a Disney cartoon. My kids would laugh their arses off."
As a director, he applies different criteria. His films probably won't feature light-sabres. "I'm tired with the way cinema's going at the moment. It's short, quick work, with no emotional life. I got to the point when I would only see stuff on tape, or as white noise to go to sleep to on a plane. That's sad. I wasn't really seeing anything that had a deep personal message, pretentious as it sounds. With the exception of Ken (Loach). And Alan (Clarke) has gone now. Not that Ken and Alan are the beginning and end of it for me. I just got bored with what I was seeing. And angry with what I was seeing coming out of Britain. There used to be room -- albeit on TV -- to make films about stuff which was hurting us, or stuff that we were angry about. Even that's getting short shrift now."
He is proud of the fact that he's appeared in just two studio films - Rob Roy in 1994 and Hoodlum in 1997. The rest have been independents. But it's all so much nonsense. "Independent" has become a generic term. The budgets on independents have gone through the roof, and they're attracting big-name stars. Many major studios own so-called independent studios that ultimately have to answer to their parent company. But whether they are financed with a stack of credit cards, or studio money, Roth wants the films he directs to provide an alternative to the huge blockbusters. The War Zone is certainly that.
The son of a journalist father and an artist mother, Tim didn't fit in at Dick Shepherd Comprehensive in Tulse Hill. "The first few days I got beaten up every day because I spoke with an accent they didn't want to hear," he says. "It's best to get that organized fairly sharpish. So I changed the way I spoke." At this stage of his career, he was still working without a voice coach. "But it really helped. The best choice I ever made was when I auditioned for the school play (a musical of Dracula, where the lad wet himself when he entered stage left). I auditioned as a joke. I was given the part. And I had to do it. That's the best choice I ever made. It got me to where I am today."
By the age of 17, he was an art school drop-out. He finished his foundation course, then decided to get his Equity card (doing Genet at Glasgow Citizens') and go to Rada -- for the day. "I was with another actor. We got pissed, and I said I'd never been to drama school. So we went to Rada and watched a rehearsal with Alan Bennett doing Habeas Corpus. It was a laugh."
In between jobs, in the early 80s, he was selling advertising space over the phone. "Advertising space in bogus magazines to people who couldn't afford it. I was crap at it. Anyway, cycling back from Soho, I got a puncture. I went into the Oval House looking for a pump. There was an audition going on. I decided to go for it, and got the job." The job was Trevor, a psychopathic skinhead. It helped that Roth had already shaved his head for a version of Othello he was doing at the time. The film was Made In Britain, a cement-grey drama directed by Alan Clarke. "So I got a chance to train on the job. I would never knock Rada -- what's right for you is right for you -- but I just got lucky."
Roth describes Clarke as the ultimate "available" director. "I learnt a lot from him, and I used a lot of it on The War Zone. Everybody was equal. Everybody. He made you feel you were involved, whether you were an actor or whether you were making the tea. He rehearsed and directed the extras and the one-liners in exactly the same way he directed the leads. An extraordinary experience -- and my first film."
It looked as if the young thesp was destined to live and die in the arthouse. Even after the critical success of Vincent & Theo, the story of Van Gogh, in 1990, work remained sporadic. "I remember it was a choice between a BBC radio play or a low-budget film in New York. I'll take the fucking low-budget feature film in New York, thank you very much." The feature was Jumpin' At The Boneyard (1991). Jeff Stanzler, the film's writer/director, remembers worrying about Roth pulling off the New York state-of-mind. "We got a hot dog and Tim, with mustard on his fingers, said to the hot-dog guy, 'Have you a serviette?' The guy just stared at Tim, until I finally figured it out. I said, 'He wants a napkin.' That night I went home and prayed Tim would overcome the insurmountable obstacles."
Roth knew he would have to work on his American. "I do find accents annoying," he says. "They get in the way. It's hard to act through an accent. If suddenly you have to improvise a scene, and you're not sure of the vowel sounds, it's really scary. And you only master that script -- you don't master the whole language. When you veer off that script, it gets a bit scary."
But he was up to Jumpin' At The Boneyard, and Stanzler's prayers were answered. "When we finished the film," says Stanzler, "many people didn't believe it when I told them that Tim Roth was really an Englishman. One friend even saw him interviewed on television and asked why he was speaking with a 'phony British accent'." He worked closely with his dialogue coach, Suzanne Celeste, for several weeks before shooting began on Reservoir Dogs. She came up with lists of words, and sat with him, reviewing vowel sounds. During production, she listened to ensure the accuracy of his pronunciation. Then, during post-production, she helped polish any rough edges. The undercover cop from the LAPD was his tour de force -- a performance that prompted one East-Coast critic to call him "the most exciting young American actor in Hollywood today".
"Gary [Oldman] made me think it was possible," Roth once said. "He made the accent specific, down to the block. That way, if you slipped, you'd only slip out of state, not across the pond." Accents are the only aspect of his method he seems happy to discuss. "I get bored of the bullshit spoken by actors," he says, "about how they had to wrap themselves in barbed wire, and fling themselves down a manhole to get a character right. I'll research a part if it's necessary. (For 1994's Captives, he spent six weeks on a sex-offenders wing; he travelled the London Underground as a skinhead for Made In Britain). But whoever says, 'I'm playing an accountant from Liverpool and I had to go to the tundra to beat myself over the head with a pickaxe for 14 weeks to understand the character', is talking out of their fucking arsehole."
"I wouldn't hire them. A lot of young actors have heard that de Niro and Brando did that, and it's nonsense. The people I like to work with have a cavalier attitude to acting."
They say that when an actor's tired of acting, it's time to shoot himself. And Roth seems tired. He thinks and talks like a director. Over the years, he has come so close to the action. He's noticed the work of the camera operator, and seen exactly how the lights are put up. He's had people run tape measures to his eye, and even started to talk with authority about the concept of "focus". Eventually, the desire to put all that direct practical experience to some use, and see what it is like on the other side of the camera, became irresistible. He insists he always wanted to be a camera operator. Directors have said - through gritted teeth - that he was born to direct. "Partly because I always got in their way..."
The War Zone, Alex Stuart's bleak study of incest, just happened along at the right time. The script arrived at the offices of Sarah Radclyffe Productions back in 1994. First Nic Roeg, then Danny Boyle, were lined up to direct, but both fell through. Dixie Linder and Sarah Radclyffe, the film's producers, were talking to Roth about a role in the film version of Bent. He turned it down, but offered to direct something if the right script ever came along. "I'd done some acting, which put money in the bank. I'd got myself into a position where I could afford to take 18 off months to direct. I thought, 'Now's the time.'" Then Radclyffe sent him The War Zone. Within 24 hours, he was convinced that this should be his directorial debut.
"The only trouble was that Tim hadn't directed a short," says Linder. "He hadn't even directed a commercial. But all the finance people we'd been to before - who had gone, 'Oh, not sure about The War Zone, sorry' - suddenly wanted to get involved when they heard Tim was directing. We knew for sure that he would be able to get performances from the other actors. The only potential problem was on the technical side. He came to do some preliminary crewing up, when he chose Seamus McGarvey as director of photography. Tim was saying, 'I want to use these filters, and this lens' - and then described the history of the lens. Seamus turned to me and said, 'He knows more about cameras than I do.'"
The crew was auditioned in the same way as the actors. They were even shown the script. "I wanted to involve everyone from the beginning, the way Alan [Clarke] used to. I remember the clapper loader said it was the first time a director had ever spoken to him. I didn't want moaners on set. I wanted people who wanted to be there, not 'What time is it?' if we were late to finish. Or talking about their next commercial. I told those ones to leave - with my blessing."
Linder agreed with this approach. "Because of the subject matter," she says, "we wanted a crew that would be able to talk. We wanted huggers. I remember we had to choose between two people who were both really good. Tim went, 'I think she'll be a better hugger.'"
Roth wanted major changes from Stuart's original text. The movement that runs through the book has been taken out; he opts instead for stillness and has set the film in winter, instead of summer. From a practical point of view, this meant that tourists were less of a problem during the filming. But it also keeps the character played by his friend Ray Winstone inside the house, internalising the drama. In Stuart's book, the daughter is much less of a victim. She is almost a sexual aggressor, out to experience everything she can. The book concludes with her having sex with her brother but the film's ending is left vague, with the shot of a closing door. "It may or may not happen," says Roth of the omitted incestuous episode. "I decided to leave it for the audience to decide."
The War Zone was filmed in and around Hartland, on the north Devon coast. A local surfer found the solitary, white-fronted cottage that would house the drama once the 70s interior had been ripped out, and the storm-damaged roof repaired. On a picnic area, right next to a council pay-and-display car park, the crew built a bunker -- similar to the ones that still dot the Normandy coast. Because of the bunker -- and the film's title -- the locals thought that a second-world-war drama was being shot. Only the fact that the actors appeared in civvies confused them. One villager came up with the answer. "They don't need to wear uniform," he said. "They do all that with computers now."
In The War Zone, innocence isn't lost -- it's taken, when Dad (Winstone) rapes Jessie (Lara Belmont) in the bunker. It's a difficult scene to watch. And every bit as difficult to film. "The sound man -- in the middle of a field -- almost ruined a take by crying into his microphone," says Roth. "I'm in the middle of it all going, 'Head up, Lara, I need to see your face.'"
It was the day that Winstone nearly abandoned the film. "I wanted to strangle Tim," he says.
"I thought, 'Why the fuck are we making this? Do I really need to do it?' I felt like I was abusing this girl. I was in bits after that bunker scene. I remember Lara said, 'Thank you. I'm glad it was you.' I needed to watch the film four times before I got it out of my system. It hurt every time I watched it."
Winstone - the star of Nil By Mouth and Scum -- is one of the reasons Roth first became an actor. The pair met on the doorstep of the Groucho Club in London. "Tim was going out as I was going in," says Winstone. "He was drunk, as he usually is when I meet him. We had a cuddle and said, 'How you doing?' I knew him from watching his stuff, and he knew me from watching my stuff. But when we sat down and actually talked, I didn't particularly like him. He put on this front of being quite arrogant. All this swaggering about. But that's not the real him. I'm not usually a bad judge -- if I don't like them, then I don't fucking like them. For some reason, he got a second chance."
Winstone enjoys being an iconoclast. His time at drama school was far from happy. In his first-year exams, he had to act out a scene from Julius Caesar. "Everyone did the same scene," says Winstone. "I decided to change it. Set it in a pub. They gave me zero. They didn't even give me one for imagination. I went, 'Fuck you.' Best thing that ever happened to me." "The next time I saw Tim," recalls Winstone, "was going up for the lead in The War Zone. I said, 'It would be great to play a good guy for a change.' That wasn't a joke. I play a bad guy as a good guy. Because if you remove one scene from the film, the father is a pretty good guy. That's the funny thing about abusers. When I was a kid, my mum and dad said to me, 'Don't go near him -- he looks dodgy.' But it's not that simple. I was in Sweden and I see this poster of four geezers. A lawyer, a docker, a bus-driver and whatever. It just said, 'One in four men in Sweden abuse.' You go, 'Is it the geezer with the flat nose? Him with the dodgy beard? Who is it?' You don't know. That's what we wanted to bring out in the film." Roth thinks he's succeeded: "From the beginning, we had people who worked on The War Zone who had been abused. From book to film, and they were our bullshit spotters. They took out all the cliches. In the book, the father confesses. That's bullshit. So we changed it. The War Zone is right. It's the truth. It's the truth about this subject. And I'm bullet-proof on that. Probably more so than I will be on any other film that I make as a director."
I ask exactly what he means. "I'm bullet-proof." Again, I ask what he means. "That's for me to know, and you to find out." I suggest he's implying he knows what he's talking about when it comes to abuse. It begs a question. "It's not for you to ask," he says. "Absolutely. Tough being a journalist, isn't it? My Dad was a journalist."
At the Cannes screening, the film is introduced by the first-time director himself -- his one request is that the audience turn off all mobile phones. I expect a grainy film, shot on a hand-held camera, but The War Zone is painterly, and leaves behind a catalogue of silent images. Roth wants people to remember these images -- the way he still remembers Boo Radley being discovered under the stairs in To Kill A Mockingbird. He lingers on close-ups. The most effective moments are those when the silence really allows the body language to speak. "The general way of working these days is to cut very fast. It's the MTV generation. No silence. No stillness. I wanted to do the exact opposite." And there are only eight extras to distract the audience's attention.
The War Zone is a strong film that manages to convey an unbearable claustrophobia. So much so that, by the end, you can describe the wallpaper in every room. In this film it's easier to think about the wallpaper. The film does have its faults. The characters make confusing statements that are never properly explained. This is part of Roth's understanding of "reality".
"People say things, and they don't necessarily come out the way they mean them," he says. "That's fine with me."
The audience leaves the screening in silence. It's a genuine worry -- "word-of-mouth" will be the key to The War Zone's success, but no one will feel much like talking after watching it. Roth and Linder -- who have now formed their own film company - head off for The War Zone party, in the hills behind Cannes. It's a lavish poolside affair, paid for by the distribution company.
"I can't believe it. We could have got two or three days' filming out of the budget for a party like this. But why not? It was very much The War Zone thing. We partied when we were in the middle of filming." The party money was even built into the budget. The need for distraction was another lesson learnt from Clarke.
Something extraordinary happened on The War Zone. A team came together to make something for "the greater good" - and, even six months after shooting finished, they still keep in touch. They were united by a love for Roth. The cast and crew gave him a book of their memories of the film. It's an intensely personal gift, full of letters and photographs. "It's the most amazing gift I've ever received. The War Zone made me realize I want to make films that change me. This one has. I need some more of those. I can't imagine being in the middle of shooting a film, and being bored. I'm really selfish. If I'm going to devote two years of my life to making a film, I want it to be important to me."
"I've been involved in a lot of boys' films," he says. "Boy gun movies. And they account for a lot of the scripts I get. I like them. They're fun to do. As an actor. But they're not what I want to make as a director. There's a limit to how much of that I can take, personally. I'm not saying I've left it behind. As an actor, maybe I'll deal with it again. It's fun to be that decadent. But if I have a choice as a director, that's not what I want to do. Film should be personal to a director. Otherwise, you're just a hired hand. If I'm being given a quiet little door to open into directing, I would rather do it with something that's got a little more longevity. It's like directing is more important."
He was insistent that The War Zone remain his film, nobody else's. He didn't want pre-sales to the US -- that would have meant financiers on set and in the editing room -- but now he's having problems securing distribution. "If it doesn't get picked up over there, there are things I could do. I could take the print on the road with me. Take it to colleges, like Cassavetes used to do -- he did that with A Woman Under The Influence. I could talk about the film. Hold press conferences. I feel that strongly about this film. I've heard there are prosecution lawyers who want to show The War Zone to abusers in prison. The abusers need to see it. The abused need to see it, as well. Just get it out there." This is more of a mission than a mere movie, it would seem.
But it's still safe to say that Roth has not removed his last body part. "I was worried that I wouldn't want to act any more," he says. "Then I did a little cameo on a Wim Wenders film (The Million Dollar Hotel). One afternoon's work. And then I took a job in France - partly to put me in Europe for the launch of The War Zone." In Vatel, Roland Joffe's period romp, he plays opposite Uma Thurman. And gets to wear a wig. "You try and do your best on stuff like that. I took it because Depardieu was in it, and Tim Spall. I'm still not convinced. It's hard for me to rediscover the buzz. Ray (Winstone) has been great about that. He says, 'Listen, you'll get it back'. What I need is a small, self-contained film that I'm deeply passionate about."
He's busy looking for passion. His agent is under orders to forward all screenplays sent for his attention, either to act in or to direct. Stel Pavlou, a sales assistant in Threshers, sent him 51st State. "Two weeks later," says Pavlou, "the telephone rings: 'Hi, Stel, this is Tim Roth. Loved the script, geezer.' I thought it was a wind-up, but it was Mr Orange himself. At the end of a two-hour call, he gives me his home number. He couldn't make the film, but let me use his name. That's serious capital to use at a meeting with money people. He put me in contact with financiers. I'm pretty certain he pulled a few strings, because by Christmas we had Samuel L. Jackson attached."
Roth likes brokering deals. And calling the shots. He's a player, and the swagger comes easy.