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A Brief History with Tim Roth

As his son was dying of cancer, Alexander Stuart wrote a novel about incest and abuse. It so inspired Tim Roth that he was determined to turn it into his directorial debut. This is Stuart's diary of the time they spent making the film.

The Meeting

3/5/96

I am in Los Angeles to discuss writing a screenplay for Kiefer Sutherland. On my hotel voicemail there are six messages from Tim Roth, whom I've never met, saying he's just read my novel, The War Zone, and wants to direct it as a film. Each message as he tries to reach me grows a little more discouraged -- 'I know you're only in town for a couple of days. Lets meet.' He leaves his number, his mobile number, his agent's number. I call immediately, talk to him, arrange to meet at eight in the bar of the Bel Age Hotel tonight.

He seems much the same in life as on screen -- down-to-earth, friendly, still very English despite living in LA for six years. We start talking about The War Zone. He wants to make an uncompromising film about abuse. He relates the novel directly to my experience of losing my five-year-old son, Joe Buffalo, who died of cancer shortly before the book was published. He talks openly and sensitively about the pain I went through, and his strength of feeling makes me feel, in turn, that he would bring that commitment to the screen.

As we talk, Tim is approached a number of times -- he is currently Oscar-nominated for his role in Rob Roy. A woman appears, says she is a fan, asks for his autograph. She is not the last. As we leave, the manager of the bar comes over and intones, 'You're a legend, Mr Roth, a legend.' I didn't know people actually said things like that.

The Script

4/6/96

Back to LA from Miami to start working with Tim on outlining the new script. One of the first things we talk about is changing the season in the film from summer to winter. Another major discussion is of Dad's work. In the book, he's an architect, but Tim wants the family to be closer to his own roots, more working-class.

6/7/96

After two months of working on the script in Miami, I fly to England to visit Bideford in north Devon, a town where Tim spent his summer holidays and where we will probably shoot the film. I decide to take my parents with me, as living in Miami means that I don't see enough of them. We find a hotel on the outskirts of Bideford, then drive to Clovelly, a beautiful village Tim has told me about, built along steps down a hill to the sea. Even 20 years later, Tim's memory of Devon is vivid. But his memories are not fond, and I can sense in Bideford some of the bleakness he remembers from childhood.

6/8/96

Today, I photograph my parents laughing and dancing together on the sand dunes at Instow, where we may shoot one of the scenes in the film. These moments, and this trip, will come to have a special meaning for me, as my father is to die a year later, in April 1997. In a perverse way, The War Zone -- which was always a difficult book for my parents to deal with, although not based on them -- will give us some of our happiest final memories together.

9/8/96

I wake early this morning to finish the revisions. Then it's straight to Tim's house in the hills above the Silverlake reservoir, east of Hollywood. Tim's wife, Nikki, is looking great - she's pregnant with their second baby, due in December. Hunter, their first child, plays happily on the lawn, while Tim and I read through the script in the garden and make some final changes.

9/9/96

A strange postscript to the trip to L.A. is that Tupac Shakur, with whom Tim filmed Gridlock'd earlier this summer, has just been shot in Las Vegas.

The Money

12/1/96

Come home to a message on the answer machine from Tim: 'We did it! Channel Four will fully finance the film - or finance it with a French partner.' He has talked to David Aukin in London, who has become a staunch supporter of Tim and the film, and an entertaining email correspondent with me. There is just some minor tweaking of the script to be done, Tim says, then we'll shoot it next autumn.

1/5/97

Tim and Nikki's new baby, a boy, is born today. Tim calls at 8:31 am, Miami time, sounding over the moon. They're naming their new son Michael Cormac, after one of their favourite writers, Cormac McCarthy. Everyone should name their babies after writers, I think.

1/27/98

My birthday today. A videotape of The War Zone screen tests arrives, together with a birthday card from Tim and everyone in the production office.

We have discussed the casting of the parents, Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton, and I am excited by both of them, because we want parents who in the first instance appear sympathetic. It is the children who are still to be decided upon because we want newcomers who have never acted before. The tape contains two or three options each for Tom and Jessie [the teenage narrator, and his sister, who is involved in an incestuous relationship with their father]. Lara Belmont has the perfect mix of really interesting beauty, vulnerability and strength that her character will need, and Freddie Cunliffe has the nervous smile, the awkwardness and what looks like a totally believable potential for trouble that immediately brings Tom alive for me.

I can see that the War Zone family I first imagined back in 1983, when I was about to become a parent myself and outlined the book, has become a flesh and blood reality. Our start date for the film is Monday 2 March, only a few weeks away.

2/20/98

I arrive in London early this morning, in time for a War Zone production meeting and pre-shoot cast and crew party. Lara and Freddie's parents have read the script and are aware of what's involved, as are the children themselves. The last thing any of us want is for the production to scare them in any way. Ray is instantly likeable, a big man with a no-nonsense east London accent and a face you could love or fear in about equal measure. I think he'll be a perfect Dad, largely because the role scares the shit out of him.

2/27/98

Today for the first time I see the interior of the house we are using as the family's house in the film. My one-word response: 'Fuck!!!' It's truly horrible, the art department has transformed a solitary Devon home into the most monstrous memory anyone could have of childhood. It's dark, spooky, totally claustrophobic and decorated with various styles of specially-produced wallpaper that could drive anyone to commit murderous acts.

Tonight, I have dinner with Tilda Swinton and her husband, John, at their cottage, which is just across the way from where the rest of us are staying. Tilda has just had twins, which is perfect timing for us, as the mother in the film gives birth to a new baby in a car wreck right at the beginning.

Tilda has a gracious, red-headed beauty, and is warm and real and enjoying motherhood at the moment. We talk at length about my son, Joe Buffalo -- staying in Devon has been quite strange, because this was a geographical starting point for the book, just before Joe was born, and somewhere I used to visit fairly regularly with Joe and his mother. Seeing Tilda and John with their babies brings back memories, most of them wonderful, but sadly also tied to the later pain of Joe's cancer and death.

The Shoot

3/2/98

Didn't sleep well last night -- I'm still on California time. I get up at 5:30am and wait for the minibus to take us to the location. Tim, our brilliant young cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and the crew are already setting up for the first shot, which is also one of the first shots in the film, of Tom cycling up to the Devon home he hates.

Tim looks comfortable as a director, answering the endless questions that a film shoot entails, looking through the viewfinder to make sure he's happy with the composition, joking with Freddie to keep him relaxed.

We turn over at 9 am, with the weather providing just the backdrop Tim wants: moody skies, a little rain, the house suitably isolated and desolate against the landscape. It's a strange feeling to know that the camera is turning and the film has really started. There is a little cheer and a round of applause once the first take is in the can.

4/20/98

It may be a mix of the dire weather and the fact that Easter in England has very bad memories for me (Joe Buffalo was diagnosed with cancer just before Easter 1987), but I feel quite seriously depressed this trip. Today, when I start to watch the rushes which Tim has had transferred to video for me, my mood sinks further.

I have never doubted what he's wanted to achieve with this film, but for the first time I start to worry that it's too dark, both literally and figuratively. The subject was always a bleak and harrowing one, but I tried with the novel to counter all preconceptions with a mixture of what I hoped would be unexpected elements: a hot, primal summer; an aggressive sense of nature; a middle-class family who seem on the surface to have no problems; a mix of anger, anguish and humour in Tom's character and narration. Watching the rushes, what worries me is that the children, Lara and Freddie, rarely if ever smile -- and consequently, that we as an audience will see sadness and trouble right from the start. At my first meeting with Tim, when I said that translating Tom's disruptive humour to the screen had been a problem in earlier drafts, he told me not to worry, that the humour and warmth would be there in the looks the family shares. Now I must trust in the fact that it's hard to judge the subtlety with which a film will play from unedited rushes -- and the faith I have in Tim, whose passion for this film has never lapsed.

The Movie

9/8/98

An extraordinary day. Tim screens The War Zone for me in Los Angeles. I am tired and anxious as I sit down in the small preview theatre. The room goes dark, the curtains part, and the gently building sound of breaking waves accompanies the stark first shot - a bleak sky as seen through an open slit window, its dimensions exaggerating even further the widescreen format. Simon Boswell's haunting score begins, and Freddie appears on screen.

The next 90 minutes physically exhaust me. The intensity of what Tim has achieved goes beyond my expectations, and the film surprises me in that it makes me cry. This is my material, I've lived with it for more than 10 years, yet what Tim and his cast have achieved moves me in ways I haven't forseen. When the final credits roll, and I read the dedication they have included, 'With love to Joe Buffalo Stuart', I cannot control my tears.

1/25/99

We are in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. The War Zone will premiere at 9:30pm, in a 1,300-capacity cinema, and we have no idea how the audience will respond. The film plays to a stillness and a silence which are exceptional. There are a few walkouts, as we have expected, but not that many. When Tim and Ray go up on stage to answer questions from the audience, the response is emotional and respectful, the questions intelligent and concerned with serious aspects of abuse. Now we know that the film has the power to hold an audience.

1/27/99

My birthday, and a sense of real celebration at Sundance. Although we are not in competition at the festival, several jury members have told Tim that they love the film and would give it every prize if they could.

Paradoxically, this also marks the end of a significant period in my life, spanning fatherhood, my son's death and a new beginning in America. Along with my pleasure and pride in the film comes an undeniable sense of loss, of letting go, and a determination to move on -- to other projects, other concerns. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I won't have The War Zone to kick around any more.

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