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'I Will Be Directing As Long As I'm Allowed'

Tim Roth's directing debut, a shocking film about incest, is taking the actor around an emotional and professional corner.

By Finbarr O'Reilly

"I can talk to you for hours about wallpaper if you want," says Tim Roth from behind a veil of cigarette smoke.

When his interviewer reveals that he took almost a page of notes about the different types of wallpaper used in the British actor's directorial debut, The War Zone, Roth gives a sinister grin and a chuckle that could be interpreted as either friendly or mocking.

"Top class, mate," he says in his soft London accent. "I'm very interested in wallpaper and what it can do. In this film, it's deeply oppressive. The greens, whites, browns and blacks are very, very oppressive. They echo what's going on in the mind."

The ragged coastline and frothing ocean near Devon, where the film is set, also reflect the internal forces tearing apart a middle-class British family that has recently moved from London.

"It all has a resonance and, as clumsy as that stuff can be, I don't give a shit," says Roth with a hint of the venom that he's injected into a variety of screen roles, including Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs and the prissy but evil English nobleman in Rob Roy. "As cliched as it can often be, I didn't care either."

What Roth did care about was making a film that might change his life. And that's what he's done. Since adapting Alexander Stuart's novel about incest into a quietly remarkable film, Roth has found that he prefers being behind the camera.

"On one level, it made me not want to act anymore because they're much better than me, absolutely all of them," says Roth, an Oscar nominee who pulled two teenagers with no acting experience off the street to play the devastating roles of brother and sister in his film. "I go through an extraordinary embarrassment about the shit that I put out there as compared to what they can do. So on that level, I know that I will be directing as long as I'm allowed to. On an emotional level, it took me around the corner."

Which is hardly surprising given the silent intensity of a film where an 18-year-old girl (Lara Belmont) is raped by her father (Ray Winstone) while her brother (Freddie Cunliffe) secretly looks on in horror. And where the terror of that moment isn't even the film's most disturbing scene.

Coaching Belmont through that graphic rape scene meant helping her deal with emotional trauma, but Roth reveals little.

"You don't need to know how," he says with a grave chuckle. "Well, maybe you do, but y'know, I'm not going to tell you. Tricks of the trade. There's a lot of stuff that I know, that I've learned, that can get you to certain places emotionally."

While a gloom hangs over the family as thick as fear, Roth keeps his camera steady, allowing the drama to unfurl naturally.

"Your initial reaction would be to go handheld -- grainy documentary style," says the lean and scruffy Roth, who looks grainy himself in his grubby jeans and a worn blue T-shirt. "Well, bullshit, I'm bored with that, a lot of it's just drawing attention to the director, it's got nothing to do with what's going on. And it's not what I like particularly. So my choice was to shoot wide-screen, very still -- almost an Eastern European kind of film, as elegant and as beautiful as possible."

"But within the film, I wanted performances that didn't look like performances -- as real as I could possibly get. Which is the hardest thing for an actor to pull off. The two styles would sort of battle against each other and would also make it a tougher journey to go on. Because if it's a documentary-style thing, you can almost put it over there and say, 'Well, that's that family isn't it? It's not my family. It couldn't possibly be me.' But the way we do it, if we keep as still as we possibly can and only ever move the camera when you need to, we can slide in as the audience and sit at the table with these monsters."

The cinematic restraint shown by Roth is all the more impressive when you consider that most actors who turn to directing are still obsessed with acting.

"Yeah, what they do is go for big closeups because they wished they'd had them in the first place," says Roth. "Well, y'know, I've done acting."

Before he became an actor, Roth went to art school where he studied sculpting, something he now compares to filmmaking. For him, it's a similar kind of abstraction. With The War Zone, he chipped away at the dialogue, stripped back performances and tried to create a semblance of reality. Then, every scene -- from the wine glasses to the wallpaper -- was composed exactly the way he wanted.

Roth also points out that he wasn't adapting Stuart's novel so much as he was adapting the overwhelming feeling he had when he read it (he says he wept throughout).

"That," he says, "was the hardest thing. But judging by last night's [opening at the film festival], there were 10 or 11 victims in that audience who came and talked to me about it. Victims always respond well. they go, 'Yes, that's what it feels like.' And that's the point -- to respect the issue and respect the victims."

Roth has three children himself and he's asked his eldest son, aged 15, to wait a few years before watching The War Zone.

"You know what?" asks Roth. "He's who it's for. I know kids will benefit from it."

In the meantime, his son can watch The Legend of 1900, an Italian film starring Roth -- who says he won't give up acting entirely -- also being screened at this week's festival.

"Oh," he says with a final laugh. "You've been told [by publicists] to ask about that? You don't have to. It's the opposite of my film. It's really a sort of put-your-feet-up-on-a-Sunday-afternoon, glass-of-wine film, so gentle. It's a big old soppy romantic film, it's lovely."

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