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Tim Roth's The War Zone

By Laura McDonald

"I was homesick for what I think film can be and now that Thatcher and Major have gone, who aimed at destroying the arts, I've come back again and found that political filmmaking is alive and there's real change." Tim Roth has had the best filmic experience of his life. The acclaimed British actor who started out in such raw edged films as Alan Clarke's Made in Britain and came from the same neighbourhood as his mate Gary Oldman, Roth is better known for his prolific roles in many American films, such as Reservoir Dogs. This is all set to change with his extraordinary directorial debut, The War Zone.

The film had its World Premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which Roth has attended numerous times as an actor. He had a very different experience as a director, it was his nerves that were fraying as the first print ran. Roth, his D.O.P. and one of the films editors, as well as his leading man, Ray Winstone (who has recently won Best Actor at a British Television Award Ceremony for his role in the 1998 film for television Our Boy) were doing shots of tequila in the projection booth as the film opened. "It was very stressful. I was worried about whether the film was going to break. I felt that if we could just get through the screening technically and get it out there, well then we'd deal with whatever flak we got."

The War Zone is based on a book by Alexander Stuart, a harrowing, much read novel that deals with one of the toughest social issues of all, incest. In the book, Roth found the inspiration that he needed to make the move from acting to directing after contemplating it for a long time. All his fears about giving up acting left him as he realised the powerful potential that lay within the book's pages.

"It reminded me very much of what British film used to be, and is now becoming again which is full of political films, uneasy solutions and the types of stories that inspired me to become an actor."

The book's author adapted it to the screen with a masterful touch. "I was a bit worried, so I told Alex honestly that I'd give him first crack at it, but if it didn't work I'd get a screenwriter in. He understood though, loved what I wanted to do with the film and we ended up with a wonderful script."

Roth changed the setting of the film from summer to winter and this fresh perspective freed the author somehow, allowing the two of them to pick the book apart and prepare if for the big screen. The wintry setting provides a haunting backdrop for the isolated house in Devon where a lot of the film is set. On the coastline nearby, the crew built a WWII bunker, where the film's most disturbing scenes are shot. "We trod carefully and were very quiet about the subject matter of the film, so a lot of locals just thought we were doing a WWII film. Ray's idea was to hire a couple of people to walk around in German uniforms to convince them."

Ray Winstone once again attacks a terrifying screen role with unwavering courage. He is the loving father of two teenage kids, (both played by non-actors), and the husband of a newly pregnant wife, Tilda Swinton. He and Swinton were an unlikely pairing, but Roth explains that that's exactly why he wanted them. "She comes from a very theatrical, performance art and filmic background. Ray is the antithesis as he's self taught and they just fell in love with each other. Ray used to say, "Where's my Maureen O'Hara? Where's my strawberry blond?" Winstone is himself a father of two girls and felt driven to take on the role. "He's everything an actor should be. He's brave as the role hurt him. It really, really hurt him doing this film, but it was something that he felt he had to do."

The reaction to the film has been very strong. Its rawness and honesty have upset many, but many have also felt that the intense, extraordinary experience of facing a universal problem like this head on, is something to be heralded. "People stayed and cried and were so emotional and for all of us involved, we've been overwhelmed at the response as it's such a hard film for some people. I tell you what, it proves that it is absolutely true that the American audiences are underestimated by the people that produce the films." Roth has a beautiful touch. His D.O.P. Seamus McGarvey and all his actors and crew have combined to create a film that is breathtaking and heartbreaking. The fact that the two young actors who carried the story had both never acted a day in their lives was just what Roth wanted.

Lara Belmont nor Freddie Cunliffe had never seen a movie camera or knew what a mark was. "Neither of them had ever thought about acting. It had never occurred to them. We found Lara walking around the street, and Freddie walked in off the street to an open audition." Roth knew immediately that they were right. After pairing them with Winstone and Swinton, it was soon obvious that a family was forming and the on screen performances are a tribute to this instinctual casting. "Each of them required very different direction, as did Tilda and Ray. For example, Freddie's scenes, I'd shoot the characters around him and send them home. Then I'd play all the characters with him and shoot his close ups. Lara, within a week, got it! Sometimes I'd just go up to her and say, 'Do what you do best!' it became that simple."

In fact, everybody involved in the film became so close that when the difficult scenes arrived, everyone found them harder than ever imagined. "When the shit hit the fan in the script, it was very hard for the crew, they were crying and I had to do a lot of trauma control. They all loved Dad, Mum and the kids and became very hurt as the film went on." Shooting on location meant that the script could be shot virtually in sequence, so the bunker scene where the secret is revealed, was hanging over all our heads." The once awkward youngsters handled themselves brilliantly. "They were ready. Every time I look at the screen I'm so proud of them, so proud of them."

One thing that Roth was very wary of was where they got their money from for the film. Sarah Radclyffe had first given Roth the book, so it was through her company, (Sarah Radclyffe Productions), that the money was secured. With such strong ties to America and offers of funding, this was the first thing he resisted. Film Four provided the main funding, whilst other money came from Japan and Europe. "The reason that I didn't want American involvement, especially at the beginning, was because I've been to this festival with first time directors who have sold their films and distributors have recut their films and broken their hearts. I mean, literally destroyed them. I thought, this is such a delicate film, a British Film."

This experience has been such a special one for Roth, he is looking at filmmaking with a fresh eye. "It was like the old movies and I tell you that was one of the best, most relaxing times of my life. To be honest with you, I'd give up acting if I could. I'll get my enthusiasm back for it soon. There's so much fun to be had in filmmaking." With three or four more directing projects planned, some brief acting roles being considered and the Cannes Film Festival up next, Roth is ready.

"I'll definitely be back for more. I think that the films I want to make will be served well by being made in Britain."

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